A good comedy director knows what’s funny. A great comedy director knows what’s funny and knows that the camera itself can add to the comedic experience. Snappy editing, sight gags, physical comedy, and funny dialogue are clearly important for landing jokes, but moving (or in some cases intentionally not moving) the camera can be just as useful. Sometimes the camera is even acknowledged and interacted with for the joke. Here are ten ways to move (or not move) the camera for comedic effect.
1. The Push (Way Too Far) In
A push in signifies a lot of things. It can bring the audience in to a more intimate environment; it can literally get viewers closer to the action; and it highlights the importance of what we’re seeing. But when the push just keeps on going, it breaks all that and lets viewers know that, yes, we’re watching a comedy movie. Since it’s not a zoom, but an actual movement (a key distinction), the camera physically gets in the way of everything. Mel Brooks uses these a lot.
2. The Pull (Way Too Far) Out
A pull out accomplishes the opposite of the push in. It gives an overall context to the scene and usually lets viewers know that what we’re seeing right now isn’t the whole picture. It can also keep going and going to hammer the point home… and then go some more.
3. The Wait for It…
This is one of the times where the camera is typically sitting still, allowing a joke to transpire over more time or with a sudden change. Lots of times, we expect it to happen based on the camera’s lingering, like when a character goes off screen but we know they were supposed to go the other way, or they come back to interact with that scene some more.
This can also involve a cut, but the key here is that the camera’s position does the setup, because we know something is about to happen.
4. The Reveal
With this movement, the camera starts in one spot and ends at another, revealing the joke. It can be a zoom or push or pull or dolly shot (basically any moving camera shot), but the main idea is to either build up to the reveal:
Or continuously reveal throughout the entire move:
5. The Comparison Shot
You can really shine as a director by using this type of shot. It relies on similar or nearly identical shots being shown at different points in the video or film, with their direct comparison creating the comedy. It takes a lot of planning, but viewers will continue to appreciate all the differences the more they watch it and notice the subtleties. Edgar Wright is a master at this:
The one caveat to this type of shot is that, while the camera can create the joke with a matched or mostly matched frame, the jokes can also come from the visuals within the frame. It also doesn’t have to have movement for it to work.
6. The Camera Bump
Similar to the “push (way too far) in,” the camera interacts with the subject for the joke. However, the difference in this case is that it’s being affected by something happening the scene, and not the other way around.
7. The Quick Zoom
The quick zoom is like a push in, but keeps the camera stationary and uses a zoom instead. It creates a higher energy level and an immediacy that you don’t get with a slow movement, and is often used in westerns, kung fu movies, or action films. The payoff in comedy is that the quick zoom is used on funny characters and/or their faces (as in Wayne’s World 2), insignificant objects (Shaun of the Dead’s many quick zoom sequences), or to underwhelming results of funny dialogue.
8. The Perspective Shot
Positioning the camera to change the perspective or show a difference in size between two subjects is often a fairly easy practical effect to pull off. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Elf, Big Fish, and others have all used this technique. (Elf used it as a joke to show that Buddy the Elf was not actually an elf, but there are other ways to use the forced perspective as a punchline.)
Another joke that relies on perspective is when either the camera or the subject is obscured by an object in the frame. Arrested Development often moved the camera to obscure the actors’ mouths when they said curse words (more of an inside joke than an actual joke), but the best example of this is also from Austin Powers:
This technique isn’t 100% the camera making the joke, but it is important to have the camera’s position and the actors positioned within the frame correctly, which makes the joke work.
9. The “Look Over There!”
This is not a very common technique, but typically it’s when a character is already breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly, then tells it to look somewhere (or it looks on its own). The camera follows the request and we’ve learned something new. In comedy, the joke is either the thing the camera looks at or the action/reaction that comes during/after the camera move.
10. The Step Back
The step back is really more of an editing technique, but the camera’s differing positions between the two shots are what makes them funny. The main, more intimate and intense angle moves to a wider angle. This makes the intense, intimate scenario seem less intense.
There are certainly more techniques and movements you can use to tell great visual jokes, as well. You can try experimenting in a Point-Of-View perspective, for example, or experimenting with whip pans and rack focuses for punchlines. Don’t hesitate to try things out and see if they work for you!
Do you have favorite comedic camera gags or tricks we didn’t cover here? Tell us in the comments!
Top image: Still from Ant Man (2015) © Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios