Improvisation + Animation = Awesomeness
It seems like a contradiction -- one is spontaneous, invented on the spot while the other requires countless painstaking hours to create. Yet when unscripted audio is met with the appropriate animated imagery, the results are often hilarious, heartwarming and highly entertaining.
I first became aware of “unscripted animation” back in NYU film school. Under Professor John Canemaker, I was exposed to the work of John & Faith Hubley. Animators both, the Hubleys would secretly record their pre-school children playing, telling bedtime stories and just being kids. The children, totally unaware of their parents’ covert surveillance operations deliver intimate, unfiltered performances that would be impossible to reproduce in a studio. The audio, when visualized through beautiful watercolor animation, cleverly expands the world of the children’s imagination and allows us to share in their make- believe adventures. As demonstrated in their 1959 Academy Award winning short MoonBird and their 1973 short Cockaboody, The Hubleys have achieved an effect that is somehow vividly abstract and yet warmly familiar all at the same time .
Nick Park takes the idea of unscripted animation in a new direction with his 1989 Academy Award winning short Creature Comforts. Using a documentary-style “man on the street” technique, Park records residents of various housing complexes and nursing homes. The subjects speak candidly about the likes and dislikes of their various living conditions. Park reinterprets the audio by ingeniously “casting” his voice performers as a collection of adorable stop-motion animated zoo animals. The true life experiences as told by the charming, often uptight British interviewees pairs perfectly with the soft-edged, perfectly articulated stop-motion zoo animals. Particularly memorable is a nervous turtle who sometimes “escapes into books” and a Brazilian puma who enjoys the safety of his “double glazing” but still longs for “fresh meat.”
Ever-intrigued by the idea of coupling ad-libbed audio with animation, I finally managed my own interpretation with a short-lived stop-motion series I created for E! Entertainment, called Starveillance. The concept: a series of vignettes depicting iconic celebrity moments “caught on tape.” Truth be told these were not totally ad-libbed pieces; the vignettes were partially scripted but I knew that to make them really funny I’d need to inject a good amount of improvisation into the mix. With the help of members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade we were able to find the right amount of off-the-cuff humor that, when set to the animation of Cuppa Coffee Studios, made for some truly hilarious moments
Among the stand-out pieces were George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of the infamously awful “Batman and Robin,” Fabio on a roller coaster getting hit in the face by a goose (true story!) and perhaps my all-time favorite – The Olden Twins apartment hunting in NYC. This last piece evolved spontaneously at the end of a voice over session as we had a few minutes left in the studio. Performers Jackie Clarke, Alison Becker and Paul Sheer, having worked together previously, developed a chemistry that was pitch-perfect. The moment when Paul Sheer’s real estate broker tells the girls that they can see the Statue of Liberty from the apartment window, to which they sympathetically reply with “aww…she’s fat” is truly sublime.
Alas, E!’s audience never really developed an appetite for animation and Starveillance was cancelled after its first season. On the plus side the show (and specifically the Olsen Twins piece) helped pave the way for bigger opportunities for me, including the creation of one of the most ambitious stop-motion TV shows ever: Glenn Martin, DDS. More on that in the next entry.