Main Media Filmmaking
Certificate in Collaborative Filmmaking at Maine Media College

Film Directing | Getting Good Performances

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… Or At Least Avoiding Bad Ones

by Mark Kerins

At one point or another, we’ve all been to a movie or play where one of the actors gave a performance so laughably terrible that it completely took us out of the story – which just goes to show that bad acting is not the exclusive province of student film. Nevertheless, student film as a genre has a well-earned reputation for showcasing more than its fair share of bad performances. Any number of factors contribute to this – the lack of experience of many student filmmakers, the rushed schedules and low (or nonexistent) budgets on their films, and the frequent recruitment (by necessity or not) of filmmakers’ friends as cast all make it more difficult to get brilliant performances on set. Moreover, there’s no simple “magic bullet” fix that can guarantee good acting – if there were, good actors would not be such a sought-after rarity.

But this doesn’t mean you should simply cross your fingers and hope the fates grant you good performances – rather, it means that you need to be aware of common pitfalls and make a conscious effort to avoid them. What I’ve included here is a guide of tips and tricks that anyone – from the greenest novice picking up a camera for the first time to an experienced professional – can use. If you follow these guidelines, the acting in your film still may not be Oscar-caliber, but at least it shouldn’t be Razzie-worthy.

The single most important thing you can remember is that performances are often made or broken before the cameras even start rolling. Remember:

1. It all starts with the script.

The script can and will change in all phases of production, but it’s the starting point on which everything else builds, and it’s near impossible to make a great film from a terrible script. This is perhaps nowhere as true as it is in the realm of acting; if the characters don’t have much life on the page, then even the best actors can’t give them much life onscreen. Take the time to write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Where possible, write a first draft of a script and put it away for awhile, then come back to revise it after you’ve gained some emotional distance from it. And if you’re not a great writer, find a collaborator who is. Many bad student films can be traced back to filmmakers who insist on doing every job on their own, regardless of where their own talents lie. Collaborative work is a huge part of filmmaking on every level – if you can find someone whose strengths complement your weaknesses (and vice-versa) you’re already a step ahead of the game.

2. Your friends are probably not great actors.

Okay, maybe you’re lucky enough to have a friend who’s been acting since birth, won the lead role in every school play since middle school, and so on – go ahead and cast that person if he or she is right for a part in your film. But for the most part, filmmakers’ friends end up in student films simply because they’re easily accessible, and students don’t know how else to get actors. In reality, it’s easier than you think, and the single biggest thing you can do (aside from starting with a good script) to improve the acting in your film is to use people who can actually act. Most larger cities have listings of professional actors, and many of these are willing to work with students for little or no fee if they like the script and if you act professionally (see #3 below). Even if you can’t find professionals, don’t give up. Is there a community theater group with people who may have had some training as actors? What about aspiring actors at the local high schools and colleges? The point is that many actors are willing to take roles solely for the experience and credit. Just remember to make sure that everyone in your cast (professional or not) gets a copy of the finished movie. Professionals and aspiring professionals need clips for their reels, and your roommates (if it comes to that) will want something to show their friends and family.

3a. Professionals expect YOU to be professional on set.

If you want to work with professional actors (or crew for that matter) they will expect you to behave as a professional as well. This doesn’t mean they expect you to be exactly like a seasoned filmmaker with lots of credits under the belt – actors understand that a student probably hasn’t made many films, and hence may not be as adept at directing them as someone more experienced would be. But they will expect (and they have every right to do so) that you will run a professional-style set. This means that you will treat them with respect, will provide them with accurate call times, will have meals provided on set as necessary, and so on. It also means that you won’t do things like shooting in a location you don’t have permission to shoot, or having actors perform stunts or dangerous activities for which they haven’t been trained, and so on. The more you plan things in pre-production, the more smoothly everything will go during production, and the better your actors will feel about working with you.

3b. Professionals expect YOU to be professional BEFORE you get on set.

Where do actors form their first impressions of how your set will be run? During casting, of course. So while a whole article could be devoted to the casting process, it seems appropriate to provide a few tips here lest you scare away potential talent with a less-than-professional casting call. First, your call for actors should be specific about what you need, what the project is, and what the job will entail. If your entire cast is high school students, for instance, don’t put out a call for “all ages.” If you’re planning a feature, don’t say that it will be a three day shoot just to avoid scaring people off. And while character descriptions should be succinct, they should still provide enough information for an actor to decide what role might be right for him. Second, don’t be afraid to show potential actors the script – they want to know how “good” a project or character might be, and the best barometer for this (at the student level, at least) is the script. So unless the strength of your script is its surprise ending, be open to sharing it. Finally, the casting session will be the actors’ first chance to see how you run things, so create a positive first impression as possible. Have an assistant to check actors in as they arrive and make sure the session stays on schedule. If they’ll be doing parts of scenes, have those script pages copied and ready for them to peruse (obviously, have fresh copies for each actor so that they can write on their copies). Have water and other drinks available, and snacks make things go more smoothly as well. Remember, her impression of your casting session may make the difference between whether the actress you want for a part chooses to work on your project or not.

4. It’s YOUR job to know the characters inside and out.

As a director, you need to have a vision for the movie. Vision isn’t just about what’s onscreen and in the soundtrack, but about being able to guide your actors because you’ve put in the work to think about who these characters are, their backstories, and so on. This doesn’t mean those ideas have to be fixed in stone – go ahead and develop the characters in consultation with your actors, just make sure you stay true to your vision for the overall movie with any changes you make. Good actors appreciate having the chance to contribute their own ideas, but also want a director who knows which ideas will work with his/her vision.

5. Rehearse.

It seems painfully obvious that you should rehearse with your actors before you ever get to set, but on the tight schedules of student film, this is often one of the first things to go. If you take the necessary time to do rehearsals, you’ll save yourself time on set and get better performances to boot. And don’t think of rehearsals solely as time to learn blocking and lines – instead, use your rehearsal time to try out different things and see what works. The more you and the actors know about the characters before the camera rolls, the better the chances you’ll get a great performance on set. Different directors work differently, but as a starting point here’s a strategy I particularly like. I start by letting the actors run a scene based on their own first impressions, without giving them any directions. Then I give them a few thoughts and we run it again. Then we throw out the script entirely and do an improvised version of the scene, just trying to hit the key emotional beats. After these three runs, we sit down and talk about what we liked or didn’t in each of these versions, and that helps me better guide the scene in the future.

6. Get a good crew.

A film set is a hectic place with a lot of things pulling on you. Remember that once on set, your single most important role as a director is to work with the actors. Having a good crew thus helps not only the look and sound of the film, but also the acting, because it lets you focus your attentions on that job instead of worrying about all the other things going on. Put simply, if you yourself are running the camera, and fixing lights, and checking continuity, and worrying about staying on schedule, you don’t have much time or energy left to focus on the actors, and the performances will suffer.

“Okay,” you’re saying, “I’ve done all my work ahead of time: I have a great script and talented actors, and we had some great discussions and ideas come out of rehearsals. But now I’m on set and can’t seem to get the performances I want. What now?”

Different strategies work better for different people and different situations, and something that would usually be a bad idea might be exactly what’s needed for a unique situation. But here are some general guidelines for on-set directing:

  • Be open to surprises.

    • Good actors will give you things you hadn’t necessarily imagined, but that serve the movie. If you’re unhappy with a performance, think about whether it’s because the performance really doesn’t work, or merely because it’s not exactly the way you originally envisioned it. And if you’re the writer of the script as well, don’t get too attached to everything being said word for word. Very few scripts are so brilliant that not a single word should be changed – this is not to say you should let the actors improvise everything if it compromises your overall vision, but if it feels more natural to an actor to say, “How’s it going?” instead of, “Hey, what’s up?” then by all means let him do it.

  • Remember that your actors are PEOPLE.

    • Different people respond differently to different types of stimuli. Some actors want a firm hand guiding them, while others like to have the freedom to try something different (even if it might not work). Know your actors and what works well with them, and if one strategy doesn’t seem to be working with a particular actor, try approaching your interaction with him/her differently.

  • When in a rut, try ANYTHING different.

    • Sometimes your cast will get stuck in a vein that’s just not working, but won’t be able to get out of it with small tweaks. In these situations, go ahead and try something bizarre just to change the dynamics on set. Have them improvise a scene, or try strange accents for a take, or reverse their roles, or try to get through a take as quickly as possible, or whatever. These ideas probably won’t result in changes you want to keep, but they will help everyone come back to the scene with a fresh perspective.

  • DON’T give line readings.

    • When you tell actors exactly how you want a line said, you’re taking away their freedom to be creative, and you’re forcing them into speaking rhythms that may not be natural for them. Instead, if a particular line is bothering you, try to pinpoint why it’s doing so and what the best way to fix it is. Is it that the emotion is coming out wrong? Is it emphasizing the wrong thing for that point in the scene? Is it just that it’s not the way you imagined it? Once you know the why, if it’s something that’s really a problem you can work with the actor to address the issue without stifling their own creative process.

  • DO give clear, brief, playable directions.

    • Most of the time, “result”-oriented direction (i.e., “give it more energy” or “make it sadder”) is not a good way to achieve realistic performances, since the actors are trying to replicate a particular thing you said rather than behaving as their characters normally would. Instead, give their characters specific goals to accomplish (use action verbs), which allow the actors to stay in character while following your directions. For instance, rather than telling an actress, “you should be mad because he won’t help you,” tell her to “demand that he helps you.” In the latter version, instead of trying to “play” angry, her anger will come naturally out of the other character’s refusal to acquiesce to her demands. Think of the real world: we’re rarely trying to have specific emotions; instead, those emotions spring naturally from our actions and our interactions with others.

  • DON’T over-direct.

    • It’s your actors’ jobs to give the performances, not yours. Your job is simply to know if the performances work or not, and to help them change when necessary. If you’re too specific about every little bit of the scene, you’re taking away your actors’ freedom to do their jobs. (On the flip side, don’t under-direct either – if your directions are too general, and don’t give the actors anything concretely playable, you’re not helping them.)

  • DON’T tell the actors their emotions.

    • This ties to a couple of the above points, but is worth restating since it’s a common mistake many novice directors make. The worst possible case here is to combine over-directing with describing emotions, as can often be seen with inexperienced filmmakers who feel it necessary to describe every single emotional element of a complex scene. Put yourself in the actor’s shoes; if a director tells you, “you’re sad about her leaving, but happy to have the room to yourself, and scared you can’t make it on your own, and…” imagine how hard it is to actually play that! Stick to the facts of the scene (including anything you all have agreed upon during rehearsals about the characters and/or plot), and let the emotions build from there.

  • Remember that the ACTORS are the ones who end up onscreen.

    • Actors have one of the hardest jobs on set – their jobs require them to move in and out of characters at a moment’s notice, and often to conjure up strong emotions for take after take after take. It’s psychologically taxing work, especially since they always know in the backs of their minds that that THEY are the ones who will eventually be up onscreen for the audience to see (and possibly ridicule), not you. Their job is much easier if you’ve built a good rapport and sense of trust with them. Make sure they know they can talk to you about any problems they are having with their characters, and that they can make suggestions, but also that you have a clear vision in your head and will ultimately not let a bad performance end up onscreen. Most importantly, if you’re not happy with a performance don’t belittle or attack your actors; instead, offer positive reinforcement and suggestions, and work with them to develop the performance to a point where you can both be happy with it.

The more you work with your actors and gain experience as a director, the more you’ll discover which directing strategies work very naturally for you and which are not a good fit for your style (improvisation is a good example here – some directors can develop scenes amazingly well this way, while for others it’s much more productive to stick closely to the original script). These tips are starting points, not set-in-stone principles that will work equally well for everyone. But they should at least start you off on the right foot for your first couple directing gigs until you figure out what works best for you – in the end, whatever strategies give you the best finished movie are the ones you should use. Good luck, and happy filming!

Mark Kerins earned a Ph.D. in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University for his project Rethinking Film for the Digital Sound Age; his work continues to focus on sound design, surround sound, and building dialogue between critical studies and production. He currently teaches film/video production and post-production in the Division of Cinema-Television at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Mark Kerins, Film Director, Film Professor
Above production still taken by Johannes Blenke. Follow his Instagram @jojoblenke.
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  1. I have just begun my path in film, and after reading your post I am that much closer to adding to said path. Thankyou for that insight!

  2. When working with the pros, they expect you to be a real pro as well. You should act professional even when working with your friends or people you are close to. It will improve your work.