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.
My Father in Law said “Life is a series of adjustments” as part of his speech he gave to my wife and me on our wedding day. He said it so casually that it scared me. He had just successfully beaten cancer and referred to that as an “adjustment” too. Of course, in his humility, he never actually referred to cancer in front of the room of people. Instead, he said nothing but nice things about everyone and made us all feel like better people.
If Courtney’s father taught me the importance of adjustments, Improv has shown me how. If I am willing to deal with my reality and work within it, I will have successful scenes and relationships. Week after week, night after night, you get bombarded with ideas that aren’t yours and slowly learn how to not only accept them, but begin to love them. Ideas generated by others are ideas that you don’t have to generate on your own. Collaboration and adjustments are the key! Distractions become GIFTS! Yes, I can use this. Perfect! That noise inspired me! I “get” to do this replaces I “have” to do this.
My day job became easier. I plead guilty. I would lose and move on. The push back came from people who needed to be right. I let them. “You’re right. I don’t understand this product. I’m sorry about that.” Be wrong even if you think you are right. In most circumstances, it’s more important to deal with what’s next than it is to be right.
Sunday, March 8th From 12PM – 3PM Sick Puppies Comedy is bringing in from New York, one of the masters of impressions, David Carl, to conduct a 3 hour workshop at Center Stage in Boca Raton on how to create or strengthen impressions or impersonations. Creator of “For Better or For Worse“, a show where he performs 100 celebrity impressions in 30 minutes, David is not only the master of impressions, he creates depth with each one.
If you are a comedian, improviser or actor, you aren’t going to want to miss this rare opportunity to work with someone who can conduct an entire 70 minute one man Hamlet as Gary Busey. Registration spots are already filling up. Cost is only $100. If you happen to be a Sick Puppies Comedy Student (past or present), or if you enroll for the upcoming improv or stand up classes, can enroll for this workshop for only $75. Hurry up, only 16
BONUS: Your enrollment in this workshop also provides you free admission to Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet (as performed by David Carl) that night at 7:30PM.
Humans survive because of their ability to analyze situations, relate them to a previous experience or training and react accordingly. Our memories are powerful muscles. In order to keep them fresh, we need to exercise them. Improv does just that.
Yesterday, I took a workshop led by South Florida’s own improv legend, now Chicago All Star improviser, Jeff Quintana. It was a “Harold” type of workshop, but that wasn’t what it was to me. Yesterday was about pattern recognition and the ability to justify anything that makes a connection. It was about observing our conscious and unconscious choices to follow patterns in a scene.
We performed three scenes in a row. All three were completely separate and different from each other in my eyes. Different scenarios, different characters and completely different subject matter. We finished the scenes and Jeff asked “What themes did you find?” As a class, we tried our best to make something up, but it was clear that Jeff had seen something that we all missed.
“Did you notice that every scene started with one person seated. In that chair. Almost in that same location? And then the character needed a reason to stand? Maybe to stand up and take status?”
That was 10 minutes in. The flood gates opened and every single thing we did for the next 110 minutes made total sense and increased my improv powers by 10. If that’s measurable. I felt like an improv superhero. I mean, that is until Jeff and his improv team “Denver” took the stage later that night, followed by the Groundlings and Messing with a Friend and pretty much everyone that we opened for, but for like 2 hours…. superhero.
The lesson was this. Find the pattern, then find lesson. Find the pattern, then find the theme. Then you can use the theme to manipulate the pattern or demonstrate the theme with a new pattern.
What I think I was doing previously was identifying a theme, then trying to hammer my demonstration with artificial pattern making that my team couldn’t recognize because they weren’t involved in the thought process. However, when were given the freedom to just “go” and discover the patterns together, it was really easy to know EXACTLY what we were saying.
It made me realize that in life, I probably do the same thing. I have a premise or a thought or a theory and I go out into the world (let’s be honest, the internet) and I begin to find patterns or statistics or articles that support my point of view. So, maybe instead of searching for articles that support your point of view by searching “Number of gun deaths in america”, why not search for “guns”? Read what comes up in front of you. Look for patterns. Look for trends. I promise that the simple input will generate such a spectrum of results, that you’ll be forced to read things that go against your current thoughts and if you do it right, you’ll be far more honest with your opinion. Which, by the way, will still probably be totally different from someone else that genuinely tries to do the same thing.
Patterns. Dangerous when you use them to support an existing thought. Beneficial when trying to create an opinion.
Thank you Jeff. If you’d like to see this improv magician at work and possibly do another horrible Japanese impersonation or be the oldest skateboarder ever. At 30. See him and “Denver” on Sunday night at Just the Funny at the Miami Improv Festival.
I started performing Improv because I like to perform. I didn’t understand its real power until I started teaching it. Improv appeals to those in need of acceptance and love, but sometimes we think it attracts “funny” people.
We have nearly 25 active students in our classes and most of them have no interest in joining a troupe or performing as a career, but they keep coming back. A few have shared their experiences with me. Most of these anecdotes were shared with me privately so I removed as many identifying details as possible.
“I didn’t have friends until I started taking classes with Sick Puppies.” – This was said during one of our classes by a student. I wasn’t the instructor at the time. In fact I was on stage with the class. I began to cry and the only person who could see how affected I was, was Aniela. This particular person’s story is one that makes me proud to be a part of it.
“I figured I would take one class to prepare for a presentation I had coming up. I was afraid to speak in front of that many people, but this taught me that I was enough.” – This particular student didn’t take just one class. She’s joining her third class. And she’s an excellent improviser. Yes. Improv teaches you quickly that you have everything you need to be perfect.
“Once I saw there was a place for me in this world, I wanted to be alive long enough to enjoy it.” – This student began lifting weights and training for marathons after they started taking classes. They quit their job and moved to New York to pursue their life passion only after participating in 3 sessions… which by the way had nothing to do with Improv or performing.
A few members of our cast have dedicated themselves to improving their health. If you go into our gallery, you’ll find some of us to be a different person than who we are today. Improv loves and accepts you no matter who you are and it’s okay to care for yourself too.
“I stopped sounding corporate and just started to say what I was feeling.” – I found this to be the most satisfying comment to me. Coming from a corporate world, it’s easy to say what you’re “supposed” to say instead of being true to yourself. Yes, playing it safe could mean that you keep your job, but learning to communicate your point exactly at the precise moment you have an idea can be the most powerful skill you ever have. So many times we walk out of meetings saying “I wish I said this” or worse “I shouldn’t have said that”.
A misguided theory of improv is that you say whatever comes to your head and that would never work in a professional world because you must have a filter. Our classes prove just the opposite. The more you improvise, the more you form your mind to almost always say the right thing and mean it. So say it. And Mean it.
Sign up for improv classes. They start on Monday. Heal yourself.