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For Top-Flight Animators, The Gag Is An Art All Its Own


The Lego Movie opened last night in theaters across the country. It's latest example of the magic of animation, filmmakers who bring plastic to life, make animals talk and send toys singing and dancing across a big screen. But animators also love to hurl our most beloved characters over cliffs. They blow them up with dynamite, flatten them with speeding trains. Seconds later, they pop back up and dust themselves off.

In this encore broadcast, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that even though character and story are very important, some of the magic in animation comes across from the gags.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Let's face it. Watching any living creature slip, stumble, get squashed, or just thwack its enemy is a blast. In the end, said Charlie Chaplin, everything is a gag, and in animation, sky's the limit. Laws of gravity need not apply. In "Finding Nemo," a big pelican swoops through a window into a dentist's office, flaps all over the place, knocks over the instrument table.

In "Toy Story," the almighty claw in the vending machine descends on the hopeful squeaky toys.


UNIDENTIFIED CAST: (as characters) The claw. The claw's our master. The claw chooses who will go and who will stay.

TOM HANKS: (as Woody) This is ludicrous.

BLAIR: From "Despicable Me" one minion ping-pongs another minion who's hooked to the end of a fishing line. In the big studio features, there are hundreds of people who spend their days figuring out how to manufacture this silliness from the ground up. So where do they go for inspiration? Chris Buck, co-director of "Frozen" used to teach animation at Cal Arts.

He says he would tell his students go out into the world and observe.

CHRIS BUCK: Just become a fantastic observer of people, animals, everything.

BLAIR: How they're built, how they bend, how their bodies move when they trip, and above all, how they feel. Dean DeBlois, who co-directed "How to Train Your Dragon," says sometimes it takes a team of animators coming together for a gag session.

DEAN DEBLOIS: Where we come up with like here's the movie, it's working really well. Are there 10 percent more laughs we could get just by, you know, putting a bunch of smart people together and saying what if you did this?

BLAIR: Jimmy Hayward, who recently directed "Free Birds," learned a valuable lesson when he was just getting started as an animator. One of his first jogs was on "Toy Story."

JIMMY HAYWARD: These toys are trying to actually kill each other. They're like throwing each other out of windows and off moving trucks, into the jaws of dogs. I remember thinking, like, wow. Where there's great conflict and great peril, there's room for comedy.

BLAIR: There is great peril in "Frozen." Co-director, Jennifer Lee, says for a teaser, they wanted to find a clever way to introduce the oddly adorable snowman, Olaf, to the goofy looking reindeer, Sven. So they had a gag session.

JENNIFER LEE: We were having these big philosophical conversations about what do a reindeer and a snowman have in common. And the thing we just got to is well they both like carrots.

BLAIR: So think about it. Some of the most respected minds in animation figured out not only that they both like carrots, but that just one carrot between them would cause great dramatic tension. When Olaf the snowman sneezes his carrot nose flies off and lands in the middle of an ice pond.

The reindeer thinks snack, and the scramble for the carrot is on.


BLAIR: The animators had a field day with Olaf. The snowman uses one of his twig arms to catapult himself across the ice. When he falls of a cliff, the snowballs that are his body rearrange in midair.


BLAIR: Olaf is voiced by Josh Gad. He says he was in awe of how the animators took full advantage of the fact that Olaf is made of snow.

JOSH GAD: What does snow do? It builds on itself, it can melt. There's so many opportunities for this character to add or subtract mass. And I think that that became such a unique part of the comedy in the film.

BLAIR: And this snowman also dreams of experiencing another season.


GAD: (as Olaf) Oh, I don't know why but I've always loved the idea of summer and sun and all things hot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Really? I'm guessing you don't have much experience with heat.

GAD: (as Olaf) Nope.

BLAIR: Josh Gad has done theater, sitcoms, feature films. Voicing gags, he says, is a unique process.

GAD: There's a page of different sounds that the human body shouldn't make that they wanted me to do over and over again. And so the animators just kind of sit there and, as you're alone in a booth going ooh, ah, ehh, hewh. Ha.

BLAIR: Animators say the best gags are character driven because what makes them funny is not just the action but the reaction. In "Frozen," the sweet Olaf always looks on the bright side even when he starts to melt. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman wrote our theme. Uhh. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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