Amateur Comedic Fiction

"A Comparison of Amateur Comedic Fiction Made by Film Industry Professionals and 'Regular Folks'"

Lynne Kirste
Special Collections Curator
Academy Film Archive

Over the years, the Academy Film Archive has received hundreds of reels of home movies from people who worked in the motion picture industry – directors, actors, actresses, cinematographers and so on. Some of these home movies are behind-the-scenes material on feature film sets; most of them are the usual family footage – birthdays, vacations, kids playing; and occasionally these industry professionals, like a lot of regular folks, would get out their 8mm or 16mm cameras and shoot amateur narrative films with their friends and families for their own entertainment.

I got to wondering how the amateur fiction made by industry professionals would compare with that made by people who didn’t work in the film industry. The professionals had spent a lot of time on film sets, watching and participating in the filmmaking process, yet on casual viewing I hadn’t noticed that their amateur narrative films seemed very different from the efforts of non-professionals. I wondered if a closer examination would turn up some significant differences between the amateur fiction made by the industry pros and non-pros, or if there were forces at work here that were more important than familiarity with lighting, camera angles and continuity. For example, it often appears that the main goal of the participants was to have fun making a movie together rather than to create a polished product. Maybe the focus on enjoying the filmmaking process somewhat levels the playing field when it comes to making amateur narratives.

What I’d like to do today is to watch with you three short comedic films by members of each group – industry professionals and “regular folks” – so we can all look for differences and similarities, and speculate as to the possible reasons for them. I’ve come up with some potential points of comparison; I’m sure you’ll think of others. I’ll be very interested to hear everyone’s observations. Here are some ideas of things to look for:

Story/script: The choice of story and the degree to which the film appears to have been scripted or planned in advance; the amount of emphasis on physical storytelling, including extreme emotions, slapstick humor, mock violence and “amusing” injuries; presence or lack of a strong, definitive ending to the film; the use or intended use of intertitles.

Casting: “Inclusive casting” – using many family members or friends; casting people who are physically wrong for a part; using children even when they are too young to be able to easily perform the actions required for their part.

Cinematography: Who shot the film and why – was a cinematographer chosen or did one person take on the duties, possibly the person who owned the camera; did more than one person shoot the film, perhaps trading off the camera to whoever wasn’t acting in a given scene; the skill level of the cinematographer(s); the prevalence and success of particular types of shots (closeups, pans, reverse angles, point-of-view shots, special effects, inserts, etc.); shots that don’t “read” or break continuity.

Acting: The degree of subtlety in acting styles; extreme or melodramatic gestures, mugging, silly walks, shtick; use or avoidance of vocalizing in silent films; breaking character; looking at the camera with purpose or as a “mistake.”

Editing: The use of in-camera editing versus shooting the film with the clear intent to edit it later; the combination in the same film of both in-camera editing and intent to edit later; whether or not a film shot with the intent to edit later was in fact ever edited; editing techniques and skills, including cutting on action, putting insert shots in appropriate places, cutting from a long shot to a closer shot of the same scene; pacing of the film.

Props and costumes: Use of items for “inappropriate” purposes with comic intent; obviously handwritten signs and labels to clarify what an item or person is supposed to represent in the film; the apparent creation of gags or storylines around props or costumes that happen to be available, rather than writing a scene ahead of time and finding the props necessary to film it.

Gags: The inclination to use gags; gags that “read” and those that don’t.

Continuity: In costumes, props, locations, lighting, the onscreen direction of movement.

Locations: Choice of locations; opportunistic use of locations; building storylines around an available or prized location.

Lighting: Choice of natural or artificial light or a combination of both; using lighting for dramatic purpose; skill level with exposures.

This small sample of amateur fiction does not constitute a scientific survey by any means. Obviously, there are a number of variables at play here besides the filmmakers’ relation to the motion picture industry, such as when the films were made, the ages of the filmmakers, the amount of time spent on the projects, and many other factors. Nonetheless, I think it will be an interesting and worthwhile comparison.

Films Screened
[Home Movies – Brian, Mary. Untitled fictional comedy / ca. 1932]

Cast includes Norman Foster (professional actor/writer/director).

Possibly shot by Russell Gleason (professional actor).

Norman Foster pines over Mary Brian, who is in New York. Distraught, he attempts to kill himself, but despite the help of an offscreen “friend,” he finds it harder than he expected.

[Home Movies – Carter, Ed. “The Glass Bear” / ca. 1975]

Cast includes Ed Carter (age 16), Mark Peterson (16), Glen Peterson (12).

Shot by Ed Carter (16), Mark Peterson (16), Glen Peterson (12).

In this comedic detective story, a TV repairman steals a precious object from a home. A detective tracks the crook down and chases him extensively before a fortunate mistake allows him to recover the stolen item.

[Home Movies – Hitchcock, Alfred. Untitled fictional comedy / ca. 1930]

Cast includes Alfred Hitchcock (professional director), Alma Hitchcock (professional writer/continuity), Pat Hitchcock (their daughter, age 2).

Probably shot by Alfred and Alma Hitchcock.

A wife, tipped off by her daughter, finds her husband canoodling with another woman and gives him his comeuppance.

[Home Movies – Kirste family. “The Tennis Player” / ca. 1968]

Cast: the entire Kirste family – parents Bob and Ilse, children Paul (5), Rich (7), Lynne (9) and George (11).

 Shot by Bob and Ilse Kirste.

Tennis players are amused when a five-year-old carrying a guitar case arrives at the courts. Their laughter quickly fades when one by one, the quirky kid beats them all using unorthodox methods.

[Home Movies – Oakie, Jack. “Home, Chapter 3: All Around the House”/ ca. 1953] - excerpts

Cast: Jack Oakie (professional actor).

Shot by Victoria Horne (professional actress, daughter of professional director).

While taking us on a filmed tour of his estate, Jack Oakie ponders which restroom to enter. He chooses the wrong one and is embarrassed. Later he shows off his birdbath and encourages the birds to use it – a good deed which does not go unpunished. Opening credits for the film are included.

[Home Movies – Chozog Productions. “TV Commercials That Didn’t Make It” / ca. 1973] - exerpts

Cast: Heather Herzog, Amy Chomicky, Dave Pendleton, Paul Pendleton, Clay Herzog, Charles Kuhn, Lisa Chomicky (all teenagers).

Shot by Fritz Herzog (age 17).

Television commercials show various products in a humorously bad light. Vignettes include a woman soaking her nails in Palmolive dishwashing liquid, Ripoff Cereal, Lifebuoy soap with mint, and the opening and end credits for the film.