Sunday, July 24, 2005

This Stuff Is So Old That It Is New !

As cartoonists we are always trying to develop fresh ideas and characterizations. One great source of inspiration may seem very old but it contains almost limitless possibilities, I'm talking about classic movies. Like most creative people there are days when I want to be creative but just feel blocked. In talking with other cartoonists I find that this is not uncommon. I have always been a big fan of some of the great cartoon directors like Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Tex Avery and it is fun to wonder about how they sparked their own creativity. One way that has been documented is that they went to the movies. Not to watch cartoons although I’m sure they would, but rather to watch those great films that were made in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s..

There is such a wealth of inspiration in the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Ben Blue, Harold Lloyd and the comedies of Max Sennett. Most were made in the silent era although there are also some really good later films that transitioned to sound. For anyone interested in making animated cartoons there is a well spring of source material and inspiration. Silent movies, because of the limitation of having to depend on title cards for dialogue, evolved as almost caricatures of life. There needed to be great clarity of movement and mime in order to transfer as much of the story without their viewers having to read. So exaggeration in gestures became normal and physical comedy was king.

The greats like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd spent countless hours perfecting their comedy. They were masters of composing shots that communicated the entire spectrum of emotions on the screen. They understood that comedy wasn’t just about gags but rather a humorous journey through the trials of life. So it isn’t surprising that many of the routines and techniques of these masters ended up not only as inspirations for many cartoons but actual gag sequences were often imitated. One great example is in “The Rabbit of Seville”, made by Chuck Jones, where Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny chase each other using telescoping barber chairs that shoot skywards. This is a tribute lifted directly from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Less specific but equally influenced are the very movements of many of the great cartoon characters. The walks, the gestures, the expressions of many characters were copied from the classic movies.

So the next time you are struggling for creative inspiration don’t just jump off to watching cartoons, go directly to the source inspiration, the classic movies. And my recommended destination for easy access to this material is Turner Classic Movies. Like I said, this stuff is so old its new!


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