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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Animation and the Muppets

Take a look at this piece of brilliance from the Muppet Show.
Comedy and performance together.
Puppetry is closely related to animation, I think.
It's about getting a character to make a connection with an audience.
The two puppets below, Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle, have only three moving parts each: two hands and a mouth. (I think that Sam sometimes has eyebrows that can be manipulated but you won't see that here).
Despite this lack of animation, why is it that this short clip has more charm, honesty and humanity than almost all animation I can think of at the moment?
These characters can't even blink.
They can't express themselves physically beyond the position they're standing in it's problematic for the puppeteer to shift around.
In animation terms, Sam and Rolf are limited animation - or near limited, anyway. There's some subtlety in the hand movements but but beyond that they're not doing much.
It is true that Frank Oz and Jim Henson were dear friends who worked together for a long time.
This is going to add something special.
We still believe that these characters are putting on a fully realised comedy performance even though they can have practically no facial expressions and stay in one place for the duration of the piece.
Surely we can learn something from this!
Apparently, we can draw anything we like, animate any expression, ANYTHING.
So why are the performances in this so much better than almost any animation I can think of at the moment?
There is so much we can learn from watching this.
See the way Henson takes care to shake Rowlfs head in such a way that his ears flick about in a pleasing manner - creating movement when there's nothing else to move (like eyelids or eyebrows).
Oz gives Sam a very, VERY basic sideway glance that says more in less movement than a million classic animation performances.
Sam's eyes don't even move!
Feel free to disagree, or at least get your own blog and do it there.



There are some people out there who aren't Muppets fans...

I am not one of those people. I've always had an affection for the complicated simplicity they have about them. I'll take this over CG any day of the week.


Emmett said...

I only just recently re-aquainted myself with Jim Henson's creations. I'm sorry to say I watched Muppet Babies constantly up until age 6 (not since then, I assure you). But see these characters, they certainly do things I would love to see hand-drawn or stop-motion do. But on the other hand, there's a charm to the humor that only a muppet can bring.

Elliot Cowan said...

Pedro - Good. Agree with me about everything and we'll go far.

Emmett - I think these characters are doing some incredibly subtle things that many animators are overlooking in their own work.

Matt J said...

In his Animation Masterclass Dick Williams told us that Milt Kahl used to extol the virtues of Henson's puppetry. He particularly admired how Henson kept the characters moving while they were talking.

Many of the PIXAR animators have cottoned onto the MUPPETS as performance studies too. This fella ( used to post lots of puppetry clips & even fabricates his own.
Coincidentally I found this today also:

Must be potential there eh? Certainly the design aesthetic of the muppets can be easily translated into animation but as you point out-can the charming, unique performances be similarly conveyed-one would think CG would be perfect for that given its 'virtual puppetry' nature?

Elliot Cowan said...

Hey Matt.
How're things?

It's interesting that Kahl was so enthusiastic about the Muppets.
I think they're just about the opposite of the kind of thing he was doing himself.

There certainly is potential, but as yet I can't think of a single animator who has achieved the same honesty and natural performance that the Muppets can.

Matt J said...

I think Dick/Kahl referred to it as 'progressing the action' the example given was simply moving a character forward when delivering a dialogue, rather than have them stand rigidly on the spot.

The Muppet 'walk' always tickled me-that peculiar rapid 'bobbing' that Kermit & the others had. Kind of a naive walk-cycle but so effective.

I think we imbue puppets with some iner life ourselves as spectators whereas with animation it's all there for us-over designed, over-detailed drawings or photo real CG characters have nothing left for the viewer to 'add'. Stop motion comes closest for me.

Tim & Dave's BIG STORY has some lovely observed gestures in the animation.

Pseudonym said...

Sam's eyes do indeed move from side to side. But Oz is careful to use this feature sparingly, perhaps because it's hard to use.

Also don't forget that there are two actors to each puppet. One puppeteer has one hand operating the mouth and any internal controls, and the other operates one of the hands. There is a second puppeteer standing next to them operating the other hand. You can see this when Rowlf is playing the piano: his head and left hand move together, but the right hand is a fraction of a second out of step.

I think that one of the reasons why this acting is so good is that it's so direct and tactile. Animators have to break down the performance in time to match someone else's dialogue track, which is a process that will inevitably lose some of the life of the performance if you're not careful. Puppeteers do both the performance and the voice in camera, in real time.

Elliot Cowan said...

"Sam's eyes do indeed move from side to side."

Actually, I did notice this after watching it for the 10th time.
It's very minor though...

David B. Levy said...

Matt J,

You are correct in explaining what Richard Williams appreciated about Muppet lip synch.. but, I think he botched it by overdoing it in his own animation. There's a pencil test in Williams' new animation DVD where a character says "no" while advancing in space. Its the most over done and least effective bit of animation I've ever seen from a person of his stature.

I'm of the less-is-more school of animation and that is the lesson of the muppets... not constant movement for the sake of movement.

Elliot Cowan said...

I caught about 6 minutes of The Empire Strikes Back today.

Yoda is perhaps an even more perfect example of what I'm on about here.
Although more articulated than most Muppets, Yoda lives in the "real world", and has to work even harder to deliver the goods as a character.

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