Friday, September 25, 2015

The A to C and Audience Engagement

I like to read what interests me, that sounds like common sense but I say that because sometimes that takes me to interesting places.  In this instance, I'm talking about improv comedy.  I've never done improv comedy, but it sounded interesting to me. and I wanted to read about it.  So, awhile back, I bought The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, where they break down their school of thought and theory in improv comedy, and some of the games that they play.  I finally got to read through it this past week and barring a review of the whole book, there were a few ideas that I really connected with.

One principal that came up was "A to C'ing", which I had never heard but I'm sure some of you are familiar with.  Essentially in improv, you're constantly heightening the stakes, and building off of ideas.  Everything put out into the world by your partner, you're supposed to treat as a fact and then propel your thoughts off of that.  It's constant listening and response— an often overlooked portion of good acting.

The A to C idea is that if your scene partner introduces idea A (let's say they say the word 'truck'), rather than jumping directly to a B idea (a direct word association or knee-jerk response, like "driver") you go to the C idea, take your B idea and compound that (something like "screw").  Suddenly the subject of your train of thought evolved from a vehicle to a tool.  It's an unexpected move (which is often where the comedy lies), but has a train of thought that could be followed logically, creating an organically complex evolution of concept.

In the editing world, I see A to C'ing as a method of avoiding on-the-nose storytelling where we are talking about the idea and showing it at the same time, and instead drawing correlations, metaphors or emotional representations on screen of the subject matter.  So let's say we're talking about domestic abuse, rather than showing someone getting abused, or even "aftermath" of a bruised and beaten person in the fetal position looking out the window, we show an insert shot of a tea kettle whistling.  It's in a home setting, so there's a trace to the original idea, and the whistling is emotionally disturbing enough that the dissonance of that conveys an emotional thread that is true to the subject matter.  It's better storytelling.

A to C'ing is great because it goes back to a principal of storytelling that I believe separates the men from the boys, so to speak.  This idea I'm talking about is playing to the audience's intelligence rather than feeding them emotions.  You allow the audience to fill in the blanks and on a primal level, they become more empathetic and emotionally available to the story.  They're engaged and receiving an award for slight cognitive work.  It's active rather than passive storytelling.  I've often described it as "staying ahead of the audience" so they're constantly having to keep up.

I wrote recently about how the feature documentary I've been editing had a big change in its last revision where this very principal reared its head.  Essentially, we had a convention of voiceover in the edit that framed our entire story from the perspective of our protagonist.  Because we went that route, on the surface it gave us the ability to hear the character's thought process and psychology as he goes through his journey.  It became a trap though for two reasons.  One, it became an outlet for information that wasn't 100% clear visually in the raw footage.  So audience feedback was mainly focused either on wanting more information, or wanting less dependent on their personal taste.  The more we tried to address those issues, the less satisfied the audience was with the story.  The second trap was that the voiceover attempted to answer psychological questions and in turn, alienated the audience by telling them what to feel.  So in turn, our feedback was focused on the distaste for our protagonist because what he was feeling was not in line with how they felt.
So the solution was stupidly simple.  Remove the voiceover convention and suddenly test audiences stopped asking to learn more about the backstory and instead began actively participating in the here and now of the story, and rather than being told how things felt, they could perceive and deduce their own opinions on the conflicts of the protagonist.
We moved the story from a passive framework to an active one and the audience perceptions of the film completely changed.  Suddenly they engaged deeply with the material and were having meaningful discussions after the fact.

I'm not totally poo-pooing voiceover.  I think it's a valid convention to introduce when necessary, but perhaps not in an intimate film such as this one.  It is a very clear lesson for me though in the value of audience engagement.

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