It is an often repeated mantra in animation that story is king. I have read the book Story by Robert McKee, and if I were to write a feature screenplay I would probably refer to it often. But it’s hard to imagine Chuck Jones or Nick Park using it for a funny animated short. That’s because we don’t really want comedy to follow the rules.
If you are a student looking to create a short, funny film, here is a valuable clue on how to proceed. In some of Buster Keaton’s interviews, he describes his method of developing the stories for his movies. First of all, they didn’t start with a script.
“Well, we didn’t need a script. I knew in my mind what we were going to do, because with our way of working, there was always the unexpected happening. Well, anytime something unexpected happened and we liked it, we were liable to spend days shooting in and around that.”
Of course, everything really started with a character. In this case, Buster is bringing his personal character and style, and everything will be built around that. He and his gag men would work on devising a start, a scenario, a situation for him to be in. Generally it would be some sort of challenge, for Buster his manhood was often in question. But the process from there is important to understand.
“…The main thing with laying out a story is, it’s easy to get a start, the finish is always the tough thing. So the minute somebody had an idea – we said what is it going to lead to? We don’t go to the middle of the story; we jump right to the finish. So the finish – this would be the natural finish- says now does that give us any opportunity for gags? Make it exciting, fast action sometimes, and a couple of outstanding gags.”
I have to point out that Buster’s method is exactly the same as that done in the Commedia Dell’arte. The Dell’arte players would begin with a scenario, and have an agreed upon ending. But all the action in the middle was created on the fly.
You see, in a comedy, there is an implied promise of a happy ending. That is the “natural finish” Buster refers to. The boy will get the girl, the fortune will be restored, the bad guy will be put out. But the journey there needs to be full of surprises and uncertainty. It’s all the business in the middle where the work happens.