Hat comedy: Buster Keaton


In the history of physical comedy, there is a special place for the use of hats.  Hats are a very convenient costume prop to work with, as they are so available and easily located. During the heyday of silent films, it was common for people, both men and women, to put a much higher value on headwear than we do today.   Hats were an expensive part of the outfit, and having a fashionable hat meant you were a respectable member of society. Because of that value and symbolism, the hat became a target for comedians.  When an character’s hat was lost or damaged, the audience knew he would take it seriously. Wearing the hat wrong, or wearing the wrong hat, can simply make the actor look funny.  To demonstrate their skill, comedians could also perform simple tricks by manipulating their hats in entertaining ways.

Hats are underused in animation.  Character designers, as well as animators, may not understand the value of the hat.  In what might be the first in a series of posts about hats, I’ll begin with Buster Keaton.  Keaton’s signature look included what was known as a “pork-pie hat.”  He would sometimes throw in a short gag using it as a prop.  Below are a handful of examples.  Notice how Keaton almost never looks at it.  These are quick gags, and he doesn’t make a big deal over the “business” of it unless it’s part of a larger sequence built around the hat, or hats, as you’ll see later on.

In this scene, a bullet knocks off his hat. Where another comedian might pick it up, put his finger through the bullet hole, and pull a funny face, Buster hardly lets it affect him.


Here is the same gag, but in a more mundane situation.


He didn’t always catch his hat.  In The Navigator he lost several hats to gusts of wind.  It became a running gag.


In comic strips, when a character is surprised, he can have a big reaction that includes his hat popping off his head.  This is known as a “hat take.”   Here, Keaton uses a gimmick to simulate that.  Since he limited his facial expression so much, it did provide a bigger effect.


It was unusual for Keaton to use wacky effects like that.  He sometimes snuck in surreal effects, such as this moment where arrives at work, slaps his cane again the wall and somehow makes it stick. Then he simply hangs his hat on the handle.


Most of the time, he preferred to display his skill, as in this simple gag.


Keaton didn’t always wear a pork pie hat.  If the time period of the story called for it, he could go with a different fashion.  In Our Hospitality, set before the US Civil War, he wore a very large top hat.  So large, it caused problems in the little carriage he was riding in. He has just met a pretty girl, and doesn’t want to look foolish.  The hat isn’t cooperating.

When he gives up and goes to the pork-pie hat, it’s a nod to the audience that he can’t escape being Buster Keaton.  In Steamboat Bill Jr. the hat makes a brief appearance in an entire scene is built around Buster trying on all kinds of hats.  He is a stylish young man, and his father is a serious old steamboat captain.  They haven’t seen each other for years, and this scene serves the purpose of illustrating how they relate to each other.  They each have very different opinions about the function of a hat.  This is also an example of the “Keaton circle.”  He goes through a whole bunch of motion, and eventually winds up back where he started.

A Christmas video from me

This film was completed about 14 years ago.  It started a few years before that when I was working at Duck Soup Produckions, now just called DUCK. The owners proposed doing a short CG film, and solicited concepts.  In about two days I created a storyboard for a film about a snowman who gets abducted by half-witted aliens who mistake it for an earthling. They believed it was held immobile by their “freeze ray.”  We began work on it between commercial projects.  After a few years of that, we hadn’t even gotten into animation, and I got an offer to go work at Industrial Light & Magic.  I handed over the directing to Lane Nakamura, and two years later he phoned me up and told me it was done.  However, they did change the ending considerably, and I wasn’t happy about that.  Still, it achieved some success, showing in the Siggraph Electronic Theater, and was on the long list for Oscar nomination.  I got a story credit. I designed the aliens, the snowman, and the spaceship interior.

I’ll be enjoying my holiday, and I hope you do too!

The Snowman from Jonathan Lyons on Vimeo.

The Problem with Evaluating Comedy


Currently I am reading Steve Seidman’s book, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film.  For my purposes, the book is invaluable.  In all my reading, I was continually on the lookout for small pieces of information that could be instructive.  Tips on how things are done.  Each tip was a clue.  Any of them might spark and idea or a direction, or solve a problem.  It’s about collecting tools and materials for artists to work with.  I have read a great many books on the topic of comedy, and it is interesting how many different approaches are taken. In the introduction to his book, Seidman makes some observations about how other writers treat comedy, and I find those observations to be thought provoking.  Here is a quote to get the discussion started:

This study intends to avoid the tendencies of this literature; it is not based on a validation of my personal tastes or my subjective conception of morality.  If the reader is looking for a list of the “best” comedies, the “funniest” comedians, or praise for the most “human” the most “meaningful,” most “significant” “statements” about society and human values to be found in certain films, then he or she will be disappointed.

The idea here is to take an objective look at the art of comedy.  Rather than try to explain why something is funny (an effort that is often unsatisfactory), Seidman’s book makes an effort to create meaningful terms to describe the sub-genre he calls “comedian comedy.”  (I will probably go into more detail about that in another post.)  By creating these terms, he is able to explain how different comedians are similar.  By understanding their similarities, it is then possible to open up new ways to discuss comedy, and, for us, to create new comedic characters.

In one well known book about animation, the author dismissed Buster Keaton as inferior to Charlie Chaplin because Chaplin’s work had more emotion.  I wonder if a young reader would take that statement, and avoid Keaton in favor of the “superior” Chaplin.  What a loss that would be!  As a fan of Keaton, I did not support that concept.   I am constantly on the look out for new physical comedians to observe. Other authors dismiss Chaplin because his work can be overly sentimental, so it’s all opinion anyway.  In my book, Comedy for Animators, I tried to focus simply on them as individuals, and avoided qualifying either as “better.”  Traveling down the road of judging which comedian is funnier could lead to a sort of tournament bracketology.  You start with a whole field of competitors, and narrow them down by pairs until you have a “champion.”  And what is to be gained by that?  How does that help animators to understand the vast potential of comedy.  Continuing with the sports metaphor, a newspaper sports writer has unlimited opinions and judgements about a team’s performance, but they probably would make a bad coach.

Rube Goldberg machines

Reuben Goldberg  (1883-1970) was an American cartoonist and inventor famous for his illustrations of wildly complex inventions.  His “Rube Goldberg machines” would accomplish a simple task through a ludicrous chain of events.  He was an artists making fun of inventors and engineers.  Before proceeding further, I will offer an example video of a Rube Goldberg machine in it’s modern interpretation.

I chose a short video simply to get the point across. This one has the typical assortment of balls rolling down ramps and domino effects going on.  Some creators produce machines on a huge scale, with spectacular effects.  They can be amazing displays of engineering.  But I wouldn’t really call them funny.  Amusing, perhaps.  I think there is a lot of room available to develop the Rube Goldberg machine in animation.  If you dispense with relying on gravity as the primary source of energy, and inject some character and silliness into the idea, simulated/animated machines could actually be funny.

Now, lets look at some examples of original Rube Goldberg cartoons. Note the reading required to understand the steps. They are funnier if you bother to read them.





First, there is not one ball rolling down a ramp. Each of his cartoons is completely new, as Goldberg never seems to repeat himself. They are whimsical, and seem highly unlikely to function as intended. In animation, you would have the control to make the impossible mechanism function as designed. But maybe the biggest difference between the original cartoons, and the modern live versions is the animals who sit waiting patiently.  Their caricatured behavior is supposed to be reliable enough to be a part of the process.  These actors are what really brings the machines to life.  I am particularly fond of the octopus who crushes an orange that is painted to look like a diver’s helmet.

I am pleased to see someone finally added an animal to a modern Rube Goldberg machine.  The Rube “slowberg” machine was created by Bob Partington, and it includes a slow moving tortoise.  Some internet critics have complained that it is not a true machine, because it is filmed in segments.  The supposed actual time of the machine operating is over 6 weeks, which would be tough for most YouTube viewers who would quit 44 seconds in. Still, I think this machine is much closer to recreating the fun and spirit of the original cartoons.



In Praise of The Good Dinosaur

Good Dino 1

Cartoon Brew is reporting that Pixar’s latest film “The Good Dinosaur” is underperforming at the box office. I am sorry to read that.  I think it’s a very good film, and totally worth seeing on the big screen.

The story takes place in the western half of what we know as the north American continent.  The western location was chosen to work with the “old west” story line of dinosaurs acting as farmers and ranchers.  Arlo, the main dinosaur, is one of three children in a family of herbivorous dinosaurs who cultivate corn to live on.  Arlo gets separated from his family, and begins a journey through the vast open spaces.  Some people are having difficulty with the nearly photorealistic backgrounds clashing with the cartoony characters.  That didn’t bother me at all.  I found it wonderful to look at.  Huge sweeping vistas, volumetric clouds, and amazing water effects.

Western moves are also known for their patient tempo.  This isn’t the hustle and bustle of the city.  The directors obviously studied the timing of western films.  There are lingering shots, and characters who take their time.  They didn’t load the film up with tons of characters either. Other dinosaurs suggested cattle rustlers, indians, or false preachers.   They probably had only a fraction of the characters found in Cars 2.  That made their presence more valuable, less disposable.  Walking in the city is a constant stream of faces, most of whom you avoid.  This movie is like walking on a trail and meeting people along the way.  It’s easy to say hello.  I found that very refreshing, and I appreciate Pixar taking the chance to deliver something different.


I also had quite a few hearty laughs along the way.  The human child had no language, so all of his performance was pure action.  He was naturally funny.  He rarely smiled, which is significant.  The serious facial expression suggests he is honestly engaged in the situation.  Doing something funny, with a serious intent only makes it funnier.  Contrast that with the continuously smirking fox shown in the  Zootopia trailer. He appears to take nothing seriously.  The boy, as well as the rest of the animal cast, are motivated by the simple need to survive.  It couldn’t be easier to understand, so there is very little exposition needed.   It is life at it’s most basic, which is the easiest situation for characters to be believable.  They want to eat, and not get eaten.  When trying to get food, the action was played for laughs.  When avoiding predators, it could get serious with big action.

There are also moments of heavy emotion. As this is the old west, death is presented as a part of reality.  The losses make it feels more dangerous than most animated films do.  Reviewers who suggest this movie is too kid or family oriented seem to have overlooked that.

I was glad I saw the film in 3D. I might even go back a second time.  Take the opportunity to see it big while you can.

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