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What is an Ad Lib in Film?

The term “Ad lib” is used to describe individual points or moments in theater. In which the actor speaks as a character. Without using any words from a script. But rather on spontaneity and the result of an interpolation of unscripted material. That is simply injected into an otherwise scripted event. But, what is ad lib in film? And how is it used? 

filming an interview

You may recall the spontaneity of a story, and how incredibly interesting it could be, when you filled in the blanks of an “Mad Lib” storybook as a child? These were short stories that were full of ad libs. Remember the stories?

They were written with a series of blanks to them. In which, before ever reading the story itself, the “player” was to write down a series of words that would be used to fill in all of the blanks.

This caused the actual story to take a unique approach. In which the unscripted terms would magically make (or break) the context of the storyline.

Coherent & Cohesive

Not just any words would be written though, for each blank to fill in, there would be some kind of context or clue like “Name” or “Number” or “adjective” or “silly word.”

As you filled the words in, the story would come together. And, when it was read in the end as a whole, it would take on entirely new meaning and style.

What is an Ad Lib in Film?

Similarly, when we look at answering the common question, “What is an ad lib in film?” we are drawn to those silly stories that were created in Mad Libs so many years ago.

An ad lib in film represents a point in which the actors spontaneously speak words that are not actually contained within the script. Typically, this occurs purely out of fun or for a comedic effect. But it could also be the result of the actor attempting to hide or cover up an unexpected pause. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of “Improv Theater? Or Improve Night at the comedy club? Improv is essentially an Ad lib period in which those acting in the theater, or the comedians performing on Improv night, are doing so without a script or necessarily a plan.

It’s possible that they know they want to touch on a particular topic, or event, but they haven’t planned the entire performance. They’re going to ad lib their way through – and it may, or may not, be a hit!

Ad Libs in Films

Videographer Prepping Camera Gear 174

Over the years there have been several instances in which actors improvised in films and the results have often been incredible.

Late actor Robin Williams was known for frequently improvising in films. And stated that doing so was generally a matter of how precise (or not) the original script was written. Stating that some films have more room than others for ad lib moments.

In some cases, we’ve seen the ad lib make its way into the final cut. Where perhaps the scripted line was entirely different. But, upon the improv taking place, the director found the new line to be better.

Not Just Words

Ad libs in films are not always verbal, either. Some instances of past changes to the act or behaviors taking place on camera are ad lib or improvised.

For example, in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger began to very slowly and sarcastically clap after he heard about Commissioner Gordon’s promotion.

While this clapping was not scripted, the improv behavior would ultimately define the scene and, certainly be found in the final cut. So, when you ask, “What is ad lib in film?” keep in mind that an ad lib is the improvised version or a story or film in which there was no scripted line.

Or in which the originally scripted line was different, keep this in mind. An Ad Lib in a film is not always verbal, sometimes it can be the actions or behaviors that occur (such as the clapping) in the scene.