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.” And 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” 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 & their body language “But what you had to say… “You had to communicate
to the audience in only one way…” -“Through action”
-“Right. We eliminated subtitles…” “…just as fast as we could
if we could possibly tell it in action” 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 work 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 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.” -“Hey!” 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 the audience to look around the frame
and see the humor for themselves. In this shot, think about
where your eyes are looking. Now where’s he? Some of these gags
have their roots in vaudeville and are designed
to play 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 joke 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 you 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 had 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 remains 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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