Some Notes for First Time Directors and Actors on the Set

Unlike theater that is basically an actor’s medium, cinema is a director’s medium. It is the director’s vision pure and simple. Below are a few notes that may be useful for a first time director and actors on the set. It is not intended as a complete treatment of the art and has been written in the most simplistic and hopefully practical way to be used on the set. Other aspects of the director’s endeavor will be discussed in another treatment.

In cinema as in any other art, no rule should be considered as the absolute truth, and exception is the norm.

1. Respecting and Protecting Actors

Actors have such a horrendous task as showing their emotions under the intense lighting in front of the camera, the director and other crewmembers. Don’t any body including the director herself utter words such as: “You acted bad, not so good, etc.” A director has to put herself in the actor’s shoes, think about their feelings. Because the actors have to live the moment, to cry, to be happy, depressed, in anguish… they are very sensitive people and thus can get hurt so easily. If someone in the crew laughs at or teases an actor, that person needs to be disciplined right away. The director has the duty to protect her actors.

When asking them to act again, director should never ask for result such as telling them: “To act better.” ‘Better’ is a vague word and can make actors more confused because they don’t know what is better?  If they knew, they would have done it already. Moreover, by thinking about how to act better, they will lose their concentration and they will be out of their character. The director must have done her homework and knows exactly how the scene should play. When asking the actors for another take, give them more concrete direction such as: “I want you to act this scene sadder or more funny or starting out lighthearted then turning more solemn, etc.” Give them the range of expression that the director wants. (See “Beat” and “Range of Emotion” below.)

Always try to create an environment that would make the actors most comfortable to play the scene. As an example: In a Norwegian film crew, when shooting a nude scene, all members in the crew – even the director – were naked too. It made the actors feel dignified, being equal with the other people and not a subject of voyeurism. It freed them from shyness, and they could focus on to be the character.

Another consideration in shooting love scene is using more than one camera whenever possible because the actors don’t have to perform the same action again and again so many times. It is out of the respect for the actors. (See also “Multiple Camera” below).

2. Beat

Beat is the precise moment in the scene where the emotion of a character changes sharply. There can be more than one beat in a scene and the director should discuss these with actors during the rehearsal. If an actor has not hit the right beats after the first take, director should remind or point out where the beats are as well as how intense the emotion should change. This should be done as early as possible to avoid unusable takes and confusions to other actors in the scene.

3. Self Directing

Avoid letting the actors watch the takes they have just done, because if they watch them, they will have the tendency to direct themselves. The end result may not be the way the director intends anymore. On the other hand, a thoughtful director can give her actors constructive criticism and/or suggestions after each take but never shows them how to act, nor shows them exactly the actions they have to do. It has to come from the actors motivated by her emotion.

After satisfying with the actors’ performance, the director should encourage the actors to do the same scene in the way she or he feels like it the most.  A confident director should be open to the different ways the actors can come up that may be very different from her own idea for the scene but may be more truthful to the actors’ emotion and thus more appropriate for the scene.

The production should clarify all the requirements for the actor in the contract. If they accept the role, they have to accept the rule.

4. Capture the Moment

In the most emotional scenes, if possible, the director can try not to tell the actor when the camera starts rolling or when it stops so the actors won’t “act” for the camera. Alternatively, the director can discreetly signal her director of photography or camera operator to start shooting during the rehearsal. This may enable the actors to be more natural in expressing their emotions. In some cases, the first take is the best take since the actors are still fresh and thinks that she will have other takes to perfect her acting later. Consequently they are much more relaxed and thus more in tune with their emotion. Director should not announce that “This is the final take” because when actors hear “final take”, they may freeze up and try to “act” rather than just to live the moment. That would put them out of character and they tend to exaggerate their performance for the final take too.

Often times, after the director calling “cut”, it would take a good actor who has been completely immersed in her character a certain time to come out of it. After hearing the cut, she may feel no more pressure, thus can be completely candid with raw emotion. Those could be the golden moments to capture the most sensitive emotion that are impossible elsewhere. Director should work with the DP and sometimes even the crew in advance to make this happen.

5. Close-up

Close-up should be used with care. It is usually intended for very emotional moment such as a dark truth is revealed or a most happy moment experienced by the character (see “Beat” above). Over using of close-ups and they will loose their power.  An editor will need the close-up shot at the right moment to make the scene most poignant or exuberant.

Actors are human and cannot maintain the same performance forever. When doing coverage of two or more actors, depending on the scene and individual actor, one can reach the best moment sooner or later than the other playing opposite her. The director needs to find out when an actor is close to her best performance and start her close-up shot right away.

When the scene involves two or more actors in a close-up shot, not only the actor that is being shot should try to give the best performance but the other actors that are opposite of her should also give their best performance as well even though they are not on camera. No actor can perform well if the other side is not giving her the right emotion to bounce off.

6. Tear Jerking or Not?

Crying in a scene can help or hurt the scene depending on the intention of the director. Very often when an actor start crying the emotional “pressure” on the actor and the audience is released right away and the scene may be degraded to tear jerking. The moment right before the tear wetting her eyes is perhaps the most captivatingly intense moment. For e.g. One of the most emotional scene in Buffalo Boy was cut, during the editing, at the moment right before the actor starts crying even though the shot continues much longer showing tear drops rolling down her cheek. By contrast, the same scene with just a few frames longer showed much lesser emotion.

Director should not suggest to her actor to cry or not to cry, just let her be with her true emotion.

7. Range of Emotion, Contrast in Characters, Casting

One can hardly be moved by a teary scene if one has not seen that same character jumps up and down laughing. To know a character in cinema is like to know a childhood friend in real life. That is to see her in very different states of emotion, from most depressive to exuberant, outraged to serene. The lack of variety leads to monotonous character that bores the audience. Contrast in emotion brings out the human behind the flesh. This applies not only to the acting on the set but also to the writing of the script.

In casting, an actor that is capable of acting the same scene in very different ways convincingly should be highly treasured than just her appearance alone. The choice of an actor with a wider range of emotion and acting style is invaluable to the director on the set.

8. Multiple Camera

In shooting action scenes, love scenes or scenes that are difficult be reproduced multiple times, the use of more than one camera can be necessary. When using one camera, the director and DP can control everything from lighting to camera angle. When using more than one camera, the coverage becomes quicker but the visual is somewhat compromised due to limitations on lighting and camera placement. Also, the more equipment that are placed around the actors the more chance they can be distracted.

The director should discuss his idea of shooting a scene with the DP and sometimes even with the editor to have another opinion.  (See “DP” below).

9. Unblocking, Breaking the Ice

When an actor has difficulty expressing the character’s feeling, the director has to help “unblocking” them. One possible way to unblock the actors is to have them doing physical exercises such as running, jumping or free-style dancing with each other or just simply screaming out loud. It would be great if the director does these exercises with them. If the actors are a couple in the movie and haven’t been physically acquainted with each other yet, having them sparring or even wrestling against each other can make the actors feel uninhibited toward each other. These exercises should be fun, playful to help the actor express the character’s feeling more naturally.

During the shooting of Nuoc 2030, one observes the two lead actors initiate the process themselves by doing some grimaces, singing silly song, pretending to shoot corny music video or playing Kung-Fu fight to break the ice.

10. Acting Class

Not only actors but director should also take acting courses. When the director understands the actors’ inner working, she can better communicate with actors to get the result she wants. Director needs to speak in a way that actors can understand what she has in mind, otherwise it’s difficult for the actors to guess what’s the director’s intension or worse yet they may misunderstand it.

11. Listening

In dialogue scenes, an actor tends to not listen the other actor playing opposite her. She often tries to memorize her lines she’s about to say because she fears of forgetting them. She tends to wait for the moment the other actor stops talking to immediately deliver her lines. This makes the dialogue scene stilted since there is no real emotional interaction between the two actors. An actor should listen to the other actor and feels the emotion before reacting to him or her.

In scene without dialogue, the actor still has to “listen” to the other actor’s body language, so subtly may it be such as a blink of an eye or a discreet exhale.

At the risk of being redundant, the director should always encourage her actors to listen to the other actors and then react to it, and not just memorize their lines and wait for their turn to speak or do the next action.  This can make or break any scene no matter how well it was written. This is the most common problem, not only in Vietnamese films but films from anywhere.

In summary, the secret of acting is not to act but to react. To “act” is to be untruthful. If an actor doesn’t feel the emotion themselves there is no way the audience can feel it.

Not only actors should listen to each other and the director, but director should listen to her actors as well. They can let the director know if they have any difficulty to perform the scene as the director wants it. They may feel the emotion is forced and thus doesn’t ring true at a certain moment. If their emotion is forced, the audience will immediately stop believing in it too.

Even though a character is written by the writer and then fleshed out by the director, the actor is the one who has to live the character through out the journey of the story. Thus actors tend to have a very intimate understanding of their characters and should share all their feelings about the characters with the director. Those crucial information can help to flesh out the character in the most organic way. Acting is not about fooling the audience but sharing the true human emotion that would resonate with everyone. Film is truly a collaborative art form.

No matter how good the scene was written, no actor could reach her best performance in every take. But when she does, she would be happy to share it with the director. So listen to your actors and make sure that the script supervisor takes good notes of it.

12. Editor and Music Composer

These two members of the creative team should always be treated with great respect and will be discussed in another treatment. The brief discussion below is restricted only to their roles on the set.

Normally, the editor should be kept away from the material and not allowed to observe the process of shooting a film. If they don’t know anything about the shooting process, they would not have any preconception and thus would be completely open when editing the film. There is always exception to this practice when the director choose to collaborate with the editor in an experimental way of making a film that involves the editor on the set.

The same thing applies to the music composer. When the composer doesn’t see any image before composing the music, his inspiration would be completely free from the image instead of “slaving” to it. Music would bring some thing new to the audience’s experience, telling its own story instead of supporting what is already on the image. Top of FormMusic should not be the sonic illustration for the image. It should be independent and it should give the audience new information, provokes different emotions than the image.

13. Director of Photography and Production Designer

Director of Photography along with Production Designer are the two most important creative members of the film crew that are directly responsible for the look of the film. They are also the two closest collaborators with the director on the set. But the director should never wait until getting on the set to start the conversation with them. She should discuss with them from the beginning of the project all the aspects of the production. They help the director to realize her vision and should be treated with great respect.

Due to their important roles, the director should also “cast” her DP and PD as well as the editor and the music composer. Try to see their previous works and interviews. Send them the script with notes of your vision of the film. Then ask them for meetings to listen to how they can help you to realize your vision or they may have their own suggestions for the film that may be different from yours. Again the keys here are listening and openness. The final decision you take will have a definitive effect on the final look of the film.

These crucial collaborations deserve a whole treatment that is outside the scope of this article that focus on the tasks of directing and acting on the set.

The above notes are certainly very simplistic, incomplete and presented in no particular order. As the director and actors get more seasoned these rules can be “forgotten” as they become naturally integrated in to the workflow on the set.

Again in cinema as in any other art, no rule should be considered as the absolute truth, and exception is the norm.

Director Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh


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