Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Improv: Film versus Stage

Hi, Katy Schutte here.  I’ve been making some improv film shorts over the last month and have more planned over the summer.  It’s not a new idea, Mike Leigh and Christopher Guest being the most famous pioneers in this area, but it continues to be re-invented.  The Office has much of the feel of a Guest mockumentary and Gervais nods his head to the likes of Spinal Tap as his inspiration, although the series is scripted.  Likewise Parks and Recreation with Amy Poehler.  But where is improv better – the stage or the screen - and what’s the difference for performers?
First off – how do you improvise a film?  With stage improv you can create the who, what and where in the moment, so how can that work on film? 
The who?: In improv there are a billion ways of finding a character – starting with a genre idea, leading or stacking with a body part, loosely impersonating someone famous or someone you know, mirroring your scene partner, finding the opposite to your scene partner, building on an accent or way of walking and many more.  These are general acting tools but we pick them up as self-suggestions as we walk into a scene.  On stage they are instantaneous or they might come from a scene before, when such a character was described.  On film it’s good to know the connections between characters in advance so that some kind of plot can be worked out, but I give my improvisers the gist of who and they come along armed with what they might wear, what their point of view might be, who they might like or dislike and what they are cool or not cool with in the story.  A detailed character back-story helps some improvisers too.  I enjoyed Kate’s personal character trait of carrying mini post-its with her to mark any health and safety faux pas.
The where?: On stage we can create an imagined set or location through scene and person-painting as well as through our words and with object work but these don’t work on film.  Or rather, they can, but you’d be looking at a style that’s not immediately congruent with mockumentary.  Even Lars Von Trier’s Monster had props, costumes and set dressing in the massive black box studio where it was filmed.  The where is still pretty loose in our films in that we will have an idea for a setting – we filmed the first one in Richmond Park and the second in a community centre – but we will look around for fun spaces on the day.  These will influence the scene’s content and game.  We had a lovely where for Jen’s character monologue when someone had the bright idea right before we shot it to have her walking along in a river!
The what?: Or what’s going on or what is being talked about.  Having the what nailed down means that there is a storyline ahead of time.  It would be possible to create a story from filming characters (who) in locations (where) but it’s not quite as interesting if it’s not headed somewhere.  There’s the technique of making a storyline in the edit – which is how a real documentary is often made – but that requires an awful lot of footage and more time editing and we’re interested in quickly turned around episodes with a clear direction.  Confetti managed this approach very well.  Also – when a great game is discovered late in a filmed scene, you can edit out a long lead-up and perhaps even pause the scene to tell the actors to play the game more or heighten it, or just emphasise to them what the game is.  Many British shows like to use this safety net on stage whereas I am more used to long form where we just have to get good enough to find a game quickly! 
Which is better?!  On stage you get audience feedback, which can tell you if you’ve hit a good seam of comedy or found a character that people empathise with.  On film you have to trust the director with this and you lose a bit of the fun of getting laughs (which we all like, let’s face it).  The plus side is that the improvisers will more likely go for truth than comedy and the show will have a bit more depth whilst still being funny.  We thought we were doing fine on this score before one of our crew lost himself in laughter and we had to have giggle breaks from Jon’s bird-hating monologue.  Of course, there are times when we can’t help ourselves...  With filming you also have a number of goes.  If a scene doesn’t work, we can just reshoot it, or if we get a different idea as we work, we can try both.  Film will last and be re-watchable, whereas a stage show will never be seen again.  But our stage shows don’t date and our films can never be perfect.  As we are making mockumentaries, the screen demands more subtlety than the stage, though I think me and Rach have a similar feel in our 2-person show inspired by TJ and Dave.  So for me there is no real best, apart from the fact that I love and dislike both for all these reasons.  The shorts provide a nice contrast to the freeform work I do with the Maydays and Katy and Rach, but I love both forms – one with a tight backbone and one whose skeleton comes into being at the same time as the rest of its body.  When it comes to commercial success of course, many comedians and bands find that their TV series or their downloads bring more people to their live shows and that’s what they really love to do. 
So what is the structure?  I write a loose Harold ahead of the filming.  One of these will fit onto one side of A4!  Each scene just lays out the situation and perhaps a gentle game or character suggestion for those involved.  We have found that with this grounding we can improvise all the dialogue fairly easily.  I have the actors watch each other’s performances where possible, so that strands of story unfold during the filming day – even when we’re filming out of sequence.  I have to be a careful listener just as I am on stage to make sure that the dialogue does not contradict.  Sometimes the cast can’t be there all day or have to be quiet off set in which case I fill them in with as much detail as I can.  The prep the actors bring to the floor is their own costumes, character back-stories and points of view.  With everyone taking this much responsibility we can make rounded characters exist within a real-feeling comedy vehicle. 
Each episode is independent so it’s also fun for me to cast my regulars in differing roles to challenge their range and give us a bigger world to dip into throughout the series.  I have also found that scenes work better with improvisers that have worked together before.  It helps them get to a place of group mind much more quickly.  Though I’m working with Del Close’s Harold structure at the moment, we are evolving to look at the La Ronde and Time Dash.  None of these are original film structures, but all serve to build a backbone.  Memento for example is a Time Dash and Le Ronde is the namesake of the 1950 film with this structure.  To start, I sometimes pick a venue, sometimes a random word or idea and I find a venue to fit.  This is me giving myself audience suggestions.  My crew are improvisers too.  We have no storyboard of shots and all I tell Arash (the director of photography) is whether the characters know there’s a camera or not.
We have filmed two shorts to date and will be doing our first editing session this week.  There are more skeleton scripts waiting on my laptop.  We hope to film 6-8 over the summer with a variety of improvisers, comedians and actors dropping into the team.  It’s like film repertory.  I love it.
Thanks to the cast and crew of the last two films as well as the venues which let us film (and boo to the venues who didn’t).  The films will launch at the beginning of September with a new London arts website.  I’ll keep you posted with details.
Go see some of my improv favourites: Vera Drake (not a comedy!), Reno 911!, Factory, Waiting for Guffman, This is Spinal Tap, Confetti.


  1. Great blog Katy, I'm really keen in using impro and developing impro based films and its very interesting to read this and see how you approach and develop your films. Have a look at a short I directed here which was semi improvised called Cregan using impro in a serious drama not comedy. We worked from a script but I allowed the actors to be very free in their work particularly in the main scene in the middle which is almost all improvised. I worked with a camera operator who had shot alot of docs so he allowed me to shoot and shoot the scene until he knew we had covered anything I might need in the edit. As long as the actors made essentially the same blocking and gave key lines as cutting points the scene could cut together. Its actually cut from over 12 different takes. Not many laughs but I think the performances are really alive and nuanced. Have you seen any Cassavetes films - almost all improvised and well worth checking out.

  2. A little note on pioneers of using improvisation in film. Probably the most noteworthy (certainly the most prolific) director would be Robert Altman, who considered his scripts (whether he or others had written them) to be mere blueprints, having actors improvise scenes, and rarely falling back on the written text. His approach was considered so alarming (in this and other ways) that Donald Sutherland tried to get him fired from the set of M*A*S*H. For anyone curious, I would recommend The Player (1992) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).

    Also, in a very different way, was John Cassavetes, who would have actors improvise, then work out the entire film – which would be shot in a controlled way – based on what they had come up with. He would slowly refine what he was doing take-by-take, which would sometimes total up to seventy for a single shot.