Improvisation and Your Web Series


by Richelle Meiss

After moving to Los Angeles with stars in my eyes and dreams in my heart, I quickly realized that I needed a reel. The only things I was booking were student films, and those weren’t quite showcasing me in my most marketable light. So, I did what any working actor does in this town, and I decided to do it myself. I would write my own scenes, cast my actor friends as costars, and pay a DP/director to shoot it. Hooray for technology!

But what would I write about? I had recently discovered through conversations with friends and therapists that my brain worked a little differently than other people’s. The news that I was paranoid, depressed, and insecure distressed me at first, but I realized that writing about them might loosen their power over me. I found the process of scripting, acting in, and editing my personal “issues” a great way to get to know myself better.

After I filmed a few of my reel scenes (I paid a DP $150 per day and but edited the footage myself using Adobe Premiere Pro), my friend suggested that I make them into a series. We wanted to become SAG through the New Media Contract and were also looking for a creative outlet. His encouragement convinced me to rework my current material into a full season series where each episode focused on a different “issue” of the character.

To convert the short scenes into ISSUES, the web series, I needed an intro, a logo, and logline. With the help of friends and contacts around town, I had a short animation made and theme song recorded. I kept things simple by uploading to youtube and using a Facebook page as the website. Then, I submitted it to the web series festivals in Los Angeles! I cannot explain to you the joy I felt watching the series screen to a live audience. Hearing the laughter of people relating to my character allowed me to accept some of my greatest “flaws” as they played out on screen.

ISSUES was lucky enough to win Oustanding Lead Actor and Oustanding Guest Actor at the 2014 Web Fest Awards. It screened at El Cid, The Web Web Show, and will be featured on the HelloGiggles website. Check it out here!

One of the techniques that made my series successful was improvisation. When I set out join the masses and create a web series, I knew that I wanted to incorporate improv into the filming process. As a former theater major, I found that my acting became much more believable, in-the-moment, and funny when I utilized the tools I learned in improv. Many of my favorite writer/directors, like Judd Apatow, heavily use improvisation, which I found inspiring and intriguing.

Using improv in my first produced series turned out to be a great decision. Some of our funniest moments were born out of improvised lines. We all had a blast on set because all of the actors felt free to “follow the funny.” Here’s how we were able to do it:

1. We cultivated the right environment

All of the actors cast in the web series had experience in improvisation. In order to utilize it during the shoot, we had to allow for quite a bit of time for each shot. We kept our episodes fairly simple in order to allow the dialogue and comedy to shine through. The director would let the scene play out long past the last line in order to get a great button and see where it could go. Between takes, she would help by telling the actors where she thought their ideas were going and having them expand or heighten the ideas.

2. We knew “the game” of the scene

“The game” is a UCB term that describes the funny thing in the scene. What’s the funny idea? If the actors, director, and writer are all on the same page about this, they can improvise without the scene going completely off the rails. If non-sequiturs arise, they will always come back to that main premise. Improvising allowed us to height the game as we found some new levels in the moment.

3. We made sure everyone on the team knew that improv would be used

By making it clear from the start that we were going to be improvising, the mood switched. The director was not in a hurry to move to the next shot, the actors were looser, and the line producer allowed sufficient time on each shot. The editor (me) knew that there was a lot of improv, so I took the time to piece the story together in a way that made sense with the best shots. I had a lot of great material to choose from!

4. We started with a fully-formed script

Sometimes writer/directors will leave a scene completely up to the improvisers. To me, this does not allow for a filming to be productive and puts the actor in a tough spot. The scene should still be scripted and the actors must be very comfortable with the scripted version before being allowed to improvise.

By using improvisation, my series was able to capture some hilarious, truthful moments. Ultimately, the amount of freedom the artists feel when improv is allowed will only help the filming process. There are so many things I would do differently if I made another series, but the confidence I gained and the skills I learned through this process are invaluable. I hope that your experience is the same!