Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Art of Improv and the Documentary Part I

Happy Solstice Dear Reader,

Some of you may know that I, Stephanie Hubbard, the "Documentary Insider", also actively study and perform comedy improv at one of the best schools in the country, iowest, formerly known as improv olympic.

This morning, I started thinking about the two art forms, Improv and Documentary and why I'm so involved with both.

And the most obvious thing is that they both rely fully on improvising: being able to create art on the fly, as it happens, being alert and involved, reacting in the moment - or rather the millisecond.

So, how might we apply principles of improv to documentary filmmaking?

1) Even though, in the art form of comedy improv, "Nobody knows what anyone will say," we do learn and agree on the form we will do. This typically involves structure. What is the structure? In the most successful long forms, (Here I will refer to "The Harold" a long form of improv developed at the Improv Olympic under the beloved Del Close, recognized as the father of improv by many) First, there is an OPENING, which will inspire, and in so doing actually encompass all that follows it. (A great opening in an documentary should both be at the beginning AND encompass all that is to follow.) Then there are three different SCENES. They are unrelated but inspired by the opening, and are typically two person scenes. The most important thing in these scenes is to establish RELATIONSHIP, who are these people to each other - from this comes all else. Then there is a GROUP GAME - typically inspired by the opening. Then we have second beats of each of the SCENES in the first beats - in these second beats you can have more people interacting with the characters established in the first beats. In improv we follow CHARACTER, not plot. These beats can be longer, developing aspects of the characters. Then we have one more GROUP GAME, then SCENES - or Third Beats, that have each of the story lines merge - it turns out that the woman in 2A is actually married to the mail man in 1C and so on. This is also the time that the characters TRANSFORM according to our point of view about the themes that have emerged from within the Harold.
Each scene is developed by the improvisors listening to each other and responding in the moment, but each improvisor is working according to the structure of the piece, moving towards transformation, and a conclusion.

Now how does this apply to Documentary? Well, just as we can really listen to our subjects and to the issues and themes arising from what it is we want to say in our documentary, we might benefit from having a structural road map we are following. And the road map we choose for a Documentary, might be strikingly similar - we have first act - that establishes our characters and their relationships. Our act two is longer, has more ins and outs, more characters perhaps, then we have our act three, or transformation act - also, we have a time when we know it will all come together to say more about the whole than we expected. This is because on some physiological level, the audience is satisfied by transformation and by elevating the conversation to more than they expected. And by doing this in your documentary, you will create a more powerful film.

Stay tuned, tomorrow - the importance of Not Judging, Being in the Moment, and Listening, all key elements of successful improv & successful documentary filmmaking.

To see the sort of improv shows I'm talking about, check out the schedule at

Monday, December 7, 2009

List of Documentaries to View for Filmmakers

I chose some of these docs just because I LOVED them - and all of them I think should be seen by anyone planning to make a doc. Why? Listen, whether you are spending your time and money or someone else's, there is no cheaper way to spark your imagination than to learn and see what others have done. Also, it gives you a shared language to communicate with your collaborators - your dp, your editor, your graphics person. Watching these can also open up the way you can bring to light an issue - from "Manufacturing Consent" to "Titicut Follies" or "Roger and Me", it's a clear illustration that there are many ways to bring consciousness to an issue.

But what about plain old fun? "American Movie", "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" and "Spellbound" take us inside parts of our culture we can be glad we know about because they are fun and wonderful. As for making art, "The Gleaners and I", "Rivers and Tides" and "Visions of Light" won't disappoint. For Characters, "Gray Gardens", and "Keep the River on Your Right" are great choices. But for sheer chutzpah in filmmaking - check out "Grizzly Man", "Tarnation", and the only narrative film on the list, "Le Jetee" (easily found on YouTube)

Then there are my standards - films I use in class all the time to talk about structure and different approaches to doc story telling, "Times of Harvey Milk", "Unknown White Male", and "When We Were Kings". Now I'm about to watch "King of Kong", and I have an inkling I might be adding one more..... Enjoy! Stephanie.

Oh, and of course "Man on a Wire".

“The Farmer’s Wife” (1998) Directed by David Sutherland

“Rivers and Tides” (2004) Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer

“Grizzly Man” (2005) Directed by Werner Herzog

“Salesman” (1968) Directed by Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin

“Murderball” (2005) Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro & Henry Alex Rubin

“The Up Series” Seven Up, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up

Director Micheal Apted

“Keep the River on Your Right – A Modern Cannibal’s Tale” (2002) Directed by David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro.

Le Jetee Sans Soleil (Criterion Collection) (1963) Director Chris Marker

Hoop Dreams (1994) Directed by Steve James

A Question of Color (1993) Cathe Sandler

Belfast, Maine (1999 ) Titicut Follies (1967) Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Roger and Me (1989) Directed by Micheal Moore

Night and Fog (1955) Directed by Alain Resnais

Manufacturing Consent (1993) Directed by Peter Wintonick

Gray Gardens (1976) Directed by Albert Maysles and Ellen Hovde

The Gleaners and I (2002) Directed by Agnes Varda

Tarnation (2003) Directed by Jonathan Caouette

When We Were Kings (1997) Leon Gast

Thin Blue Line (1988) Directed by Errol Morris

Cheap Fast and Out of Control (1997) Errol Morris

American Movie (1999) Director Chris Smith

Iraq in Fragments (2005) Director James Longley

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005) Director Judy Irving

“Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class” (1968) William Greaves

Spell Bound (2002) Director Jeffrey Blitz

Jesus Camp (2006) Directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

Stronger, Bigger, Faster (2008) Directed by Christopher Bell

Visions of Light (1993) Directed by Todd McCarthy and Stuart SamuelsĂ©stor-Almendros/dp/630583685X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1260171854&sr=1-1

“Pressure” (1976) directed by Horace Ove, (Seems to be only in PAL)

“Unknown White Male: A True Story” 2005

Director Rupert Murray Distributed by Imagine Entertainment

“Times of Harvey Milk” 1984

Director Rob Epstein Distributed by Cinecom International & New Yorker Films