Saturday 29 January 2011

Amsterdam Festival

Am currently attending a lot of the shows and workshops of the 16th International Improvisation Theatre Festival in Amsterdam. I'll be updating very soon on what I've seen, heard, learnt, unlearnt, thought. More soon.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Improv and The Graphic Novel Part 2: Jumps

This is the second part of my exploration of the useful things for improv raised by Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

Comics, as much as films and books, love to jump in space and time. These jumps often use an extension of the previous topic, closure, for us to be fill in the gap or make the connection. Moving to another time or place in a story is a great tool. It allows us to follow multiple threads, skip bits of the story we don't actually need to see, see the causes or consequences of an event or behaviour, or see parallels between events separated by time and/or space. There's so much more it can do. Here's an example of a time jump used to reveal a truth about a character.

Many types of transition are common to most media. The square area at the top or bottom of a comic panel is the equivalent of the narrator or voiceover in improv and movies. Or a jump can be obvious given the context: often based on the last thing said, such as: "Okay, I'll meet you at noon and the OK Corral."

Comics and movies are especially blessed with being able to use imagery to indicate movement in time and space that doesn't mean we can't learn from them. We can simulate or allude to some of these jumps (or edits).

We've all faked the wobbling screens of a flashback, but how many of us have morphed from one scene to another or been in a split screen with our old and new selves showing how different or similar their lives were? Have we ever described effects as the narrator, the way a book would have to? "As he pushed the button, the whole room went blurry, our faces lost their distinctness and objects hung in the air awkwardly. We were in hyperspace."

The medium of comics is by its nature a medium of jumps. With occasional departures, all comic stories are made up of multiple panels that are essentially pieces of frozen time. So comics, being distinctly discrete, in their depiction of events get to play with time in a way we as improvisers (being physical beings and unable to be anything other than continuous) cannot. But that is not to say we can't also play with time. McCloud talks a lot about how much of what goes on in comics goes on in between the panels – i.e. in the mind of the reader as he or she connects each panel. We as improvisers only really have those gaps during edits, but that doesn't mean we can't think about the time between actions and dialogue; or think more about the connections the audience has to make during and between scenes.

McCloud identifies 6 panel-to-panel transitions.

  1. Moment-to-Moment: the next panel is a very short time later. Very little has changed and very little if any closure is needed to interpret what has happened.
    The gunman steps a few paces forward. The girl's smile gets bigger. The flying bird is a little further away.
  2. Action-to-Action: one subject is shown doing one action after another; the actions are connected.
    A man drops a coin; he stoops to pick it up.
    A golfer hits a ball; he puts his hands to his eyes to look in the distance.
  3. Subject-to-Subject: The subject changes, but the scene or idea does not.
    Someone kicks a ball into a goal; a crowd cheers.
    A monkey dances, money is dropped into a hat.
  4. Scene-to-Scene: These are significant changes of time and space, but still there is some connection.
    Man and woman under a sunset say "Forever" to each other; we then see them both angry on different sides of a court.
    "We'll never know what happened to the Rajeeb Diamond," says a policeman; A caption says "meanwhile in Peru" over a bird struggling along with a large necklace in its beak. 
  5. Aspect-to-Aspect: is where we see different aspects of a scene, idea or emotion.
    A set of pictures conveying the same place from various angles and distances.
    A clown, happy children and a smiling cat.
  6.  Non-Sequitur: This is where pictures have nothing in common whatsoever. However the human mind is so adept of looking for patterns and connections, and so wants to find them, that it's almost impossible to have two things that aren't in any way related. Especially to improvisers who are trained in making these sorts of connections.

So let's look at them more from an improviser's point of view.
  • Moment-to-Moment and Action-to-Action happen during a scene and are perhaps demonstrated best by that exercise where you break down every single movement into a simple, discrete steps. For example to pick up a piece of toast, you put your arm out; open your fingers; put them around the toast; close them; bring hand up. It's possible to divide this different ways and you can always break it down more (or less). You can think of how much you break something down like this as an indication of how important it is. For example, the moment the young man kills his first deer in a film or book would probably be shown (or described) in great detail and perhaps slow motion.
  • Subject-to-Subject is usually demonstrated by focus shifting to other characters in the scene or by a cut-away scene. Or it could be done by a narrator adding some extra details or unseen actions.
  • Scene-to-Scene is where most improv edits fall so doesn't need to be expanded here.
  • Aspect-to-Aspect changes is usually achieved in a brief montage where we see three quick establishing scenes about Christmas. Or by one or more narrators or characters describing different aspects of a scene, event, etc.
  • Non-Sequitur is either surrealist randomness or it's the gap between scenes in the first round of a Harold or similar collection of (usually) unrelated scenes. Although even then, there are usually plenty of connections if you look for them.

This list might not be directly applicable to improving your improv, but the more aware we are of time and space and how much control we have over it on stage the better. It can only help to make us stronger performers; more in control of every aspect of what happens on that few square feet of wood where we do our magic.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Improv and The Graphic Novel Part 1: Closure

I recently finished reading Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I'm not really a big follower of graphic novels, but this book was recommended as being really about storytelling.

It certainly covers a good deal about storytelling, but mostly in the context of depicting said story in sequential boxes and it also has other line-drawn axes to grind . Having read it, like all good obsessives, I asked myself, how can I apply this to the thing I'm obsessed with? There is a good deal that can be applied here to improv.

What was good, was that the book was also written by an obsessive and it's great to see obsessives from other media especially those who have made a success of it. It's great is to witness someone enthusing about an art form that's very comparable to improv in that it's an art form often perceived as a hybrid, i.e. made up of other art forms. An art form that is often sidelined and looked down upon, yet is actually more adept at communicating directly to people than others that are generally more highly regarded.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to go over the concepts that I think can be readily applied to improv that this book brought to my attention or reminded me of. Starting today with...


Closure is the human mind's ability to fill in gaps in what it sees [1]. McCloud puts it as "observing the parts but perceiving the whole" [p63]. Or put another way, "if something is missing in an otherwise complete figure, humans will tend to add the missing parts." [2] Examples are usually given in terms of shapes. For example, circles drawn with dashes that even though it could be seen as series of curved lines, we clearly see it as a whole circle. But it's the same when we see just the front of a car or the end of a box of cornflakes, we assume with such conviction that the rest of the object is there, lurking around the corner or behind the other packets.

It also works in the written and spoken word. Ellipsis, where parts of a sentence are omitted (and sometimes replaced with three dots called an ellipsis), is often an example of this. E.g. in "He gave Sheila the coat; and Gavin the knife," "he gave" is omitted before "Gavin" as the meaning is clear without it. It even works for parts of words as in the flowing examples: "Look out for the skellton!" "I hope I've may my point."

Great closure example (c) 2009

In terms of storytelling, closure in this sense means things that are omitted that are filled in by the audience. For example: a guy goes sleepily into a room and then emerges rubbing and opening his eyes. Here we automatically assume he's been to sleep. We didn't see it, but we know the normal sequence of events and this fits the pattern.

For another example, Jack shouts angrily at Allan; In the next scene Allan is lying on the floor and Jack has a clenched fist. We know Jack just thumped Allen without even having to see it.

Horror films use it a lot. Especially older or low budget ones or those going more for suspense than gore. We see the shadow of the creature approach the terrified girl, and then we cut to a tree. There is an ear-piercing scream and the birds fly off. We know it was the girl who screamed and that the creature has got to her. In fact even seeing the shadow of the creature involves closure, because we don't see the actual creature but we know shadows don't move about without the thing they are the shadow of. (Mysteries and thrillers actually take advantage of closure all the time. Often to throw us off the scent or make us think the story is going down one path. It's something we might deal with later.)

So closure in stories involves the audience filling in things or events that they don't see either during or in between scenes. It's very useful. It means we can skip whole chunks of things that the audience knows are going to happen or that are obvious from what is already happening.

It has great benefits for improv. It means we can don't have to show every single little thing to the audience. There is scope and precedent for omitting scenes or chunks of scenes. Especially, for example, later in a long form when we're racing towards the end or when a character has to do a lot of preparations. Take the situation where the hero suddenly needs to go and get a hat to get into the Hatters' Ball, we could simply have him declare he needs to get a hat and see him in the next scene proudly putting on his new hat. We don't need a scene of him entering the hat shop, choosing and buying that hat, delaying what we really want to get to. A less dramatic and more common improv example of closure is starting a scene in the middle.

I could fill a whole book with examples of this from movies, but all we need to know is that where the audience can easily fill in the gaps, we do have the scope to miss obvious parts of the story out and jump to the more interesting bits. It takes some practice to be sure, you're missing out bits the audience will assume happened and not need to see. Otherwise what the audience thinks is going on and what you think is going on might be radically different. And that's not good.

Scott McCloud has since written a new book much more about the storytelling and I hope to have a look at that soon.