I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before now. It’s exactly what I like. It’s a non verbal comedy packed with great gags. This Way Up was released in 2008, and was nominated for an Academy Award. It was created by the directing team of Smith & Foulkes at Nexus in London. The story features a pair of undertakers retrieving a body for burial. It’s a grave situation (pardon the pun) and that allows for humor that is both dark and slapstick. Like my Floyd the Android character, these two don’t give up until they complete the job.
Except for the poster image below, the two almost never smile. Undertakers by nature are quite serious and respectful. The straight faces give the impression of them being a pair of Buster Keatons. (Buster Keaton as an undertaker may have been a missed opportunity.) The film is 9 minutes long, but moves along so efficiently it feels shorter. The bizarre ending features a truly death defying stunt that is very Keatonesque.
I have a previous post about character entrances, but I have put a lot more thought into it. The result is my first Comedy for Animators video. 10 types of comedic entrances looks at various funny ways characters can enter a scene. I have found at least two examples from both animation and live action films to demonstrate each one.
The term “entrances” covers a few things. It can be a character walking into a scene. It can be the very first scene where a character is shown to already be. It can be a scene about a character entering another place. A character can be revealed when something in the scene changes. Basically, it is the shot where you, or someone in the story, first sees the character and the effect it has in the telling of the story.
The ten different types of comedic entrances are:
1: The big entrance. This is an attention grabbing entrance. It should emphasize the character’s style and have an effect on the other characters in the scene.
2. The downtempo entrance. If the character has a low energy style, you may want to create a story that begins with a high energy. By clashing with the situation, the character will stand out as unusual. A low energy character in a low energy place would be inherently uninteresting from a physical comedy point of view.
3. The surprise entrance. The character is hidden in some unexpected place.
4. The misleading entrance. The character enters the scene in some way that leads the audience to make assumptions. Then the reality proves to be very different. Such characters usually go on to prove they are not what they seem to be.
5. Bad timing. The character enters at a really bad moment. Prior to the character entering, the situation is set up for them to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
6. Exit as entrance. We first see a character as they are being kicked out of some other place. Often, they are literally flying out the door
7. The disguised entrance. The character enters the scene in some disguise that is comical in itself.
8. The subverted entrance. This is a scene about a character entering, but the entrance does not go as planned. It can be seen from the entering character’s point of view.
9. The strange, surreal doorway. A character simply walks into the scene, but it is through some very strange doorway.
10. The forced entrance. The character is forcibly brought into the scene or story.
And there you have it. If anyone can identify a type of entrance that I have overlooked, I would be very happy to hear about it in the comments.
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.
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.
Here is an interesting quote about the new film “Gravity” In an interview with Rene Rodriquez of the Miami Herald, director Alphonso Cuaron referred to a silent film comedian.
I was channeling Buster Keaton when we made Gravity — the single through-line story in which there is a lot of humanity and emotion, but everything is conveyed through physical action. We just wanted to put on a really good show.
I haven’t seen Gravity yet, but the more I hear about it the more interesting it becomes. I’m always glad to know film makers are still learning from Buster and the other greats of early cinema.