Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

This week we will watch Buster Keaton’s 1928 classic silent film, Steamboat Bill Jr. on Thursday and Friday in Cartooning & Animation.

While watching the film we will stop occasionally to take a closer look at how story and characterization can be conveyed without relying on sound/talking.

Live action film had a heavy influence on the early animators; the greatest silent film makers were able to tell a story and express mood and emotion visually with a minimum of dialogue. This was achieved with a focus on clear staging, body language, and facial expression. These three concepts are incredibly important for animation, and even more so for comics.

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Clear Staging: The Red Flag Scene in Modern Times

Steven Greydanus on the red flag scene in Modern Times:

Witness the subtlety and comic timing of the scene in which the Tramp is arrested for communist agitation. Just released from a psychiatric ward, the Tramp happens to see a flatbed truck with a long load, trailing an obligatory red warning flag at the end. When the flag falls off the back of the load, the Tramp helpfully scoops it up, waving it to try to get the driver’s attention — not realizing that a throng of unemployed workers from his old job has come up behind him, demonstrating in the streets. To the police, of course, the Tramp waving his red flag at the head of the crowd looks like the leader of these agitators; and he is quickly bundled off to jail.

Note how gracefully Chaplin weaves together the demands of (a) his medium (although the film is black and white, we know the flag is red because it comes from the back of the long load on the flatbed), (b) his comedy-of-errors genre (an innocent attempt to help is mistaken for political agitation — just the kind of thing that would happen to the Tramp), (c) the continuity of his story (the demonstration doesn’t simply appear from nowhere for the sake of the gag, but flows naturally and logically from past events), and (d) the social concerns underlying the film (the workers’ plight mirrors real problems — as does that of the Tramp, neither the first nor the last to be wrongly persecuted for the belief that he is a Communist).

From an essay by Steven Greydanus

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Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925)

Coming up next: Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925). Our next silent movie is the one that Chaplin himself consistently said was the film that he most wanted to be remembered for. Chaplin’s Tramp finds his way up north in search of gold and along the way turns up adventure and heartache. Chaplin’s films are notable for combining comedy and melodrama, a feat he first attempted at feature film length in The Kid (1921). Chaplin makes use of clear stagingbody language, and facial expression to take his audience on an emotional roller coaster from laughter to teary eyed empathy. Continue Reading ›

Tony Zhou on Chuck Jones

Tony Zhou features Chuck Jones in his latest Every Film a Painting Series:

If you grew up watching Looney Tunes, then you know Chuck Jones, one of all-time masters of visual comedy. Normally I would talk about his ingenious framing and timing, but not today. Instead, I’d like to explore the evolution of his sensibilities as an artist.

Staging and Blocking in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Vashi Nedomansky has assembled a comprehensive collection of resources for the film Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a glorious obsession of mine. I have watched it close to 100 times and always glean a new detail or filmmaking tidbit on each viewing. As a child I looked up to Indy, now as a filmmaker I look up to Spielberg. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a masterpiece that fires on all cylinders with equal parts: adventure, comedy, action, thriller, love story and the supernatural. I’ve scoured the internet for rare content and also created my own video essays in order to assemble this ‘1-Page Film School’. – See more at: [link]

Of special interest to my Cartooning & Animation students will be an examination of staging and blocking used in the film’s longer shots (see video above).

The ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ 1-Page Film School

Staging & Blocking

In a previous post we had a great explanation of clear staging in Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’ book, The Illusion of Life:

“Staging” is the most general of the principles because it covers so many areas and goes back so far in the theatre. Its meaning, however, is very precise: it is the presentation of any idea so that it is completely and unmistakably clear. An action is staged so that it is understood, a personality so that it is recognizable, an expression so that it can be seen, a mood so that it will affect the audience. Each is communicating to the fullest extent with the viewers when it is properly staged.

At his blog Temple of the Seven Golden Camels, Mark Kennedy explains blocking:

The term “blocking” means the same thing whether you’re talking about film or theater. Basically, the term refers to how the characters move through the scene and how they interact with their environment, including props, furniture and whatever else can be helpful in telling the story.
When blocking is used well–especially in conjunction with good staging (and by staging I mean the placement of the camera)–it can make the difference between a series of events that are merely shown to the audience, or a powerful story that unfolds in an emotional and dramatic fashion.

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