Mel Blanc and How Animation Students Learn Character Development
A guest post by Robert Appleton, Faculty, 3-D Animation Program, New York Film Academy
Was famous voice actor Mel Blanc the actual genius of character development in 20th century animation? Most baby boomer fans in childhood may not have realized it, but the voice he gave to Looney Tunes’ Bugs Bunny was largely borrowed from a show their parents were listening to on the radio on The Jack Benny Program (1932-1955) and its television incarnation of the same name (1950-1965). Phrases that the Oscar-winning rabbit or his sidekick, Daffy Duck (also Blanc’s voice) used – “Now cut that out!” and “Cuc….amonga!” among them – were directly borrowed from Jack Benny. The intra-show theft worked in reverse when once, on Benny’s radio show, the protagonist had a visit from the wascally wabbit in a dream.
Blanc worked on both the Benny and Bunny series, and later was the voice of Barney Rubble on The Flintstones (1960-1966) itself modeled after Jackie Gleason’s television series, The Honeymooners (1955-1956).
In each of these animated series, the genius was that the characters evolved from elsewhere. The fact that each derived from adult series is likely the reason the animations were appealing – with the help of some double entendres from time to time – to both parents and children. Blanc didn’t actually write the scripts – Looney Tunes’ stories were the work of writers Fritz Freleng, Warren Foster, Tedd Pierce, Michael Maltese, and others – but the legendary voice actor certainly became the character.
Strong character development is the foundation of any animation, of course, but contemporary animators might run into copyright infringement issues when they borrow heavily from existing characters in other creative properties. The Blanc estate has assiduously maintained ownership of his voice recordings; the courts tend to allow a parody of characters but not an imitation thereof.
This basically suggests that it may be easier to develop new characters from scratch. And which among the thousands of students in contemporary animation schools doesn’t want to create their own characters, anyway?
Most animation schools provide classes in character development. In the recent past at the NYFA program, an instructor from the screenwriting program, Peter Hobbes, provided three lectures to freshmen on the importance of character development. Those lectures pivoted on a story line involving a deranged, vengeful scientist who brings household objects to life – a film camera (with three legs), a ceiling fan (that functions like a faithful dog) and a toy fighter plane that, alas, fires only suction cup missiles.
In Hobbes’ lectures, he described how these anthropomorphized objects interact with random victims on the street, who themselves require split-second character definition. The victims may only be seen in one or two shots, yet they are more than anonymous. Each has some identity that the viewer relates to in some way, providing the story with much more depth and complexity.
NYFA students in the Bachelor’s degree program are compelled to study advanced liberal arts and sciences, including social and behavioral sciences, as part of their development as animators. This includes a natural sciences class that is meant to imbue students with an appreciation of the natural world. These classes develop students’ understanding of the diverse personal, interpersonal and societal forces that shape peoples’ lives. Such study teaches them how to approach these subjects through the concepts, principles and methods of scientific inquiry.
While the idea of animals and household objects that talk may not pass scientific scrutiny, the point should be well understood. Rabbits, ducks and cavemen can be characters in a farcical or fantastical production. The animator can focus on conflict, humor and rollicking movement, even if the portrayal of zoology and physics are a creative stretch. Mel Blanc and his writers understood the ruse – and have given us well-developed characters that none of us will ever forget.
Robert Appleton is a faculty member of the 3-D animation program at the New York Film Academy. He is also an adjunct professor of 3-D animation and VFX at New York University and a 3-D/animation program supervisor/main instructor at ESRA, Ecole Superieure de Realisation Audiovisuelle. Appleton studied at the Camberwell School of Art, where he received his BFA, and subsequently earned his MFA in Animation and VFX at the Academy of Art University.