Making a film is like going skydiving. You find a few friends who trust you enough to jump out of a plane together. You find a crew you trust to fly the plane. You check your parachute (the script). And when everything is ready and you’ve made sure everyone is ready, you jump.
With improv film, you jump without a chute.
We’ve been lucky to work with a number of talented improv actors and we’ve made over half a dozen improv films. A few of those films were made with one crew and one actor (as mentioned in the previous chapter).
With an improv based film, you trust the dialogue of your film to improv actors. Typically, I will give an actor a prompt or an idea of what I would like them to talk about. We talk about the subject of the film, and I let them take it from there. You can also talk about the concept for the film ahead of time.
If you have a specific character in mind, you will want to discuss it with your actors ahead of time. In my experience, the more of themselves the actor brings to the role, the more believable the performance will be. As mentioned in the chapter on casting, we do our best to cast actors who are as close in their own personality to the characters we are trying to cast. This is one reason it is a good idea for the director to be present during casting, so that they can bring their interpretation of the characters to the casting.
As a director, it’s important to listen to what works and what doesn’t work. When we roll a take the improv actors will naturally create beats for the scene (a few lines of dialogue expressing an idea or emotion). It’s important to identify the beats so you can decide what works for the scene and what doesn’t land.
With each take, whether filming one improviser doing a monologue or a couple actors, what they say will be a little different each time. On my first improv based film, the actor I was working with gave me three different monologues. They were all around the subject we were covering, but they were different enough that each monologue could become a different film with some additional coverage.
When working with two improvisers, it’s very important to find the beats and to identify the beats that work for the scene since you will be filming the scene almost a dozen times to get all the necessary coverage. Each time the improv actors say their dialogue it will be a little different, by identifying the beats that work, you give the actors touchstones they can hit on when they perform the scene each time.
Coverage, Coverage, Coverage
When you are filming an improv-based film, you want to make sure you have sufficient coverage to tell the story of your film. With a scripted film, it is pretty easy to create storyboards ahead of time. You have a script as a template for all of the coverage you need. Usually you film a wide shot, medium shots on each actor in the scene, close ups, and any insert shots, extreme close ups, or high angle shots.
With an improv film, it’s important to stick to this template. We film a two-shot first so we can get both actors speaking to each other in the scene, then we move on to medium shots of each actor. It’s also a good idea to get shots of anything in the scene that you can cut to, like an insert or an extreme close up for a reaction shot.
When it’s time to edit the footage, all of the different takes need to be threaded together. You might use a line from take two and then cut to a line the other actor spoke in take four. The editor will need to watch all of the footage from the day and take notes on what worked (if the director wasn’t able to make notes during filming). As the editor scrubs through footage they will need to build the scene from lines of dialogue that don’t always line up perfectly. As with any film, it’s a good idea to incorporate J-cuts and L-cuts to give the dialogue a natural flow.
When filming a scene with one camera, editing is time consuming for an improv short. It can easily take double the time to edit a scene together.
Some benefits to improv based film are speed on set, discovering the story of your film with your actors, collaborating with other creatives in authorship, and learning more about how a short film can be structured. We’ve had the opportunity to make over half a dozen improv based films, and we look forward to making more!
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