Sunday, June 8, 2008

Animals as "Human Types"

Mark Mayerson has been posting scene breakdowns from Disney's "101 Dalmatians" over on his blog, and adding his analysis of story and characterization in addition to detailing who animated what. He's just gotten up to my favourite sequence: The "Twilight Bark", which leads us to the characters of The Captain, Sgt. Tibbs, and The Colonel. My reasons for liking this particular sequence so much is that it's a prime example of what I appreciate so much about Disney in their ability to create rich personalities even when working within a relatively short amount of screen time. In this sequence, we are introduced to The Captain (a horse), Sergeant Tibbs (a cat), and The Colonel (a sheep dog).

Even before we first see the horse poke his head through the stable window, we've already been given a clue as to who lives in this old country house from the address sign above the gate that reads: "H.M. Forces Ret. Maj. General S.F. Smedley, The 9th Queens Royal Lancers". Previously in this film, we've seen how the Disney artists have created a distinct similarity between the various dogs and their humans, especially in the opening sequence that shows the female potential mates that Pongo is sizing up, out for a walk with their look-alike human "pets". Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the animals that live in this country home would share some of the background of their master, a former military man now retired to a quiet life of farming.

Here are the mosaics that Mark has put together with scene credits courtesy of Hans Perk:

When I cover the topic of anthropomorphic cartoon animals in my Character Design class, I try to show through examples like these, how Disney has always created animals as specific human types, as opposed to simply creating cartoon renditions of animals. The horse, cat and sheepdog depicted in this sequence are prime examples of the Disney artists' craft. When we watch this sequence play out, we are viewing them not merely as animals, but as familiar human types that we have seen in many a British wartime drama. In my drawn interpretation posted below, I have sketched out the human characters that these animals seem to suggest to me personally.

The Captain is a big workhorse, though from the blanket he wears sporting a royal emblem, and other props like a sword, bugle and banner shown in the background of the stable, one can imagine that in his younger days he was a sleek, athletic soldier's steed on the field of battle. But now he has matured into a solid workhorse, built for towing a heavy farm plow. In human terms I envision him as a solid, dependable man, perhaps in his late 40s/early 50s, with broad features like what I have drawn below.

Sergeant Tibbs is a small, slim cat, definitely designed for speed and being able to slip through tight spaces, as he will have to do later when he's trying to find the missing puppies in the De Vil place. As such, he suggests a younger man, perhaps about 20-25, who is a recent recruit that is eager to do a good job and please his superiors. I love the way he zips around; all quick staccato movements, always alert and at attention. In the pleasant, wide-eyed young fellow I have envisioned as his human counterpart, I can't help but think of him as a combination of a young Dudley Moore and Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.

Finally, we have The Colonel, a shaggy haired sheepdog, which seems like the perfect breed to depict this character type. The Colonel is most definitely the "Colonel Blimp" cliché of British newspaper cartoons and war films. His bushy muzzle suggests a big walrus mustache, while the shaggy hair above his eyes acts as bushy eyebrows more than as hair per se. In fact, I rather like to envision him as being bald, with just an unkempt fringe of hair around his ears. The Colonel would certainly be an older gent in his 70s perhaps, sadly now long past his prime as a competent military leader in his younger days. Even more tragically, he doesn't seem to realize this fact himself!

Again, I am amazed by how the Disney writers and artists have created such rich character types in such a relatively short amount of screen time. Through their dialogue and actions we learn much about the relationship between these three characters. Though The Colonel is now a somewhat less competent old codger, hard of hearing and with other faltering capacities, neither The Captain nor Sgt. Tibbs have the heart to let on. Their respect for the old man is so great that they are careful to gently correct his mistakes so as not to let him lose face, allowing him to continue acting under the delusion that he is still in the prime of life and completely in charge of the situation at hand. I've always thought this to be a very sweet sequence in the film because of that subtext, cleverly communicated through the acting.

In conclusion, I would hope that all students of animation try to analyze films like "101 Dalmatians" and other classics, both animated and live-action from that era, in the hopes of learning the craft of creating rich characters on screen. Remember, the dialogue is only a small part of the equation. Characterization through strong visual designs, distinct personalities, and accompanying body language and physical quirks is what will result in performances that will entertain and engage your audience.


Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Peter. I don't know if you're familiar with the actor C. Aubrey Smith, but I feel that the Colonel is somewhat based on him in terms of appearance and demeanor, though Smith didn't play characters who were doddy or ineffective.

Smith is in the Shirley Temple (and John Ford!) movie Wee Willie Winkie, where he plays a military officer.

Here's a picture of him

Pete Emslie said...

I'd heard of C. Aubrey Smith being an influence, though I must confess I've never seen him in anything to the best of my knowledge. Seeing the photo of him that you've linked to, he certainly does look somewhat similar to the human type that I've visualized. There is of course some influence as well from J. Pat O'Malley, the voice of The Colonel. I can see the way they've analyzed the mouth and hanging chin from the way the actor speaks, applying it to his canine counterpart.

Coincidentally, I just recently saw David Frankham onscreen for the first time, alongside Vincent Price in 1962's "Tales of Terror". Like the character of Sgt. Tibbs that he voices, Frankham also has large expressive eyes in a perpetually worried look, as well as a small, sharp, triangular nose like that of the cat. As a caricaturist, it is always fascinating to me how the Disney artists seem to be able to capture the essence of the actors producing the voices, especially when translating those human features into those of cartoon animals.

Eric Noble said...

Excellent post. This is a very good piece of advice when it comes to creating great characters. THank you for posting this.

Randeep Katari said...

Hey Pete!
Great post. Love hearing about character design from you. It's really cool to see this - I've seen you do the opposite, from human to animal - it's neat to see it go from animal to human.
Look forward to your next post.

Brian Sibley said...

Whatever the opposite of anthropomorphism is, you've DONE it! Brilliant sketch!

AmyS said...

I love your interpretations! They’re spot on.