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The term "cartoon physics" is used to describe the bending of the basic laws of physics which occurs in most animated cartoons. Animation allows creators a great deal of leeway to play with the laws of physics, and to generate scenes which could not happen in real life. Cartoons also have a set of laws of their own which remain quite consistent across multiple studios, however, suggesting that there are in fact specific laws of cartoon physics which are almost universally obeyed by animators.
In perhaps the most classic example of cartoon physics, a cartoon character runs or drives over a cliff, and continues to proceed in a straight line in midair until he or she looks down. Upon realizing that she or he is suspended over empty space, the rules of gravity promptly take over, and the character plummets to the ground. This particular phenomenon is used to great comedic effect in numerous cartoon series. Likewise, all objects fall faster than anvils under the laws of cartoon physics, and priceless objects will always hit the ground before their rescuers, regardless of density or size.
Cartoon physics governs things like the speed at which characters move, the ability to be in multiple places at once, and the tendency for characters to leave holes shaped like their bodies when they pass through solid matter. Cartoon physics also makes it difficult for cartoon characters to die, and in fact several series are built around the concept of having one character repeatedly try to kill another, without success. Horrific explosions only create brief puffs of smoke and momentarily blackened characters, and dynamite always appears to be in plentiful supply.
Many individual characters are able to bend or move in ways which are not physically possible, and of course many cartoon animals defy the laws of physiology and speak. Those who don't speak can pull signs out of thin air or command planes to skywrite messages. Cartoon characters also routinely defy gravity in other ways; for example, many are capable of jumping straight up into the air when poked in the rump.
The suspension of disbelief and the normal rules of nature has been a part of animated cartoons almost since their inception. What is more intriguing to observe is the fact that an entire set of laws of cartoon physics appears to have arisen spontaneously, with many animators adhering to these unspoken laws when they work on projects. Apparently, defying the laws of physics in specific and predictable ways can be quite amusing for viewers and animators alike.
@KoiwiGal - Someone did actually write the cartoon guide to physics down once, and you can find this online if you have a search for it.
It's meant as a joke and it is actually quite funny, but it's also fairly consistent.
As it says in the article, people tend to understand and respond to certain things in cartoons, like someone jumping very high when they are startled. It's really just an exaggeration of what a normal reaction might be.
I also suspect that there is a little bit of copying there. Or maybe homage, if you prefer. Probably each standard rule of physics in cartoons can be traced to a particular character doing it once and all the others copying it after that.
After all, there weren't all that many cartoonists when they first started out, so if they set a particular standard it would be difficult to break away from that.
@umbra21 - What I think is most interesting in that film is that at one point Roger explains that his "powers", what allows him to bend the laws of physics, can only be used to get a laugh.
Which is why they don't need to be consistent. He can slip out of handcuffs only when it's funny, rather than whenever he needs to.
And even though that's just supposed to provide an explanation for the movie, I think it's a pretty good explanation for cartoon physics in general. There is an online term for this, which is "the rule of funny".
It's when an artist will bend the rules of the world the characters inhabit in order to get laughs. This
doesn't just apply to physics, it could also apply to characters, or to relationships or whatever. If it's going to be funny for a stoic character to be scared of, say, spiders, then they will make it so, rather than stick to what would be more realistic.
Just as cartoonists will play about with physics in a cartoon.
One of the best explorations of cartoon physics is in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Since it's supposed to be somewhat of a parody (although meant affectionately) of cartoons, cartoon physics are used all the time.
The difference is that there are 'real life' people in the movie as well who can be amazed at the things the 'toons are able to do.
My favorite is the classic drawing a door in the wall and then walking through it. When whoever is chasing you tries to get through, they realize that it's only a wall.
That seems like the dream of a lot of kids, being able to escape whenever you need to. Of course, they never show what's on the other side of the fake door.