How to Record an Improv Show

Except for Whose Line is it Anyway?, very few improv performances are recorded well. The video might be decent (but often isn’t) and the audio usually sounds like it was recorded by a Victrola submerged in a vat of hair gel. Poor recordings are one of the reasons improv remains on the fringes of popular culture. We’re an image-obsessed people, after all. Without high-qualithy proof of our awesomeness how can we expect to win over Joe and Sally Briefcase?


There is. And while it takes a little money and time, it’s not all that complicated. I’m excited to offer some quick tips courtesy of Ryan Austin. Ryan, on top of being a recent subject of the Sunday Interview, is also the first official outside contributor to He’s the man responsible for this video of our show Past Lives, which I think is just dandy.

So how does Ryan manage to film improv shows so well?

ryanaustin3“The mistake is to just have one element. Most people come packing only a camera. They set it up in the back of the theater to capture everything on stage and although they have the visual element, their audio lacks because they end up getting mostly the laughs of the audience. It is, after all, closer to the audience than the performers.

To fix this, I purchased an $80 voice recorder and hang it above the stage before a show I’m taping (which is a feat because I’m not on good terms with heights, but I do it anyway), this way I get a cleaner audio track to sync up with my camera in the back. Obviously the ceiling height is a factor here, but it works fairly well.

I still place the camera at the back of the room and zoom in a little so it’s not capturing a giant frame of unnecessary black curtains and audience members. Ideally, you have two cameramen in the front row near either side of the stage. (This has never happened for me but then again I’ve never tried. It seems excessive. I feel like if I could ever set that up I would have a terrible show and just have really great coverage of a terrible show.) That way, in a two person scene you can capture both performers and cross cut between the two. And to capture all other types of scenes, I would designate one guy to cover the whole action in a wide shot and the other to do closer shots and just follow the focus of the scene as best he could.

For post, I edit in Final Cut 7 and use a plug in called PluralEyes to sync the audio with the video. I export the file at 1280×720, mp4 file with H.264 codec at 2500 kbits per second (but I recommend 5000 so that Vimeo can make a HD version)

Improv in general doesn’t read very well on video unless the camera is right there in the front row getting EVERYTHING. You really want to see the performers get surprised and caught off guard and tickled and all that. I video every show mainly for archival and nostalgic reasons. I remember how much heat that scene had so watching it brings that all back and is a joy. I also find things I need to work on, mostly presentational or physical or broad character stuff. Nothing too minute.

So, it’s definitely of value, but mostly in the way a photo album is. A great memory that’s fun to look back on.”

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