It is wonderful to watch someone who is great at their job. Even if it is a really mundane job.

A few blocks from ILM there is a humble sandwich shop, “Marina Subs”. This isn’t Subway, where the teenager reads the directions on how to assemble your sandwich, while carrying on a conversation with the assistant manager who has probably worked there a whole month already. At Marina Subs, the owner makes all the sandwiches, and there is always a line. He does it with the precision and grace of a sushi chef. (he is Asian, by the way.) I’m amazed at how quickly he can thinly slice avacados. He’s been doing it for years and years. His work surface is a long cutting board that is worn down into shallow dips. He says he’ll have to replace it soon, as the other side has already been worn out, and he’s flipped it. Today I noticed that even his act of wrapping the sandwich had a practiced timing in the rolling of the paper, the pulling and placing of the tape and putting it in the bag. It isn’t a flourish, it’s just precise and quick. I swear it improves the taste of the sandwich.

I thought it might make a good animation exercise, to animate a character who has done something 100,000 times, and has distilled it down to a science, then raised it to an art. It reminded me of a great Buster Keaton clip.

First they set up the soda jerk who’s really good. Then Buster tries to match it and fails comically. The two shot of them working side by side with Buster watching and trying to compete really creates contrast. I can imagine Buster and the crew working all this business out. What a job, it must have been so much fun back then.

Beginning, End, Middle

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.


Buster Keaton – One Week

I have been re-reading Robert Knopf’s excellent book, The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. It may be the best book on Buster’s film making style. He considers three different approaches, or “lenses”, to looking at Buster’s films. One is through classical Hollywood story telling, the second is considering Buster’s vaudeville experience, an the third is through the surrealist perspective.

I ran across the Keaton short “One Week” on youtube and recalled that Knopf used this film as an example of work influenced by vaudeville. A vaudeville show was a series of individual acts, and each act worked to create a rising curve of energy until finally presenting a “topper” that would leave the audience thrilled. The theater manager then tried to arrange the acts in a series so that each successive act increased in quality, culminating in the biggest and best act, creating a “topper” for the evening.

The story takes place over one week, seven days. That is the length of time Buster takes to build a pre-fab house he and his bride recieved as a wedding gift. A jealous friend has changed the numbers on the boxes to confuse them, so the house they build is comically misshapen. Each day in the film is the equivalent of an act in a vaudeville show. The scale of the gags grow with each day, until the final day when… well you can watch it now, in just 2 parts:

Rango walks like Buster Keaton

It is obvious Rango pays tribute to seemingly every western film ever made, and I just realized one in particular. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers, but I reference a couple of early scenes.

Buster Keaton made “Go West” in 1925. He plays a down on his luck easterner who hops a freight train and heads west to find his fortune.  On the train he falls into a barrel, which rolls out the door and smashes into pieces on the ground. Which is similar to Rango and his terrarium falling into the desert. Shortly after that, he wanders onto a cattle ranch, and we get this scene here:

When Rango enters the town of Dirt he doesn’t want to attract attention, so he imitates three of the walks he sees there.

Buster doesn’t just see a peculiar walk and instantly replicate it perfectly.  Charlie Chaplin would probably do that.  With Buster there are lots of little things happening.

  1. He stops and spends a moment watching the cowboy walk.
  2. He looks down at his legs, and gets the initial pose.  This is build up.
  3. Then he fully enters the walk, which is funnier for the discrete steps in getting there.
  4. As he reaches the foreman he wobbles and falls.
  5. He gets back up, but closer to his normal state, then he pops back down into the cowboy walk.

It’s more than just a funny walk, Buster emphasizes the unsteadiness of his feet and his imitation, which makes it more endearing.

I wonder if Buster inspired this scene in Rango.



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