Buster Keaton... Every Frame a Painting / by JoFF Rae

Before Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, before Chuck Jones and Jackie Chan, there was Buster Keaton, one of the founding fathers of visual comedy. And nearly 100 years after he first appeared onscreen, we're still learning from him. Today, I'd like to talk about the artistry (and the thinking) behind his gags.

American actor/storyteller Buster Keaton developed his comic style following a certain set of rules and preferences that have influenced filmmakers over the years since, including Wes Anderson or Jackie Chan to name recent ones.

Tony Zhou, whose been doing a stellar work recently at picking less “in your face” topics, digging deep and connecting the dots between storytelling through past and present, just released another amazing video essay through his channel, Every Frame a Painting, deconstructing how Buster Keaton built a gag.

There are 6 elements that Keaton used to build his gags and make a comedy based on visual, as opposed to titles in his time, and fatigued techniques in ours.

  • #1 – Tell your story through action 
    Keaton focused on gestures and pantomime

  • #2 – Never do the same thing twice
    Keaton believed that everything he did should be unique

  • #3 – Find the right camera placement
    A good gag on paper will work great or lose power depending on where the camera is placed. (See Zhou’s visual example in the video)

  • #4 – Build your gag within your world’s rules.
    In Keaton’s case, his world was flat, and the characters could only see what the camera could see. Keaton found humor in geometry, using circles, triangles, and parallel lines to accentuate gags within the frame and help the audience read it well.

  • #5 – Keep yourself open to improvisation
    Keaton had 50% of his intentions outlined, and the rest was opened to improvisation and happy accidents

  • #6 – Never fake a gag
    Keaton would do everything himself, and it had to be captured in one take, which gave an undeniable feeling of ‘this is really happening’

You must watch the video below for illustrations of each points and much more. Zhou really managed to pay homage to Keaton through his editing, the pace of the video, and the selection of extracts he picked.

As far as I am concerned, going back to Keaton and looking at how he handled his craft is useful for both directors and screenwriters, to push the envelope and try to move the story forward through actions, as opposed to dialogues.

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (October 4, 1895 - February 1, 1966) was an American actor, comedian, film director, producer, screenwriter, and stunt performer. He was best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression, earning him the nickname "The Great Stone Face."