Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cartoon Physics

I’ve referenced “cartoon physics” several times and I think it might be helpful to outline what I mean. What is “cartoon physics”? Put simply, it’s the world of cause and effect as it applies to cartoons. It is what separates them from us. Here are some classic examples.

The Old Frying Pan: It is undeniable that when you smack a cartoon coyote with a frying pan, his face will deform into the shape of the frying pan. Ditto on cartoon cats. No one denies this. Don’t try this in real life though.

This is perhaps the most critical item of cartoon physics because this, more than anything, removes the danger from the violence in the world of cartoons. If the best you can achieve is reshaping your opponent, then cartoon violence becomes funny rather than ominous; it would not be funny if you broke something. This is what lets cartoons be packed to the brim with violence and yet child friendly... because there are no serious consequences to the violence.

Don’t Look Down: Unlike the rest of us, cartoon characters can walk off the edge of a cliff without falling. They don’t fall until they look down and realize that they should be falling. In effect, the rules of physics apply only when a character knows they should apply.

The Complex Nature of Guns: For you and me, guns are simplicity itself. You load a bullet, cock the gun and pull the trigger. Whatever you hit dies. Not so in the cartoon world. First, if you try to fire a gun at a good guy, the gun won’t work. And when you look down the barrel to see why it didn’t fire, it will go off. Fortunately, however, you won’t be killed. You will instead have your hair blown back and you will find yourself covered in black powder. The same applies with cannons and bows and arrows. In effect, the laws of physics operate selectively in the cartoon world and apply only to aid the good guys.

Flattening Defeat: Cartoon characters cannot be crushed. They can be flattened... and reinflated. They can be driven into the ground like a stake too. And you can start them on concussion protocols by dropping an anvil on their heads. But you can't kill them or break them. Not only does this maintain the unreality of cartoons, but it also prevents the good guys from being responsible for any sort of gruesome injury.

These things and others are vital to good cartooning because they create the unreality that cartoons need to be interesting and charming. In the cartoon world, the cause and effect that matters is not the actions you take, but the motivation for taking them. If you are evil, the laws of physics will punish you. If you are good, they will protect you. Yet, at the same time, they also afford the bad guys a strong bit of protection as well. The idea is to make sure that the audience gets right and wrong in the most outrageously wild ways without any permanent injury being done. If the coyote ended up with a broken face if you smacked him or died when you dropped an anvil on him, cartoons simply wouldn't work. They would lose their charm and their unique ability to teach right and wrong. In effect, they would be nothing more than animated real-life films with unreal characters, and that’s not really all that interesting.


tryanmax said...

I would like to note a couple exceptions/addendums to the above. (Cartoon physics being what they are, it's hard to say whether they are one or the other.)

1. Sometimes an impact will cause a character to crumble into little bits. This could fall under deformation, as it is not a natural way for a living creature to respond to a blow. We should mention the accordion effect here, as well. Of course, the character is reconstituted in the next scene.

2. Another deformity, pertaining specifically to ballistics is the gaping hole passing through the victim, though completely lacking in any pain, gore, or any ill-effects whatsoever, save the inability to retain water.

3. Sometimes injuries are lasting until the next scene or two, and on occasion can be cumulative throughout a single short, but only if amassing injuries leads to comedic effect. The only injuries sustained, are in the forms of oversized bumps, colorful bruises, and poorly wrapped bandages.

4. On the rare occasion that a character actually does die, they are portrayed as immediately imbued with wings and harp or at the wrong end of a devil's pitchfork where the preceding antics continue in the afterlife. This is usually the conclusion to a short, and the characters are back to life for the next installment.

Great list, Andrew! ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks tryanmax! And excellent additions! These are exactly the kind of things that cartoons need to maintain their unreality factor. Without these, they aren't cartoons, they are just animated film. And as such, they lack the ability to act like cartoons, which means they can't do the same violence or insulting things that let people use cartoons to say things you can't say in a normal film.

Tennessee Jed said...

I can't help but remember The Transformers when my youngest was growing up. Admittedly, they were car-bots rather than animals, but I used to laugh out loud how they would be crushed, and come back (they were only "badly damaged.")

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, They were self-healing too, if I remember correctly.

I also bet that you probably wouldn't have let your kids watch them if the injuries were realistic and the characters died.

PikeBishop said...

The greatest example of cartoon physics I ever saw was that almost lifelike animatronic narrator of "An Inconvienent Truth." He almost appeared human.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched some episodes of Inspector Gadget, a childhood favorite. Some of this stuff applied, but not all of it. However, given that secrecy and subterfuge were part of the show, the characters sure managed to hide in small places! (The Chief hiding in a breadbox for instance - all you saw was his head and two feet!)

What struck me was how horrible most of the writing was. Funny gags... but it reminded me of something Batman: The Animated Series guru Paul Dini once told Kevin Smith: most cartoons from the 70s and 80s featured nothing but expository dialogue. There were exceptions but, for the most part, the hero's dialogue was something like:

"I just found out Dr. Claw's secret plan! Now I must find him before he poisons the water supply!"

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Almost, but not quite. Too bad the great animatronics were ruined by a nonsense plot!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Sadly, 1980s cartoons weren't great. Most were just toy commercials in disguise and the rest were HEAVY on reusing footage over and over. And you're right, the dialog is pretty atrocious. With only a couple exceptions, that was kind of a low period in my opinion for cartoons.

Outlaw13 said...

The fact that Kenny on South Park was/is killed on an almost weekly basis is a play on this theme. Although in his case there is cartoon gore...not a kids show obviously.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, South Park is kind of an interesting anomaly. They are basically a adult-oriented parody of cartoons. They break every rule of cartoons while ultimately respecting the rules in a big picture sense. Thus, for example, trying to kill one of their characters results in a gruesome death... but the character may come right back to life if it's funny. It's pretty brilliant writing.

Koshcat said...

One of the reasons I like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is that they go through many of these rules. You couldn't kill a toon until The Dip was invented. I crack up when in the first scene Roger goes through all that trauma but the director is pissed because after the refrigerator dropped on him he had tweety birds instead of stars ruining the whole thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Same here. Roger Rabbit really was a film that showed its love for and understanding of cartoons. And I love the idea of dip. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Very late to the party but had to comment - I don't know if it exactly falls under the heading of physics but I remember once when Elmer got the drop on Bugs. Fudd had 'im dead to rights. Elmer points the double barreled shotgun in Bugs' fave and pulled the triggers! Bugs slapped the end of the barrels and they pivoted and went off into Elmer's face, leaving him powder charred. He was fine in the next scene of course.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Absolutely it counts. I even talk about guns in the article. You can't use a gun against a good guy and if it shoots you, you just end up with powder blasted all over you. Good stuff!

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