Tips for Actors > Acting on Camera

28 Sep 2008

Director Dependence

Probably the most shocking thing about film and TV to a theatrical actor is the actor/director relationship.

I found out about the actor/director relationship the hard way. After twelve years of New York City theater, I moved to Los Angeles and the first job I got was on a major, major soap opera. I had to play the president of a businessmen's luncheon club, for which I borrowed a suit from a friend. I was nervous since it was my first network shot. So we did the first rehearsal, and I didn't see a director. Second rehearsal, no director. Third rehearsal, somebody said ``break for lunch,'' and I still hadn't seen a director.

I was getting into something of a panic. I'd never done TV. After lunch we came back for a dress rehearsal and then tape. I put on the suit. We did the dress rehearsal, and I still haven't seen the director. Now you have to understand that in New York your director is your mother, your brother, your lover, your friend. They'll do your laundry, if they have to. So here I was after years of that. I was about to go on, and I hadn't even met the director. So I was in full panic. We were on a break. Just before shooting I walked up to a guard in the hallways and asked, ``Do the directors ever give notes to the actors?'' He said ``Oh, yeah, they catch them in the hallways here. There he is.'' I looked down this long hallway and I saw this director talking to an actor. I beat it down there and waited for him to finish with this other actor. Finally he was done. ``Excuse me sir,'' I said. ``Do you have any notes for me?'' The guy stepped back, looked me up and down and said, ``No, the suit looks fine,'' and walked away.

Few directors in Los Angeles are known as ``actors' directors.'' Realize that if you get hired, the director is not there to give acting lessons. TV and film are very technical mediums. They are always under pressure to get the job done. Time is very expensive. So you must be a pro. You must bring the character to them, and a nice, rich option in case they don't like the first one.

To do that you must have technique. Actors have tools just like carpenters, and we call them techniques. The Tape Technique will teach you to direct yourself.


Acting is acting, and that is true. However, there are technical differences between working on stage and working before a camera. Here's a

quick list.

1. Closeups - Most important is that you must be able to do a powerful two person scene by yourself. The reason is that in closeup you're the only person in the picture. And let's say the other person that you've been working with has gone home for the day or is already doing another movie in some other country. And now reading their lines is the producer's nephew off camera. This will happen to you. But remember, it's your closeup and that's what you take to the bank. You'd better be able to do it.

For exercise, say you're working on a scene with a partner and you've got it nailed. The next time you do it as a camera closeup, have some non-actor stand behind a bright light so you can't see them and read your partner's lines totally flat. See if you can maintain energy, enthusiasm, the power of your performance.

Love scenes are great for this. Instead of the beautiful girl you're doing the scene with, have some production assistant-type stand there so you can see them and let them read your partner's lines in their own uninspired way - flat. See if you can keep the high level of performance you've had.

2. Matching - In films, TV and commercials, you shoot out of sequence. You might start a shoot one day and finish it hours or days later. You have to remember exactly what you were wearing. Was the cigarette just lit, half smoked or what? Was the glass in your right hand or was it the left? On major productions, there will be a continuity person to help keep track of all this, and they are very sharp. But even if they don't get every little detail, the editor will and you can lose the best closeup of you life because your collar was up in the master shot and the next day or after lunch when you shot the closeup, it was down. Polaroids are used a lot, but it's nobody's closeup but yours. So mind what you do and how you do it.

3. Looping and Dubbing - At some point, you will have to loop or dub sound. For some reason, the sound track is no good. (In film, as a rule, sound is done separately from the picture and is married to it later). So now you have to go back and do it again. Dubbing means that you add your voice but you're not seen on camera, or your back is to the camera. Looping means that you must record your lines while matching the movement of you lips on the screen. It's called looping because a small section of film is cut out and shown over and over and over again until the lines you're recording are perfectly in sync. Now the major problem here is not the sync but the quality of your voice. Once I had to go back and lay in some dialogue on a feature six months later. I had to match a voice I had used - a dialect, a style - that I woke up with on morning in Florida.

I'm sure you've noticed that your voice changes even during the day. So it can be tough to get this right months later. There's no camera, no sets, no costume, nothing in the recording studio to recreate that high energy you had while shooting. You must work very hard to recreate your character. There are a lot of technical demands and you can get caught up. Hold on to your character. Start with the highest, most emotional lines. The recording studio's pretty sterile, and this will get you blood running and help snap you back into character. So start with those super-charged lines, even if you have to go back and redo them at the tail of the session.

4. Where's Your Look? - If you're doing a scene or closeup and you have to relate (that is, see a person or event that is off camera) - ask, "Where's my look?" Be very specific. Always go to the same spot. If it's a person, make sure they are always at the exact same height. If they tell you your look is "over there," then find something to focus on. A crack in the wall, a tree with a knot on it. Be very specific. Focus on something.

5. Types of Shots - Always ask, "Where's my frame?" A long shot (LS)means your whole body will be in frame. A medium shot (MS) means part of your body will be in frame, usually the upper torso. A closeup (CU) means your neck and head will be in the frame. An extreme closeup (ECU) could be just your face or eyes or left nostril.

Now the reason you've got to know this is obvious. You can't bounce around in a closeup or you'll bounce right out of frame. But another good reason is that you shouldn't waste energy on some part of the body that will not be seen. Years ago, a friend of mine who was a very talented actor took me to the set of a series he was starring in. He had asked for his frame and was told would be a closeup. He walked over to me and said, "Watch me real closely on this one." What I saw really blew me away. I watched all the energy leave every other part of his body and travel up to his face. I mean, I watched it go from his toes back through his feet, up his legs and chest, and up into his face. Don't waste energy on parts of the body that are not in the frame.

6. Delivering on Time - In film, but especially in commercials, time is super important. You have to find the dramatic truth by doing the lines the way you feel them while rehearsing. Then, if it takes 30 seconds, be ready to do it in five. The producer will be standing there with a stop watch (I'm serious). You have got to find that one word that you can draw out - accent - and rip through the rest.

7. Hitting a Mark - To get a picture just the way he or she wants it, your director will want you to be in an exact spot when you say a line. That spot is called a mark. This is usually just a piece of tape on the floor of the studio. Outside, it might be a line drawn in the sand with your foot. The problem is that you can never look at your mark. You have to feel it in your bones. The easiest way is to count your steps. You can mark off a piece of furniture or some other stationary object. I don't like to mark off other actors because they might not be as consistent or as careful as I am. If you want to know how close you've got to be to your mark, you'll get the idea when the assistant camera person pulls the tape measure from the camera lens to the edge of your eye. Where you are at that second is where you are in focus, in your key light. in the frame.

It takes practice and experience, but you'll get it. Take it seriously.

Your first mark is called your first position, where you start from - you'll hear it a lot: "First positions, everyone."

Tips: While the rest of the shot is being set up, instead of chit-chatting with some actor or technical person, count your steps from your first position to your mark, over and over until you're hitting it perfectly. Do it until it feels natural and you can say your lines without worrying about it. As an exercise, put a piece of tape on your floor and practice hitting it with your eyes closed. Sometimes you have two or three, sometimes more marks to hit a single scene.

8. Concentration in Film - If you've worked on stage, you've been a little spoiled. You're working in continuity. You've another actor to work off of. You're in character for a long time. The house is dark and the audience is quiet (hopefully). All this is conducive to sustaining concentration. A film set or location can be like acting in the middle of a freeway. Grips pounding nails. Gaffers hanging huge lights overhead. Camera people, makeup and sound people running everywhere. Then somebody yells, "Quiet on the set," and it all freezes. You do two minutes of acting, the director yells, "Cut," and all hell breaks loose again.

If it's an M.O.S. shot (literally, M.O.S. means "mit out sound" from an old Hollywood story of a German director referring to a scene shot without sound), the director might be talking you throughout the scene: "O.K., now kiss her neck." So you might have to keep your concentration for a shorter time than on stage. But you've got to get there a lot quicker. And go in a lot deeper just to hold on to it. A tip: learn to play chess. It strengthens concentration.

9. Don't Jump the Gun - Wait for "Action!" to start a scene. The director is

the only one who can say "Action!" And never, ever stop acting until you hear, "Cut!" The director is the only one who can say "Cut!" If you blow a line, you might want to stop. But the director might love what you've been doing up to that point and might want to see where it will go from there. Maybe he wants to see how you use the frustration of blowing a line. He may like the reaction of the other actor in the scene. He may be a sick man. But until he says "Cut!" you keep on acting, because that's your job.


10] The major difference between acting for the stage and film is that on stage you rehearse, you have previews, and your character continues to grow with every performance. In film you must have a complete, polished character from day one of shooting - sometimes you shoot the last part of a film first. That character has to be all there. So your rehearsal period must be much more intense and since quite often, you don't get very much rehearsal in film, do your homework. Lots of homework!


If you're already a working actor, are you getting enough work? Are you getting the parts/work you want? A friend of mine in Hollywood is a working actor, but when I asked him those questions the answer was a very big no. This actor is no kid and not new to the scene. I told him he had a problem with his technique, almost always when actors answer no to those questions it's a problem with technique. "There's nothing wrong with my technique" was his answer. Well that's what he thinks, but as I explained to him, you've been out there buddy, everybody knows you, everybody's seen you for years and your still not getting the work you want. The guy is in a leading man catagory and should be working, but he can't accept that he has to go back to school, back to the basics. Now this is where everybody comes in. Basics rarely change, which is why that when it happens anybody in that field had better pay attention. Not that long ago, nobody dunked a basketball, ever. It just didn't happen, now it happens 30-40-50 times a game. Dunking is a relitively new but extremely important technique in the game, and everybody had to learn about it. Learn how to do it, how to defend against it, how to see it coming. It changed the game of basketball forever and is now part of the basics that every new player learns when they start. Players who were already in the game had to learn this new basic too. Sports is a very competitive arena and if you want to compeat, you had better stay on top of any advances in your field. Another quicky on sports, practically every team in the NFL now uses some version of the "West Coast Offense" in the course of a game. Not that long ago only the San Francisco 49's used it. Their coach invented it. As they started winning Superbowl after Superbowl with it, everybody else realized if they were going to compete, they had better learn about this new technique, this new basic.

The basics of acting hadn't changed in almost 100 years, but they have now. New actors must learn these new basics and working actors have to too.

As an art form evloves, the artists in that discipline are met with new demands. These new demands require new tools to meet them. For instance, computers now offer the painter new tools and millions of new colors to learn. Electronic music has provided as many new challenges to the dancer as it has to the musician and the internationalization of our taste buds has redefined the combination of spices available to the art of cooking. These new tools become the foundation on which the basics of an art form are redefined. We must redefine the basics of acting; before we can take this art to the next level. Redefining the basics of acting is what New School Acting is all about, and it will be New School Actors who start to win all the prizes as it continues to spread. If you haven't looked in the endorsement section, read what those people have to say about this approach and take their cue. I hope you working actors will look at the other sections of this page, especially Emotionology and The Whelan Tape Technique. Those two ideas are leading acting into it's next level of evolution. I started this over fifteen years ago and I've worked hard and I've watched it grow. I remember a sign on a bus in New York City that said, " There is nothing more powerful than an idea who's time has come." New School Acting is truly an idea whose time has come.