Improvisation in Cinema

There are few things in art more ubiquitous than improvisation. Yet cinema, a relatively young art form, has still to find a method with which improvisation can be used to inform the entire creative process. Sure, there have been famously brilliant scenes of improvised acting or unplanned strokes of directorial genius but improvisation in these instances has been localised and individual—it has not been the overriding framework, the means of creation from beginning to end. This is not to undermine the potency and effectiveness of individual improvisation, upon which much of jazz is based, it is instead to posit the idea that filmmakers could go further.

Jazz is a very effective counterpoint in this argument. Standard jazz improvisation is, at its most fundamental level, a soloist playing more or less freely while the rest of the ensemble play notated or otherwise pre-determined music. However, some musicians have extended this notion and, thus, there are many ensembles that are capable of having all their members improvise at once without descending too far into self-indulgency. Another quite distinct format for improvisation was developed by the cornetist Lawrence “Butch” Morris.

Morris, born in Long Beach in 1947, developed his musical acumen in the “new jazz” scene of Los Angeles in the early 70s. By 1976, Morris was working in France and experimenting with diverse ensemble structures and frameworks that ranged from solo performances, trios and jazz big bands to a 29-member saxophone choir. The common denominator in all these ensembles was that Morris’ selection of musicians was strongly linked to their personality and the blend they would create with other members. His method for leading these ensembles is known as conduction. As one of Morris’ press releases states:

Conduction (conducted interpretation/improvisation) is a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement or composition. Each sign and gesture transmits generative information for interpretation, and provides instantaneous possibilities for altering or initiating harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, phrasing or form.

In other words, Morris composes live with his baton and hands. The process, known as comprovisation, relies on the improvisatory capacity of the musicians as much as it does on Morris’ on-the-fly authorial decisions. Conductor and musician are thus involved in a kind of symbiotic feedback loop where both are influenced and directed by the other, though the conductor clearly retains a greater deal of authority. Hence, the results of a conduction are spontaneous and emerge out of the creative interplay of the conductor-composer, whose aesthetic takes precedence, and the musicians, whose personality, playing style and improvised offers strongly affect the final nature of the music. It is interesting to note that while Morris was bringing conduction to the new music and jazz scenes, Frank Zappa had long been using a similar method for conducted improvisations during live rock concerts—Zappa similarly used encoded hand gestures to communicate to his band members.

This particular style of cooperative improvisation is not naturally suited to a cinematic context for the simple reason that it would be very difficult to organise a film shoot around a conductor whom everyone could remain in eye contact with. However, this model can provide the basis or at least the inspiration for more aptly structured modes of improvisation in filmmaking. In trying to find such a mode, an important precedent comes in the work of theatre-maker Tanya Gerstle.

Having attended workshops in 1989 at the Whitney Museum in New York, where Morris was artist-in-residence, Gerstle began examining how comprovisation/conduction could be used in devising theatre. Drawing inspiration from Morris, she imagined actors working improvisatorially while receiving live feedback from a director. However, getting the attention of actors who were moving about a space and interacting with each other proved to be far more difficult than it was for a conductor to direct musicians sitting still. The most practical solution was for Gerstle to instil in the actors basic precepts that would guide their work and, thus, largely free the director from having to interrupt—she calls this mode of working Pulse. While Gerstle may still call out some side-coaching, the true directorial influence and aesthetic development comes in the post-improvisation breakdown and debriefing, where Gerstle can comment on what worked and what failed, the opportunities missed and the ideas that should have been dropped. Through these sessions a common language of improvisation is established. Hence, the actors and other collaborators (providing improvised lighting and music) gain an understanding of how the format can be used to devise engaging theatre.

When the Pulse begins, the actors have no idea what will emerge. They are attempting to allow the piece to evolve organically. To work from a place where the unconscious and conscious meet. To synthesise inspiration with technical understanding. The only structure that exists for them is a shared performance language developed over this working period of 8 weeks, a strong trust in each other and faith in this process.

It is with this notion of a “shared performance language” that cinema can take full advantage of improvisation. Collaborative ensembles of creators working together over extended periods is not foreign to cinema—directors have often used the same crew and cast for several films—imagine Bergman without Nykvist or Ullman, imagine Fellini without Rota or Masina. Thus, part of the building work has already been done, in the sense that the trust and intuition needed in joint improvisation would already be established. What is needed to augment this is the language of improvisation—development, contrast, repetition, recurring motifs, climax, juxtaposition, dynamic tension—and the motivation to investigate the potential of all-encompassing improvisation. Perhaps the most important technological hurdle to this motivation, the expense of film, has been overcome by the increasingly detailed potential of digital cameras.

Human society develops telescopically; new advances and leaps happen faster and more regularly the further on we go. Similarly, cinema, as one of our youngest art forms, has already had the opportunity to question itself, to undermine itself, to laud itself and to forget itself. Embarking on an improvisatory style is dangerous and thrilling because failure and unabashed success are separated by an infinitely narrow gap. Of course, it is precisely this perilous uncertainty that makes improvisation so appealing and so necessary if cinema is going to continue to grow as an art and not allow itself to recline into the lazy mediocrity of craft.

See also: Spinoza on Stage