Flash Frame Visuals Academy of Film & Television

Flash Frame Visuals Academy of Film & Television
Flash Frame Visuals Academy, Bangalore, India

Monday, 5 September 2011

Filmmaking - The Charlie Chaplin Way


Filmmaking - The Charlie Chaplin Way

When we talk about early Directors, how can we not mention Mack Senett, of keystone Kop fame, who took comedy into a new dimension all together.

Well, the name didn’t click? It might now, if we say that he was the one to discover the invincible talent like Charles Spencer Chaplin, now famously called as ‘Charlie Chaplin’. For being just 5”5 and underweight, Chaplin was denied from the Army. But probably he was destined to be a world famous comedian, as they say it!

Charlie debuted his outfit in ‘The Tramp’ during the silent film era in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice. And instantaneously he became immensely popular. More than anything else, he was all known as the funny little tramp with the baggy pants and the durby hats and walking as if his feet hurt. But not many are aware of the fact that how much thought process went in deciding this attire, which later became his trademark. As Chaplin recalled in his autobiography-

Mack Sennett had requested me to get into a comedy make-up. I had no idea what makeup to put on. However on the way to the wardrobe, I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born”.

Chaplin's early Keystones use the standard Mack Sennett formula of extreme physical comedy and exaggerated gestures. Chaplin's pantomime was subtler, more suitable to romantic and domestic farces than to the usual Keystone chases and mob scenes. So it didn’t take him long to discover that he is not meant for Senett kind of comedy, it was way too fast for him.


Followed by this, he left Senett for Essanay, assured that he could have more time for the creation of his films and his own direction in production. And that’s how he wore Director’s cap too! Here Chaplin rounded out the character of the little tramp, creating an intimate style. The camera was placed in a position for a specific reason and the scene held for a longer period of time. He had a feeling for framing and the props in each scene were there for some specific purpose. So he had the complete control over creative part of it and was free to do what all he wanted.

Soon after this he got in contract with First National to produce eight two reel films. First National financed and distributed these pictures but otherwise gave him complete creative control over production.

Chaplin now had his own studio, and he could work at a more relaxed pace that allowed him to focus on quality. By 1927, "talkies" became the dominant mode of film making. But still, Chaplin resisted making such a film all through the 1930s. He considered cinema essentially a pantomimic art. He said: "Action is more generally understood than words".

Chaplin's first talking picture, The Great Dictator (1940), was an act of defiance against Nazism and was also critically acclaimed

Unknown Chaplin

During his brief stint in Senett, he never believed in writing scripts. He used to think that he should not share or reveal his ideas, just as magicians prefer not to say it out. But soon after he joined Essanay, things changed little bit and he started writing, but that too just a vague premise. He often used to reshoot the entire scene, instead of structuring it on paper before itself. The only time he properly wrote the entire script was for his spoken dialogue film, "The Great Dictator" in 1940. Chaplin's unique filmmaking techniques became known only after his death, when his rare surviving outtakes and cut sequences were carefully examined in the 1983 British documentary Unknown Chaplin.

Behind the scenes

Now here, I would take few of his most popular flicks which made audience laugh their heads off. But it didn’t come easy. There was so much happening behind the scenes, which Chaplin had to cater to while quietly donning that naughty smile in front of the camera.


While filming this movie, already he was under huge personal turmoil. As if his domestic troubles were not enough, the film seemed fated to catastrophe of every kind. Even before shooting began, the huge circus tent which provides the principal setting for the film was destroyed by gales. After four weeks of filming, Chaplin discovered that bad laboratory work had made everything already shot unusable. In the ninth month of shooting, a fire raged through the studio, destroying sets and props. For the final scene, of The Circus moving out of town, the wagons were towed to location. When the unit returned for the second day’s shooting the whole circus train had vanished. It had been stolen by some high-spirited students who planned to use it for a marathon bonfire. This time, luckily, Chaplin was just in time to prevent the catastrophe. Somehow, from all the chaos, Chaplin conjured a film of deft comedy and admirable structure.


The Kid is considered as the most perfect and one of his most personal film. According to Chaplin ‘I was at my wits’ end for an idea’. My wife became pregnant and gave birth to a malformed boy, who died after only three days. I evidently suffered acute trauma from this loss. But the responses of the creative mind are unpredictable. Only ten days after my own child was buried, I was auditioning babies at my studio. Suddenly the creative block seemed overcome. I was absorbed and excited by a new plan for a story in which the Little Tramp would become surrogate father to an abandoned child”.  Chaplin never seemed more dogged in his characteristic quest for perfection than in making The Kid. He patiently shot scenes again and again until he was fully satisfied. In the end he had filmed more than fifty times the length of film that appeared in the finished picture.

Even in silent black & white era, Charlie Chaplin managed to leave a loud impact universally.Still his movies are as entertaining as many years ago. He would truly be a mentor for many, irrespective of whether they are from film fraternity or not !! Happy reading.

1) Understanding the film, Jane Bon, Ron Johnson
2) www.charliechaplin.com

Article written by :
Aditi Keerthi Kumar
Head - Academics
Flash Frame Visuals Academy of Film & Television
Bangalore, India
E-mail : aditi@ffvacademy.com

1 comment:

  1. true. he is a legend. very interesting read !!