Get that Peak Performance while the Camera is Actually Rolling

by Steve Carlson

New filmmakers spend untold hours learning about cameras, lenses, lighting and rehearsing slow, steady, pans and zooms. In some cases, very little time or attention is given to one of the main contributors of a good film, namely, the actors.

At first glance, it could be seen as a no-problem area. The actor is told what lines to say, is dressed and quaffed, told when and where to move. You light him, keep him in focus… what’s the problem?

The problem is, many new filmmakers feel that way. I say ‘new’ because after you’ve been doing it a while, you realize that to get the best performances out of your actors and to make sure you get that peak performance while the camera is actually rolling, requires a little more awareness and knowledge. (Knowing something needs to be done, and knowing what needs to be done are two different things.)

Actors are such a crucial part of the palette with which you paint your film, any time put into understanding and learning how to work with actors will be time extremely well spent. The best way to do this, of course, is to do some acting yourself, on film if possible.

Find out what it feels like to be in the middle of that fish bowl, surrounded by lights, booms, cameras, people, reflectors and a couple miles of cables and wires… then pretend they aren’t there.

Forget about them and do your sensitive, intimate scene where you tell your mother about why you had such a rotten childhood.

“But…” I hear you saying, “Actors are different, they love that stuff… Besides, they’re trained to do it.”

Wrong on all fronts. First of all, actors really aren’t all that different than anyone else. They might be a bit sensitive, perhaps a little more ‘arty’ than others, a bit more insecure… but we can find accountants that fit that description as well.

As for ‘loving it’, actors do love to act, that’s true, but acting on film, especially at first when the actor doesn’t have much experience at it, can lie somewhere between elation and terror.

To find out ‘why’ brings us to the third misconception – training. Let’s look at the training an actor gets for a moment. Most actors start out in high school. They get in the junior class play, do reasonably well, have a good time and decide to do it again. Other than a high school drama class and being directed in said play, there was no training.

Things get stepped up if they go to college. Here, there is much training and experience all on stage. Postulating on a stage, emoting to the back row of an auditorium is a considerable different ball-game than the close, intimate, more reality-based performance required by film.

If the actor didn’t go to college, they are denied even that experience, so they usually head out to L.A. or New York and sign up for acting classes. Even in L.A., film city America, these classes are all on stage.

Quite frankly, there’s no place to learn how to act on a film set, short of actually acting on a film set. That means that for their first few shows, the actor is hanging on by his fingernails, trying to do a good job acting, while also trying to figure out exactly what’s going on.

“Who are all those people, and what are they doing? … And what do they want from me?”

What all this means to you, the young filmmaker, is that you are likely to be working with actors who have had little, if any, experience in acting on a film set. Don’t anticipate them knowing what you expect from them. You may have to explain it.

You may have to point out why hitting their marks is much more critical and exacting in film than it is on stage, because of camera focus. They may need to practice it.

Since you’ll be shooting out of sequence (something never done on stage) the actor may have to be made aware of his ‘character arc’.

He may need to be reminded to pull-in his performance a bit because his audience is now the camera, which is ten feet away, rather than a hundred feet of audience.

Let me share a good example. This happened to me when I was just starting out as a young actor.

I was shooting an episode of the old Virginian series at Universal where I was supposed to have kidnapped a woman. The scene was around my campfire in the evening. She was tied up by the fire, and I was pacing around the periphery of the firelight, looking intently around to see if we had been followed. All the while, I’m talking to the tied up lady, trying to explain to her why I was doing this terrible deed.

We were rehearsing for the master when the director told us to take ‘five’ while they repositioned the camera. As I walked by the script supervisor, she asked, “I guess you don’t want a close-up.”

Of course, I wanted a close up! I asked her what she meant.

It was pretty obvious that I was real new to this business so she decided to help me out. I got my first lesson in how coverage fits together and how you sometimes have to think like an editor.

When I was pacing around that campfire, I didn’t stop. I was always moving, changing directions, seeking. It seemed to me like that’s what I should be doing.

However, if I established in the master that I never stopped, there would be no place for them to cut into a CU. They weren’t going to put a tight lens on my face and try to pan with me as I walked around. They’d just stick with the master and let it go at that.

She mentioned that I should stop when I spoke and go back to pacing in-between my chunks of dialogue. That would establish times when I was not moving, that they could cover with a CU. Well, it made all the difference in the world. Just knowing something as simple as that. The scene went beautifully, and I found that stopping on my dialogue actually added importance to what I was saying …and I got my close-ups!

And, the director got a better show out of it. Sometimes you may have to help. Realize that student films and/or low-budget indie films are where most actors get their early film training and experience. Very seldom are they going to come to you knowing all they need to know.

The more you as a filmmaker know about acting, the more you’re going to be able to help, the more you’re going to be able to anticipate problems before they become problems… and the quality of performances you get on film will be much closer to what you want, rather than having to settle for what you can get.


Steve Carlson has been a working actor for nearly 40 years. In his varied career, he has been a ‘regular’ on three TV series and has re-occurred in many more, has guest-starred in over 50 television episodes from The Virginian to Seinfeld, and starred or co-starred in ten feature films. Over the years he has also become one of the most successful commercial actors in the country having filmed or supplied the voice for over 400 television & radio commercials. Mr. Carlson wrote the books: “Hitting Your Mark: What Every Actor Really Needs to Know on a Hollywood Set,” published by Michael Weise Productions, 1999 (also translated into German); “The Commercial Actor’s Guide: Starting, Building and Maintaining a Career” (Heinemann/released late 2005); and “Hitting Your Mark, Special 2nd Edition: Making a Living – and a Life – as a Film Actor,” (Weise/ released June, 2006).



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