A contemporary father-son portrait the father enraged; the son with mouth wide open, eyes bugged out and head bulging in response to the fathers hands wrapped firmly around his neck
Like Whistler and his mother, every era has its icons of parenthood and this one of Homer and Bart Simpson will surely go down in history as one of ours. But what makes an icon iconic?
One important element is visual simplicity a strip down to the essence, the more graphic the better, which is why animation has produced its share of icons over the years. And its about emotional resonance but even thats not everything. For the icon to fully work, you also have to consider context.
Whats interesting and perhaps, surprising, is how complex the context end has to be to make the resulting symbol seem so simple and compellingly right.
This involves what the audience is thinking, what the creator is thinking, even what the iconic character is thinking. In fact, the thing about context is that it involves so many aspects from the tiniest details to the universe at large and all of it is deeply interconnected.
Not only that but all the strands in the web are potentially important and the specific way they work is different for every scenario. And all this applies as much to animation as to icon building in general
So instead of looking for an elusive formula for success here, I invited Charlie Bonifacio, Stephen Barnes and Matt Ferguson to join me one last time in an exploration of some of the elements that create context.
Before we start, lets remember two big elements that are always in play. First, that audiences are constantly scanning our work for points of comparison between their own reality and the work in front of them and within the work itself, on its own terms.
Second, that for all the license we have to screw around in our animated worlds, the only rules which should be held sacred (well, almost sacred) are cause and effect and its legitimate offspring, internal logic. Mess with these at your peril! Unless, of course, you have an idea that takes them away and does something really cool with whats left when their gone oh but wait, that would still be a kind of logic, so never mind
Now lets begin with an interesting kind of context the kind which characters create for each other. Characters can rarely operate alone. More likely, youll find a key character being pushed and pulled into action and reaction by characters around them and this is what sets a story in motion. But this cant be just any combination of characters so the key here lies in the matchmaking.
There are those strange and happy couplings that somehow work Peabody and Sherman are a straight reversal on man and dog. And perhaps its opposites attract when a special moose meets a flying squirrel in Rocky and Bullwinkle. But their partnership, based on naïve New World optimism, begins to make more sense when you match them with the thoroughly evil Soviet spies, Boris and Natasha. Now suddenly you have a tongue-in-cheek political commentary on the absurdities of the Cold War. How unlikely for a kids show.
But for psychological reality, think of how families interact how we are assigned roles within the family drama to which we might comply or rebel (and even this might be, in fact, part of the script); how we change when we leave home and regress when we come back; how well we function in the big world, so well we think weve actually escaped our familial fate until we encounter a boss, a girlfriend or boyfriend or maybe even have a child of our own and suddenly find ourselves back in the same old play.
This is the button-pushing level at which we want our characters to operate. And to make it really real, not just the others acting on the hero (though yes, Im also convinced that its strictly a one way street, with me no more than a guileless recipient) but the hero and supporting characters caught in the deep web of interactive context.
So the overly confident inflame the anxious who respond with desperate revenge like Woody and Buzz; the overly polite inflame the aggressively needy who then feel compelled to take advantage like Cruella against Anita and Roger, an interaction which then makes it credible for a dog to take over as hero; the overly stupid irritate the intelligent provoking all kinds of inspired nonsense to put them in their place like Bugs and Elmer Fudd or driving them to drink in the face of near total disregard like Peter Griffin and Brian.
Speaking of Peter Griffin and for that matter, Homer Simpson, actually gives us another kind of relationship between character and context. This is where a central driving character (not necessarily the hero) generates context for everyone and everything else around them. Homer and Peter are definitely shaping forces at the hearts of their own series. At first glance, they have a lot in common but their differences are significant enough to change the way their shows are developed. And its this attention to the implications of such details that helps give these shows the ring of truth.
Both come from a long tradition of fat, loser sitcom husbands with wives who are prettier and smarter than they deserve, a TV formula that goes back at least to The Honeymooners. This formula, which has produced more unmemorable husbands and families than memorable ones, places us squarely in the realm of clichés the antithesis of reality and truth so what, in fact, makes these guys work?
On one level, of course, they work the way all fat loser TV husbands do as characters who make us feel better about ourselves by being more stupid and fucked up than we are. So you might find that the forgotten loser husbands got that way because they didnt go far enough. Such characters need to be spectacularly fucked up to make an impression on a jaded audience. And Homer and Peter both fulfill this nicely.
So how do they differ?
Whats notable about Homer, a sitcom husband who set a new standard for stupid, is that we dont just love to look down on him, we actually love him. This is created by a balancing of negative and positive elements, one thats not easy to pull off. With a character as extreme as this, get the balance off and you end up with a character no one wants anything to do with.
So what Homer both lovable and real is that, while he is only occasionally brains, he is always big emotion. His love and humility are as supersized and fully felt as his anger, frustration, laziness, etc. The negative emotions are on display more often, of course, because thats where the entertainment value lies. But we get to see his caring side just often enough to be sure that its really there, even when hes at his worst.
He also has a degree of self-awareness, enough for us to see that he is capable of being ashamed. This critical factor allows us to not give up on him, even with full knowledge that, as heartfelt as his moments of self-reform are, they too will pass. Self-awareness can be the swing factor in creating sympathy, perhaps because only a self-aware person can be truly apologetic.
Yes, he is still a character we sometimes feel superior to and one we probably wouldnt want to know in real life but apology opens the door to forgiveness and forgiveness to sympathy and sympathy to the possibility of loving someone in spite of their difficult sides. And that takes us into the territory of real world relationships. In effect, we forgive Homers trespasses again and again just as his family does. And of course, with sympathy comes empathy, so now we can acknowledge, vicariously indulge and maybe even forgive our own worst nature through Homers antics.
So in spite of plentiful mayhem, Homers personality allows The Simpsons to have an overall warm and fuzzy tone, which we could summarize as lovable dysfunction. Gee, just like most real families which is why The Simpsons can be so bad and yet be an effective family show better for kids, certainly, than many family shows which go to extremes of all sweetness and light or the more currently typical all bitterness and dark.
The world of Family Guy is much harsher than The Simpsons, but this, of course, is a show clearly intended for an older audience. Though partly due to the obvious sexual content, Peter Griffins impact as the central character is at least as much a factor.
Cruder, meaner, more selfish and altogether more incorrigible, Peter rarely shows his warmer side and when he does it usually comes with a sideswipe. This is a character who elicits a strong response you either love him strictly for his awful behavior (and what does that say about you, hmm?) or you just plain hate him. This is exactly the approach that would kill The Simpsons, so why does it work here?
It may have to do with there being a more complex way to love such a character. This is where love intersects with wishful thinking, where you love someone more for who you believe them to be than for what they are on the nasty surface. And where you believe that, if only you are patient and good enough yourself, one day they will prove you right.
Peter shows just enough of this potential, with little insight, naturally, to keep the belief system going. Of course, its difficult to elicit this kind of response to such a character without the context of the people around him. We really only understand this about Peter through the eyes of his family, particularly his wife, Lois.
This dark side of love is handled very believably. Loiss family background confirms why she is prone to keep rooting for him. And the only time Peter gets even a moment of real awareness, they tie it to the extreme of a life threatening fire and then take it all back with a time travel machine built by Stewie for his own nefarious purposes.
All this opens up new options for the audience that would likely be repelled by him. We can view him through Loiss eyes and either join in her fantasy or become aghast on her behalf and invest in the hope shell come to her senses one day. This doesnt make Peter any more likable but it does give audience members another, equally compelling, way to stay engaged.
The world built around Peter reflects the darker emotions he elicits. It is an altogether edgier, less certain world and the characters within it including mother hating Stewie, rich girl and former slut, Lois and the aforementioned alcoholic pet dog, Brian are consequently that much more dysfunctional.
So characters interact and therefore create each other and create story but only in part. Another factor has to come from the personal life of each character, something that exists beyond the boundaries of their immediate interactions.
This greater life, including personal history, not only affects story by giving characters the raw material that helps define their interactions, but also acts in less obvious ways, taking us back into the realm of performance but this time within context. So personal history provides the source of performance subtleties, the specifics of what gestures and exactly how they are performed, of how a character chooses to dress and do his hair and how well he pulls off his intended look and so on, all of which serves to round out the sense of character.
What rounding out a character really means is giving a character the same sense of a life fully lived that any ordinary human achieves just by virtue of being alive. This birthright includes not only a sense of history but also a life being actively lived during the course of the given story.
Stephen Barnes comments from his experience:
Ive often observed a tendency amongst animators to focus on their specific shot, ignoring the context of their characters and not seeing their circumstances as being slices of a bigger pie. All too often we seize up on receiving a shot assignment. We consider the number of characters, how they are staged in their layouts, how many frames the shot is and how many days to complete it. Listening to the actors voice read is the starters pistol we hear the words, and fly off our marks plotting out how to move the character based on what sounds the dialogue makes.
But this is the point where what we actually need is to understand and feel what the character is thinking, instead of what theyre saying. Were down to the level of illustrated radio if we dont respect the thought processes behind a characters speech. The shots leading up to ours establish the crucial emotional and intellectual tone that each character is sounding if we could only slow down long enough to feel it. Just like in real life, our context may be the present, but it is influenced in varying degrees by events leading up to it.
Every character on your stage was in a specific headspace mere frames before your shot comes onto the screen; its our job as animators to do the pre-roll and get into those motions and emotions, ready to hit the ground running. All too often its tempting to only think of the shots in terms of the dialogue cues. If you get into that trap, youll literally have your characters standing around waiting for their line (not unlike small town little theatre, where the amateur actors remain idle, fearful of missing their cues!) This yanks them out of the context of their present space.
It is essential to watch the footage before your shot and use it to imagine what the character would need to be doing right from frame one.
You can take this kind of mindfulness to another level by also considering what your character is doing when he is not on camera, his hidden life between the shots. Now here are the components of a vivid life perhaps you have a character under great stress who has a secret drinking problem. So between key shots, he is actually slipping off to take a nip.
Think of the performance possibilities this new off screen context opens up the character gradually deteriorating as the action becomes more critical, throwing the supporting characters into disarray. Maybe some of these characters know about his problem, knowledge that they may or may not openly share through word or gesture, while others are mystified, so now this secret context begins to affect the context of the story itself.
You could also then start throwing the audience hints of whats going on playing on their general knowledge of the signs of substance abuse. These hints could go beyond performance into the settings, offering glimpses of hidden stashes or half filled glasses always at hand whenever the character is around and so on.
Now this is a fairly extreme example, one that demands too much change of a prerecorded dialogue but a less dramatic version of the same approach could still be enriching. And of course, this speaks to the ideal situation of dealing with such matters early in the process, to leave maximum room for great performance.
Speaking of great performance, Charlie Bonifacio chimes in here with yet another element that creates context: In both the characters of Gollum and Ryan, it seems the animators engaged in the pursuit of character study and analysis and created clear pictures of a unique character. In Chris Landreths case the goal is an enhanced, psychological reality. It would be interesting to see if that process could extend to the development of a totally fictional character.Here is where the downfall lies. Without an acute sense of observation, of either the real world or some other reference point, the tendency will be to create motion and gestures that are inherent to oneself. Like the abrogating of responsibility to MoCap, the animation becomes not peculiar or unique to a character but typical of the live actor or animators methods, preferences and approach.
Some of this is good and lends a specific stylized motion but some of it dulls performance if it becomes the only motion language used. In reality, the physics of motion and human range of motion is limited to certain realities. It is the individual distinctions which take some digging to find.So now we have the three ring circus of context in full swing in this ring, keeping what the audience is thinking in mind; in the next ring, considering the thought process of the characters while both on and off screen and in the third ring, becoming aware of what we as animators are thinking as we create performance and asking whether our own personal frame of reference is adequate to the job in front of us.
But wait, there are still more attractions to come under the big top
I also asked Charlie what he thought was the connection between performance and context.
In books and radio, we create our own performance. When we have images we want the character to perform for us. We want them to be familiar but we want to be surprised.
With static drawings, the voice, story and image perform and we fill in the rest. When we get closer to real time performance we judge the character based on their performance to the point where virtually real CG animation often draws our distaste and scorn because it is a lie that is too close to the truth.
Overall, it probably depends on the truth you want to tell.
And that brings up the other great truth of context that it is all always relative. From the audiences point of view it depends on what they have previously been exposed to. People who have only seen regular TV think it looks fine until they are exposed to HDTV; people who have only see amateur acting find it satisfactory, even exemplary, until they see a truly fine professional performance that blows everything theyve seen before out of the water. The mind only knows what it knows and the mind constantly adjusts to the standards it has been exposed to. Its the rare mind that can imagine what it has never experienced.
But with the kind of invented stuff we deal with, we also have to keep in mind what Charlie points out here anything that strays too close to known reality will automatically be judged by this standard and in most cases found sorely wanting.
And then there is that ultimately animated function of creating a relative truth for a world that we build from the ground up. This is where we can have the most fun of all, if we let ourselves. And often get the most satisfying results. Matt Ferguson puts it like this:
I think something that is often overlooked in animation is the connection between character, story and design. Ideally, all of these elements should grow out of the same place. For instance, Shrek is a movie that sets out to skewer the concept of the classic animated fairytale, and while the film has characters that seem to reinforce that story (the princess, the ogre, etc.) its design betrays it. How much more successful would Shrek had been as a parody of Disney fairytales had it looked exactly like Disney fairytales? When we see how a character is designed in an animated film, we come with certain expectations; Sleeping Beauty will act one way, Daffy Duck another.Animated characters that work really well tend to be ones that embrace or subvert the expectations of their design. A great example is in the South Park movie. The simplistic, childlike designs of the characters act as a compelling counterpoint to their vulgar dialogue and crude behavior. By expecting one thing, and receiving another, or by having the design of the characters so intrinsically tied to the story, we get characters who are more interesting and dimensional. To that end, despite all the complicated controls and full animation, I find Shrek to be a far less believable character than Eric Cartman.
Shrek, of course, is exactly the kind of character who strays too close to the candle of reality and inevitably gets burned.
But South Park is one of many examples of an all-encompassing context within a story made up of many parts. In this case, its not just the subversion, but the feeling that these stories, told always from the kids POV, are also created in every detail by kids themselves to their own expectations. Its as if the show is an after school project for the real life gang of boys who represent themselves in this crude manner because thats the way they draw and animate.
Yet at the same time, this approach is also a perfect reflection of the crudeness of the world kids actually inhabit, so different from the world an adult mind would normally impose on these stories. Just imagine South Park done in Disney classical or in the commercial style of Strawberry Shortcake and it becomes clear how much this series owes to its distinctively naïve style.
The beauty of the all-encompassing animated context is how entirely malleable and versatile it is. A world in which Gerald McBoing Boing can only speak in sound effects and everything else is also implied more than spelled out, with walls defined only by the pictures which hang on them and floors only by an oval representing a rug, can work as well as South Park s world, if attention is paid to the implications of what is set in motion and to the application of what is discovered.
The same can be said for the world Daffy Duck is dropped into in Duck Amuck the endlessly flexible and ever-changing set of a drawn animated film, if drawn animated films had sets. Oh the beauty and absurdity of it all
Which brings us back nicely to that opening image of Bart. Now Im perfectly aware that The Simpsons made fun of a lot of psychological analysis in an episode long ago. They even called it Barts Inner Child.
But just because you make fun of something doesnt make it less true. Our work does get better when we are willing to regard it on these levels of micro- and macrocosm. Its one of the great pleasures of this field to be able to be incredibly serious about the most absurd things and actually make something better funnier, more poignant, more profound, more pointed- because of it.
So just imagine that shot of Bart and Homer and then pull the camera back to reveal Grampa putting his hands just as firmly around Homers neck. And here you have one of the great truths built into The Simpsons, a simplified but believable three generational portrait of family dysfunction. With Grampa, Homer and Bart lined up, we see the chain of emotional legacy frustrated, powerless men taking out their frustration on their sons and so condemning them to the same trapped adulthood where they will then pass the favor onto their own sons in turn
And Bart himself is the perfect embodiment of what happens to smart, energetic boys when they feel essentially powerless when they feel they cant just have the power theyre entitled to, they take it by less straightforward means. In other words, thwarted boys really do become mischievous vandals. So Bart doesnt have an inner child, he is the inner child- the one youd have to break down the inner wall to rescue. And thats why he makes such a good icon.
Phew thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Its been a great journey and a year that went by way too fast. I felt compelled to pack as much as I could into this last piece and yet theres still so much to say just on this topic alone. We didnt get to more than glance at internal logic and we didnt even mention reality in sound and on and on.
Thanks for all your comments and I hope youve enjoyed the journey too.
This is Ellen Besen, the woman some think was the model for The Incredibles Edna (to which I say, I should be so honored. Honestly, daahling) signing off.
Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.