Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of my philosophy for acting and a few key principles I look for when casting or choosing to work with someone again.
3. Camera Technique
One of the most essential components to film acting is awareness of the camera. Over the years, I have been shocked at how the majority of actors working on my films have little understanding of the instrument that captures their work. No, you don’t need to know how to operate the camera yourself but, at the very least, you need to learn how to use it to your advantage.
When I worked with Tom Sizemore on Durant’s Never Closes, he always asked our cinematographer what lens we were on. If it was a wide shot, he’d adjust his performance accordingly. If it was a long lens, he’d know he had less room to work with and minimize his delivery. Now, Tom has been working on a professional level for years and has an advanced level of camera technique which I don’t expect our local performers to obtain right out the gate. That being said, here are two basic elements of camera technique that I expect every film actor I work with to understand:
A. Awareness of the Camera. You should know where the camera is located for a scene, which direction it is pointed, who is in and isn’t the shot, and what the general frame consists of. I can’t tell you how many actors ask me what they should do in a shot when the camera is clearly, directly aimed away from them. It’s hilarious and painful. It also isn’t hard to pay attention to where the camera is set up and follow its movements as angles change. It isn’t tough to ask the director or DP if you’re in the shot if the answer isn’t apparent. It’s not difficult to also ask if it’s a wide shot, a close-up, etc. or simply check the monitor if there is one on set at the opportune time. When I’m acting, I make an immediate note of where the camera is and try to play to it , which leads to my next point.
B. Cheating for the Camera. All that matters is what the camera captures. Anything that is out of that frame or not communicated through it is irrelevant to the finished film. Therefore, part of an actor’s job is playing to the instrument as effectively as possible. Once you know where the camera is and what kind of shot you’re in, you can use that knowledge to make yourself look best in the scene and communicate what your character is going through.
Example: years ago I had a short cameo in Tombstone-Rashomon, a Western directed by Alex Cox. I was sitting at a saloon table with three other principal players and had one line to deliver. They put the camera directly behind me and I heard the filmmakers say that it was the “only shot” for the scene. That meant no one would ever see my face… So I asked the prop lady if I could please get a shot of fake whiskey. During the take, I strategically turned into the shot to drink the whiskey and make sure the camera captured my recognizable profile. If I hadn’t known where the camera was or how to cheat for it, no one would know I was in the movie.
It’s your job as an actor to cheat your body to best show your face. Don’t expect the director/crew to always suggest this for you. They may forget, not care, or not even be aware of how much it can improve the scene. Much of a performance is communicated through the eyes. If I’m in a profile shot, I try to position my body towards camera just enough to see more of my face. If I’m in a close up, I make sure to favor the placement of the lens to best see both of my eyes. Oftentimes this can be the slightest shift. The other day on M30 Oxy, I showed two actors in two different scenes how they could improve the way they looked simply by switching from leaning on their left foot to their right. The difference was immediately noticeable and completely changed the way their performance read in the frame. This is a technique that every actor should learn. Every actor should also watch Michael Caine’s Acting in Film. It’s a great resource and reminder for how to act on camera. It will most likely be required viewing for all performers on my future films: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZPLVDwEr7Y
There’s much more I could go into, from being skilled at hitting marks to movement within the frame, which connects back to last week’s thoughts on body language, but I think this is enough to digest for now. There is a severe deficiency of camera technique in the actors I work with. They’re ignoring half of what makes a film performance. I can tell you from a decade of experience in front of and behind the camera that your work will improve exponentially if you make this a priority.
Photograph by Elizabeth Cutshaw from the set of M30 Oxy