12th May 2021 | Open Movie | Sprite Fright
Note: the following piece contains minor spoilers.
Matthew Luhn is the writer/director of Sprite Fright, Blender’s new Open Movie, now in production. Matthew’s background includes a stint as the youngest ever animator on The Simpsons, as well as decades spent with Pixar’s story department. He has contributed to some of the most celebrated animated films ever created, including the Toy Story series, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Cars, Monsters University, Ratatouille, and UP.
In this interview, Matthew outlines the science of storytelling, and notes tips for visual comedy. As this was a detailed conversation, it will be split into several parts.
Matthew begins by emphasizing the engine of storytelling: emotion. “I am always thinking about how to make people feel,” he says. “How do I land people in a certain emotion, in every shot and across the whole short?”
It helps to consider the brain chemicals underpinning each feeling. “Some of the chemicals you have to work with are dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, and endorphins. All those different chemicals make people react in different ways. Dopamine is a great way to build anticipation. And when you see characters looking forward to something or experiencing happiness that will make the audience more focused. It will boost their memory. So each one of the chemicals that you use in storytelling will make people feel a certain way. There really is a science to storytelling.”
At Pixar, Matthew loved the “gag pass” -- the moment when jokes and visual comedy could be layered atop the story to enhance the film/short. This passion resurfaces in Sprite Fright: Matthew, Co-Director Hjalti Hjálmarsson, and Story Artist Dirk Van Dulmen injected humor from the project’s earliest stages. “There are gags and visual comedy in Sprite Fright that I’ve never seen onscreen before,” says Matthew.
All this explains why Matthew spends so much time thinking about the chemistry of laughter. “Endorphins are the chemicals that get released when people laugh, when people exercise, when people are having a good time. And the reason you want to release endorphins in an audience is because you will make the audience feel more creative, at ease, and ensure they're having a good time.”
“The art of storytelling is discovering when and how to release these chemicals, and at what times,” Matthew says. “If you have a story that’s all endorphins from beginning to end, then you’ll end up with a very gag-heavy, silly, laugh-the-whole-time film. Which is good if that’s what you want to go for. But I feel that a story should have highs and lows. You want to release dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. That is what makes storytelling like a rollercoaster ride, with tension and release.”
“I should also mention that the opposite of an endorphin release is when you aim for oxytocin and cortisol. Oxytocin is released when you see or read about characters having a very somber, sad time, and you feel empathy for them. Cortisol is released when you experience anxiety due to a character or set of characters going through a stressful experience, like when Darth Vader is introduced in Star Wars and chokes one of his guards to death with the Force. When I look at Sprite Fright, we are using all of these tools. For example, we release cortisol to make people feel anxiety when the Sprites become evil.”
That being said, Matthew is keen to share his perspective on how to release those all-important humor chemicals: endorphins. Beyond the science, how does a filmmaker generate laughter? Are there frameworks to assist you in the serious business of visual comedy?
For Matthew, humor and visual comedy fall into clear categories: comedy in threes, reversal of expectations, familiar character/unfamiliar situation, surprise, pain, and “button-to-a-gag.” These are used extensively at Pixar, and also on The Simpsons. “Actually, this type of visual comedy and humor is universal,” Matthew says. “These types were used by the cast of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, and even further back to the masters of comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sid Caesar, and Milton Berle."
In part two of this interview, Matthew goes into detail about crafting gags and visual comedy for maximum endorphin release. Look out for that next week.