How to Produce Stellar Actor Performances
4 Areas that the Film Director needs to Focus On
To people in the know, film making is a Director and Editor’s Medium. What is meant by this statement, is that the screen actor who acts in the film is only one of many contributors to the whole process. However, the actor does not pick the takes, where performance is picked from or the edits which create pace or the music which creates emotion that enhances their performance.
The actor does not see their own performance when actually acting. In fact, actors watching their own performances in rush screenings can be counter-productive. The person or persons that have control over how the film plays is effectively the Director and the Editor, and to a lesser extent, the Composer and Sound Designer. Therefore, film is often described as the the Director’s & Editor’s Medium.
Yet, Directing Actors is a very undervalued skill. There are many films made by emerging film makers where the director is too shy or lacking in confidence to actually talk to actors about their performances. This comes from lack of experience with actors. This ailment can be alleviated by the Director actually taking Screen Acting Classes and learning first hand about screen acting.
Let’s break Screen Acting and the Director’s role down into 4 Areas.
As a Director, the Casing is crucial. You get a chance to pick the best talent available to you in the marketplace. If you pick very poor actors, the film is dead in the water before you have shot a frame.
On my last two feature films, the casting in both cases lasted two months. Over that time we saw 100s of potential actors and chose the very best actors from the overall casting. This makes life very comfortable if you have chosen talented screen actors for your film.
Should you have a casting for your short film. Absolutely! You need to learn how to cast and you can do this on a high caliber film course.
Area two – Rehearsal
How many emerging film makers skip this process to their detriment. Many times this happens in lower caliber TV Dramas and actually results in stilted performances with actors seemingly not inhabiting the role. The mortal sin of Screen Acting is committed. Namely, the Actor looks like an Actor acting.
Once an actor is seen acting they have blown their cover. It is like a magician who reveals how their tricks are done. In most cases, the audience wants to be taken away with a great story and not see the actor’s performance. They want to believe that this person really is the person they are portraying.
Rehearsals help with the following:
- Actors blocking (the movement of the actors on set).
- Working on the dialogue in the script. Many times the actors and directors will change dialogue to take out the poor dialogue from the original script.
- Actors Chemistry – This is a chance to get the actors together and work with each other. I generally go out for a quick social after the rehearsal so the actors get to know each other well in advance of the shoot. You would be surprised at how often the actors only meet each other for the first time on Day One of the shoot. Sometimes they have to kiss each other or do a very dramatic scene as some First AD has poorly scheduled the first scene of the movie.
- Performance. This is a chance to work on performance and how the actors play the scene. The Director needs to know how to break a scene down into actions, objectives and subtext. The Director needs to know actor communication and how to express the performance parameters. This part of the process can only be taught in a specialist course about screen acting.
On the day of the shoot, there is very little time. Everyone is asking the director questions about their area. Makeup, Art Department, the DOP and the Sound Recordist are all wanting direction. You want to have completed most of the work with the actors in rehearsal in advance of the shoot.
Area Three – The Shoot and The Edit
I have actually combined the above as they are so closely related. The shoot is the process of gathering the very best building blocks for your edit.
The Film is made or destroyed in the edit. On set, it is important to push your actors for their very best performance. As a good director, you will maximise your coverage. This is different shots from different angles with different equipment. You may get track shots, slider shots or crane shots or just a basic static shot. You will also change your prime lenses to get different perspectives.
In most cases, a good director will get 30 times more material than actually ends up in the completed scene. This is called shooting ratio which was very important in the old days when we shot film. Shooting ratio is the ratio between the footage shot and what actually ends up in the completed film. 30:1 means you shot 30 times as much as actually ends up in the fine cut of the film.
The shooting ratio very much effects the actor performance. As a Director, you watch all of the takes, shot on shoot day via Video split at Video Village. You have headphones on and can hear clearly the actor dialogue. You watch your actor’s performance in detail on your video screen.
As a director, you watch and direct what the actor is doing. This is a skill that is learned via experience. You work with, and push, the actors to perform their very best. You do your best to create the best environment for the actor to give their best. You can accelerate the learning curve in this area by actually taking a screen acting class.
The beauty of film is that when anyone makes a mistake, one just shoots another take till you have a Print Take.
After the shoot, the Director will collaborate with the editor or in some cases actually edit themselves. It is very important these days to Watch Everything.
Watch all the footage. Watch every take that has the correct blocking and seek out the very best performance moments. You can mark them and try them in the cut. As you will throw out most of the material and only have about 3% of what you shot on set in the finished edit, it is very important to be patient.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in editing is a rushed edit. This happens these days because of a feeling that editing must be fast and quick. Many people are in a hurry with their edits. This is where edits go wrong.
It is your duty as the Film Director to pick the very best performance from the takes and coverage and mesh them into the very best scene in the finished film. This, in turn, maximises the quality of the screen performance.
I love editing and I am the actual editor on most of my films. The average scene will take me about 2 – 3 hours to edit. I spend about 60 – 90 minutes watching the footage and picking the best parts. Then I have a ten minute rest. Then I edit intuitively the scene using the best moments and create the best scene. Good Editing only comes from experience and many hours of practice. Most Directors hire experienced editors. However, make sure you watch all of your footage and mark out the really good material with your editor. Then let the editor go for it. On big films, many Directors will attend the Dailies or Rushes with their editor after shooting and point out the best parts to the editor.
The Shoot and Edit are very closely related to each other and both have a bearing on the Screen Actor’s performance. So to know how to do this properly, enrol on a high calibre film course.
Area Four – The Soundtrack – Music Sound Design and Mix
Soundtrack refers to the music and the sound design of sound effect foley, atmospheres and a final mixed soundtrack. This is a complex area and requires a detailed blog to highlight how it works.
From an Actor Screen Performance POV, the music and sound will enhance the level of emotion and credibility. Try watching one of your favourite films with just dialogue pre-mix. You would be very surprised at how different and inferior the film would be.
Music: This is self-explanatory. Music creates mood and emotion and when created and matched to the film will enhance the screen performance dramatically. However, it is a double-edged sword. Inappropriate music can destroy a beautifully performed scene. The Director must work intimately with the composer to create emotionally enhanced music that makes the emotional scene soar.
Soundtrack: One of the biggest emerging film maker’s mistakes is to have poor location sound and then have no professional sound design and mix at the end of post production. What happens if the sound quality is poor? The Audience believes that the actors are not very good and the film is terribly amateurish. So, you could have ticked the first three areas in getting great screen performance and then create amateur sound quality and blow the film all at the end. The Screen Acting could be at a very high calibre and then ruined right at the end with a poor Soundtrack.
That is why on our four month film course, we always have one whole day with Channel 9 Sound Designer John Hresc. He works on the film and brings a professional finish to it. The Difference is dramatic!
In conclusion, it is very important to have a well trained Director who is a film magician and who is capable of making a film that helps the screen actor find the very best screen performance via great casting, effective rehearsal, a film shoot that maximises the coverage and an edit that enhances the film with an awesome, professionally mixed sound track. Then the Screen Actor can bring the award winning performance to the screen.
Colm O’Murchu is an active film maker and film instructor at Australian Film Base. He is also the owner and regularly blogs about film making.