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.

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