Everyone can now get a great camera and lenses. Post production at home in native 2k, with full After Effects integration opens up endless grading and VFX possibilities. Technology has transformed film making. A few hours on Vimeo will illustrate just how mind bogglingly sophisticated the world has become.
So, when working in drama, how can we compete with all of those filmmakers? And how can we compete against the mighty Hollywood? What should we choose to make?
Of course, it starts with a great story told through a page turner of a script (ideally in a clear genre).
It always should do. We all know this right?
But what else can we do?
I believe that the most exciting cogs in the machine of your low budget story are now your actors.
It probably always was. But the fact that visually and technically, so little stands out anymore (by virtue of there being so much amazing stuff being made all the time), the value of the performer has, at least in my mind, been brought into sharp focus.
As cinephiles we all love the aesthetic of the image, the special effects, the clever use of music. But when the script and performance is strong, nothing can compete with the raw and authentic connection that manifests between the audience and the cast.
Actors are the humanity in our stories, they are what technical wizardry needs to make it feel real, to bring meaning to all the craft around the frame.
How To Get Killer Performances
1. Write killer parts! Obvious, but you’d be surprised how few really great parts are written. So write one.
2. Take your time casting. I would say the director should spend at least 50% of prep finding their cast.
3. Take acting classes. It will open your eyes to how actors communicate and work.
4. When on set, don’t hang out with the crew, hang out with the cast.
5. Be a firm, but collaborative leader. Actors will risk more if they believe you have vision and their best interest at heart. They want to be heard and collaborate, but ultimately want to know YOU are in charge.
6. Be unconventional and play with your cast, creating a sense of freedom to explore on set.
7. Talk with your actors and maintain eye contact. Listen to them and don’t be afraid of touch. This physical and emotional bond is an important part of helping create the space for great work. Actors do this among themselves, you should too.
8. Take the time to feedback to your cast after a take, and do this as quickly as you can. Be authentic in your response, they will sense any disingenuous comments. Walk over and talk, don’t yell from behind the camera unless unavoidable.
9. Understand that audiences LOVE to watch actors, to figure out what is going on in their minds, so allow actors the time to think on camera. Often a thought and look conveys so much more than a line. You can always trim it in post.
10. Shoot reactions during conversations, but throw in new lines (that you may even perform) to get heightened responses – we LOVE to watch reactions in stories. Take the time to film the listener in a scene.
Above all, remember your cast are the human hearts of an entirely artificial world that you have created. Without their passion, courage, belief and intimacy, you may have pretty images, but your audiences will be left observing rather than experiencing.
Onwards and upwards
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author
This is a fabulous post Chris. It’s like an ideal set for me as an Actor. And I’ve been on sets like it. It is magic when that collaboration, trust, bond is fostered and can let magic happen. It’s when art happens. And as an Actor, God I Love listening. There’s so much to do! If this is how you run your sets, I’d love to work with you. Great post.
Thank Robert, the more I think about this, the more I really feel actors will supply the new frontier for indie film makers
Very interesting article Chris. I totally agree – script-plus-performance will put you ahead of 99 percent of the competition. I still remember attending a digital film festival (Resfest) in 2001, where all kinds of technical wizadry was on display, but the film everyone talked about was a low-tech strong story played by charismatic actors. And as you say, casting is key – one short film I wrote had festival success in large part thanks to the casting of the six-year-old lead girl (nothing to do with me – well done that director!).
I would qualify the point on communicating with actors – especially touching them – by saying find out the process that works for your actors and try to accommodate it. Kevin Kline on Inside the Actor’s Studio, when asked what he wanted from a director, answered: “I want him to put his arm around me and talk to me. I want him to leave me the hell alone.” They are contrary, fickle, maddening, talented, creative individuals and all different. Communicate, yes, but find and respect their individual process.
Great comments Alec, thanks for contributing
Great article and I agree with Alex’s point about individual process. Your suggestion to take acting classes made me think… Alone it may create the illusion that the director doesn’t need to prepare any differently from the actors. However as many directors I work with have taught me, the tools that actors use are very different from the tools used by a director to get the right performance.
Actors Tools allow an individual to work with imagined events, repeatedly experiencing them through the senses of a single character, whilst letting that affect their emotions as if each time is the first. Its great that they achieve this and you are right – its essential not to get in the way of that work.
On the other hand Directing Tools let you; plan rehearsals and the shoot, judge the performance and find the specific material in the script to help actors alter the performances to create your unique story. Without these tools the director doesn’t really have the means, or even the right, to ask for anything different than the actor brings.
Hey Simon, yep agreed. I just think most new film makers come at it from the lens end, and when the shit hits the fan, they revert to type and become techies. That’s why I propose getting in with actors early, understand how they work and think to they can create space for them to do their thing. Thanks for contributing.
Chris, great article. I can only say that one of the most awe inspiring things I have done as a writer is attend the Actors Academy in Santa Monica. Watching the twists and turns that an Actor takes as they rehearse is amazing. The Tutor was a hard task master and required them to think outside of the box. Watching two male detectives discussing gun crime took on a whole new perspective when they were asked to do a waltz at the same time as continue with the scene, and it will always stay with me!
It certainly inspired the way I write now and has brought a respect for the way they learn their craft.
We are running this kind of session at the LSF this year too. So great minds think alike.