Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tish-Tash: The Forgotten King of Comedy pt.2

The Outer Circle: Technique

As an animator, Tashlin was widely recognized for bringing a live action visual vocabulary to his cartoons. Animation historian Greg Ford writes “Tashlin’s taste for the language of feature films was evident from the very beginning in his first stint as an animation director at Warners in 1936…Sometimes Tashlin’s love of live action films took the form of straightforward visual quotation” (79-80). Ford refers to the high and low angle shots used in Porky’s Poultry Plant (1936), tracking shots used in Wholly Smoke (1938), and the opening montage of Brother Brat (1944), which more than borrows techniques from war documentaries of the era. There are other examples of this as well: the use of pans in The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937) and Now That Summer Is Gone (1938); the use of canted angles in Porky’s Road Race (1937); the frequent use of the dissolve as a transition. For the time, these techniques were new to animation, and widened the visual language of cartoons for future animators.

What is particularly effective in Tashlin’s animation work is his use of space. In Porky’s Railroad (1937), there is a scene shot from a low angle perspective to make it appear as if a train were coming at the spectator. In The Case of the Stuttering Pig (1937), Tashlin uses a wide-angle shot to allow room for six different characters to appear on screen in a row.

Porky Pig’s Feat (1943), one of Tashlin’s most innovative cartoons, uses a variety of different angle shots to portray depth. The short follows Daffy and Porky as they attempt skip out on the bill for their stay at The Broken Arms Hotel. In one scene, they knock the brutish hotel owner down flight of stairs; a side view shot slowly turns into a bird’s eye view, creating a spiraling sense of depth that makes the gag work. One low angle shot shows Daffy and Porky running towards an elevator at the far end of the hall. Because the shot is at such a low angle, the elevator seems far away, but a quick zoom brings the camera to the front of the action. A similar shot allows for a gag in which the hotel owner chases the protagonists in and out of different rooms in the hallway. In one of the more daring shots, a low angle view gives Porky Pig’s perspective as he looks up at the hotel. These attempts at providing depth and perspective were uncommon in such early cartoons and certainly paved the way for Chuck Jones' Coyote and Roadrunner chase-toons of the fifties.

Considering Tashlin’s use of space and depth in animation, it comes to no surprise that his feature film work utilized Cinemascope to its fullest advantage. Tom Ewell, traditionally framed, introduces The Girl Can’t Help It by pointing out that it was “photographed in the grandeur of Cinemascope”. Ewell then opens his arms, and the frame widens to the full Cinemascope width, drawing the spectator’s attention to the additional amount of picture the format provides. Tashlin often used the wide screen of Cinemascope as a source for visual gags in this sense, but he also exhibited a technical mastery of the format. In Bachelor Flat, Tashlin’s use of Cinemascope allows for a dream sequence in which the spectator can see both the dreamer and the dream simultaneously, something traditional framing couldn’t do. Likewise, the ending of Artists and Models involves a Busby Berkeley style musical number that includes a cacophony of dancers and set pieces along with the stars of the film. The format also proves quite useful in the club scenes of The Girl Can’t Help It, when the focus switches to the rock’n’roll bands, many of which have upwards eight members, and their dance happy fans.

Another of Tashlin’s notable techniques was his use of color. Although many of Tashlin’s cartoons were in black and white, the few that were colored exhibit a genuine palate. These cartoons were often made using watercolor, giving them a smoother appearance than the strongly painted Looney Tunes of the fifties. Primary colors were bold and usually found in the animated characters, while the backgrounds were often a wash of bright yellows, pinks, greens, and purplish-reds. A great example of Tashlin’s use of color can be found in the short Little Pancho Vanilla (1938); Pancho’s mother’s bright sky-blue dress provides a strong contrast to the light yellow rocks tinged with purple and green in the background. Tashlin’s feature films also applied this style of color. Bright and distinct primary colors act to draw the spectator’s eyes to specific characters – Jayne Mansfield’s lips, for example. Like his cartoons, the backgrounds often feature a mix of yellow and purple; the club scenes in The Girl Can’t Help It exhibit this quite well.

Many of Tashlin's cartoons can be found on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection vol. 4 DVD

Check out Tish-Tash Pt. 1!

Part 3: The Middle Circle coming soon!

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