Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

...Or, as it's known in other countries, Thursday.

(Old gags last because they're good.)

Before I head off over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house to eat myself sick, I had a few thoughts about the video I posted yesterday.

One of my favorite themes is my view (shared by many but not all) that cartooning is about abstracting and distilling stories, situations, and characters to their essence. You don't have a lot of space or words to work with, so everything has to be there for a reason and have an impact. Given those constraints, one of the hardest things to pull off is characterization, and when I see someone else quickly create a character with personality that I care about, I look hard to see how they did it.

With that in mind, let me direct your attention to yesterday's Muppet video and the character of Animal, the toothy red furball who appears about 50 seconds in. Look at the range of emotions he expresses in quick succession: wistfulness, yearning, joy, excitement, loneliness, despair, renewed hope. In less than a minute, we know Animal: impulsive, not too bright but with a heart of gold. We like him. We know what he wants: few drives are more primal than needing your mama. All accomplished through the repetition of one word by a wad of red fluff wrapped around someone's hand.

This economy of characterization is something the Muppet creators have always done very well. The Pixar people also excel at it (check out Luxo Jr. from 1986 below, one of their first; they've only gotten better since), as are the best cartoonists. In four or five panels, with nothing but ink and a dozen or two words, Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson could reveal the souls of Charlie Brown or Calvin, and make you care enough to come back tomorrow.

If you want to be a writer or cartoonist, study Animal or Luxo Jr., or Charlie or Calvin, and figure out how they manage to tug at your heart just a little.


1 comment:

Cindy said...

I recently saw a photo online of Jim Henson and Kermit during filming of some sort. Henson is wearing a headset with a microphone, and you can clearly see the rods that operate Kermit's hands and the bottom of the puppet. Henson is holding Kermit so the puppet's eyes are looking towards his eyes.

And the first thing I thought when I saw it was I wonder what they're talking about?

This either says something about how effectively Henson built the character of Kermit, or about my mental state, or perhaps both.