Cartoon Physics

I’ve long wondered about cartoon physics but didn’t realise it was a real thing (in the sense of there being others that think about it as well, and enough to write a Wikipedia page about it, which in the age of fake news is about as real as it gets). 

Cartoon physics is a jocular system of laws of physics that supersedes the normal laws, used in animation for humorous effect. Normal physical laws are referential (i.e., objective, invariant), but cartoon physics are preferential (i.e., subjective, varying).

‘A jocular system of the laws of physics’. Such a great sentence. Again, like fake news, itself a jocular system of the social laws of truth and civility.  

My own thoughts about cartoon physics came as a kid, when I became aware that each cartoon world created its own laws. That each series or set of characters established laws that I could believe in, no matter how different to the real world they were, until the point that they break those laws. Then it’s as diegetically distracting as it would be if someone suddenly floated off the ground in real life, or if they were squished by a piano but then sprung back to life.  

Take Wile E. Coyote for example. Perhaps the most real world physical law breaking of all classic cartoon characters, here doing his classic gravity realisation gag:

First, he scales the immense cliff edge, establishing the perspective of the downward view and providing us with a chance to appreciate the dangers of reaching the top. Then “Beep! Beep!” (though I always thought it was Meep! Meep!), he is startled by Roadrunner and jumps off the cliff in surprise. Still startled, he hangs in mid air, until he regains enough composure to realise that he’s about to fall. He has just enough time – while his lower body begins to fall – to turn his head and give evil eyes back at Roadrunner. Finally, his elongating neck pulls his head down and he falls in totality, back to the bottom of the cliff, where we know that he survives, and continue his Roadrunner hunt. 

This all makes sense to us. Even if you’ve never seen a Roadrunner cartoon before, as the events unfold you accept the world and the laws that are being portrayed. Gravity exists, but the effects can be postponed by surprise or unawareness. Bodies can stretch and fall from a dangerous height – that a long and fearful climb suggests is worth avoiding – but that falling is only painful, not deadly. 

He’s another example, abiding to the same basic laws:

For as long as Wile E. Coyote is unaware or disbelieving of his predicament, the laws of gravity don’t apply. Once he realises for sure, his body falls, his neck stretches, and this time his head breaks the fourth wall (another consistent feature of Roadrunner cartoons) and looks pitifully back at us, before catching up with the whistling bomb fall to another painful crash landing (while Roadrunner watches in schadenfreudian joy and celebration).

Now, imagine a third video where in pursuit of Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote is able to consciously defy gravity. Or where he’s not scared of falling and does so over and over without fear. Or if after falling, his neck didn’t contract again and instead stayed all long and extended. None of these things would feel right. Each would be distracting for the viewer, and would slightly ruin the enjoyment of the cartoon and others to follow, as anticipation of what’s possible in Roadrunner world is made suddenly inconsistent or uncomfortably unbelievable, in a way that it somehow wasn’t before. 

I believe that our ability to establish and believe in these cartoon worlds, and then be surprised and judgemental of them is a product of the same mechanism in real life, and one that applies in even more subtle places than fictional cartoon worlds. 

What I mean by this is that we’re attuned to establish reason and consistency in the world around us, and to notice and be startled when things don’t fit. While I can’t articulate it quite right, it’s reminding me of ideas that I’ve come across in all sorts of books, such as Super Intelligence, How the Mind Works and Thinking Fast and Slow. Our brains are computationally lazy at times, or perhaps just necessarily thrifty with processing power, and so they develop heuristics and stereotypes and such. Shorthand references that become simple cognitive check boxes once they’re established, no longer questioned or checked in full, until they are challenged or adequately disturbed. 

We’re not startled when someone drops a cup of coffee that tips, spills, splashes and crashes to the floor, despite the pretty amazing and beautifully complex physics that are involved, because we have a real world laws of gravity checkbox. If however it looked as if the cup hung in mid air for a moment, or if the liquid didn’t spill from the cup as it crashed, we would be startled and start using full processing power to question the situation. 

On the much smaller and subtle extent then, and tenuously relating to laws in cartoon worlds, I was oddly distracted while driving across France recently (through Aquitaine, Limousin, Centre, Ile de France, Picardie and Nord Pas de Calais). For the most part of the 10 hour drive I acclimatised to the obvious distractions for a Brit: Driving on the other side of the road, culturally differing styles of driving (though I found French drivers en masse to be safer and more courteous than British), and different fonts on the road signs (the uppercase ones in particular). But by far, the most distracting thing for me were the French tourism road signs. 

Yes, they were brown as in most of the world, but the illustrative style of practically every one that I saw was slightly different, meaning that each one created its own world or broke rules that were established in the others. The result for me was a practical compulsion to stare at each one, trying to figure out at 130KM what it was supposed to be. 

For safety reasons I didn’t take my own pictures, but annoying now I can only find this stock image collection (which aren’t worth £9.99 a pop to embed, especially considering how much I dislike them): Le VimeuLe TouquetNeufchatel, Dampierre

They all feel like different worlds. Different perspectives, illustration styles, colouring, tones, line thickness, and levels of detail. No way would the shop signs of Le Vimeu be on buildings in Dampierre, and I don’t see the golfer and tree in Le Touquet existing in the same world as the family, scenery and clubs from Neufchatel

‘Reading’ the images became a constant cognitive distraction, taking my eye from the roads and signs that I actually needed to read. I kept wishing they would commission Clifford Harper or perhaps even Tom Gauld to re-do the lot, and wondering how a nation that loves comics so much could seemingly care so little about some of their most public illustration. 

Maybe it’s a region thing. Is each allowed or commission and produce it’s own? Is there no national highways organisation that standardises this sort of thing in France? I don’t know. And perhaps this is too pedantic a matter to spend so much time on, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a missed opportunity for good design (both aesthetically and from a safety point of view) in such a beautiful country.