Buster Keaton: Symmetry of Laughter

Writer and filmmaker Vince Di Meglio edited together this instructive selection of clips from Buster Keaton films to show how he used symmetrical composition. In his description, he writes:

After watching twenty-nine Buster Keaton films, I was struck by his use of symmetry and center framing. This is an attempt to capture that. Before Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson made it famous for modern audiences, there was Buster Keaton.

Best bad fight scene

I found this on boingboing.net. This fight scene is probably the worst ever, but it becomes great in the process. A lot of good comedy comes from just “playing it straight”, like you believe in what you are doing. This fight scene is more fun than those found in low budget spoofs of martial arts, such as “Kung Pow: Legend of the Fist” because they aren’t trying to make you laugh. Real foolishness is innocent of itself. Make your characters take what they are doing seriously, regardless of how dumb it is.

Shokkiri: Sumo Comedy

Shokkiri wrestlers

I love all kinds of physical comedy. My personal dream is to produce a TV show where I travel around the world and feature funny performances based on local culture. I just added Japan to the list when I learned about shokkiri or comedic sumo wrestling.

Sumo is a centuries-old sport with deep traditions. It follows strictly defined rituals and has many rules. The more seriously someone takes themselves, the more attractive they are for being made fun of. Sumo is no different. Shokkiri was created over a century ago as a way to demonstrate sumo techniques and to show all the illegal moves. It has since evolved into a comic art form. Breaking the rules is of course one of the oldest comedy techniques. A shokkiri performance is created by lower-ranking wrestlers. It isn’t performed at official tournaments but at exhibitions and retirement ceremonies.

If you are ever tasked with creating a comedic sumo wrestling event, here is your reference. First, I am amazed that a sumo wrestling can do a “pancake” position, as shown in the poster frame of this first movie.

Cartoony, or spaghetti?

Spaghetti and Olive Oyl. Mmmm, tasty.

Many student animators want to create a sample of cartoony animation. I see quite a few, and some are more successful than others. The purpose of Comedy for Animators is to bring the art and history of physical comedy into animation education. Recently, I have been reading David Carlyon’s book, The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes.  

After serving in the army, and graduating from law school, Carlyon entered Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Clown College in Florida.  Carlyon and one of his partners created an act and tried it out on fellow students.  The other students enjoyed it and laughed. With that encouragement, they decided to present it in class.  The teacher for that class was the world-famous clown Lou Jacobs. Here is the author’s quote on how it went: 

“When we finished, he said ‘Spaghetti.’  That was Lou’s ultimate criticism. ‘Spaghetti’ meant mugging and flailing, like spaghetti all over a plate.”  

That’s a circus clown telling his students they are over-acting. The greatest clowns didn’t jump around like fools all the time. They developed acts over time with careful planning and timing.

Modern character rigs can stretch like never before, and animators want to push them as far as they can.  I’ll be the first to admit that rubbery is funny, but it has to be used with some restraint. Let’s take a look at some peak cartoony CG animation, and see what we can learn. Here is Genndy Tartakovski’s test film for a yet-to-be made Popeye feature.

There are a couple of moments where Olive Oil devolves into what could best be described as, well, spaghetti.

However, these actions occur for just a few frames in between two much more stable poses. They are transitional effects as a part of a performance. I have seen live clowns who will go through high energy motion in between poses. If they had the ability to distort their body like this, they would.

There are a few shots where the camera follows Olive around the deck while she tries to crawl away from the gang of pirates. While her arms and legs are very fluid, her body maintains a basic shape.

Here is an animated gif of Olive running. Despite her extreme poses, and a crazy camera move to follow her, note how easy it is to track her face.

It will be way more effective if your animation appears to have been designed with some kind of thought process. Studios want people who can think, not just reproduce what has already been done.   

Here are some DOs and DON’Ts for cartoony animation.

DO consider how your audience will perceive the “set up” for the scene.  What is driving the cartoony behavior? Does the situation really warrant a character freaking out? If not, then the unmotivated over acting could be considered spaghetti. Or, consider a cartoony style for something other than panic.

DON’T recreate the same huge “takes,” like those in a Preston Blair How to Animate book. Those have been done for decades in cartoons and student demo reels. When they get used over and over again, it diminishes their value. Come up with a fresh idea.

DO create contrast. Energy with stillness. Flexibility with stability. It will help your audience follow what is happening.

DON’T be satisfied with a bunch of compliments on social media. Carlyon and his partner got good reactions from fellow students, but the teacher brought the experienced eye. Always look for criticisms that will help you grow.

DO try to have some sort of resolution. Look at the final frame, and know that is the feeling you will leave the audience with.

If you would like to know more about Lou Jacobs VIST THIS PAGE.

Lou Jacobs teaching at Clown College (with an assist from Bob Momyer, Assistant Dean
in 1976 and ’77) demonstrating the Spider Gag at the Ringling Winter Quarters arena in Venice, FL

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.

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