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Thursday, June 5th, 2014

How the Visual Direction of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton Inform Today's Comedies

chaplin-goldrushMany of those with whom I interact on the internet have sent me this fantastic video essay by Tony Zhou in which he eviscerates the experience of watching many popular and successful American comedies for their lack of visual inventiveness. He then goes on to perfectly show why Edgar Wright (dir. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is an exemplar of comedy direction due to his focus on actually framing exciting, active, and funny frames.

Zhou goes on to break down the tenets of Edgar Wright’s frame that to him, allow for increased visual comedy. Those are: 1) Entering the frame in funny ways 2) Leaving the frame in funny ways 3) Cutting from a character, to a comedic reveal, back to a character 4) Matching transitions 5) The perfectly placed sound effect 6) Matching action to the soundtrack 7) Dramatic lighting cues. He also mentioned the use of zooms, pans, cranes, and cuts in Wright’s and other’s work as a way to demonstrate how movement within the frame builds excitement or sets up a joke in a much stronger way than framing two characters in close-up and “lightly editing improv.” While he doesn’t namecheck him directly, Zhou is quite clearly burning Judd Apatow, and while I don’t fully share in the opinion that Apatow is disinterested in his visuals, he does serve as a strong foil for at least the type of visual comedy Zhou is getting at in his piece.

Part of me feels like my work here is done and Zhou has officially written the book on the analysis of visual comedy, but instead I am going to shamelessly steal Zhou analysis and see if the most inherently visual comedies — silent films — hold up under its scrutiny. Of course, since they lacked a full one-half of the toolkit afforded to comedy filmmakers today, silent filmmakers had to be both visual storytellers and overly visual performers. The hyper-performative style of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton look dated and hacky to those not used to it today, but they are also the most instructive performers to look at in terms of what is simply visually funny. With language stripped away, each movement, set piece, cut, etc. need to be part of the construction of a joke.


In this clip from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush(my favorite of his films), Chaplin’s Tramp and Big Jim fight after spending many days cooped up in the mountains together without resources, even having to resort at one point to eating The Tramp’s shoe. The very first shot of the scene uses the same shot succession Zhou shows from Shaun of the Dead when Simon Pegg opens the shades to reveal the zombie horde. The scene opens on a master of their small space, revealing the tight quarters and the two characters asleep in cots.

Just the visual of Big Jim’s monstrous size and appearance in contrast with that of the Tramp is fodder for tons of jokes in Chaplin’s frames. The sheer space filled by Big Jim often forces the Tramp into corners of the frame in the wide shots. Chaplin then cuts to a close on Big Jim with one eye open, he is spying on the Tramp but the viewer has seen nothing out of the ordinary.

Then Chaplin pokes his head out showing that he,suspicious that Big Jim was planning to attack, had been sleeping with his shoes on his hands to fool Jim.

We then return to the wide, where both Big Jim and the viewer can take stock of the out of the ordinary reveal and change in status, which cements the gag.

Later in the scene, as Jim chases the Tramp around the cabin, their action is set to the pacing of the music, the wrestling gets closer and more aggressive as the music speeds up and Jim tosses the Tramp around comically easily. The camera almost never cuts to outside the cabin, nor does the Tramp ever leave the cabin, creating that as a space he can play in and try to control and defend. The two doors on either side of the frame set up the wide shot to as a vehicle for entrance and exit gags, which pay off when Big Jim in his fur coat leaves through the left side of the frame and a bear of similar size and texture enters without the Tramp noticing at first; his vision obstructed by his sheet thrown over his head. Chaplin intentionally constructs his frame to allow for movement in the space, entrances, and exits to dictate the jokes.

In Buster Keaton’s third feature, Our Hospitality, Keaton satirizes the story of the Hatfield vs. McCoy feud. The first act takes place almost entirely on Willy McKay’s train ride south to claim his family fortune. As seen further in his most renowned work, The General, Keaton loved trains and was confident in setting up extended bits and set pieces around train travel. In the train travel scene in Our Hospitality, the motion on screen is kinetic so the shots and the jokes need to keep up with the pace of the moving train. The train is constantly moving across the screen right to left or top to bottom and entering and exiting the frame to set up and conclude a series of sketches around the train. It helps that Keaton constructs one of the jankiest trains ever scene, just a series of four carriages that moves at the speed of a running dog.


As Zhou says in his piece, finding clever and unexpected ways to get your characters from one place to another is an important way to take advantage of a visual joke in every moment. The whole thing is pieced together that everything — animals, farmers, branches — seem to get in its way and stop it from moving. The starting and stopping of the train breaks up the action in an unexpected way. Train travel is supposed to be so efficient and smooth and yet all this train does in run into issues. Keaton shoots this so that the train is almost always seen in perpendicular motion of the camera. This way, we never know what is ahead so Keaton is always able to make a punchline out of a reveal.

The type of joketelling highlighted by Zhou in his video essays is the cornerstone of comedic directing. The visual comedy of Edgar Wright he illustrates is just a modernization of the choices the earliest comedy film directors like Chaplin and Keaton. The greatest takeaways from Zhou piece are both the importance of active frames, which means asking if the action in the frame can work without a spoken joke as it did in the silent, and the importance of efficiency in comedy, making sure a second during which a joke could be told does not go wasted. The brilliance of Chaplin’s Tramp character, needless to say, is that he makes every scene he enters strange and unfamiliar. He creates for constant visual excitement in the frame that serves the same purposes that Zhou’s Edgar Wright rules lead to accomplishing.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.