Anatomy of a Gag
I’ve linked to my short film, CRY FOR BOBO, before, but the YouTube version doesn’t really do justice to Scott Ward’s luminous photography, or the costume designs of Ali Mitchell and her team. Dissecting a few scenes in frame grabs gives me the chance to write some more about it and also show off how nice it looks (but even nicer in 35mm, obviously).
This is the jail-break scene. We start with a pleasingly dull establishing shot.
I sort of like the greyness. There’s something nice about a shot that’s sort of black-and-white-in-colour, especially if you rupture that by injecting something bright-hued. It’s the whole aesthetic of William Wellman’s frenzied allegorical melodrama TRACK OF THE CAT. Martin Scorsese used the idea for the music video section of BAD, his short Michael Jackson film (not the greatest moment of Scorsese’s career, but an important move in re-establishing him as a commercially viable force).
We’re also going for a Keatonesque flatness in the framing: the edge of the wall runs exactly parallel to the top and bottom edge of frame, like a kid’s drawing. I first noticed this simple framing approach in Richard Lester films, and discovered later it came from Buster Keaton. In this film we apply a bit of Kubrickian symmetry to it as well, sometimes.
We had a huge discussion about what to call the clown prison. It turns out there just isn’t a good pun out there. We considered Clownschwitz and Clownditz, but they were too heavy, and the wrong kind of prison. Luke, the props guy, came up with the best suggestion. In the film you don’t really have time to read it anyway.
(If anybody can suggest anything better, I’ll digitally add it in when I become George Lucas.)
Anyway, Coco, the more cunning of our two clown protags, has built a cannon in the prison workshop. (When challenged about this, he pretends it’s an ashtray.) There’s a BOOM!
– and a tiny figure flies over the wall. This is a Masters of the Universe doll belonging to our production designer, Tom Clay, who has a substantial collection of action figures and robots. The costume department went crazy dressing the figurine up as Coco, down to the last detail, even though I assured them it would only be glimpsed for a second.
The wall is only about five feet high. The design department built several, for reasons that will become clear.
After the doll falls out of the bottom of frame, Coco rises up and dusts himself off. (His cigar has been crushed by the fall.)
It’s a traditional false perspective effect. No special effects involved, it’s all in-camera. The miniature wall is right behind Coco, balanced on top of a short stone wall to give it extra height. You can just see some real tree branches at top left, which add a little more “reality”.
Creating the illusion that Coco came over the wall is mainly down to timing: he stands up just a second after the doll’s exit. It’s a balance between making it clear what’s meant to be happening, while making it obviously fake-looking.
Coco turns to the wall and there’s another cannon blast on the soundtrack: Bobo is following Coco.
A second doll smashes through the wall. This is on a wire fed through the part of the wall where the fake brickwork has been prepared. That’s why we needed several walls. I think we had five but only used two or three.
We had quite a few outtakes where the first doll failed to clear the wall. And there’s one where the second doll just hits the wall on the other side, you see the wall bulge, and that’s it. The Bobo doll was spreadeagled flat against the wall, just like when Wile E Coyote swings into a cliff face.
This isn’t the perfect take: on this one, the doll kind of PAUSED on its path through the wall, held up by the “brickwork”. In the end I liked that better than the smoother take we did next. Dubbing an “Argh!” onto the impact helped too.
(In the great single-shot heist scene in THE KILLERS, director Robert Siodmak ended up using the first complete take, the one where everything went wrong — it looked much more real.)
I first imagined this as a full-scale wall, with obvious dummiesbeing slung about. Tom was happy to build a strip of full-sized wall in between two existing walls, but we couldn’t find a set-up where we could do that. He suggested miniatures, and I said okay, as long as we could still do it in one shot… We practiced with a set wall and a doll and a camcorder and me standing up in the foreground. Everybody said “Naw, that doesn’t work.” We tried some kind of variation with the timing, and that was worse. Then I said, “Let’s watch the first version again.” This time we all loved it. Weird.
Now Bobo stands up in the foreground, holding one of the bricks.
The movie is part of a scheme called Tartan Shorts, which was in its tenth year, and had most often concentrated on a kind of social realist working class miserabilism. It felt good to be breaking out of that prison. Scott, the cinematographer turned to me after this and said, “I think we just did the best shot ever in a Tartan Short,” which pleased me no end. I think Scott did more beautiful work eslewhere in the film, but the idea here is so mad, I’m proud we did it.
We were filming in a children’s playground, since it provided enough space to shoot without distracting buildings in the background. So throughout the shot we had an audience of little kids, asking the usual irksome questions: “Is this going to be on telly?”
A tiny four-year-old asked a more intelligent one: “Why did the big clown go like that?” and she made a dusting motion, like Coco had done.
“Because he had come over the wall,” I said.
She looked at my like I was an idiot. “No, the big clown.”
I think I passed the question onto one of my assistant directors.
Super-costumier Ali snapped this additional false perspective shot as we were filming. I’m in the foreground wearing a reject clown costume (the stripes were too small).
At the premier, the audience went wild for this scene. A nice lady who works at the funding body, Scottish Screen, said to me, “I don’t know how you did that.” So I proceeded to explain it. She smiled and said, “I don’t know how you did that,” at which point I realised she didn’t CARE how we did it, she just liked it.
I ought to be content with that.