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Comedy vs. Drama*

[ 24 ] October 12, 2012 |

I caught the latest 30 Rock this afternoon and noticed something:

30 rock 03

The guy in the midground is off-center:

30 rock 04

This may seem like a blindingly obvious point, but one reason this shot is off-center is because the characters in it are off-kilter. The director, Robert Carlock, stages this shot in order to maximize the misdirection: Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) encourages viewers to follow an eyeline match left and somewhere north of his mother (Catherine O’Hara) before the camera gently racks the foreground out and the midground in to focus. The audience resets its eyes and sees nothing of interest until the movement of Kenneth’s step-father (Bryan Cranston) attracts its attention, at which point an eyeline match again suggests viewers look left and somewhere north of his mother. Compelling the audience to bounce its eyes around this quickly within a sustained shot redoubles the manic impression the dialogue and narrative want to create. As I said, this point may seem obvious, but if you want to think about the difference between comedy and drama on a visual level, the scene above may be the perfect place to start.

Situational comedies are filmed in an unsettling manner in order to maximize the capacity for surprise. When the audience haphazardly spirits its attention across the frame, the director literally has more space with which to work:

30 rock 05

Before the camera racks, our attention is in quadrant one; after the camera racks, our attention is again drawn to quadrant one. In this case the director has at least three other quadrants in which to introduce new and potentially humorous information. We could actually divide the screen much more finely by following Kenneth and his step-father’s eyelines:

30 rock 06

But the four quadrants suffice for now. We look there in quadrant one when Kenneth’s in focus, recenter when the midground comes into focus, and then follow Kenneth’s step-father’s eyes back to quadrant one. The rest of the screen is primed for hilarity. I grant that posts about creating comedy are by definition unfunny, but there’s a reason this particular shot spurred me to write this post: this person … about whom I wrote an entire post concerning his staring.

In Breaking Bad the audience’s eyes don’t bounce around the scene from character to character in an attempt to ascertain the significant in-frame elements—they follow Walter White’s in an attempt to understand some particular fact. The quiet dignity to Walter’s unrelenting stare is partly a credit to Cranston and partly a credit to the plot, but it’s also partly a credit to the directors of Breaking Bad, who know that creating shots that contain no quadrants capable of surprise results in a menacing atmosphere. Compare the shot above to this one:

Breaking bad staring 03

I’ll refrain from drawing yellow lines all over it because, unlike the shot above, the intended movement of our eyes is obvious. We center our eyes in the frame, move to Walter’s face and then follow his eyes to the money pile. That’s the only movement it makes sense to make. In the frame from 30 Rock, our eyes are encouraged to move quickly but not decisively. We’re not asked to stare so much as follow. I created quadrants and drew lines to indicate the misdirection that enhances comedic direction—that the two eyeline matches bracket a racking focus is significant too—whereas in this frame from Breaking Bad no such embellishment is necessary because there’s nothing to embellish. Your eyes move the way director Michelle MacLaren wants them to or you lose the plot.

*This entire post was inspired by the fact that the episode had been over for half-an-hour before I realized that’d been Bryan Cranston, so I started to think about why it was, formally, that I hadn’t recognized him. (Outside of the obvious fact that I’m not that bright.)


Comments (24)

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  1. SEK says:

    Have I written anything less funny and more pedantic lately?

    No, I don’t think I have.

  2. Peter Hovde says:

    Hard to be funny when you’re writing about comedy.

  3. Jonathan says:

    This entire post was inspired by the fact that the episode had been over for half-an-hour before I realized that’d been Bryan Cranston

    Don’t feel bad. Plenty of people have commented on the transformation Bryan Cranston has made since his Malcolm in The Middle days. What I find even more amazing is that he can apparently turn it on and off at will so he can go back to being the goofy comedy father from the meth kingpin simply by changing which parts of his head he shaves.

  4. wetcasements says:

    If he was in the center of the shot he’d be blocked by Kenneth.

    • SEK says:

      The shot would’ve been differently unbalanced, but he wouldn’t have been blocked. (That space to Kenneth’s left doesn’t correspond to anything on the left of the frame in either case.)

  5. arguingwithsignposts says:

    where does the rule of thirds come into play here?

    • SEK says:

      It doesn’t. First, it implies to still images, not moving compositions. I can see where the confusion comes in, given that I take still images from moving compositions, but you see my point. Second, it’s not how we watch moving images: researchers have shot lasers in people’s eyes when they’re watching films and tracked where they go, and needless to say, they don’t take in the composition as a whole and appreciate the golden proportion. They follow action and dialogue sources, and the framing of the shots interacts with them.

  6. Herbert Hoover says:

    How could anyone ever be dumb enough to believe this shit. This is basically a rich man’s skip bayless commentary. lollin

    • Anonymous P. Hancock says:

      Yeah, who cares what the actual cinematographers analyzed have said about the accuracy of the analysis? What, do we think that artists use theory and technique to intentionally achieve expressive results? Can you tell I’m being sarcastic? You see, the tone of my writing is supposed to make you think the subtexural meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning of the words.

      sincerely, your friend.

    • SEK says:

      This is basically a rich man’s skip bayless commentary.

      Comparing me to Bayless is a banning offense. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

  7. Halloween Jack says:

    That Cranston, he’s everywhere. (And if you need another reason to see it, Jack Kirby is also a character in it.)

  8. Julia Grey says:

    It doesn’t. First, it implies to still images, not moving compositions.

    “APplies,” she reminded the class, pedantically.

    Another thing that makes the first still so comic, other than the facial expressions, of course, is that the set is very aesthetically busy, including the anonymous people milling around. It contributes to the “unsettled” feeling.

    I also particularly like that there are lots of DOORS (or door-like things such as the vending machine) in the background, which make me think of bedroom farce: lots of running stage right, stage left, slammings and bangings and squeals and squallings….

    Sorry. Stage nerds never get over interest in things like backdrops and exit flats. Do you know how hard it is to make sure those suckers don’t rock or shudder when the door is slammed?

    • Julia Grey says:

      And of course, the seriousness of the Cranston-in-the-box shot is not only enhanced by the lack of anything else to look at (except what he’s staring at), but by the severe geometry of the corrugations on the box.

      They create disconcerting stripes. Or bars. All around. Top, sides, bottom, one assumes. Intersecting, but perfectly straight, without deviation from the rule.

      And then there’s the fact of the close confines of the BOX itself, as you mentioned, I think, in the earlier commentary. It’s claustrophobic, and claustrophobic situations/references are always serious, aren’t they, even when they are a “moment” in an otherwise comic movie?

      In comedy, though, there are exits everywhere. There’s always an out.

      • Julia Grey says:


        The reason you didn’t recognize Cranston right away is that he was “out of context.”

        Common phenomenon.

        AF General before whom I’d given multiple briefings in my uniform once greeted my husband at a party with, “and I don’t think I’ve met your lovely wife…”

        • Cody says:

          I’m responding here so your thread doesn’t seem so lonely.

          Having a 3-response thread with only one person is a sad thing indeed, and I would not allow you to suffer in this fate.

  9. jackd says:

    Looking at that initial frame has me wondering about the shift from 4:3 to 16:9. How’s it affecting shot composition? Are there directors who make particularly good or obviously poor use of the wider image? Are there any whose work illustrates the change well? Can you tell I haven’t had HDTV very long?

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