Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Video: How to Do Visual Comedy

Tony Zhou is the creator of a series of excellent video essays he calls "Every Frame a Painting."  Among other pieces, he once offered an insightful look at movement in the films of Akira Kurosawa. In this video, he delves into the work of British director Edgar Wright, who has directed such cult masterpieces as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Zhou begins with the assertion that most of today's Hollywood comedies are just plain boring.  Box office hits like Bridesmaids and The Hangover are often little more than a recording of actors riffing on dialog.  These movies' humor is almost entirely contingent on that dialogue, and, while that certainly yields some laughs (at least one Oscar's worth), in purely cinematic terms, Hollywood's comedies are woefully uninspiring.  After all, film is a visual medium, it's humor should be delivered visually.

As a director Wright stands out from other Hollywood comedy directors in that he tells his jokes visually.  The reason Shaun of the Dead and the rest of his work is so damned funny is that Wright is able to slip jokes into moments where other movies would be content with simply pushing the plot forward.  "This is what separates mediocre directors from great ones," Zhou explains. “The ability to take the most simple, mundane scenes and find new ways to do them."

Wright maintains a keen awareness not just of what is in the frame but also what isn't in the frame at all times. Unlike Eisenstein – who, let’s face it, is not funny – Wright knows how to mine the comic potential of the frame.

Zhou ends his lesson by challenging Hollywood's directors to follow in Wright's footsteps in nine steps:
1. Things entering the frame in funny ways
2. People leaving the frame in funny ways.
3. There and back again.
4. Matching scene transitions.
5. The perfectly timed sound effect.
6. Action synchronized to the music.
7. Super-dramatic lighting cues.
8. Fence gags
And the bonus point
9. Imaginary gun fights.
Below is a clip from Wright’s landmark British TV series Spaced, featuring a pretty epic paintball fight that embodies the best of Wright's trademark humor.

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