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:

ThreeAges

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.

BattlingButler

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.

Sherlock

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.

GoWest

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.

2 thoughts on “Buster Keaton’s cartoony effects”

  1. Years ago, I thought this was all due to chopped-up old prints. But the comic effect was too cool to be coincidental. Then I noticed that Terry Gilliam (an animator) used the technique in The Holy Grail, Life Of Brian, and Baron Von Munchausen.

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