May 28, 2014

What Do Edgar Wright's Films Teach Us About Comedy? Use Cinematography!

What's the single greatest distinguishing characteristic of comedies? That they're meant to be funny, right? However, some of you might've felt as though the comedies of the last several years have been a bit lacking in laughs, perhaps due to a lethargic approach to comedic filmmaking. No, I'm not talking about the writing. I'm talking about an aspect of filmmaking that seems to be one of the most ignored in comedies: cinematography. Tony Zhou, who brought us that great video on the "Spielberg Oner", talks all about this in a fun and informative video essay, which not only celebrates the work of director Edgar Wright, but explores how he uses cinematography to take advantage of as many comedic opportunities to as possible. If you're working on a comedy right now, you'll definitely want to take a look at this!

Let's start out by saying this: there's no right or wrong way to be funny. Everybody has different tastes, and what might be hilarious to one person might completely miss the mark on someone else. In fact, you may not think Edgar Wrights films, such as Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and The World's End, are all that funny to begin with. However, the point in Tony Zhou's essay is this: there are so many opportunities to cash in on a potentially comedic situation -- many of which are ignored by filmmakers making comedies today.

Edgar Wright, however, takes advantage of seemingly mundane cinematic devices , like transitional sequences and exposition scenes, and pulls as much comedy out of it (or puts as much in) as he can. He leaves no comedic stone unturned! Zhou shares a bunch of great examples of contemporary films and TV shows that do take advantage of these devices using cinematography, like Arrested DevelopmentDjango Unchained, and even Jaws (even though that's not really a comedy -- though it does have funny moments). However, he also compares them with films and shows that don't, which really hits home how much comedic real estate exists in any given project.

So, take a look at Zhou's video essay below. Just remember, it's not about whether you think Wright's films are funny. It's about asking yourself if you're utilizing all of the opportunities within your film to make your audience laugh. (That doesn't mean cracking a joke ever 2.2 seconds -- it's just about being aware of the potential.) Also, ask yourself if you could be using more cinematographic moves, whether that means camera movement, mise-en-scène, lighting, etc, to get your audience chuckling.

You may decide that the brand of comedy you want to create doesn't lean heavily on cinematography. Woody Allen's films, in my opinion, relied much more on dialog than cinematography, and his films are hilarious! So, like I said, there are many flavors of funny. However, if you do want to implement more visual and physical comedy into your films, Edgar Wright is a great director to analyze.

What do you think about Tony Zhou's video essay? Do you have any tips on using cinematography in a comedic way? What are some examples of filmmakers or individual films that would be good to study to learn how to do this? (Off the top of my head, I suggest Wes Anderson.)

[via Tony Zhou & Filmmaker IQ]

Your Comment

26 Comments

Some good points made, however saying that people standing around talking is lazy is not correct. It CAN be lazy but it isn't ALWAYS lazy. Considering performance and delivery are also powerful comedic elements I wouldn't go so far as to say that american comedy has lost its way.

Also, while Edgar Wrights style is very dynamic, none of his stories are grounded in reality. They are all larger than life (and thats fine) but a comedy like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" or "The Larry Sanders Show" would fail entirely with this approach. Imagine if "Party Down" was full of whip pans and sound effects on every cut? It would be unwatchable. Story dictates style, not the other way around. Edgar likes stories that are a bit farcical and his style is informed by the stories he likes.

Consider that he and Marvel just parted ways on Ant Man. I heard an interview about The Incredible Hulk where some folks at Marvel said from that point on they would be hiring directors to make Marvel movies and not hiring directors to make THE DIRECTORS movies. I think all this ties together. He has a very specific way he wants things to look, and so does Marvel. Those two points of view did not align and thats why he's not on the project anymore.

May 28, 2014 at 11:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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It has more to do with the studio hiring two writers to do an additional script without Wright's knowledge.

May 29, 2014 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

I honestly don't see what interesting things Edgar Wright has done that Guy Richie hasn't already.

May 29, 2014 at 12:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Bindercd

In my opinion Wright's movies have more in the way of actual substance and character development. Not knocking Ritchie, I just think that he's more of a "look at me" style director than anything.

May 29, 2014 at 7:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

Totally agree. Ritchie is fun to watch, but it's a very in-your-face style. Wright certainly has blatant gags, but he works in a lot of subtleties, and (in my opinion) always delivers a better story. Guy Ritchie is entertaining, but his films rely heavily on style.

May 29, 2014 at 10:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Guy Ritchie always struck me as the self appointed home movies type director who thinks "I'm great because my camera can do slow motion" or "This is so good, you can turn the colour up or you can turn it down !".

The phrase in the UK would be "a legend in his own lunchtime".

May 29, 2014 at 7:54AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Saied

A lot of what Zhou singles out in his essay can be found in Richie's early work, particularly Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Nothing I haven't really seen before. I'm surprised Zhou didn't do his essay on Chaplin or Buster Keaton to be honest.

May 29, 2014 at 10:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Bindercd

The article should have just concentrated on "Spaced," as that was probably Wright's best work overall. As far as cinematic comedy, "Army of Darkness" is probably the best example of how to use cinematography for comedy. That and "Dead Alive" (Braindead).

Wright's comedies -were- good. But with each successive movie their laugh factor has dropped precipitously.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gSf5UMZ8ms

May 29, 2014 at 4:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Neil

hmm, my post above was cutoff at the ends.

May 29, 2014 at 5:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Neil

Agreed (about AoD). An excellent example of visual comedy.

May 29, 2014 at 10:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I feel like some people are missing the point he's making; regardless if you like Edgar Wright's movies, he's trying to take advantage of as many things as possible (people being handed cake or traveling to a new town) to get a laugh or just make the scene more interesting.

You can't fall back on, "Wright makes movies where that kind of thing works, but these other movies are different." The video is saying: be creative. Find a way to make ordinary, mundane things interesting. Come to think about it, that's what good directors & cinematographers do all the time: making ordinary things extraordinary.

May 29, 2014 at 11:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sean K

^^^Gets it^^^

July 10, 2014 at 12:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ian

Sry, but this guy OVERUSING HIS FAST CAT storytelling. I like it AAALOT, but this guy can't do anything else, fats cat, fast cat... BORING

May 29, 2014 at 2:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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HorstBox

Bruce Campbell rocks. Is he related to Jim Carrey?

May 29, 2014 at 4:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Its interesting, but my take away from this is that the author focuses on witty comedy, something the Brits do very well. I too enjoy this type of humor. He addresses several styles of physical gags as well but most of them require a little education to them; the user has to be smart enough to get the gag (film style references- seen those types of movies, listening carefully to hear the puns, etc). I reference Ghostbusters as an example, where as a child, it was a scary horror/ action film, but as an adult, its a comedy. It takes some knowledge to get the jokes. There are many examples like this out there. (AoD as mentioned above would be another example)

I will agree with him (the author) that more and more "Hollywood" mainstream comedies seem to rely more on crassness/ bathroom type humor than wit (fart jokes, flippant use of F*$k, props in the face etc), which is fine if you enjoy that type of comedy/ humor. I think the majority of the American sheepels seem to like this type of humor because those films do make money, so the machine is fulfilling the desire but IMO this is the lowest common denominator here - Hollywood thinks we are too stupid to have educated jokes. And IMO that is really the beef I think the author is trying to tackle. He would like to see the American "Hollywood" system make smarter films, and I would agree. I think the reason you can sit around and quote Monty Python with your friends is there is some sort of substance to the humor, which makes it lasting and engage-able after the fact. While a fart joke or getting something in the crotch may be funny in the moment, its a moment in time that passes and is not something you really retain because there is no substance behind the joke (you dont quote days or years later).

There have been many writers and directors that have and continue to use witty humor in their work, and again, IMO, those works are more successful, quotable and re-watchable than the standard summer comedy blockbuster. And I also state that I am not saying Grownups 2 is awful or you are awful for watching it, but I definitely do not prefer to put my money toward humor of this type and would much prefer something with more substance and wit.

May 30, 2014 at 11:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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tbonemain

I think this is just as much about the editing and sound placement as it is about cinematography. I think the value of great editing and sound is too often overlooked.

May 30, 2014 at 1:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Never seen an Edgar Wright movie and after this...
I don't think I ever will either

May 30, 2014 at 5:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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sammy

I don't know what kind of movies you enjoy, but I'll go out on a limb and say it anyway: You're missing out.

June 1, 2014 at 1:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

Ew, gross.

July 25, 2014 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Guflam

'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' a tupid commedy? What are you talking about Zhou!?!

May 30, 2014 at 6:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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francesco meliciani

good article, although their examples are more montage/editing and story devices rather than cinematography. it could also be referred to as good directing. makes me appreciate Edgar Wright more though!

June 1, 2014 at 1:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Marcus

original fast food

June 1, 2014 at 4:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I had to stop watching when he played one of the best comedy scenes from Old School up against a bs quick cut scene from one of dude's movies.

He's basically comparing action films to comedy's, and he obviously prefers action films.

I'll admit, Shaun of the Dead was funny. But nothing I've seen of his since.

June 1, 2014 at 10:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mark C

Really enjoyed this video. I am actually working on something and now I want to go back and think if there are some more visual jokes I can put in there. Thanks for sharing!

June 2, 2014 at 2:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ian

banana

June 17, 2014 at 8:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Wonderful blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
I'm planning to start my own site soon but I'm a little lost on everything.
Would you recommend starting with a free platform like Wordpress or go for a paid option? There
are so many choices out there that I'm completely overwhelmed ..

Any tips? Kudos!

July 12, 2014 at 11:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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