Know the “Fantastical Fundamentals”
These days, everything old is new again. Movies are remade. Plays retrofitted. Old chestnuts are replanted. Graves are plundered and what once lived is brought back to life again and again. Stories are rehabilitated, refreshed and recycled.
It is more important than ever for actors to be familiar with what came before. Greek theater, Shakespeare, Vaudeville, as well as contemporary entertainment and pop culture (including animation).
Familiarity with all this provides you good ideas to draw from as well as a surprisingly useful shorthand when communicating with your director and fellow performers.
Most animation draws its inspiration from a rich, long history of “fantastical entertainment.” It is particularly important that you pay attention to this branch of story telling tradition for many reasons.
I’ve listed below my favorite sources of fantasy, science fiction and horror that have taught and inspired me the most and that strike me as most broadly influential in the minds of those who create and hire and direct in animation and games.
In my experience, these works are referred to often, both in the studio and on the page. They also present character archetypes, ideas and situations that are repeated again and again in books, television and movie scripts.
I consider these the “fantastical fundamentals–” the building blocks that can help an actor break down scripts, create characters and even assist the all-important task of recognizing what a director or writer wants, providing a useful “shorthand” in zeroing in on as the right tone or feel of a scene.
Whether you are reading for a “Scooby Doo” episode or a super hero series, a “rated M” video game, a pre-K series or a commercial, I think it would be most helpful to be at least familiar with most, if not all, of the following.
I’ve noted the shows that strike me as too intense or inappropriate for younger kids. The category headings are useful to my mind, but arbitrary. Many shows or books listed would fit in many of the categories, of course.
It’s in no particular order, BTW.
“The Wizard of Oz”
“Lord of the Rings” trilogy movies (and books) -The Shakespeare of fantasy.
“Harry Potter” series movies
John Boorman’s “Excaliber” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Indiana Jones” 1-3 (you may skip #4)
“Men in Black” 1 & 3 (you may skip #2)
“Game of Thrones” series (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Twin Peaks” David Lynch’s surreal, at times brutal, at times zany, small town murder mystery series (as well as a feature prequel “Fire, Walk with Me”). Unlike any other television series and one of my very favorites. The second season should have ended halfway through, but it still offers some of the boldest most imaginative, moving and disturbing storytelling you’ll ever see on network television. I tend to really like his feature films, though they are often too artsy non-linear for many. Lynch’s recent reboot of the TP franchise is part brilliant and part spectacular wipe out, but I admit, I admire his resolve and enduring visual brilliance (see episode 8 of the new series).
“Legend” (if not just for Tim Curry’s epic devil performance and Rob Bottin’s incredible creature designs).
“Twilight Zone: The Movie”
“The Fifth Element” -A spectacular and fun future fantasy. Like a living comic in ways. Mila Jovovich deserved an Oscar nod from her performance, IMHO. Gary Oldman is at his over the top best and just outstanding– an inventive actor who can do about anything, in my book.
The “Star Wars” features, in particular episodes IV, V.
“Dune” (If you want to take this back to its source, read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter: A Princess of Mars”)
“Brazil” -Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece of vision. It’s “1984” filtered through Monty Python. Marvelously daring practical visuals.
“Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” The 1971 movie is inexpensive but charming and fixes a number of issues with Roald Dahl’s original novel (he’s credited with the screenplay, though I suspect others were helping punch it up, at least). The humor in the first act is quaint but still funny and a few terrific songs along with Gene Wilder’s best known performance make this a classic for me.
“Joe Versus the Volcano” a bizarre sandwich of a movie, where you might as well discard the meat but keep the bread, so to speak. The money ran out past the wonderful opening, leaving a rather pedestrian middle movie, which then finishes with fantasy in the final act. Worth a view if not just for the opening sequence at the most horrible office in the universe.
“A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” -Douglas Adams very British fantasy space romp. Probably best to read it rather than rent the attempt at a movie. The PBS series is okay and the radio play adaptation is even better.
“Twilight Zone” -the television series is particularly important- often overlaps with sci-fi.
“X-Men,” “X-Men First Class” features
all the recent Marvel features: “Iron Man” “Avengers,” etc.
“Batman” television series
“Chronicle” -A “found footage” super hero origin story feature that few saw. I loved this.
Chris Reeve’s “Superman”
End of the World/ Post Apocalypse:
The four “Mad Max” movies, the latest one, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” might be the best- a real masterwork! (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Terminator” 1 & 2 (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Donnie Darko” (the original theatrical cut, not the extended director’s cut, which clutters things by adding unnecessary explanation) (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“War of the Worlds” (George Pal version, though Spielberg’s has an awesome reveal scene and many great moments, for me.)
“Apocalypse Now” (Check out the accompanying doc, “Hearts of Darkness.”)
“The Manchurian Candidate”
Science Fiction and Future Dystopia:
“Blade Runner” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“2001: A Space Odyssey”
“Jurassic Park” 1 & 2
“The Day the Earth Stood Still”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
“District 9” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Altered States” -My favorite element is Dick Smith’s ape-man in this. Still really remarkable. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Planet of the Apes” -The first of the uneven movie series is the best by far, partially penned by “Twilight Zone” show runner Rod Serling, it plays now like an extended “Twilight Zone” episode but is still fresh, funny and thoughtful.
“The Andromeda Strain” (This and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are two of the few movies I would categorize as actual “science fiction.” When people say “science fiction” or “sci-fi” they are usually referring to something that is technically “fantasy,” having no real science-based story elements). For my money, the best recent sci-fi idea is found in “Jurassic Park,” also a Michael Crichton story).
“Star Trek” (original series), also “Star Trek: The Next Generation” television series (after which I get off the Enterprise). Each series finds many episodes with outstanding scripts with a great cast. Sci-fi/fantasy is most effective and moving when it is about something and these series, along with “Twilight Zone” are shining examples that many who now create shows still refer to in their work.
“1984” -This is perhaps the ultimate future dystopia story. It is decimating and insightful, as prescient as it is contemporary. The novel, of course, is a must (one of the most important of the 20th century, I’ve heard said), but the 1984 feature is appropriately bleak and quite good.
Another excellent archetypal futuristic dystopia is “Brave New World,” whose eugenics-centered society of control has been spun into various movies and surfaces occasionally in sci-fi and super hero cartoons, successfully reimagined in feature film “GATTACA.” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Robocop” -Lurid and over-the-top R-rated, it is also funny, still-relevant satire and a really well-made essentially graphic novel of a movie. You can avoid the sequels. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Metropolis” -The original grand future distopia where the evil futuristic overseers must be overthrown by the struggling masses. Everything from “Logan’s Run” to “The Matrix” and beyond can be traced back to this silent masterpiece.
“The Prisoner” Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant tour-de-force 1984-type cat and mouse spy-fi series. Nothing like it. One of my favorite things I’ve ever seen on television.
Reading: If you want to dive into the literary sources of science fiction, I highly recommend making the acquaintance of H.G Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick, as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories in “Welcome to the Monkey House.” Also, check out the prolific Richard Matheson, who penned numerous television and movie scrips along with Harlan Ellison (their short story collections are killer). The modern “mad scientist” genre perhaps springs from Goethe’s “Faust.” The American mad scientist genre seems to have started with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” if you’re curious!
Speaking of Poison Ivy, a familiarity with comics is a good thing, especially these days. It’s not my strong suit, but I’d still recommend it, as well! Comic and graphic novel artists create what can essentially be seen as a cinematic storyboards. Terrific example: Comic artist master Mike Ploog’s storyboards of John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Part of why these movies are remarkable is this artist’s vision!
“Eerie” and “Creepy” were my go-to horror mags, as well as “Heavy Metal.”
“Back to the Future” series (Probably the funnest use of time travel in a movie, copied regularly these days in movies and animation. Time travel is a device that I rarely find very convincing, but sometimes it can be fun.)
“The Time Machine”
Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (not his best work, but a terrific idea)
Horror and Survival-Horror:
“Alien” and “Aliens” -Two completely different movies, each a game changer, one in sci-fi monster movies one for sci-fi action. A top-tier horror concept that evolved into a model for many horror-based first person shooters as well as horror survival games and movies. The final showdown in the second film between a human clothed in a super machine versus an adversary is repeated often in super-hero and sci-fi movies still (Iron Man, District 9, etc). (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956 and 1978 versions) -Both of these outstanding and disturbing horror movies still resonate with deeper social themes, as all good horror should. Kaufman’s ’78 remake is chillingly outstanding and fresh. The ’56 original is for me one of the best horror movie ideas ever. My taste for horror is rooted mostly in the 70’s and 80’s before everyone went overboard with digital effects, which rarely evoke a feeling of horror or fear, at least for me. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Island of Dr. Moreau” (the novel as well as the 1930’s movie version) (R rated or not for smaller kids) -This in particular I’d recommend reading the original novel by H.G. Wells as well, which lacks the love-interest angle the movies always feel necessary to add. I don’t think it’s ever gotten a full and fair movie interpretation, mostly because of the difficulty of presenting the creatures, which are numerous and quite grotesque and odd in Wells’ novel. The technology now exists to make it work in a movie with the right team making it and I’d love to see it (and help out)!
“Predator” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Shining” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Nosferatu” (silent) -a bald-faced (pun intended) rip off of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” that got away with just changing the title but keeping most of the main plot points. Stoker’s widow tried to sue, but died before getting any legal satisfaction. This German Expressionist movie masterpiece is a visually striking and creepy telling of what is by now a very familiar tale. The original novel has much that is familiar and is indeed surprisingly contemporary in its portrayal of horror, but the original novel could definitely use some editing, in my opinion.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (the original, if you can stand it. I don’t think I could watch it again. Utterly horrific and disturbing. Not what I would call entertaining, but influential.) (R rated or not for smaller kids)
David Cronenberg psycho-physical horror cinema: His “The Fly” as well as his earlier “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” and “The Brood” are dark, disturbing and very R-rated. Cronenberg went where no one else dared. The creatures and visceral effects makeup are outstanding and the ideas are odd and unsettling still. Not everyone’s cup of tea, though. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Descent” -An excellent survival-horror pic that hardly anyone saw. This is my style of horror (I’ve no interest in “torture porn” or most slasher-type movies). “The Descent” is an excellent ensemble of all women, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in the horror genre. The first half is nearly unbearably tense, and that’s before the weird kicks in! (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Pitch Black” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“A Christmas Carol” -One of my favorite stories, hands down. A terrific example of a story using fantasy to make a point. The other-worldly serves a point of view to marvelous effect. Charles Dickens has a great humanity and theatricality to his story telling that I really love. The story idea is later flipped to wonderful effect in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Poltergeist” (the original–R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Let the Right One In” (Swedish version, American version is also good) -Most vampire projects these days are sort of pretty people soap operas. I prefer my vampires ugly. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Orphanage” (Spanish language) (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Ring” (the American remake)- Very scary. The American version copies most of the Japanese version but fixes some minor plot issues in the Japanese version to make it even scarier. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Evil Dead 2” -Still an over-the-top thrill ride that is much beloved. Camera work by Barry Sonnenfeld should have got top billing. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Haunting” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Rosemary’s Baby” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Babadook” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Night of the Demon” -Really great monster that is beautifully staged, the movie bookended with the teaser up front then the full creature at end. More recently, Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” is a fun little echo of this movie. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Exorcist” (R rated or not for smaller kids) -A great movie all ’round. The sound design is still shocking. The writing, directing and acting are tops. I remember when people would pass out from fear when watching this movie.
“The Outer Limits” and “The Night Gallery” television series-Lesser level of horror and fantasy and sci-fi, but many great examples of what this genre can offer on the small screen.
Edgar Allen Poe
Goethe’s “Faust” -Satan the seducer versus the arrogant materialistic man of science (okay, alchemy)! An iconic “mad scientist.” This cautionary view of the power of science in the hands of fallible man is further explored by H.G. Wells in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and other works of his.
A sub-set of horror-survival. Zombies are huge these days- a solidly mainstream horror concept found all over movies, television, and video games. The best references for this branch of horror are: “28 Days Later,” “Shaun of the Dead,” and the grand daddy of them all, “Night of the Living Dead,” and maybe a few of its sequels. “The Walking Dead” t.v. series is often very good, but the leaner and meaner movie predecessors are even better, in my opinion. Zombies find their way into everything from hard-R rated features to comedic kids cartoons and Halloween specials these days. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
Monster will always live in animation, so why not familiarize yourself with the classic movie monsters: like Universal Pictures “Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Wolfman,” “The Mummy,” “Dracula,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Charles Laughten version is my fave), “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon?” These are where monsters and horror begin in American Entertainment that stalk their victims daily in animation.
If you want to go back to the literary source of these monsters, try reading Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” Stoker’s “Dracula,” Stevenson’s “Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” and Wells’ “The Invisible Man” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (the latter is perhaps the original science fiction-horror story). It’s fascinating to me to see how the original text of these classics was changed (or mangled) to fit on the silver screen. H.G. Wells is particularly interesting to me, having practically invented science fiction (“War of the Worlds,” “The Time Machine,” etc.).
“King Kong” (1933), essentially remade in “The Mighty Joe Young.”
“An American Werewolf in London” – another of the iconic creature transformations brought to us in the pre-digital 80’s. When performing a transformation in a voice over gig, I often have this movie in mind. Other good transformation movies include “The Howling,” “The Manitou,” and Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” -A surprising amount of horror genre still refers to this incredible movie, especially in horror-survival videogames. The pre-digital creature transformations remain unsurpassed in all of horror and still hold up in all their shocking and gory originality. It’s also a unique example of good writing, a solid well-cast ensemble (that’s not just a “star vehicle”) and suspenseful visual storytelling. The concept of horror based here on paranoia and isolation is one of the very best ever in the genre, in my opinion. Carpenter’s “They Live” and “Starman” are also excellent, though not horror. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Blob” (original)
Ray Harryhausen movies: Sinbad series, Mysterious Island
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” -The finale’s squid still amazes me.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” -My favorite is Charles Laughton, with a heart breaking finale.
“Tremors” (a fine ensemble horror movie that walks the fine line of fear mixed with comedy. Most remarkably, they don’t offer an explanation for the origin of the creature. It’s utterly unnecessary, anyway!) (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Pumpkinhead” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Cujo” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Pan’s Labyrinth” -The biggest monster in this movie happens to be human, though the non-human monster is nearly as bad. Guillermo del Toro has such a hand-crafted passion that shines through in his movies, which are mostly excellent. This is my favorite, but “Cronos” is an excellent vampire variation, and even his more mainstream “Mimic” has great creature ideas. His movies are a beacon to many television shows, movies and video games. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Silence of the Lambs” -One of the most iconic and useful references for portraying an evil or sociopathic character. Hopkin’s creepy and quiet version of evil power is a brilliantly interesting choice. “Power” doesn’t have to be loud– perhaps the most powerful is quiet. A similarly fine acting choice is Alan Rickman’s Snape in “Harry Potter” series. The best acting fills even silence with meaning and these are outstanding examples of that. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Jaws” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
Hitchcock: “Psycho,” “The Birds” (of course, so many other greats from Hitchcock) (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Matilda” feature film (The Trunchbull character is one of my favorite movie monsters! I almost put this movie in the animation/comedy category)
“Cloverfield” (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Attack the Block” -Awesome original creatures and fascinating ensemble. (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“Them” -I love this straight-ahead take on giant insects attacking! A terrific scary opener that set the bar for monster movies, in my opinion. One of the best!
Animation & Comedy:
All Warner Bros. classic cartoons -The gold standard for animation, writing and wise-ass comedy in general.
Kung Fu Hustle -One of my very favorite live-action “animated” movies. Over-the-top wacky, Looney Tunes at times, yet incredibly artistic as well. Whole lotta fun. (Rated R- language and cartoon/kung fu violence)
All Disney’s classic animated movies
Everything Pixar has made
“Who Framed Rodger Rabbit?”
“Ren and Stimpy,” “Family Guy,” and “Robot Chicken” are good examples of why a voice actor needs to be plugged into what is happening now in pop-culture as well as what was happening then. These shows are stuffed to the gills with references to the past hundred or so years of movies, television, tabloids and musicals.
“Raising Arizona” -One of my favorite movies for many reasons. No, it’s not animation, but with the cinematography and over-the-top acting, it is to me.
‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” -ditto (R rated or not for smaller kids)
“The Muppet Show” -ditto (the original series)
“Johnny Quest” The best animated sci-fi/action series ever. Sophisticated and smart. Everyone loves this show (and its music) for a good reason.
“Little Shop of Horrors” (1986) -The “Feed Me” segment in the feature film is one of the most incredible puppet performances I can think of. Story boarded by a favorite comic artist, Mike Ploog, who also boarded Carpenter’s “The Thing” and Henson’s “Dark Crystal!” Killer good songs. They had to scrap the 6 million dollar “downer” ending when it tested poorly and add a new song and an “up” ending, unfortunately. The original stage musical kept the more horrifying ending of the Rodger Corman black and white low budget feature.
I also must mention the Joe Dante segment of the “Twilight Zone Movie”
“Monty Python’s Holy Grail”
The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton –No, these aren’t technically animation either, but they inspired so much animation!
There’s my list of the sources that have served me the best and continue to do so. Yes, I’m sure I’m forgetting things, but there ya go.