Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Buster Keaton - The Art of the Gag

The following is a transcription of Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting episode "Buster Keaton - the Art of the Gag."

Hi. My name is Tony, and this is Every Frame a Painting.

There are some filmmakers who are so influential, that no matter where you look, you see traces of them everywhere. I see this filmmaker's framing in the works of Wes Anderson. His acrobatics and stunts in Jackie Chan. And his deadpan posture in Bill Murray. He, of course, is Buster Keaton, one of the three great silent comedians.
"He was, as we're now beginning to realize, the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema." said Orson Welles.
In nearly a hundred years later, I think he still has plenty to teach us about visual comedy. So today, let's take a look at how the master builds a gag. Ready? Let's go.

The first thing you need to know about visual comedy is that you have to tell your story through action. Keaton was a visual storyteller and he never liked it when other directors told their story through the title cards.
"The average picture used 240 titles, that was about the average."
"240 was the average?"
"Yes, and the most I ever used was 56." said Buster.
He avoided title cards by focusing on gesture and pantomime. In this shot, you never find out what these two are talking about. Everything you need to know is conveyed through the table and their body language.
"But what you had to say... you had to communicate to the audience in only one way. Through action."
"That's right, we eliminated subtitles just as fast as we could if we could possibly tell it in action." added Keaton.
Keaton believed that each gesture you did should be unique. Never do the same thing twice. Every single fall is an opportunity for creativity. But once you know the action, we come to the second problem. Where do you put the camera?

Visual gags generally works best from one particular angle. And if  you change the angle, then you're changing the gag, and it might not work as well. Finding the right angle is a matter of trial and error. So let's take a look at two possible camera placements for the same joke. Here's the first one, and here's the second. You'll notice in the first angle, the car takes up most of the frame, and we don't get a clear look at Buster until he turns around. But in the second angle, the car's placed in the background, and we always have a clear view of his face. This split second, where he doesn't know what's happening but we do, that's much better from over here. And in the first angle, the framing splits our attention. Our eyes want to look at his face and the sign at the same time. But after reframing the scene, our eyes naturally look at him, then the sign, then back to him. Much better.

Now we come to the third question. What are the rules of this particular world? Buster's world is flat and governed by one law. If the camera can't see it, then the characters can't see it either. In Buster's world, the characters are limited by the sides of the frame, and by what's visible to us, the audience. And this allows him to do jokes that make sense visually but not logically. A lot of his gags are about human movement in the flat world. He can go to the right, to the left, up, down, away from the lens, or towards it. Look familiar?
"She's been murdered, and you think I did it."
Like Wes Anderson, Buster Keaton found humor in geometry. He often placed the camera further back so you could see the shape of a joke. There are circles, triangles, parallel lines, and of course, the shape of the frame itself: The rectangle. I think staging like this is great because it encourages t he audience too look around the frame and see the humor for themselves. In this shot, think about where your eyes are looking.
Now where is he? Some of these gags have their roots in vaudeville, and are designed to work like magic tricks. And like all great magic tricks, part of the fun is trying to guess how it was done. Keaton had a name for gags like these. He called them "Impossible gags." They're some of his most inventive and surreal jokes. But as a storyteller, he found them tricky because they broke the rules of his world.
"We had to stop doing impossible gags, what we call cartoon gags. We lost all of that when we started making feature pictures. They had to be believable or your story wouldn't hold up."
So instead, he focused on what he called the natural gag. The jokes that emerges organically from the character and the situation. Consider what he does with this door.
Keaton claimed that for visual comedy you had to keep yourself open to improvisation.
"How much of it was planned and how much came out in the actual doing? How much was improvised, you know."
"Well, as a rule, about 50 percent you have in your mind before you start the picture, and the rest develop as you're making it."
Sometimes he would find a joke he liked so much that he would do a callback to it later. But other times, jokes that he'd planned beforehand wouldn't work on the day. So he would just get rid of them.
"Because they don't stand up and they don't work well. And then the accidental ones come."
He was supposed to make this jump, but since he missed, he decided to keep the mistake and build on it.
"So you seldom got a scene like that good the second time. You generally got em that first one."
"Maybe that's one of the reasons there was so much laughter in the house the other night. I mean the younger people and I had this feeling that what we were seeing was happening now. That it happened only once it was not something that was pre-done and done and done."
And that brings us to the last thing about Buster Keaton and his most famous rule:

Never fake a gag.

For Keaton, there was only one way to convince the audience that what they were seeing was real. He had to actually do it, without cutting. He was so strict about this that he once said, "Either we get this in one shot, or we throw out the gag." And it's why he remained vital nearly 100 years later. Not just for his skill but for his integrity. That's really him. And no advancement in technology can mimic this. Even now, we're amazed when filmmakers actually do it for real. But I think he did it better 95 years ago. So no matter how many times you've seen someone else pay homage to him, nothing beats the real thing.

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