Buster Keaton’s cartoony effects

While Buster Keaton is remembered for his spectacular physical skill, he augmented his films with some equally remarkable camera effects.  He often told the story of when he first started doing short films with Roscoe Arbuckle, he disassembled and reassemble a motion picture camera to understand how it worked.

While watching THE THREE AGES, one of Buster Keaton’s earliest feature films, something odd caught my eye.  In the scene, Buster has sat down in a restaurant and randomly pointed to something in the menu without looking. The waiter returns with a giant crab on a plate, and sets it down in front of Buster.  Buster is startled, and this is how he reacts:


Buster goes from sitting still, to rocketing straight up.  He must have used some method to cut out the preparatory anticipation for the jump.  If you look at the empty chair you can see a tiny jump, and the waiters hand changes position. I have found five examples of a sudden change in speed in Keaton films, and made these gifs to consider how it may been achieved.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the technique of under cranking.   Silent film era cameras were powered by a hand crank.  By turning the crank slower, the resulting film would project with that high speed look so common to silent film comedy.  But I think Buster went a step further to achieve the cartoony speed he wanted.  We are so used to worn out prints with unstable frames and jumpy motion, we may not recognize that the film maker intentionally did something that would cause it.

This one, from THE BATTLING BUTLER, is obviously a camera trick. The boxer throws his uppercut and freezes, while the acrobat prepares his flip.


The boxer’s very sudden stop makes me think this was achieved by cutting out the unwanted frames through editing, (post-production)

This one from SHERLOCK JUNIOR is also clearly an effect. It is possible that this was achieved with severe under cranking of the camera.


Here is a very subtle one from GO WEST. Buster’s jump through the window almost appears normal. But look at the coyote in the lower right side. He shoots out of frame, and the cow also has a sudden jump to the right.  I would guess they removed a couple of frames for this one.


I like this last one, from STEAMBOAT BILL JR. To give the punch more acceleration, I think he cut out two frames.  You will note the entire image has a tiny clockwise jump in it, suggesting the film edit wasn’t joined perfectly straight.

SteamboatBillThe film jumps, then returns and lines back up.   That means there is an edit, one frame out of alignment, then another edit going back to where it was.  So he cut out at least two frames that were not sequential, replacing one in between.  This what animators do when they remove “in between” frames to speed up an action.  I admire Keaton’s effort to produce the most effective action he could.

Minuscule 2: Mandibles from Far Away

I am a big fan of the Minuscule series from France, and their second feature, Minuscule 2: Mandibles from Far Away is now one of my favorite animated movies. It was a major challenge to simply find a copy of this film, which was released in France in January 2019. Normally I can find videos like this on eBay. I was lucky to find a Czech version of the DVD for sale on Amazon. Like all visual comedy, it doesn’t matter what nation it comes from. For some reason, this movie is even less known in America than their first feature from 2013, Valley of the Lost Ants. I wrote about that film previously. To introduce the new film, here is the official trailer, though I think the voice over here does an injustice to final product.

If it isn’t obvious, Minuscule is about the lives of insects. They are computer animated bugs, mostly set into live action footage. Like all their work, it is completely dialog free. It is pure visual storytelling and it makes me laugh. It is directed by Thomas Szabo and Hélène Giraud. The below quote from Wikipedia apparently comes from one of their promotional videos.

The creators also cite the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1950s as a model for the series, aimed at both young and old alike, and the series is often described as “a cross between a Tex Avery cartoon and a National Geographic documentary !”

Minuscule 2 is about a Ladybug father (okay, I’m guessing it’s the father, but feel free to identify with whoever you want) rescuing his child who has been accidentally shipped to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. From a bug’s perspective, everything looks big, but for this second film, they expanded the world, with impressive results. This scene makes it believable that a ladybug could catch up to jetliner taking off. It also one of the many demonstrations of determination and love this bug has.

Once on the island, the ladybug dad calls out for assistance through the local ants’ ability to transmit messages extremely long distances. The message reaches his ant friend in Europe. Ant goes to Spider’s house to ask for help. I am impressed with how such a simple idea, going to someone’s house, is built up here. The setting, the music, and the animation all work together to make it both scary, grand, and fun.

In this film, there are nods to Finding Nemo, Up, Pinocchio, and FernGully. In addition to the dolls house, Spider has a toy sailing ship, which he can fly with balloons. Here they are on the perilous journey to Guadeloupe. These are spectacular scenes.

This is a family adventure story with a fair number of perilous situations. They really tried to lighten them up as much as possible. Here, a huge bug-eating spider is played like a puppy dog.

I have a great appreciation for children’s entertainment where the creators really make them to the highest standards. Minuscule is exactly what I like. I really wish these shows and movies were available on a U.S. streaming service, and more people could enjoy them.

Here is a behind the scenes – “making of” video from Dailymotion.

They also have a YouTube Channel with many, if not all, of the productions they made for European television. The shorts are wonderfully funny, and I must recommend spending some time enjoying and learning from them.

Comedy in Long Shot

Charle Chaplin said “Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

There are many things to say about long shots in comedy, but I am going to focus on a certain kind of shot that isn’t used much anymore. The extreme wide shot. I’m talking so wide the actor looks relatively tiny. In most films, wide shots are used for establishing an environment, or maybe a transition, but here they are used to let a gag play out as in as wide a composition as is possible.

The best source for these types of shots is old Fliescher Popeye cartoons. Does this shot from A Dream Walking need to be this wide? No, of course not. But how wonderful it is this way! There is so much to look at. It’s like some fully functional toy.

Physical comedy plays out best with as few cuts as possible. A long shot like this is great because you can take it all in.

In this example from Hold the Wire, we get a nice symetrical composition which highlights the distance they have to traverse on the wire, and how high they are from the ground. Cutting to different angles would have much less charm.

They follow up shortly with this next shot. The big circular motion contrasted with the rigid vertical poles. I want to point out what a marvelous job on the animation of the wire as Popeye falls and swings.

In Twisker Pitcher, Bluto comes to bat with the bases loaded. This is easily the most efficient way to show how fast he runs the bases.

In Two Alarm Fire, the big burning building is featured in many shots.

For some reason, it’s funny when someone gets hit by something thrown from a distance. There is some history to this kind of shot. First one from Popeye.

Here’s an example from Will Ferrell’s Elf.

At the very end of Swiss Miss, a Laurel and Hardy feature, a gorilla flings a crutch at the boys as they run down the road. It’s likely that the crutch was an animated effect.

There is something circus like in some of these shots, like they could be performed under a big top.

In fact, circus was the theme in Pluto’s The Wonder Dog. There is something simple and fun about staging like this. This first shot could be shown differently, with an extreme up or down angle on the ladder, but this angle is actually the viewpoint of another dog.

It is almost like looking at a diorama. The actor looks miniature, and cute.

A lot has been written about Buster Keaton’s use of wide shots. He had a philosphy about playing out a gag with no cuts so the audience could appreciate the skills involved. Shooting wide was often the way to do it.

Shots like these are seldom seen these days. Except in movies by one director. Wes Anderson, who also works in animation.

Abel and Gordon: Dancing for fun

Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon

It is one of my great pleasures to discover actors who can make me laugh with hardly any words. I have recently found two new delights. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon met while attending the Jacques Lecoq school of theater and movement in Paris. For several years after that they produced small shows for the stage, and eventually starred in four feature films. I have seen two of them, The Fairy and Lost in Paris. Both of them are currently available on Amazon Prime.

The films are full of great physical comedy, but for this post I have chosen to focus on their dance scenes. It is clearly a passion of theirs, so they find a way to add a couple of dances into their stories. I keep wishing there was more dance in animation. Dance has enormous untapped potential for animation. I have written several posts on eccentric dance. While most eccentric dance is built around exceptional skill or unusual abilities, Abel and Gordon give us a lighthearted interpretation of modern and traditional dance. While they clearly know how to dance, they give the impression of a couple of kids being silly and having fun. They are a married couple, and have a chemistry that comes from years of working together.

The Fairy is a quirky fantasy where many things, both improbable and impossible, happen without question. For example, this underwater dance segment.

Animators know to give their characters strong silhouettes, and this next example has them dancing through their shadows. It has a nice theatrical feel, while taking advantage of a film special effect. This is from Rumba, a film that is harder to find.

This tango from Lost in Paris is probably their most polished work.

Another dance from Rumba.

This next dance from Lost in Paris is not done by Abel and Gordon, but by Emmanuelle Riva and Pierre Richard. I can imagine Carl and Elli from Pixar’s Up dancing this way. It’s just nice to see two old folks doing this.

The Four Kinds of Laughter


John Wright is a theater director and acting teacher whose approach to performance fits in with the purpose of this blog.  I have his book Why is That So Funny?: A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy (Softcover) and I have found some useful items to post here.  I would recommend buying his book to get the full value of what he has to offer.

The purpose of comedy is to elicit laughter from the audience.  But people laugh at things for different reasons.   Wright has named four different types of laughter:

1. The Recognized laugh.

2. The Visceral Laugh

3. The Bizarre Laugh

4. The Surprise Laugh.

Wrights description of the Recognized Laugh involves more storytelling than I want to recreate, but I believe I can paraphrase.  One of Charlie Chaplin’s most analyzed performances is in “The Pawn Shop”.   A customer enters and asks Charlie to look at his pocket watch.  The watch isn’t working, so Charlie investigates the problem.  All his movements are derived from those of a doctor performing a diagnosis.  He performs the operation with such accuracy we recognize what it is he is doing.   If he were to SAY, “I’m a watch doctor and I’m going treat the patient”, it wouldn’t be funny.  But as he begins the work we discover it in our own minds, and realize how odd, but appropriate it is.  It relies on the  performers choice of action, and quality of the acting.  Simply put, good mimicry is funny.

The Visceral Laugh may be the sort most pursued by animators.  It involves energy and impact, flight and falling.

The action in a cartoon film follows a similar pattern: a sneeze can blow a character across the room, through the window and into a tree where he could spin round and round a branch and end up staggering dizzily about the road in a disoriented dance until he’s squashed by a passing car.  Comedia is the theatrical version of a cartoon.

Wright goes on to explain how the performer must be able to convince the viewer of what he is seeing, such as slipping on a banana peel:

We’ve just got to believe in that trip.  If it looks even slightly premeditated, even slightly hesitant or set up, then nobody is going to laugh.  If we believe in the fall, then we enjoy seeing you out of control.

Wright gives the example of Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a source for “The Bizarre Laugh”  It is surreal, non-sensical, and defies logic.

The clown lives in a world of bafflement where one thing leads to another.  It’s a state of perpetual free association where we no longer have to ask the question “why?”  The bizarre laugh is the exact opposite of the recognized laugh.

Finally, The Surprise Laugh, is the most basic of all.  Wright reminds us of the Jack-in-the-box, and the infants game of peek-a-boo.

I remember watching a presentation when, at a crucial moment, we heard a violent noise at the back of the auditorium and everybody turned around to see what was going on.  When we turned back again, the scene had been changed.  We laughed because we’d been caught by a simple and effective little trick.

When Tex Avery’s wolf travels to the other end of the globe to escape Droopy, only to discover Droopy has arrived before him, we are hit with the surprise laugh.


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