It Doesn’t Work: Filming Improv
One thing I’d like to change is the fundamental mindset of many improvisers. In an art full of “yes, and,” “make your scene partners look like geniuses,” and “jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down,” there is a surprisingly large amount of negativity and lack of commitment.
Quite often, I hear resigned voices that say “it just doesn’t work” and accept this very antithesis of the idea of improv, rather than taking the time to reflect and working on the problem at hand.
I want to change “it doesn’t work” into “I’m not good enough to make this work…yet.”
I’ve heard countless reasons over the years about why improvisers refuse to put their sets on video:
“Improv doesn’t translate to video.”
Bullcrap. If you look for improv on YouTube, you can find a lot of very professional, well-produced improv shows (Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Improv-A-Ganza, UCB house teams, etc.) that are absolutely hilarious.
“It’s not the same as being there.”
I can concede this point, but it’s the same with any live performance. Whether you’re attending a concert, a broadway play, or a standup special, everything that has been designed for a live audience is better when you’re attending it in person. That’s not going to stop people from selling DVDs or providing online streaming to these works of art.
“They can cut and pick the best bits.”
This is not even a problem. Imagine being able to show your friends and family a video of your improv troupe on YouTube, and them actually loving it and wanting to come see your show live!
The main issue with filming improv lies in the limit to the resources that the improv troupe is willing to put into it. On the flip side of the professionally produced shows, you have countless improv sets that have been filmed with a single camera, from the back of the theatre, with no sound equipment, no editing, and no camera operator (among so many other issues).
How can anyone expect to compare these results with a professionally produced show?
If your improv show is unwatchable, it’s your fault. The easiest way to determine this is to show your video to someone who’s not on your improv team, preferably someone who’s not an improviser at all and who doesn’t have a stake in your feelings.
Aside from the content itself, assess whether or not the video quality meets your bare minimum standard for watching any online content.
- Faces are all washed out due to overexposure
- Dark areas on the stage (maybe it’s even too dark to see anyone clearly)
- No dedicated microphones outside of the camera’s built-in mic
- Performers are too quiet/loud
- Audience is too loud
- Too much ambient noise
- Sound quality is just low due to placement of camera or the low quality of the mic itself
- Single Camera at the Back
- No idea where to focus in the scene
- Can’t see key subtle movements like facial expressions
- Multiple Cameras but No Operators
- Improvisers may move out of proper shots, and those moments are simply lost due to improper setup
- Inept Camera Operators
- Shaky camera movements
- Not sure what to focus on or how to capture the right shot
- Bad Camera Quality
- Grainy video (ask yourself if you’re okay with watching a video on YouTube that’s in 240p)
- Single Camera at the Back
- No Editing
- Common excuse: “Capture what it’s like to watch the improv show live”
- Usually difficult to justify this if you have more than one camera
- End up passing along footage that hasn’t been viewed, often riddled with bugs that are potentially fatal to the video (no audio, video glitches, etc.)
- No Editing
The film quality should not deter your viewers; you want your material to be the reason people are tuning in or out.
Simply put, if you want to film your improv show for an audience, you need to put the time and effort into preparing your footage.
Even the most novice improviser takes at least one workshop or class before performing as a full-fledged player, so treat the process of filming with the respect it deserves. If your product isn’t good enough, then keep working on your skills until you can make it good enough.