Main Media Filmmaking
Certificate in Collaborative Filmmaking at Maine Media College

Elicit an Organic and Believable Performanc​e from Your Actors

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The Acting is the Thing

 

Written by Jonathan Moore

I always enjoy the look on my students’ faces when they learn that they will have to act in a scene for my Directing for Film and Television class. At first, they exhibit surprise and even shock. Many students are likewise surprised to hear that for at least the first third of the class, no cameras or production equipment will be used. The entire first part of the class – sometimes much more – is dedicated to learning the basics of how to communicate with actors and elicit an organic and believable performance from them.

One can practically hear them exclaiming, “this is not what I signed up for.”

But it is.

Unbeknownst to many beginning film students, the performance of the actors is a director’s most important responsibility and his most valuable tool of storytelling. Students enter college film and video production programs more technically advanced than ever before. By the time they sit in front of the instructor, they have shot hundreds of hours of footage on digital cameras, edited many of their own projects and inserted sophisticated graphics and effects. But some of the most technically talented students seem to forget that none of these things matter if they do not know how to effectively tell their story. And story – is what it’s all about! A satisfying story, complete with great characters, structure and plot, requires that the performances of the cast be organic and believable. Giving attention to the actors, first and foremost, is the most significant action that a director can take when attempting to craft a good story and film.

Actors crave tangible, playable direction. Telling them how to feel or what kind of emotion they should project is not competent directing. Actors must be given something to PLAY. An action verb, an objective, etc. But more than that, an actor must know his or her super-objective – or overall life want/need – for the entire story. In order to get to this point, a director needs to have thought clearly and deeply about what drives each character in the story and in each individual scene. Next, the director should communicate these things with the actor at length, communicating his or her thoughts and ideas in rehearsal and meetings.

No camera or production equipment is required for any of this.

Perhaps my favorite part of the class is the first project, when the students must direct each other in a short scene. I marvel at how, suddenly, the previously raucous and outgoing student is muffled into nervous silence. Likewise, sometimes a particularly timid student will blossom and come alive when acting in a scene. It only makes sense for a director to put herself in the shoes of the actor, experiencing what it is like to give a performance and to take direction. Oftentimes, the most valuable element of this exercise is not having each student to act in a scene, but to feel what the actor feels when getting direction. Is the direction good? Bad? So-so? When a student is subjected to particularly good – or bad – directing, they learn a great deal about the effectiveness of communicating with actors. The lessons learned can be applied to their own directing exploits. A well-known cinematographer and film educator once said that if one wanted to be a director, then he or she should study acting. I couldn’t agree more.

The director/actor relationship is of the utmost importance. Studying and learning about that relationship can be beneficial to filmmakers. Several years ago when I was in graduate film school, I worked on the crew of a friend’s thesis film. A multitude of production assistants showed up to work for free, eager to learn and get something to put on their resume. But instead of watching my friend, the director, work with and briefly rehearse the actors before he shot each scene, they all huddled around the very expensive and impressive camera and admired it greatly – almost as if it were a golden calf. Nearby, the director was taking his actors through the paces, experimenting with different direction, answering their questions. When I later asked several of these young production assistants what their long-term career goals were, each and every one of them said they wanted to direct.

They were observing the wrong thing.

Many publicity photos of well-known directors feature them behind the camera, looking through the viewfinder, framing a shot and participating in any number of technical activities. But this is not all there is to directing. It is a part of directing, yes, but not the most important element of it.

For sure, a director must know cinematography, lighting, sound, and many other things that make up the physical craft of making a film. But there are others to help with those crafts, including the director of photography, the camera man, the grips and gaffers, the sound mixer and so on. But there is only one person who has the responsibility, authority and license to give actors direction: the director. Likewise, there is only one person that the actors look to for guidance, leadership, creative inspiration and overall mentorship: the director. Too often, the actors are left alone, to fend for themselves, while the director obsesses over a camera angle, a light or some other production matter. Directors: by all means, become involved in these things, but only AFTER you have tended to the needs, questions and concerns of your cast. If a cast is continually left in the dark and not given adequate attention and direction, they will begin to direct each other and themselves. This is the quickest way to lose control of a set and film. If you want to give up all your authority and creative control, alienate your cast.

The other aspects of directing – coverage, framing and the visual aspect of a film are also important. Many directors find that they are intoxicated with how their film looks. They can expend enormous amounts of energy fixating on the coverage – the camera angles – framing of a scene and the cinematography. But what good is a beautifully shot and lit scene if the performance of the actors is flat and unbelievable? The true magic of filmmaking is when both the performance and visual elements of a film are married together in a union of beautiful artistry. But the first thing a director must do is to discover exactly what kind of performance he wants – and then take the vital and necessary steps to achieve said performance. Once that has been done, then the technical and visual pieces of a film can be crafted.

During the second half my Directing class, students are asked to direct two more scenes and incorporate those technical elements. The challenge is, again, to remain completely and totally committed to the actors’ performance while also working, in collaboration, with the rest of the crew – on the floor plan, shot list, lens and lighting choices and other nuts and bolts of technical directing. When faced with these added responsibilities, students find that they start to forget about the performance and neglect the actors, falling prey once again to becoming drunk on the visuals and the allure of the camera equipment. The ones who can integrate both disciplines into their craft while placing the actors as their top priority stand the best chance at becoming effective storytellers.

Directing is not for sissies. It can be a sobering moment when you realize that you have several actors – real, live human beings – looking to you for leadership, inspiration and good, playable direction. Some beginning filmmakers are naturally intimidated by this moment of realization and the actors themselves. I know this feeling all too well. Years ago when I directed my first scene, a beautiful young actress looked up at me with large and soft brown eyes and remarked, “I’m waiting for you to direct me, Mr. Director.”  It was a moment of terror for me. I had no idea what to do. I had visions of viewfinders and shot lists dancing in my head, and not a kernel of an idea of what to tell her regarding her performance.

Actors do not automatically know what a director’s vision is. I have met many brilliant and talented actors. Not one of them proved to be telepathic. They must be communicated with. But before that can be done, the director needs to know what her own vision is. She needs to have done her homework.

No matter how beautiful the film looks, or how wonderful the locations and sets are, or how breathtaking the music and sound effects are – if the living, breathing creatures who are playing the characters in the story do not produce a competent performance, the film may be flat, uninspired and amateurish. Lay audiences will not remember coverage or great lighting. They will remember a good story! And a good story starts with good acting – which comes from good directing.

Now more than ever, student filmmakers need to understand that actors are not the only ones who need to “break a leg.”

Action!

Jonathan MooreAt 7’0”, 300lbs, Jonathan Moore could be the largest filmmaker in the world. Occasionally his height allows him to play bit parts in movies. Last summer he had the great distinction of shoving Robert Pattinson in the back in a scene for the film, “Water for Elephants.” An assistant professor of Cinema/Digital Media at Vanguard University of Southern California, Moore’s feature length documentary, “Coaches’ Wives,” is a story about women who are married to the coaches of sports teams. His work has been screened in many film festivals and broadcast on public television. An avid screenwriter and director, Moore loves telling stories that touch the heart.

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