Thinking About Stories Using YouTube Video Essays

An Improv Instructor Prepares, part III

4 min readJul 25, 2021

At one point, Improv will only be limited by your imagination. You should fire up your imagination by mimicking the masters. Here are three video channels I watch a lot of.

At one point, your technique will be solid. You’ll need to practice regularly; perform shows, and maybe even have tried teaching. And you’ll have read all the improv books, and then what?

I reached a point where I my technique caught up with my imagination, and then I had the top of my head blown off by Every Frame A Painting.

The greatest YouTube Channel that no longer exists.

Every Frame A Painting — Every video a lesson

EFAP was a YouTube channel that created brilliant video essays about the use of film techniques. It’s intelligent, and entertaining, and also incredibly sharp about pointing out what works and why.

Watch this clip about How to do Visual Comedy. The techniques about scene transitions, physical comedy and finding creative ways to enter the frame/stage fits perfectly into an improv masterclass.

This game subtly inspired Centre of the Universe

The video on Jackie Chan is perhaps the most well-known video, and most delightful to watch. But look a bit closer and you’ll find the essence of Improv narratives and storytelling;

  • Foreshadowing/Set up & pay off: At 2:08 we see Jackie framing a wide shot to introduce a staircase — at 2:20 we see the staircase used in the next scene
  • What happens next: (1:08) Each action creates a logical reaction — by following the logic, we get a joke”
  • The rhythm of a fight scene (4:16) The pattern and sequence of strikes creating an invisible rhythm that isn’t noticed until its not there.
Not just action — but action comedy

Watch this with the Learner’s Eye [article to come] and you’ll find ideas to incorporate into Improv.

One day, I was bored, and lazily drifted over to a video that looked boring…

I can also recommend the Akira Kurosawa movement video

Suddenly, that weekend, I was inspired to find triangles in scenes, play with lines and levels. The usual sitcom fourth wall arc wasn’t enough; flat scenes were boring. Suddenly, that became an extra tool in scenework and composition.

A good video essayist breaks down the story and tells you the techniques to look for. Some of the techniques are so subtle you feel the effect on you, but you don’t know why or how it works. It’s Jackie Chan’s rhythm of a fight scene.

It’s also how you know that The Rise of Skywalker was a terrible film — instinctively, you can feel that the filmmakers made terrible choices. And if you have somebody pointing out the other choices, you’ll realise how bad it looks.

Red Letter Media — Hack frauds who love film

Red Letter Media are a bunch of old nerds geeking out about films and Star Trek and Star Wars. They absolutely hated Rise of Skywalker, and they spent 70 minutes bellyaching about it.

But not about the mythos, or the politics, or the fanboy; they complained about the filmmaking and storytelling techniques. Two minutes in, one of the hack frauds noted: “This feels like six films cut into one — filmmaking using 5-second Vine videos — like a haunted house where the scares aren’t all that scary, so they make the ride go by really fast.”

They call themselves hack frauds, not me

The RedLetterMedia crew love Star Wars, they love films, and they get it. They can talk about the story issues while also balancing the need to create a profitable IP and compete with the MCU. I loved watching their Rise of Skywalker predictions video with the benefit of hindsight; they look at how nothing was properly set up or resolved in Last Jedi or Force Awakens, which is why everything is a mess.

Watching The Snyder Cut is also instructive. They really emphasize the importance of editing and a director’s vision. Watching them contrast Whedon’s comedy and light quippy Marvel tone versus Snyder’s character focus makes it clear: Snyder was right all along.

As honourable mention, I’m going to shout out Filmento’s video on Avengers and Lessons from the Screenplay’s The Fault in Our Star Wars. One idea from the video stands out: how Jyn Erso is passive and she makes no real choices, while Rey’s choices move the story forward.

I also loved the Gone Girl and Shaun of the Dead videos.

But there’s also one video series I watch — and it’s the classic.

Whose Line is it Anyway — Old Videos

Watch this. In 90 seconds, Ryan establishes a platform, sets up and delivers his Blind Lines, kisses Colin and creates a character. Colin delivers an amazing pun and then escalates like crazy with just three lines. And that’s just the first 90 seconds.

“Here’s some pie. Oh, remember the a la mode.

Watch these pros do Three-headed Broadway Star. They fumble but recover quickly, call out their own mistakes and keep it going until the ending. Watch it again focusing on Ryan’s face — you can tell he’s completely switched on, aware of every mistake, but keeping it going. Watch it again focusing on Wayne’s face — when he messes up, when he spots Drew mess up, when he catches Ryan’s game perfectly.

And take me on a …!

I watch Whose Lines clips before I do classes, partly because they’re really funny and uplifting; partly to remember how fast Improv is. But also because there’s always something to learn, if you’re looking for it.

This is part of a 4-part trilogy on how I prepare for Improv classes. I might make it a Hitchhiker 5-out-of-3.

  1. Learning while teaching
  2. The books I recommend
  3. My secret training, revealed! (this post!)
  4. Live well; it is the greatest preparation




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