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Old February 22nd, 2002, 08:46 AM   #1
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Books - how to direct actors

This has nothing to do with technology, no, it is even a bit artsy..

Being a nerd in communicating actors to do what I want, I was wondering if those of you who work with actors could provide a list of recommendable books, like the one in the DV forum on digital filmmaking.

And maybe we could discuss our own approaches making these poor fellows understand what we expect them to do, I am sure we all have our specialities.

For my part (I only work with amateurs, yes, the budget) I find it very difficult especially with amateurs as their acting abilities are very different. And showing them storyboards and practicing dialogue proves not to be enough. I would like to explain it a little more but I am pushing my english to my limits already. I hope I can share a little more when the disussion evolves.

The only book I have had a look at so far is:

* Acting for the camera - by Tony Barr

This one is from the actors POV explaining how to prepare for a role. A good introduction from the actors side.

There are so many other books covering the directos POV, which ones have you read, what do you think of them?

Peter Koller
Vienna, Austria
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Old March 12th, 2002, 07:55 AM   #2
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Directing actors

I have read a pile of books on directing, but most of them miss the real insight about dealing with actors.

Actors come in two very different varieties, professionals and amateurs.

For my purposes a professional is ANYONE who prepares for a shoot like it is a job. An amateur is anyone else.

Dealing with professionals is easier because they typically have been trained in some way to be find the character. Also they have been in the situations of creating a story before.

Amateurs are a real problem because they have no clue what motivates a speaker, including themselves. I mean how often do YOU think about why you say things the way you really say them, how you really feel and all that mess ?

Most people don't have this level of introspection and without it they can never really speak lines beleivably. Explain what you think the emotion is and think of a time when they already acted the way you want in real life. You probably know these people after all, so throw THEIR lives back at them. If you have an actor getting smacked by his movie girlfriend, remind him of that time his REAL girlfriend smacked him. If you do this you are really doing the thinking of acting for them, finding the character's center and relating it to the actor's life in a way they can "feel" it.

Once you do this enough your actors will start to do it automatically.

The danger of this METHOD is that they make incorrect relations. Going back to that real life your actor may have been surprised and hurt, while in the production he will have expected the smack, and in fact intentionally instigated it as part of a break up - i.e not being hurt at all. You have to guard against this.

As far as visual acting is concerned...actors -even professionals, are frequently surprised by what works on camera as opposed to in real life.

The only answer is to be very precise in your blocking instructions, marking things out on the floor whenever practical (use gaffers tape) It is important to explain that you NEED your instructions followed very precisely, and that they need to be able to repeat actions precisely.

A *GREAT* tutorial on the importance of precise movement can be found on the DVD for "The One" in the special features on effects there is a segment where they extoll Jet Li's precision of movement, and show it from several camera angles. (It is an overview of the first scene in the movie for those who fear the predictably bad Jet Li flicks you won't have to invest a ton of time to get the point, but hey I happen to LIKE Jet Li, so long as he delivers on MY expectations...which for this movie was computer enhanced whupass.)

Very few actors will ever move with Jet Li's precision, but every actor will improve when they understand that your request for precision adherence to blocking isn't a result of some directorial megalomania you've acquired because you happen to have a camera.

ANother problem you have with amateurs is that they might have stage experience. This is a mixed bag at best. They will know something about how to prepare. They will unfortunately use too much space and project their voices too much. A lot of the over acting you often see in video or film is because you have a stage trained actor at work. You have to exagerate motions on stage, including facial expressions...a habit you HAVE to break to get decent video performances. Also, some players will speak with exagerated and ultra crisp diction that the audience in the back row needs, even though your mic is 2 feet away. They also "run around" the stage too damn much and get WAY too far apart. I often have stage people try to have an intimate whispering moment three feet apart in louder than normal speaking voices.

The problem is that these people "know what they are doing", which they really don't. They inevitably think, nay INSIST, that you are demanding a flat stoic performance from them without emotion or life. Well they are what YOU see in the viewfinder and on the monitor.

Of course to be fair, you have to develop a very strong sense of what good acting looks like. "That's good" or "That's bad" are way too general. You have to be specific in your criticism of EVERY film.

Basically if your friends like going to the movies with you, then either they are SERIOUS film buffs or you ain't analyzing the thing enough.

Storyboards are a waste of time for showing most actors what you want a shot to be like. Unless you happen to be creating a composite. Only seasoned TV and film actors can translate boards mentally into places and motions that they need to accomplish on set. IOW, the actors will understand how you want the shot to look, but they will be no closer to understanding the process of creating that look.

Instead of boards try using clips of your standard set-ups taken from other hollywood productions. Show them an OTS sequence rather than telling them about it is a great tool. If you have something more complex this gets more important, you better find a clip in some film that does what you want...or do a simple animation using Poser 3.

This is still not really enough, because again you are dealing with finished results, not process. You have to expose the process to them.

Watch the Matrix Revisited DVD. It contains a LOT of the directors acting things out on set, and shows a lot of pre-visualization. Also, it shows (by accident) a lot of real on set blocking.

As far as specific communications techniques, try simile and metaphor. Get familiar with LOTS of sports.

Think about any sports coaches you may have had (I happen to be an ice hockey coach) and the different ways they express the same thing to you. That is a huge key. You need to express things in speech as well as visually.

Finally, convert your enthusiastic amateur actors into diligent professionals. Teach them good set habits, like bringing their own make-up, knowing their lines and having their own copy of the script with them.

Finally, it is tough to get actors to stick to what is written. make sure you impress on them that ad lib performances, while treasured from DeNiro and Brando, inevitably ruin a take with most actors, including some very talented Oscar winning pro's. You had better not even try to explain this though. Instead explain that the OTHER actors will get confused if they don't stick to the script and miss their cues etc.

It always works better when every problem is because of somebody else, not the real problem maker. Now, I am NOT advocating some sort of back stabbing non-sense. Just focus on explaining how the unwanted behavior makes everybody elses job a little harder.

For those that just HAVE to ad lib, try to get them to understand that you need a good "as scripted" take before you can afford to experiment. Watch the behind the scenes stuff on "The Score" DeNiro and Brando are the best at ad lib stuff, virtually all their ad libs are kept- but every time they show an ad lib from those screen LEGENDS they show it picking up from a finished scripted take, and that is by far the more important lesson.

Well, I know that was rather stream of consciousness, but I hope it hit some of the problems of directing no budget indie productions.
Alexander Ibrahim
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Old April 18th, 2002, 01:29 AM   #3
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I started reading a book called "Directing Actors" by Judith Wesson before had to return it to the library (Will get it out and finish it later) and I liked it a lot. Because I take acting classes I was impressed with this book and how it related very well to the philosophy behind the acting "technique" I study.

It is also a book that's been recommended to me by other actors and directors.

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Old June 4th, 2006, 05:56 PM   #4
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I went to Amazon and Wesson's book got a lot of good reviews so I'm getting one myself. Let's just hope that it's as good as everyone is saying.
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Old September 19th, 2006, 12:17 PM   #5
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To get a good perspective from the other side, and to make FORCED READING FOR ALL YOUR ACTORS...

Michael Caine's Acting in Film.

It's funny, insightful, and very down to earth. Also, the tips in it are incredibly simple and incredibly effective. Stuff like 'don't blink it makes you look weak'
Joseph Mastantuono - post production - jhesop at mac dot com
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Old September 19th, 2006, 12:57 PM   #6
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Alex, that was a phenomally informative post; thank you very much.

Caine's book is most exciting I have ever read. Obviously written from experience.

Judith Wesson's books are good too, but more academic.
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