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.

Kit Seaton, Illustrator of Slapstick

Twitter is great. I have words I regularly search on Twitter, and one is “slapstick” That led me to the tumblr blog of Kit Seaton, illustrator and teacher.
Much of her work is based around physical comedians, mostly silent film era.
Her tumblr name is Drawlequin, a reference to the pantomime character Harlequin.

Kit knows her silent film history.  This picture references real events from these actors lives.


I like this next image.  It’s a Winsor McCay style representation of a Chaplin film.


And here is portrait of George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat and Ignatz. I loved Krazy Kat as a kid, and it’s nice to see Herriman getting some appreciation.


Pratfall Analysis

When I first saw this video I doubted whether or not I should post it.

It’s kind of strange.

But, for purposes of this blog, it fits. It’s just that the guy doing the voice over has a really odd delivery. And it has nudity. But hey, if you own the Muybridge books on human locomotion, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Also, the individuals demonstrating the falls do not appear to be professional stunt people or trained in slapstick. The great silent comedians could create much funnier falls.

Ernie Kovacs – The mad genius of TV

I mentioned earlier how Chaplin took on a new technology and carried beyond what anyone had otherwise imagined.  Ernie Kovacs did the same thing in television.

When television was a new medium, local tv stations had airtime to fill.  A Philidelphia station manager found Ernie Kovacs on the local radio, and offered him some time on the TV.  He was given practically no budget and his only expectation was to be entertaining and find an audience.  The bit below may be his most famous, and it looks like it cost about $9.75 to produce.

This is also a good example of surrealism in film.   The imitation mechanical movement is quite intriguing.

Kovacs had very cartoon sensibilities. Like this:

This next video has some great narration by Kovacs, as he both explains, and makes fun of film making. He opens with this line:

There’s a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is beat it to death if it succeeds.

Animated Acting: Make an entrance!


I teach animation at the Academy of Art University, and one common mistake I see students make is this. The scene opens with a person in a relaxed standing position. Then they start “acting” with some arm gestures. It’s as though they are waiting for the director to say “action!”

I tell them the audience is gathering an impression from the very first frame, and it’s great if the character is already clearly in some state of thought or action. If you are just doing a single shot, imagine there was a scene before, and we are cutting on action to your scene.

That little tip leads me to a larger topic. That of how a character enters a scene. A great entrance will immediate capture an audiences attention. Charlie Chaplin worked at making interesting entrances. Here, the actor Rowan Atkinson explains why:

Chaplin so took over a picture, he seemed to always be center screen, or entering or exiting in some eyecatching manner. Entrances and exits are a special aspect of physical comedy, worthy of great thought, but Chaplin also did this for a different reason: editing. Sennett would often edit out any material he didn’t care for, and this angered Charlie. But Sennett had to leave in the entrances and exits. By embedding good stuff in those moments, Chaplin was assured of quality screen time.

Sennett was editing out what he didn’t care for, and audiences will do the same, essentially forgetting those moments.  So Chaplin used that knowledge to make sure his time on stage was as effective as possible.  He could make a great entrance, then slow down a little maintain the integrity of the performance.

Of course we don’t have to do great entrances to keep from being thrown on the cutting room floor.  But it is a way of not being boring.  It’s a way to get the audience immediately excited.

While comedians and animated characters can put a lot of energy into entrances normal actors also want to know why they are entering a space.  Here is a 4 minute video about entrances and exits from a writers point of view.  As a film maker, you are the director, and this is worth watching.

Now back to energetic characters trying to grab the spotlight.  In the TV series Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer made a trademark of barging into Jerry’s apartment without knocking.  Here is a montage of Kramer’s entrances.

Entrances are more than just coming in through a door.  Any time a film begins, the first scene is essentially the entrance.  One way of making this entertaining is a camera reveal of the situation.  In some of Popeye’s earliest shorts, we would first see him in close up, bobbing up and down like a sailor, with the rain pouring down.  He would be in a heroic pose:


As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.


The Three Stooges had some great entrances.  Here is one of my favorites from “No Census, No Feeling” which starts at :24. While it looks like stuntmen were used, they matched the action over the cut very nicely.

One group that has taken entrances very seriously are professional wrestlers. They are all showmen.  A youtube search for “entrances” will show numerous compilations of them. I was impressed with this particular fighter’s entrances, which are very theatrical.

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