What Pixar Movies Taught Me About Improv

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What Pixar Movies Taught Me About Improv

By Alyssa Feller

This summer, Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios released Finding Dory,  the much anticipated sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo.  Despite being an adult, I’ve always enjoyed seeing Pixar films.  About 80 percent of the time (sorry, Cars and The Good Dinosaur fans), their films are creative, heartwarming, and technically stunning, and Finding Dory was no exception.  However, it was only recently that I discovered why I enjoy these films so much.

I just completed my Improv 101 class at the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center in Los Angeles.  Before this, I spend years in improv classes and rehearsing with improv troupe in Florida, including my time with Sick Puppies Comedy in Boca Raton.  Going back to a level one class, I relearned a lot of beginner improv skills that can occasionally slip through the mind of a regular performer.  I learned and practiced things like “yes, please,” playing to the top of your intelligence, and showing, not telling.  However, one basic concept that I always have trouble with is exploring a scene.

This concept is about having the characters in a scene explore and play in their environment, instead of standing or sitting still and simply talking.  For example, a great scene initiation might be a performing looking around and saying, “When I agreed to go camping, I didn’t think there would be this much dirt.”  In this scene, the game would be about a camper who didn’t realize he or she would have to walk through the wilderness and get dirty on their trip.  This would be a funny scene, since the audience would accept that this is clearly an unusual idea.  However, the scene would quickly become boring if the performers stood around on stage, simply talking about the dirt and the wilderness instead of exploring the woods around them.

So what does Pixar movies have to do with this concept?  In all of their films, they take a relatively simple concept (What if toys can talk?  What if there really were monsters in your closet?) and explore.  When details about Finding Dory where coming out, I got a little nervous.   Pixar announced that at least part of the movie would take place inside an aquarium, and I thought that this could be a potentially terrible idea.  After all, in Finding Nemo, Dory and Marlin explored the entire ocean.  How can this be replicated in a fish tank?  Of course, Pixar surprised me.  If you’ve seen the film, you know that Dory doesn’t just stay in one tank or pool – she explores the entire aquarium park.  Much of the time, we follow Dory and her new friend, an octopus named Hank, as they swim and jump between a large whale shark’s pool, a kid’s touch tank, an isolated quarantine area, and a huge coral reef exhibit.  Marlin and Nemo even find their way into a gift shop.  Not only are each of these areas visually stunning, they are great ways to showcase a good character and to even add more to their personalities.

In improv, a scene isn’t great if two characters sit on stage and stare at each other.  Pixar realized this.   Imagine if Joy and Sadness in Inside Out talked about the various parts of the brain instead of journeying through it, or if Mike and Sully from Monsters, Inc. just spent time inside their workstation.  What makes Pixar movies so captivating for audiences of all ages is they think of a strange concept (the unusual thing in the game) and explore how that concept and their characters react to different scenarios.

So how can you use a Pixar movie as inspiration in your next improv scene?  Create great characters, find an unusual thing, and then go out and explore.  Going back to the camper scene, imagine if the camper and his or her friends explored what’s around them.  They can canoe down a river, meet a group of camping Girl Scouts, or even fight a bear.  Imagine all the possibilities, and explore.  It can make the difference between a good scene, and a great scene.

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