15. using improv to write for animation

Animation is much more isolated and planned than improv. sometimes it feels a bit lifeless. I’m working on this dungeon animation and I literally don’t know what to do with the story. I just had an idea to make a short in the stye of a retro 1980s video game. but I need to breath life into the scene! after a night of watching improv comedy, I want to learn some of the techniques that make everything so alive.

I spoke to my dad who has spent a lot of time in improv classes and on stage, he helped make this list:

guidelines of improvisation

1. Yes, and
2. Be present in the space
3. Don’t go for the laugh
4. Trust your partner
5. Make it relatable
6. Day of days
7. Justify behaviour
8. React naturally

• say yes, and
sometimes when I’m writing I start editing all my ideas too much. saying YES! lets me stop editing and just accept the premise of the scene. saying AND then lets me start building the scene, seeing what comes.

• be present in the space
when you’re writing a scene, don’t be in your bedroom at your computer. be IN the scene. feel your five senses. feel your emotions. being present makes the setting, props and characters become real.

• don’t go for the laugh
many improv scenes get ruined when someone goes for a joke. it’s actually funnier to establish the reality of the scene and see where the comedy naturally forms. similarly in writing for animation, don’t force it. I want to make a funny story set in a dungeon video game, but I need to make the game as honestly as possible. see where the comedy comes up (and if it becomes a sad or scary scene, go with it)

• trust your partner
working together is key to improvising. I know that as an animator I am resisting working with teams. it will improve my work! I know this because I’ve already seen it happen when I worked with collaborators in the past. even if it’s just a friend watching me work and contributing ideas. trust your team and their skills, and be open to collaboration. it’s more fun and somehow more magic happens.

• make it relatable
in improv you don’t always make it wacky. it’s often more fun to see a couple meeting their doctor than to see all the characters pull of masks and reveal they’re alien wolves here to claim Earth.

this advice seems to run counter to some animation advice I read that said: have a reason this is an animation. basically saying that an animation should portray something that isn’t better served by live-action. I’m not sure I agree with that, but there is truth to it. in animation, visual gags can be bigger and characters can be more exaggerated.

how can I blend these seemingly conflicting pieces of advice? if a scene is more cartoonish, can it still have characters and stories that hit home? in a story like Over the Garden Wall or Adventure Time, animation portrays a crazy fictional world but it is grounded in emotion too. Just look at Pixar films that open my eyes to these huge insights. the characters are exploring surreal places but the emotion is relatable.

• day of days
don’t just show a random day, look for those moments in life when everything changes, that leave an impact and shape the story. in animation I tend to portray vignettes that are sort of static. If I embrace change for characters, my stories might feel bigger.

• justify behaviour
characters act in a way that makes sense. in improv one character said: “Why is there so much paperwork?” and the other replied, “Because it’s Oakville.”

This justification doesn’t make sense, yet we the audience believe it for the scene. it fuels the scene.

How can I apply this to writing for animation?
In an animation script there is a lot of absurd action. Why is the Coyote tying himself to a bomb? Why is Homer on the roof during a storm? Why is Pim spending his day with an evil man? Because they are motivated.

Maybe the character motivation is nearly nonsense, but it doesn’t have to be good. stuff happens all the time in the real world and the human brain is great at accepting the first justification it hears. it helps us sleep at night.

animated characters should be true to their personalities and the story. but they can also just do stuff.

• react naturally
lastly, keep it real. improv is actually quite fun and easy if you just react naturally to what happens. authentic reactions give animated characters life, making them relatable.

PS: I find myself spending more time writing than animating now. I wonder if I should work in education or writing instead of being an animator… I still love to make my own stuff but it’s so fun to share the things I learn and organize thoughts, connecting ideas from all over the place.

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