Directing 101: Working with Actors
So, you have your award winning idea, the script is nicely polished, the crew and filmmaking equipment is locked in, and you have your amazing actors. But, once you get on set, there are a few things you need to know about working with actors before you call out the words “ACTION!” As with any occupation, it’s important to review the plans for a project with your team. From Hollywood feature films to indie or film school short films, in order to get the best work out of your crew members, is to review the material thoroughly throughout the process of the production. This is especially important when it comes to directing actors.
Prepare your talent
It is highly beneficial, once you and your casting director have acquired your actors and before the filmmaking process begins on set, to find time to work together with your actors. It’s very important for you to communicate to them exactly what you are trying to achieve out of the actor‘s performance on set. Define clearly what your vision is and what your expectations are for them. Even great actors who have been involved in Hollywood feature films aren‘t immune from making common mistakes if left ill prepared by their director. The elements of preparation may require going over the script together to discuss a character‘s motivation or backstory, if those elements are relevant, talking about the scenes, and explaining how you intend to work with them before the cameras roll. This may also include other elements of the film production‘s material such as a shot list or storyboard, so the actors can more thoroughly understand the context of their performances within the scene being filmed. Every director has a distinct style when working with cast members. Some are more direct while others let the actors explore their characters themselves through methods like improvisation or developing backstories to help achieve the best performance possible. Communicating with your actors about the specific style in which you direct will help them to better understand your goals for the project as you progress. Creating an environment where the style of communication is innately understood prior to even stepping on set will assist your actors in being able to take direction more clearly, without any chance of confusion or frustration within the business of a shoot day, allowing the actor to consistently provide the best performance possible.
Once transitioning from pre-production into the active filmmaking process on set, while the other crew members of your team are setting up the technical elements of the shoot, such as locking in the elements of cinematography set design, it is important to take time with your actors to rehearse the scene, to allow for a smoother and more time-efficient filming process. This is the first time you will be able to guide the actors through the scene within the space it will actually be shot in, and you can properly communicate the final “blocking” of the scene, which is the way in which an actor or multiple actors will move throughout a given scene. Will the actors be standing, walking across the room, or sitting down? What are the choreographed interactions between them? Make sure to do a rehearsal with the blocking and answer any questions the actors may have. Professional actors may need less time in rehearsal than non-professionals, or those with lesser experiences in acting classes, but even non-actors can be guided through the process of rehearsal effectively. The final step of the rehearsal process is when you let the cast members run through the entire scene as if the cameras were already rolling, in order to communicate any final adjustments to achieve great performances. In order to signal the actors to begin the scene without confusing the other members of the crew, like the cinematographer or art director who may still be preparing equipment or set pieces for the actual take, directors will often call out “Action: Rehearsal.” Once you are satisfied with the rehearsal it’s time to roll!
Once you are filming, the process of constant communication with your actors carries over from the rehearsal stage. However, now that the specific needs of the scene have been established prior to filming, once the cameras are on, the adjustments should be minute and brief. While the scene is occurring, take note of all of the elements previously established in rehearsal: was the blocking right? Were they overly dramatic or too stoic? Are they conveying the right emotions at the right time? Then, once you yell “cut!”, do your best to give concise comments between takes in order to keep on schedule, while still optimizing communication with your talent and providing them with effective feedback. Positive reinforcement, transparency, and directness go a long way when working with actors to get the desired performance.
Honoring the Actor
And you did it! You got the shots you wanted with a great performance from your actors. As a director, aside from the goal of trying to get the best possible product you can, no matter what type of content you’re creating, you’re also responsible for being a caring and effective leader. Make sure that, as the day progresses, you keep communication lines open with your talent and your crew in order to ensure a positive and productive atmosphere. Do your best to make sure that everyone is having a good time on set, especially your actors. As the stars of the show, it is important to keep them in high spirits, and it is even more important that they trust you and your guidance throughout the day. If you create a comfortable space of open communication, your actors will trust that the direction you give them on a given scene is the right choice for the production. When you finally yell “That’s a wrap!” you want the talent to feel they did a great job with you on their side.
And that’s it! You have now successfully begun the journey of mastering the art of working with actors on set. For many, it can take years, if not decades, to truly perfect the skill of efficiently and effectively communicating with actors. Every production is different, and actors range widely in their methods of working and compatibility with various productions, but that’s why an experienced director is so valuable. At 7 Wonders, we understand the value of performance, and the skill it takes in a director to be able to work with an actor to uncover the best combination of elements to bring a scene to life. Storytelling is the foundation of what we do, and we take pride in our dedication to providing the best results in video production.
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