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It'll Amaze Ya: Animated Acting in Fantasia

An Exchange with Bill Benzon

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MB: I've written about animated acting  in terms of casting by character, arguing for the greater depth of characterization I think is possible if an animator is paired with a character for most of that character's scenes. When a character is divided among several animators, I believe, the risk is much greater that that character will seem superficial or incoherent. As I mentioned in a January 28 posting, I've been corresponding with Bill Benzon, a principal author of The Valve, about Fantasia, and Bill sees in "Dance of the Hours" a cartoon whose characters, independently of whoever is animating them, slip in and out of their roles, as if of their own accord:

Disorder at barreFrom Bill Benzon: The basic conceit, of course, is that we have large and ungainly animals performing in an art form that centers on physical grace. But that's not all that's going on. From the very beginning we see that these animals have trouble keeping within role. Almost as soon as we see her the lead ostrich yawns, thereby stepping outside her role. When we see the ostrich company, they yawn as well. The ostrich segment ends with them fighting over a bunch of grapes. And who comes up with the grapes? Hyacinth Hippo, batting her eyelashes and acting coy—that is, she's hamming it up, thus stepping outside her role.

Grape chaseIn "Dance of the Hours" we don't see the characters when they're not onstage, so there's no chance for an obvious contrast such as we see when Bugs Bunny pretends to be a girl. I spent about an hour the other day going through the episode, starting and stopping my DVD and making notes about where the animals seem to go out of character. It gets interesting when the cornucopia is introduced. I have no trouble imagining such a prop in a real ballet routine, but then the ostriches get distracted by actually eating the fruit. And that leads us to Hyacinth. It seems to me that throughout the scenes with the ostriches and the hippos one can imagine their routines as things that humans could dance. But what do we do about those elephants floating around on bubbles? I'd score that as choreography, but some of it goes awry (one elephant ends up inside a bubble). And then there's the swagger of Ben Ali Gator. I'd swear he was really going after Hyacinth, and she responding in kind, not just acting a role. As soon as that thought struck me I started thinking about how I could argue the point. After all, it would be easy to say, "It's all a bunch of gags, enjoy them."   Bubble towerWell, of course, that segment really is a bunch of gags. But gags are always working against something, a background of conventionalized expectation. Much of that expectation comes from living in the world; for example, if you step off a cliff, you're going to start falling immediately. But some of it seems to be the property of a particular cartoon universe (the Road Runner's, for instance), and some of it even seems to develop within a particular cartoon. So there's no easy way to characterize the "baseline" against which some cartoon event is perceived to be a gag.   Still, my contention is that the baseline in "Dance of the Hours" is that these animals are playing roles, and hence there is something about them that may, at any time, escape the requirements of the role. But how do we, in the audience, judge this? On the one hand, there is our general knowledge of the world. When the lead ostrich yawns, we know that's not likely to have been choreographed because one simply doesn't do that sort of thing in a ballet routine, or any dance routine. It doesn't make any sense. We also know that yawning isn't something one does voluntarily; it's something that happens to us, we can't control it, though we can try to hide it.   Elephant in bubbleBut we also have the reactions of the animals themselves. This becomes important in the elephant segment. There's nothing in human ballet that involves blowing bubbles out one's nose; but those elephants blow bubbles out their trunks. It seems to me we have to treat that as "baseline" normal for this segment. They're supposed to suck water into their trunks and to blow bubbles. They're supposed to float on those bubbles, and to float Hyacinth and her chaise on a tower of bubbles. That's all part of the act. But other things happen around and about those bubbles that don't seem intended—the elephants act surprised and confused, and their motions are chaotic. It's not that they've deliberately gone out of character, but that the world just won't let them stay in character. Since one of the basic premises of this episode has no counterpart in reality—that elephants can rise on top of bubbles—we can't judge this segment against expectations of human dancers. We have to read the elephants' motions and reactions to see what makes sense.     The elephant segment ends with the elephants being blown away in the air as Hyacinth and chaise are returned to the ground. That¹s a flat-out audacious conception. There's little left of conventional notions of how the world works. We¹re deep in the heart of a universe that exists for and only in this cartoon. And yet it somehow remains in dialogue with the conventions of ballet.   Googoo eyesAnd now the alligators appear, with lots of looking at one another and head gestures toward Hyacinth. I haven't the foggiest idea of whether we're supposed to read that as choreography or as real. I don't see that there's any way to tell. It's just there. Yet they quickly climb down the columns and end up on the ground surrounding Hyacinth. Now they're dancing in very regular figures. This is choreographed. They are in role. It's at this point that Ben Ali Gator appears above. He swaggers out and dramatically tosses his cape away. Then he jumps down, looks around, circles Hyacinth, and clutches his heart while making googoo eyes. Acting? For real? And there's Hyacinth's reaction: Acting? For real? Meanwhile the music builds to a climax and she runs out in the distance and then turns around, comes back, and leaps into the air so Ali can catch her. She drives him to the stage and he struggles up. Something about this is choreographed and something isn't.   RecognitionI could go on and on, simply describing what happens. In a way the point is that, while one can describe what happens, it¹s not at all obvious to me that we know how to understand what¹s happening and why it has the effects it does. But whatever it is, it is grounded in consummate control of animated acting. What Disney does here could not be done with limited animation or with Miyazaki style animation—which I admire a great deal. You need facial expressiveness. I've just watched the episode again and I'm struck by how much we have to watch faces and, in particular, eyes, to get a sense of what's going on. None of that matters in ballet because you aren't close enough to the performers to read their faces—and they're certainly not trained to act with their faces. There's an awful lot of batting of eyelashes and rolling of eyes, etc., in this segment.   It's worthwhile comparing this with the " Nutcracker Suite," which is full of dancing as well. The framing is utterly different in the two cases. So different that there's no issue of being 'in role' or not in the Nutcracker case. The possible exception would be the little mushroom; he can't quite keep up. But it's as though mushrooms just naturally dance—as do thistles and orchids and leaves and fairies. No one's acting, performing for others. They're just being.

Gator spinMB again: I carry away from Bill Benzon's comments a sense of just how slippery—and how substantial—cartoon characters can be.

In "Dance of the Hours," one common source of slipperiness—the very different handling of a character by different animators working on the same cartoon—is mostly absent. There's real casting by character, with some of the Disney studio's best "caricaturists," like Howard Swift, Preston Blair, and John Lounsbery, dominating the animation of, respectively, the ostriches, the hippos, and the alligators. But as Bill has noticed, there's an underlying question about just what these very well-conceived characters are doing at a given time: how much of what we see is a "performance"? How much is a genuine expression, on the cartoon's own terms, of what the characters are thinking and feeling?

There's no evidence that anyone—Walt Disney, the directors, the animators—gave such questions much thought. Walt did say at one early meeting, on September 29, 1938: "I think the main thing we must keep in mind is that the animals are serious. They are not clowning; otherwise, they would be only a bunch of smartalecks." A few weeks later, on October 17, he made a similar remark at another meeting, "The whole incongruity of the thing is the elephants and hippos doing what graceful people do." But the closest anyone came to thinking out loud about whether the animals should slip in and out of role was probably Walt's remark on September 29: "Their movement will be like a ballerina's, but every once in a while, they revert back to elephants, hold on to each other's tails. And on the hippo—get up close to show the beautiful eyelashes on her."

And why should we care? "Dance of the Hours" is, after all, a wonderful cartoon, for me the one part of Fantasia I can watch over and over again with unalloyed pleasure. Would it be a better film if we could see in it a greater awareness on the filmmakers' part not just of the incongruity of animals dancing ballet, but of the ambiguity in their status as performers? Would we benefit if we could really tell when the animals were "in role" and out?

I have no idea. But I think that acquiring such awareness—and awareness of more sophisticated acting issues generally—was a logical next step for the Disney animators. Such change was in the air around 1940, as evidenced not just by what was happening in the Disney cartoons, but also by cartoons like A Wild Hare at Warner Bros. As directors and animators became more skilled at giving life to animated characters, and the characters themselves more complex in appearance, movement, and personality, it became increasingly natural to think of them as performers who had some sort of life outside their screen roles. It's difficult for me to conceive of the characters in a mid-thirties Disney short in such terms, but much easier where the hippos and ostriches and alligators in "Dance of the Hours" are concerned.

In many later cartoons, from Disney and other studios, you can see a testing of the boundaries of characters' roles. Charlie Dog and Wile E. Coyote in the Chuck Jones cartoons come immediately to mind, as do incurable hams like Humphrey Bear in some of the later Donald Duck shorts. The characters in Bob Clampett's Warner cartoons are so aggressive and exuberant that they demand comparison with a high-voltage performer like Al Jolson, whose roles simply could not contain him.

In the Disney features, though, the sense of cartoon characters as performers playing roles diminished sharply in the postwar years, except in the occasional supporting role; and since the Disney features set the terms on which cartoons of other kinds were judged, the increasingly literal and confined animated acting in those features eventually snuffed out the flame that was just beginning to burn so brightly in cartoons like "The Dance of the Hours."

Jeff Watson writes in response: In contrast to Bill Benzon, I think the primary conceit in "Dance of the Hours" is that the performance is by dancers who cannot stay focused on the dance: they are talented but petulant performers with personal concerns that enhance the performance but interrupt the dance.  That the performers are animated animals is actually a secondary conceit, a conceit fertile with cartoon universe possibilities, but still a secondary one.

TrockaderosA "live-action" way to approach an understanding of "Dance of the Hours" would be to view a performance of an individual piece by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.  Having seen them perform, I can say it is clear they are not women, but they perform women's ballet roles quite skillfully while their petulant prima ballerina natures constantly enhance the performance but interrupt the dance.  All the pre-dance bits, the dance proper, the interruptions, and the occasional post-dance bits are planned and rehearsed: this form of comedy leaves little room for improvisation in performance.

More TrockaderosLike the Trockaderos with their choreographers, the "Dance of the Hours" cast members are put through their paces by animators who understand much: dramatic conventions such as character, subtext, and "character asides"; aspects of comedy that include timing, caricature, and parody; and dance principles of balance, extension, and momentum.  This section of Fantasia is amazing because the Disney animators so skillfully and successfully animated a well-planned parody of graceful dance by distinct personalities within the format of a dance-video-cum-documentary (the documentary aspect allows for the apparent non-dance yawning and the like).

I smile and laugh with similar feelings while watching both the Trockaderos and Dance of the Hours.  However, I believe the animation is more difficult to achieve because of the physical distance/detachment the animators must cross/overcome to do their "work."

Bill Benzon replies: I don't see any substantial disagreement with Jeff. His assertion that we're dealing with "dancers who cannot stay focused on the dance" is the essential point. Whether that's primary or secondary seems irrelevant.

The more I look at this film and examine it closely, the more wondrous it becomes.

Just over a minute—say a minute and 5 or 10 seconds—elapses between the time Ben Ali Gator clutches his chest in the throes of love at first sight and the moment when Hyacinth flirtatiously prances away to the left and makes him chase her even as it's the full company on stage for a chaotic grand finale. Quite a lot happens in that minute.

After we see him smitten we see her waking up, noticing him, confused, then pleased; she returns his gaze and gets up. As she does so, he starts the move that she will mirror once she¹s fully upright, only ten seconds from the beginning of this segment. They're mirrored again about two seconds later. Then she starts running for the back of the stage so that she can turn around, run back toward him, and leap into his arms. He catches her and is crushed. He struggles up, finally manages to hold her aloft with his arms fully extended—looking might proud of himself—and then he loses it and ends up beneath her on the ground.

Hyacinth and BenThis time he reaches around and grabs into her flesh—we see his claws digging in—and he pulls himself up and around. She looks pleased—displays no pain at all. As he gets himself out from under her, she stands up and we begin a set of spins. First he walks her around once, then steps back so she can spin freely as he holds one arm. She goes around, oh, two or three times, and he gives her another push; another two or three times around. And then he jumps on her extended leg and rides her around. There's not a hint of a change in her facial expression. She's looking pleased as punch.

But as soon as he jumps off and makes a bow, she straightens up, puts her hands on her hips, looks at him, and the look is one of mild anger. She's pissed off. She turns her back on him, starts prancing away, makes flirtatious eyes, and we're off into the finale. He, of course, is eager to give chase.

All of that in the space of a minute or so. I really have no idea what one can pick up watching such a scene as one ordinarily watches a movie. You certainly cannot pick up and retain the kind of detail I noticed by watching the sequence several times and by stepping through the entire minute frame by frame; but I don't think that is necessary. What you need to pick up is the flow, and that includes the emotions and attitudes of the two creatures. And, of course, there is the music itself, which reaches a serious romantic climax during the spin portion of the segment.

But the more I think about this segment, the more I think about the one immediately preceding, with the elephants. It ends in the most remarkable way. The elephants form a ring around the recumbent Hyacinth. They¹ve got their backs to her and they're blowing bubbles backward over their heads. The bubbles are aimed down at the ground. The bubbles from all the elephants meet and form a column of bubbles. Hyacinth and her chaise are atop that column. Prior to this we¹d already seen elephants riding around on bubbles they'd blown, so the notion that mere bubbles can support heavy animals was well established at this point. That general gag is, of course, a standard kind of cartoon fare, where normal affairs are systematically negated.

Once we've got this image firmly fixed in our mind's eye—bubbles supporting hippo on chaise— Disney does what all good gagsters do, pushes the gag just a bit further, in a direction that's both unexpected and thoroughly consistent with the underlying premise. In this case, we get a strong breeze coming in from the right even as we also see a large purple curtain glow across the scene from the right. It blows the bubble column out from under the chaise, but then it blows the elephants away as well. They're no more substantial than those bubbles. First they're just blown along the surface of the stage, but then they rise into the air and disappear into the distance. It's now dusk and Hyacinth and her chaise float gently down to the ground, still supported by the remaining bubbles. She's apparently more substantial than the elephants.

At the same time we're left wondering where all this distance came from, and the breeze, where'd it come from? The whole sequence is set up as a performance on a stage. We see the curtains at the very beginning of the whole "Dance of the Hours" sequence, before the ostriches. And we see the seams in the panels behind the ostriches on which the scenery is painted. The space certainly opens up a bit when we move from the ostriches to the hippos. But we can still imagine it as a stage, albeit a big one. We do not, however, see any seams in flats during this segment. That blue sky might actually be a blue sky rather than being a painting.

This business with the bubble column and the breeze and the elephants floating away, this is different. It all but destroys the notion that we¹re on a stage, even a very big one—yet just a second ago we see that curtain blow across the stage. Those elephants blew away into the sky and that breeze came across the stage from wide-open spaces.

And this is what precedes the courtship sequence. The "Dance of the Hours" started with an obvious premise, animals dancing ballet on a stage of the ordinary kind. That's exactly what we saw for the ostrich sequence. It loosened up a bit for the hippos, but that premise became deeply problematic with the elephants. It's still animals dancing ballet, but these big animals are somehow able to float atop bubbles. Which means that the fundamental physical premises of the sequence to this point has been put in doubt. And when those elephants float off into the distance, the basic spatial premises is decimated as well. This is gone from being merely a wacky comic world to being a deeply mysterious world.

And that's when the alligators come on the scene. It's now dark, and there's a sense of limited space once again. But the alligators—short-legged belly-crawling swamp-dwelling alligators— appear standing upright, and from on high, way up in the wing to the right (from the audience POV). We know that the general style of spatial movement in this whole segment was carefully worked out. I think there's more going on here than the scheme that's been published (as in John Culhane's very nice book on the film). This is working on the nervous system at a very deep level.

My sense is that, by this point in the sequence, the question of whether or not these animals are acting in role or outside of role has become (almost) secondary. It's irrelevant. They just are. Pure Being. Crazy as it sounds, it's almost as though we're being shown the Platonic Forms of courtship, in the person of Hyacinth Hippo and Ben Ali Gator. Disney has so thoroughly decimated the perceptual cue system through which we determine reality that we simply have to take what we see at face value. Pure Being. And yet, by the end of the finale, Disney has managed to restore a sense that we're watching a ballet, albeit a very wacky one. It was all just an act.

All of which is to say that I don't think we¹ve got the concepts we need to understand what's going on here. We can describe what happens on the screen. But understand and explain, that¹s something different.

Henry VMB again: Bill Benzon explores the question of the kind of space in which "Dance of the Hours" takes place—stage space? outdoor space? a different kind of space altogether?—in another stimulating posting at The Valve. Bill's new posting is titled "Slapstick Onto-logic in Dance of the Hours."

One of the commenters on his posting points to other films, like Olivier's Henry V (a publicity photo for which is at right), that have blurred "the boundary between stage and world," but no one has invoked the name of Busby Berkeley, in whose films a supposedly stage-bound musical number metamorphoses very quickly into something wholly cinematic. What happens in "Dance of the Hours" differs from what happens in Berkeley's numbers in the Gold Diggers series and other Warner musicals, but I have to wonder if Berkeley's example didn't embolden Disney and his writers: they had reason to know that audiences would accept a good deal of ambiguity, if that ambiguity was being put to good use.

[Posted February 11, 2007; images added February 13, 2007; Watson, Benzon reply posted February 23, 2007]