5 essential tips for directing improv

At first glance, improv may seem like it’s super easy way to make a video. However, if you really look at how improv films and TV Shows are made, you’d see that there’s ton of careful planning and execution that goes into making them. Prior to directing the improvised mockumentary “Best in Show,” director and co-writer Christopher Guest spent months researching and attending dog shows before filming even began. Like everything in filmmaking, there’s a process to making an improvised film. So, if you want to make a full-out improvised film, or if want to add a few improv scenes to your movie, take a look these five tips to help you get started.

1. Have a vision

It’s funny because planning improv may sound like it’s a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s essential for you to have a plan about where you want your story or scene to go before, during and even after filming is done. This means that you need to have a script. Now, you don’t have to go into super crazy planning mode and construct every single little detail if you’re the one writing. You can just include things like major plot points and locations, essentially constructing a wireframe for your film or scene that will ensure your crew isn’t standing around with their hands in their pockets while you’re to decide what to shoot next. Also know that it’s completely okay to write a solid script if you want. It will give you and your actors a good safety net to fall back on if a scene isn’t panning out the way you want it to.

2. Cast the right actors for the character

Speaking of actors, you need to right actors for the job. This is probably one of the most important pieces of advice we can give because your actors are essentially constructing a part of your story. In a way, they must be good writers themselves because they are crafting the dialogue that will tell your story. They have to think fast and sharp on the spot; not every actor can do this. Know that an actor may be an amazing actor when there’s a solid script for them to memorize, but that could all go out the window when there’s just a few plot points without any dialogue written for them. The best way to make sure that you’re casting actors and actresses that can handle the heat of improv is to audition them doing improv as the character. You really want to see if they can act and think like the character they are playing on the spot.
Or, maybe you are using people you know in the film. If so, meet with them while you are writing the script and construct their characters with them. By doing this, the character will end up fitting your actors like a glove because they had their hand in the process as the character was being created. Being able to relate to the character will allow your actors to literally become the characters — or at least convince the audience that they are those characters.

3. Keep shooting

Once you finally get the cameras rolling, never be afraid of filming too much. Keep the cameras rolling. The more you film, the more material you’ll have to work with in post. Also, make sure to use multiple cameras at different angles! Since improv isn’t really scripted, it’s tough to reshoot scenes if you need a different angle, so just get all the angles you need in one take. And have cameras on each actor at all times, because the beauty of improv is that you never know when something brilliant is going to spring up. You’ll be kicking yourself if you happen to miss a moment of brilliance just because you didn’t have a camera on the right actor.

4. Have a script supervisor

Like I said before, re-shooting for an improved film can be a nightmare, so don’t forget to have a script supervisor logging all the scenes! Since you’re going to be filming lots and lots of footage, you need someone who can log all the scenes you shoot, so if you have to go back and reshoot something, you can easily match the shots. Having a script supervisor will save you loads of time.

5. Go with the flow

I know that I’ve been stressing that you need to have a plan and a direction with improv, but know that improv also needs still some freedom for it to work. The main reason improv is done is so that the reactions and interactions between characters can feel natural and organic, and that can’t happen if you’ve got everything planned out. Improv’s a careful balance between not planning enough and planning too much. So, when on set, let your actors try things out and be open to last minute, spur of the moment changes.
Improv in film can be very tough to direct; a lot of the times you may be left wondering if you have any usable footage at the end of a day of shooting, but using improv in films can be very rewarding. It injects an exciting freshness into you film because the story feels like it’s organically playing out on screen, and the reason it feels that way is because it really did come out organically on set. So, if you’re getting ready to film some improv or you’re thinking about trying your hand at this style of filmmaking, have a plan that’s open enough to allow your actors to freely play the character.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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