Adventures on the wrong side of the camera – Part 1

6 years, 1 month ago 0
Posted in: blog

– I wouldn’t claim these are deserving of being carved into stone tablets. They’re just some observations –

I’ve started attending acting workshops at ITV West, figuring that a greater understanding of what actors go through will make me a better director.

We had a shoot recently, with me playing the role of ‘wife-beater’. It’s only my second time doing a bit of filmed acting (you can see the first here) and the unusual other-side-of-the-camera experience made me very aware of my own directing technique – the positives and negatives. From that, I’ve come up with a simple checklist. It’s not definitive – it’s better than that because it’s short enough to actually remember.

1) Figure out where the character has just come from.

I’ve been following her because I’m obsessed with the idea she’s having an affair.

Short and simple – and packing a bit of an emotional whallop. This was my way into the scene. If it’s in the script, great. If it’s not, make it up and make it important – it’ll show in the actor’s performance. Make sure you’re talking about where the character has just come from, and not where they were 5 hours ago. You’re probably going to be shooting everything in a non-linear order, so it’s important to keep a handle on what was going on just before the character appeared on-screen. The residual energy of that will propel them into the current scene and help make it part of a coherent, continuous world.

2) Decide what they’re trying to achieve.

I want to scare her so she won’t dare leave me.

Work with your actor to set up a task they can try to achieve during the scene. Try to make the other character laugh. Try to scare them. Try to make them leave… For my scene having a clear objective informed everything I did and gave the performance its tone. I gave myself a simple task, rooted in emotion, and requiring me to be active in order to get the required reaction from the other character. If I’d been trying to remember too many complex things while playing the scene I don’t think I’d have been paying much attention to the other actor, the situation, the atmosphere, etc. etc.

3) Get them to practise anything that’s meant to be second nature.

Getting in and out of ‘their’ car…

Anything that unnecessarily distracts the actor away from the task at hand is likely to weaken their performance. If it’s meant to be their house, let them have a wander around and take the edge off their uncertainty with the space. It only takes a couple of minutes but it’ll definitely help with the scene.

4) Let the actors know what shot size you’re going for.

There’s a big difference in the concentration and energy required in a wide shot and a close-up, and in the stop-start space of a film set that energy can dissipate quickly. You don’t want your actors to start giving it half measures in the wider shots – that’ll show in their body language – but equally you can’t expect them to dredge up the same concentration and immediacy for take after take after take… It’s a balancing act, but there’s always the danger that if you ask someone to really go at it each and every take, every setup, you’re going to get gradually diminishing returns.

As ever, there’s a counter-argument…

5) Give your actors some space between takes.

It’s a strange and unnatural thing, to constantly repeat the highs and lows of an imaginary character’s life. To turn that process into something natural takes an enormous amount of concentration. As a director, I’m getting better at understanding that I can help with this concentration by being clear and simple with my direction – but giving an actor some space is just as important.

It’s hard to concentrate when people are moving a dozen things here and there, setting up for shots, having a chat… In that environment it’s a director’s responsibility to give the actors their own space when they need it. When they walk off to be quiet somewhere just let them be – and make sure that your crew are giving them some space too. Anything that upsets an actor’s concentration is damaging to the performance, and that makes it the responsibility of the director.

For a perfect example of this see this picture, taken on the set of my most recent (long) short, The Ballad of Byron and Cole:


Does the smoke machine work?

Does the smoke machine work?

Yes, the smoke machine works.

Yes, the smoke machine works.

One of the leads – Jefferson Hall – was having some time to himself and keeping his level of concentration up during a very hardcore schedule (I’ll be posting about the production soon). This was made more difficult by a director (me) with an aversion to standing still in between takes. I like to keep moving, keep doing things. In this case, I entertained myself by gassing Jefferson with the smoke machine I’d hired. On other occasions I pestered the actors incessantly with discussions and ideas, at precisely the moment when I should have given them a bit of space.

Actors, relaxing by cooking in a manly fashion.

Actors, relaxing by cooking in a manly fashion.

Fortunately, the two lead actors are consummate professionals and turned in beautiful performances. Next time they’ll get a bit of peace and quiet to help them on the way.

So, to recap….

1) Where have they just come from?
2) What are they trying to achieve?
3) Practise familiar actions/with familiar props.
4) Explain shot sizes.
5) Give the actors plenty of space.

6) Make a masterpiece…

You can watch The Ballad of Byron and Cole here, and it’s well worth it – even if I do say so myself.

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