She’s ready to pour her heart out. She understands her character, she has the emotions boiling inside her. If you were watching her on stage, you’d be moved already. But you’re not, you’re in a chair behind a monitor attached to a camera, and when you say “Cut” it’s with weariness in your voice.
Acting for film and television is not, as reputed by some, a different beast entirely, but someone trained for the stage may not be equipped with all the tools and preparation required to bring their craft to the screen. Even some of the best acting schools fail to prepare their students effectively for the transition, perhaps considering the motion picture a lesser art form. But acting for camera is here to stay, and here’s how to make a good impression on a director when trying to grab your piece of Hollywood magic.
1. Less is more.
The camera is six feet in front of you, not sixteen rows, and it can capture every last expression on your face. You don’t need to make large ‘theatrical’ gestures or use your whole body. The smallest look on your face can say so much, and often more effectively.
2. No need to project to the cheap seats.
A boom microphone will be hanging over your head, picking up your every word. You can deliver your lines right to the camera or the other actor and not worry about having to speak up for the benefit of the proverbial old lady in the back row. Use this opportunity to exercise what you can do with your voice for a softer moment. Be intimate, be subtle, more so than you could effectively do on the stage.
3. Consistency and continuity.
Understand that what you do in a scene has to cut together with the other shots of that scene. If you scratch your head on your first line in angle 1, but on your second line in angle 2, the editor may not be able to put the scene together too well without making it seem like you have head lice. Being consistent with your physical actions, your eyeline, your props will make your performance flow far more smoothly in the editing room.
4. Save it for the take.
Don’t use up the best of your emotions on one take, or, worse, in the rehearsals before the camera rolls. Understand how many angles and takes are going to be required to make the scene happen. Budget your emotions accordingly, and put your best work into your closeups, not when you’re in the background or off-camera. Inevitably, takes are going to be wrong for technical reasons as well as performative – if you put your all into the first take, and the camera jams, what will you do for take 2? Work with your director and find new ways of approaching the material each time, so that it does not get stale.
5. Track your character over the course of the story.
Movie scheduling is based around logistics, not the flow of the story, and so you may shoot scene 14 on the first day, 36 on the second and 3 on the third. But you can’t shoot scene 14 without understanding the general arc of the story, where your character is in those early scenes and where she’s going in the later ones. Understand how the scenes relate to each other so you can make the journey work in sections.
6. Bear with people.
Lighting takes forever. Setups take forever. Everything, in fact, takes forever, or close to it. An actor who is able to bear with the long process of a shooting day, who understands that spending an hour to do a minute’s worth of acting is not an insult to the craft, is an actor who directors enjoy working with.
7. Understand what is being shot at the moment.
What you need to do in your shot changes completely if the camera is a closeup on your face or a wide shot focusing on your left side; it is also important to know if the director plans to cut away to something, shoot it a different way later, et cetera. If you need to know if something you’d like to do will be relevant for the shot at hand, just ask; the director or the script supervisor will be happy to explain the breakdown of the scene to you.
Acting for the camera is an unusual process, but it is very rewarding to see your work on the silver screen. As Spencer Tracy said, “Learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” See you at the movies!