DIRECTING ACTORS IN FILM


“Lights, camera, and…action!”

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By
Elizabeth English

When judges preview films for film festival competitions, or when distributors look at films they may decide to screen in theaters, or during Academy Award nomination season, or when a talent agent may decide to take you on as a client, or when a production company or film studio is watching your demo reel or trailer, and considering you to direct a film, the actors’ performances are one of the most important elements they look for in the film. You may have a unique story, the best cinematographer, incredible editing, memorable film score, interesting locations, fabulous action scenes, great dialog, and impressive production values, but…if any of the actors, not just the lead actors, fluff a scene, or are wooden, over-act, are amateurish, or are simply unremarkable in their roles, you’ve just lost all credibility as a film director, and you may not ever get a second chance.

  • Directing a feature or short film, commercial, animation, trailer, music video, or television pilot requires an extraordinary output of time, energy, patience, and talent. You owe it to yourself, and to the success of the film project, to get the richest, most realistic, relatable performances possible. Directing actors is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, aspects in the array of creative tasks that await any film director.
  • You’ll need to know how to constructively and efficiently collaborate with actors to create truthful and compelling, natural performances. Unlike the creative process of writing a script or generating shot-lists and storyboards, actors are mutable, unpredictable, and you can’t completely plan their performances in a film, but you can direct them toward the performance you envision for the role.
  • Most film directors (even seasoned veterans) just don’t seem to know how to talk to actors – they often don’t speak a language that is useful to them. You need to learn a new language, which enables you, as the director, to give the actor a clear point of departure for a performance, and which allows you to quickly communicate adjustments, as that performance evolves, yet also allows the actor his or her interpretation of the character and scene, but based on what you and the script require.
  • This is a directorial process that begins by articulating a “through-line” – a concise statement that captures a director’s interpretation of the script, into language that will help the actors build their performances, and establish a productive working relationship between actor and director. You want the actors to “quit acting” and just BE the characters, tapping in to emotions which the actor has experienced in her/his own life and applying it to the scene. No hitting their marks and just reading their lines!
  • Directing actors for film is much different from directing actors for the stage. Because a stage has 3 walls, and the audience sits at the fourth “wall”, seeing and hearing everything on the stage, and everything the actors do or say, as it occurs, there can be no multiple takes, no do-overs Larger gestures and more visible facial expressions, as well as throwing one’s voice to the back of the balcony, are needed in theater, but not in film. Subtlety is best. Watch how great actors project, with subtle gestures, minimal facial expressions, breathing techniques, and quiet body language: Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Steve McQueen, James Dean, Donald Pleasence, Rod Steiger, Judi Dench & Maggie Smith.
  • One might consider the talented actor as a visual story-teller, a creator of visions who can transport movie audiences out of their habitual ways of being, create an atmosphere of “suspension of disbelief,” and who leads them on a journey of self-discovery and possibly new perceptions. Personal magnetism and charisma, intense body awareness, voice control, and great sensitivity are among the special abilities that contribute to the actor’s mystique, and a film director can encourage and inspire the actor to bring this out in performance.
  • But with film, many takes of the same scene can be shot until the director is happy with that scene. An actor must be capable of accommodating this arduous and frustrating process, and to be able to make adjustments in his or her characterizations, over and over, without complaint.
  • The camera can move to different viewpoints, can do a two-shot, a close-up, or a crowd scene, or action outdoors, and even use a parkour technique, by following the actor(s) for several minutes moving through a location sequence. With a roughly a 22’ tall X 52’ wide movie screen, actors can use much more subtle facial expressions, especially in close-ups, simpler body movements and gestures, and with lower, more modulated voices. A twitch of an eyebrow, or a tiny smirk can easily be seen by the audience, unlike on stage. A good film actor will be aware of this.
  • As a director, if you’re auditioning actors, working with non-professional actors, or interviewing subjects for a documentary, you may need to remind them to pay extra attention to their total body language in a scene, tone of voice, and facial expressions, to get a realistic characterization from them. In narrative and documentary filmmaking, actors & interview subjects generally need to move a bit more slowly than normal (but not too slowly) through a scene, in order for the camera to focus and catch the image, and not cause the audiences to feel they are being forced to visually follow the scene too quickly.
  • Acting is reacting. Reacting with what is already known, and can be, should be, brought into the role’s characterization from the actor’s and director’s own life experiences and personal observations, as well as by what the particular role requires, of course.
  • As a director, you should know all there is to know about filmmaking: cinematography, editing, production, lighting, sound, screenwriting, and etc., and that, of course, includes acting. Perhaps you can audition for a film, TV show or stageplay, and if you get the part, even as a non-speaking extra, you’ll gain valuable inside, working experience on the set or on location. You need to study the art and craft of acting, stage, television and film acting, especially improv, and consider learning to be an actor, yourself, in order to understand actors and to communicate with them, and most effectively bring out the best performances from your actors.

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