Naturalistic Cinema: A New American Cinematic Movement Emerges

By Kevin Shah · July 1, 2010

How to achieve Naturalism in Cinema with regards to the sound, image and performance.


Dramatic Improvisation in feature films entails a process of Interdependent Filmmaking that could in many ways be called “collaborative filmmaking” for the purposes of capturing and exploring dramatic improvisation with Camera and Cast.  The entire purpose of using improvisation in film is to achieve a more naturalistic tone in the story, a style that feels “real” or “unrehearsed.”  Of course, to achieve a naturalistic film, there are many careful things to take into consideration.  It’s not just the performances that have to go deeper into the truth through this process of improvisation, but the visual and audio as well.  It defeats the purpose in my estimation to have naturalistic performances but a stilted, fixed, rigid approach to capturing them. 

When it comes to the case of White Knuckles, everyone had a hand in the shaping and telling of the story even though we began with a screenplay – as we were lucky enough to have had a very tight knit crew and a exceptionally cooperative cast that operated in harmony to see the vision through.  And Addison Brock behind the camera was crucial to the spontaneous telling and visual exploration that occurs in the film – and the film has style in a class of its own.  As I was working with the actors on set and working aith Addison – he was at the same time exploring the characters with the camera, using the landscape of their emotions in each moment as appropriate to tell this film.  The naturalistic performances in White Knuckles is thus complemented, and enhanced by the respective naturalist camerawork.  

In this brief article, I will touch upon some practical items that might help a team that wants to embark on a feature in a unique collaborate and creative atmosphere – one that strives to be as free as possible from judgement or misperception.

TOPIC TWO:  Perils of Dramatic Improv; and Attaining a Naturalistic Film.

I would suggest to all aspiring filmmaking to take into consideration who you surround yourself with when you strive to make a meaningful film in this saturated marketplace with sub-par content, and su-par creatives.  If you surround yourselves with filmmakers that have no greater goal than to make a film that mimics or unintentionally duplicates explored material in other films, than you will only achieve a result that is limited by the extent of the collective vision for the project.  Meaning, a crew that has faith and believes in the vision (and is personally invested) makes for limitless possibilities for where dramatic improvisation can go.  

Everything depends on each other – and everyone is dependent upon each individual in the production.  This is the true nature of interdependent filmmaking.  And for a filmmaking / acting collaborative team to work, there must be a core belief in the project, and the project’s visionaries – that is to say, the projects’ Producer / Director team.  

The Producer makes the vision possible in an interdependent film – through the efforts of the filmmaking team, and tireless strategizing, problem-solving and planning.  He/She should also be likeable, and bring people aboard that are similarly likeable, trustworthy, and are open to the process.  The Director makes the vision a reality in an interdependent film – through the efforts of the crew, actors and him/herself – and when it comes to dramatic improvisation – the director is truly what the title implies: one who directs the course of the story on set through improvisation.   The director should want to embark on a patient mutual collaborative creative process with the actors as well as crew.  He/she should also be likeable, and surround himself with likeable cast (meaning personalities).  

The best sets for dramatic improvisation are those that have a “safe” atmosphere free from the judgements of anyone witnessing the unfolding of the story.  Whether it is the Producer, or a Grip, or a day-hire, there must be an understanding that the process which they will be taking part of is an that is dependent on their ability to help nurture a safe atmosphere.  I.e. if one person comes on set and isn’t into the process, they can throw the whole thing off.  It’s very much like any team in any organization, group, etc.  There must be a mutual support for one another and the Producer and Director set the tone.  The D.P. is the third leg of the stool – and the D.P. must also be ready and willing to adjust, adapt, and offer their creative insight without losing faith in the vision.    

One way of describing what I might mean when I talk about “Collaborative Creative Process: is one that entails taking conflicts to the deepest level where they can be better shared and understood.  Often Sabi Pictures films gets there via improvisation.  Directing Improvisation is part of another thread, but when it comes to creating collaboratively – the collective mission, ultimately, is to explore the deepest levels of emotion in the moment, with each other – and capture it to explore it further later.  This process, and this principle (taking conflicts to the deepest leven where they can be better shared and understood) was originally instilled in us through a collaborative unit we called Unica – the result of which was a film called Blue in Green.  Unica was a group of 7 filmmakers and about a dozen actors that shot a highly improvised film over the course of 8 days. Blue in Green was edited for a year afterwards, and ultimately written in the post process between the editor & the collaborative group (of which Zak Forsman and I were an integral part of.)

With White Knuckles and Heart of Now, the heavy production schedule was over the course of a month – so there was an opportunity in my opinion to go deeper on set with the actors than there was ever before.  Even more importantly, we arranged the last integral days of production in such a way that we COULD explore… that the story could shift as we wanted it to, as we needed it to – to get Julie and William to their resolution.  And the story did shift, in a number of ways.  There were scenes between characters that were switched, and reversed – there was moments that were cut or skipped, and there were entirely new moments crafted where before there was only the possibilities indicated in the script.  All in all it helped to tell the story in a yet more organic way, and allowed us to completely improvise the final third of the film together.

There is a common misperception that Improvisation allows for loose planning, budgeting, scheduling, scripting, etc.  This is actually NOT the case.  In fact, in interdependent films like those of Sabi Pictures, there is MORE planning that goes into the making of the features than on a conventional production.  This is because it must be a fluid process as the film is in pre-production, constantly shifting as the crew is assembled, the actors are cast, the locations are locked down, etc.  There will be changes made to the script to accommodate the actors that will ultimately play the characters, and there will be changes made to the production schedule to make the film do-able, and to have back-ups of back-ups – including options for improvisation.  If something still isn’t working on the page, plan on what you will try on-set carefully – and be ready to think on your feet.