Film blocking is arguably one of the most important things a Director must do on set. Think of it as a carefully choreographed dance where the camera and subject move together in harmony.

In this post, we’ll explore how the film blocking techniques of Buster Keaton inspired modern directors like Wes Anderson and how they apply to our own work.

The Art of the Gag

We’ll be drawing from the video essay The Art of the Gag created by Every Frame a Painting.

1. Action over dialogue

Let visuals speak for themselves

Buster Keaton famously disliked using dialogue inserts in his films.

Art of the Gag - Buster Keaton and Wes Anderson - Dinner

He preferred, instead, to let the visuals speak for themselves with the use of film blocking techniques. The same is true today with over-exposition.

It’s often more immersive to show plot points or backstory visually, rather than having characters speak it.

Art of the Gag - Buster Keaton and Bill Murray - Deadpan

For example, take a look at the clip below from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Watch the scene once with the volume muted.

Then watch it again with the volume up.

Notice how much of the scene you were able to decipher from the body language alone.

Now watch the clip from Dr. No. Notice how difficult it is to gain a clear understanding without hearing the dialogue.

2. Camera placement

How can camera placement define a scene?

Keaton believed that visual gags worked best from a particular angle. If you change the angle, you have to change the gag. This is true not only of gags, but any scene.

Art of the Gag - Buster Keaton and Christopher Nolan - Rotating Hallways

By comparison, look at this fight scene from The Protector and Old Boy with the volume muted.

Unlike the frequent cutting in the Guardians clip, these scene are allowed to play out in long take. And I think they’re stronger for it.

The deliberate camera placement works in harmony with the stunts to create a more captivating effect.

3. Create unique rules

Unique rules tend to become iconic

A film can set the rules of its universe in anyway it likes.

For example, Keaton’s world was flat. If the camera didn’t see it, the characters didn’t. It enabled him to throw logic away to maximize the effect of the visual gag.

Art of the Gag - Buster Keaton and Wes Anderson - Flat Sets

Another example.

In Young Frankenstein, whenever anyone utters Frau Blücher’s name, horses whinny in fear.

The rule is established, and then repeated until it becomes normalized in the world.

Unique rules tend to become iconic just like bullet-time in The Matrix..

3 Ways To Make Your Film Blocking More Interesting - The Matrix

Or the Escheresque cityscapes in Inception or Dr. Strange..

3 Ways To Make Your Film Blocking More Interesting - Doctor Strange

Or the flattened world of Wes Anderson..

3 Ways To Make Your Film Blocking More Interesting - The Grand Budapest Hotel

…which Buster Keaton also also drawn to.

Art of the Gag - Buster Keaton and Wes Anderson - Flat Compositions

As an ode to Buster Keaton’s work and his brilliant use of film blocking techniques, check out the following compilation of his best stunts, gags, and bits.

They go by quick, but while watching, try to remember body language, camera placement, and unique rules of the world.


How to create powerful opening shots

Have any other suggestions for telling a story visually with the use of film blocking techniques?

Let us know in the comments below!

If you’d like to learn more about how to use visuals to create more impactful scenes, check out our article on powerful Opening Shots in Film.

Up Next: How to create a powerful opening shot →
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