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Be the Ball
by Patrick Storck

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Improvisation is something no writer wants. You have written such beautiful words, such fantastic dialogue, and every note and syllable needs to come to life as you have imagined. As a director, chances are you've story boarded this whole film out (if you've been paying attention). As a producer you have out down money for what you are expecting as a final product. As an editor, you expect every take to follow some continuity so that your editing follows a rational flow.

In all forms of logic and efficiency it goes to say that improvisation is the worst possible thing you could allow on your set, right? From a technical standpoint, this is correct. If you happen to be working on a big budget film that can't risk too much thought because of schedule, you're probably on the sort of movie that can afford a scene taken "just in case," so go ahead and try.

The rest of us are on a budget where we have only a few bucks for a few moments at any given place. We don't have the luxury of thinking on our feet, only the necessity. If it's working, keep it working. If it's not, work around it.

The idea of doing something spontaneous scares us all. An idea that is not ours, was not pre-planned, and may not exactly build the collage of images and story we have envisioned is threatening to our ideal work of visual literature. In other words, we fear change.

How many people are on your set? Four? A dozen? Two hundred? On any scale production you have countless amounts of people with countless moments of experience in real world situations. All of that experience, should you not just listen but be actively requesting, could provide far more information than you quick google searches.

I've done a lot of goofy shit in my life. Does that mean I'm qualified to replace my brake pads or cook for my crew? Actually, yes. But that's just because I have experience in life. Your second AD may know a good spot for that fishing scene. The sound guy might have a line of dialogue that perfectly sums up everything he's heard for the last five takes. Everyone you bring in to to work on your film has different life lessons that may be helpful in making you story believable, or at least relatable.

Most people think of improvisation as the comedic tool for cheap gags. Let's let Jim Carrey say a dozen things, then get the best on cut in as a big laugh. Does that happen? Sure! But that doesn't mean the story was serviced, nor does it mean it wasn't. If each take keeps on a well described theme, then the lines should fall within the confines of the character and story as established. If the lines are an attempt to break the cast and crew, your best bet is to delete that scene. The stuff that works well above what you've been shooting all day fairly fits in with said shooting in post.

Improv does work for multiple takes of lines that are reactionary, inserts, tag lines, tough guy bits, or some other non-dialogue statements you can get to be trailer-worthy. Just make sure they fit the character and narrative. Still, you have something you're trying to say. Make sure it's being said, and that you're not letting it go with a cheap laugh.

Improvisation, beyond just quick bits of funny, can be the methods or styles you employ on set for technical solutions. If you need to shoot something you're not sure can be accomplished, don't know how you can pan this way or pull focus on that, you're probably going to bail on the shot if you can't work it out quickly. It's amazing what you might be able to do if you say to everyone, loud and clear, "I need to find a way to (blank), and if in the next fifteen minutes anyone can figure out how to do that we can save a few more shots," people may come to you with ways to not just give you your vision, but also save some hours of work for everyone involved.

There is an off chance a guy built a rig for getting smooth tracking shots while diving though the woods. Perhaps the head explosion you need is similar to what the lighting girl did for a short in college. There's a matte effect that you hadn't considered, but the lead actor was working on something else and he remembers the framing for it worked out well.

Everybody on your set has experience on either other sets, or in life in general. You can still be the leader. You make the decisions, the artistic choices, the final calls on what gets done. This does not mean that you must be the great and powerful Oz on set. You just need to know what you know, and what you know that you don't. From day one be willing to at least take in ideas, let people shape elements, and give trust to the craftsmen you've surrounded yourself with. This is what they're there to do: find a way to bring your vision to life. They can do their job to the best of both their ability and what you let them accomplish, or you can be a control freak and spout redundant detail like how to frames a two-shot.

Every day you will wake up with weather changes, sick actors, new ideas, and broken rigs. It's a business full of things that can go wrong. The lower your budget, the less options you have. The worse your equipment will be. Things will go wrong and you'll need to change your plans, so if anyone has any idea how to do something, your best option is to at least listen. Everyone has ideas, and if you think film isn't a collaborative process you're not a leader so much as an ego waiting for implosion.

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Exploring everything you should consider as you make your indie masterpiece.

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Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

Bad Movie Christmas

Suggested Reading

Thanks again!

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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