Jump to content


Photo

Actors listening and moment-by-moment acting


  • Please log in to reply
9 replies to this topic

#1 Adam Orton

Adam Orton
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 77 posts
  • Student
  • Chicago, IL

Posted 13 April 2009 - 02:05 AM

I've come from various points of training and some have suggested that you keep actors rigidly headed in a direction... to be resultant here, lets pretend you need a character 'angry' at his wife in a scene where he catches her cheating on him. (I'm aware that 'angry' is a massive oversimplification...but I'm using it as an example of what would be read on the surface of the script.)

A lot of training I've received says that you need to keep the actor going in this direction; it's your job to inspire the right emotions. It's your job to make sure that character looks 'angry' at his wife.

Recently I happened upon a book that talks about letting actors listen to each other. If the actor playing the husband is aware that he loves his wife (up until this event), and truly listens to what she says in the scene (not just the words, but the meaning), you'll achieve a more naturalistic, moment-by-moment performance. For example, he won't just be angry...he'll be distraught, castrated, maybe then curious...alone...finally, anger. At the end of the scene you won't care about what you thought the performance was supposed to look like because you'll have something amazing and better than what you ever could have thought.

Which is great and all. I'd rather have true to life performances in my film than 'resultant', audience-effect "fakery".

The problem is, I've noticed that when an actor is truly 'listening' to the other character, it results in takes that don't always stay continuous. This is great for the stage, but what about a scene that must be covered in five different angles? How do you capture or recreate that spontaneous brilliance that is known as Moment-by-moment acting so it actually cuts together? This question could also be asked differently: How do you keep an actor 'fresh' take after take?

I'm really asking three questions here. How do you guys spot bad 'listening' ? How do you encourage an actor to engage in better listening without seeming arrogant or hurting their feelings? Lastly, how the hell do you shoot it once you get it?
  • 0

#2 Alex Donkle

Alex Donkle
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 38 posts
  • Sound Department

Posted 13 April 2009 - 01:57 PM

How do you guys spot bad 'listening' ?

You have to listen and watch them closely. If their thoughts stray even for a second to lunch, their next line, whatever... and you're paying close attention, you'll see it. When I notice things like that feel free to mention it to them since it shows you were watching them and not the lighting or the set design (as many directors are prone to doing during takes). Just a simple "That was good, but there was just a small moment when I noticed your concentration wasn't completely in the moment" can work magic for the scene and the actors trust in you.

For consistency, that should be part of the job of agreeing on the character beforehand and making choices before you get to shooting. There are so many choices that need to be made about characters and once those choices are made, it's easier for an actor to get through scenes consistently between coverage angles. If an actors isn't certain of the character's choices, he may choose different ones in different takes and while this can be great for a master shot (perfect for experimenting with ideas if you've got the time) those choices should (in general) be agreed upon after the master shot is finished for closer angles.

Granted, sometimes new material just pops out of nowhere and you just have to make it work because it's so great. My favorite example of this is Christopher Walken's lunch scene in Catch Me If You Can. For all the shots before his "2 weeks later she was my wife" line was said loudly and proudly, but on the 3rd take of his CU he broke down into tears during the shot (when they cut back to a MS of him later you can see he didn't cry in that take). It was just so great they kept it in. That shouldn't happen every take or even every scene as it slows the day down, but if an actor really has a strong impulse they should always feel free to follow it on a set.

Now as for making material "fresh" every take? That one of the things that separates great, good, and bad actors. Sometimes if you don't like tons of coverage and find and actor that does his best one the 1st takes, that can work for you (Clint Eastwood). Other directors want an actor than can find the same moments on their own again and again with little guidance as they shoot 100+ coverage angles (Michael Bay). And yet some directors want an actor they can mold take after take (Fincher or Scorsese).

It's always you're goal to find out how an actor works and accommodate that, but just as many times an actors needs to adjust to how you want to direct them. (Penelope Cruz mentioned how hard it was adjusting to Woody Allen's idea of just doing one take one scenes, and Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned the difficulty in going 20+ takes with meticulous detail when working with Fincher)

None of these are "wrong" it just depends how you like to direct a movie.

Edited by Alex Donkle, 13 April 2009 - 01:59 PM.

  • 0

#3 Adam Orton

Adam Orton
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 77 posts
  • Student
  • Chicago, IL

Posted 14 April 2009 - 02:38 AM

I'm training myself to watch the actor...as a low-budget director I've kind of been stuck in a rut of putting too much focus into the 'shot' as a DP would (lighting, framing, focus, etc...) So lately as the stuff I've worked on has become more and more and more complex (from a dramatic, text analysis standpoint), I'm making it a priority to keep my eyes and attention locked on the actor. Which I'm very proud to say I'm making progress. (I recently used a take with a small continuity error in the lighting simply because the performance was better. Granted, the lighting error was pretty inconspicuous...)

You answered my question perfectly in regards to my "how to shoot it" question with the Walken illustration. That's the kind of performance I try to get...not something I contrive, but something that comes from some organic place within the actor. Spielberg was obviously smart enough to use that take, even if it didn't technically stay continuous. So basically, we aren't always going to be able to plan for such occurrences, but sometimes there are ways to make them work.

Lately I'm trying to steer away from coverage with a capital C. I love two-shots and masters. However, like you said, this is entirely dependent on the actor and the scene.

Anyway, very nice insight, Alex. Thank you.
  • 0

#4 Jim Keller

Jim Keller
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 290 posts
  • Producer
  • Fresno, CA

Posted 14 April 2009 - 11:21 AM

One thing you have to be very, very careful when directing actors is that this Meisnerian "listen and respond" school of acting is only one technique. Those who use it (well) give beautiful, naturalistic performances, but, yes, they have a problem repeating action. Directors who like to work with these sorts of actors also like to work multi-camera.

However, there are many, many other acting techniques employed by professional actors that are purely technical. Nobody would ever accuse Michael Caine of failing to deliver nuanced, credible, moving performances, and yet he's capable of doing so without another actor in the room, just pretending to hear the other lines.

My advice to you is -- assuming you're working with professionals -- is don't worry about how the sausage is made. Hire good actors. Give them direction. Let them figure out what they need to make it happen. Some will say, "it would help me if, in the closeup, you had the actual actor doing the lines instead of the P.A." Believe them. Some will say, "tell me what result you want, and I'll give it to you." Believe them.

Now, if you're not working with professionals, you're going to have a harder time, and you're going to have to know how to do some acting coaching. What you sacrifice if you choose to use Meisner techniques is take-to-take consistency. Good editing can hide this. You may also want to study up on Michael Chekhov, whose techniques are frequently very effective at coaching a performance out of non-actors.

In any of the above cases, when the acting is working is when you believe it. That's it. It's that simple. If an actor is listening and responding naturally, you'll feel it -- even if they're doing it purely mechanically. As an actor I always find it hysterical when a director says, "Yeah, you really felt it that time, I could tell," and I felt nothing. And very few actors will correct you.
  • 0

#5 Adam Orton

Adam Orton
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 77 posts
  • Student
  • Chicago, IL

Posted 16 April 2009 - 10:14 AM

Some will say, "tell me what result you want, and I'll give it to you." Believe them.


This reminds me of a recent directing experience. I started putting the scene in a different context with a metaphor...talking about how the actor's character hasn't talked to his sister in years...how his sister has treated him in past, comparing it to a confrontation at a school yard with a bully in Elementary school.

The darned conversation consisted of me talking for a half an hour. Finally the actor broke and said, "What do you want!?!" I felt pretty dumb.

Anyway, thanks for all advice. I guess I do have a tendency to care more about the process than the result, mainly because I'm very self-conscious of frustrating my actors. But in that case, the exact opposite happened...so this goes to show there are exceptions to every rule.

Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors!
  • 0

#6 Jim Keller

Jim Keller
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 290 posts
  • Producer
  • Fresno, CA

Posted 17 April 2009 - 01:46 PM

I guess I do have a tendency to care more about the process than the result, mainly because I'm very self-conscious of frustrating my actors. But in that case, the exact opposite happened...so this goes to show there are exceptions to every rule.


Don't blame yourself for that. The leading name in how to direct actors is guilty of telling directions not to tell the actors what result they want. I've always found a mix of all the above is the best way to get it. "I want you really angry and to stomp your foot on this line, so maybe it's as if she reminds you of your abusive kindergarten teacher, or perhaps you go from a 'mold' to a 'smash'..." until I learn how the actor is working.

But I have the advantage of being both an actor and a director.
  • 0

#7 Adam Orton

Adam Orton
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 77 posts
  • Student
  • Chicago, IL

Posted 20 April 2009 - 12:50 AM

I've always found a mix of all the above is the best way to get it. "I want you really angry and to stomp your foot on this line, so maybe it's as if she reminds you of your abusive kindergarten teacher, or perhaps you go from a 'mold' to a 'smash'..." until I learn how the actor is working.


Jim, you mentioned that you use a mix until you learn "how the actor is working." What are some of the other methods you might use?

I've taken a few acting workshops just to familiarize myself with the process; there have maybe been one or two extra things I've picked up from it that have helped me become a better director, but unfortunately I simply haven't had the time and experience that you have probably had. (And looking back, the acting workshops were pretty sub-par as far as acting courses go.) So, for my own learning and curiosity, how has your personal experience as an actor helped you become a better director?
  • 0

#8 Jim Keller

Jim Keller
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 290 posts
  • Producer
  • Fresno, CA

Posted 20 April 2009 - 11:16 AM

What are some of the other methods you might use?


There are two broad categories of actors you'll encounter today, which I'll call "psychological" and "technical."

The psychological actors believe that if they create in themselves the psychology of the character, it will manifest itself physically.

The most famous of these schools is the Stanislavski "method," due to its popularity with beginning acting teachers. I find very few serious professional actors who actually use the method (especially since what is taught as the method has little relationship to Stanislavski's actual writings and is instead the result of some of his early students reinterpreting his theories when they came to England and the U.S. to teach), but its vocabulary ("emotional recall," "objective," "beat," etc.) has become ubiquitous, and most actors can translate a methody director's words into the technique they actually use. Method actors tend to focus on trying to fool themselves into actually feeling what the character would be feeling. What you need to watch out for with them is a tendency to disappear into their own heads and put out nothing to the camera or their fellow actors.

Meisner is probably the next most popular of the psychological schools. His emphasis was on being in the moment, and the mantra "acting is reacting" is a popular hallmark of Meisnerian acting. While they're very good at being real and natural, Meisnerian actors have a problem repeating action, and have a bad habit of not delivering the performance the script calls for because it's not what they would do.

Hagen, Adler, and the majority of other well-known American acting teachers tended to use some variant of the above, and nearly all the psychological schools trace their roots back to Stanislavski at some point of his career.

Chekhov is really a hybrid of the psychological and the technical. Chekhov was also a student of Stanislavski and agreed that the character's psychology drives the action, but felt that the manifestation of that psychology had to come from physical action (and the internal "feeling it" would sometimes follow and sometimes would not). Chekhovian actors tend to emphasize "psychological gestures" and other arm-wavy things. Their greatest weakness is that since the entire technique is built on identifying how a character is unlike you, they tend to be incapable of playing themselves. They're also the group most likely to be guilty of chewing the scenery.

Purely technical actors also come for a variety of different schools. They all emphasize training the body to do what audiences respond to. Remember that psychology is a new science, so before Stanislavski started polling his actors and trying to understand what was going on in their heads when they acted, this is what everyone did. Historically these schools include commedia dell'arte and clowning, Greco-Roman mask theatre, and the various Renaissance gesture-based schools and even the recent "elocution" training programs. But they have a surprising number of modern offshoots (most of which don't have formal names).

Some technical actors remain gesture-based, in that they carefully study how a person behaves physically -- down to the smallest facial tic -- and then train their body to do it on cue. These are the actors you see working in front of a mirror all the time.

Another group of technical actors are language-based. They go through their script, diagramming sentences and underlining important words. If an actor asks you, "Which is the most important word in this sentence, 'run' or 'not'?" you're probably dealing with such an actor.

Technical actors are wonderful in that they can truly turn it on and off, repeat action, and are basically programmable like robots. Their great weakness is that it's extremely easy, if even one small element of their performance is off, for the whole thing to feel very artificial or insincere.

Now, all that said, the ultimate complication is that in all my time I've met maybe two dozen actors who truly belong to one and only one of these schools. Most actors have a concentration in one school (or sub-school) and a smattering of training in most of the others. Ultimately most actors use their own unique hodgepodge of techniques to pull off their performances. Acting techniques are constantly evolving as actors share tips and training.

So, ultimately, my advice is always to direct by sharing your interpretation with the actors. Since the dawn of the art form, actors have also done a breakdown of the script and interpreted it, so if the actor is a solid, professional actor and you're not getting the performance you need, the disconnect isn't probably in the acting technique but more likely in that you're reading the scene differently.

Edited by Jim Keller, 20 April 2009 - 11:20 AM.

  • 0

#9 Keneu Luca

Keneu Luca
  • Basic Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 440 posts
  • Other

Posted 01 June 2009 - 11:50 AM

The process of actors actually listening and reacting truthfully does, unfortunately, work better on the stage than screen. But that doesnt mean it should be abandoned in cinema.

Alot of the issues discussed in this thread can be dealt with in the audition and rehearsal process - which is why those processes exist.

The number one problem with actors is ego and self-consciousness. A desire to be the center of attention. This is so destructive to any film. Most if not all actors suffer from this when they first develop an interest in acting. Eventually though, some of them may begin to realize that the scene is the priority, not them. And that's when they may figure out that their behavior in a scene is largely dependent on the other actors behavior and immediate environment in the scene.

Much of this has been thoroughly discussed in some books:

A PRACTICAL HANDBOOK FOR THE ACTOR.
TRUE AND FALSE.
DIRECTING ACTORS.
THE FILM DIRECTOR'S INTUITION

...and others.

But it all begins in selecting the actors. A director just doesnt audition them. Talk to them. Feel them out. It really is detective work. But dont talk to them like youre the director in control, like theyre applying for a job - because we are all in the same boat. We are all trying to get somewhere. Dont, as a director, think you are better than anyone else. This is what directing is - how you talk to people. How you talk to the crew and the actors. How you talk to the producer.

Try to engage in conversation other than acting and filmmaking and get an idea on who they are. How do they honestly behave when they think the camera isnt on them. This is tough work and time-consuming. But thats what directing is. Its not really what you do when actually filming - its how you prepare the film. So much of directing is the planning. And you need to make the time in carefully selecting actors.

How do they read the script. What kind of questions are they asking. Are they searching for the subtext. Do they realize what the goal of each scene is. Do hey see humor in the scene. Hopefully, they are not at all worried about being dramatic. Actually, they shouldnt be worried about anything. They should be open to everything. If the other actor does something they didnt expect or think is wrong, they should just react to it truthfully - its up to the director to make the judgment on whether its wrong or right.

All of this can be addressed before the director begins shooting. This is why directors rehearse and audition.

Here is a simple rehearsal exercise. This is so simple and effective. Take 2 actors. Assign each of them a character from the script. But create a situation that is not actually in the script. But you privately tell each actor what their goal is. Dont make it life and death. Nothing too extreme. Something that can create a little healthy conflict, but not violent aggression. Then when they act it out (improvise actually) you watch both of them to see how they behave in trying to reach their goal. If there is overacting, that is, a rush to dramatize and be aggressive in reaching their goal, chances are they need work in understanding acting and what truthful human behavior is. But if they are playful, subtle, maybe some manipulation going on, patient and comfortable with themselves - you may have something.

Much of this can inform the director on how he or she will cover the scene.

When you need to do reaction shots and close ups and the actors are no longer feeding off eachother, chances are if they are comfortable with themselves and know how to react and behave truthfully with other actors, they can replicate that behavior for coverage. But it first must be established in the truthful give and take of the overall scene.

I also wanted to add, a good way to finding actors is are they willing to make themselves look like complete fools. I once anted an actor to wear short tight shorts, like what basketball players wore in the 70's. This actor didnt want to do it.

That right there told me not to work with him again because actors NEED to completely free themselves from self-consciousness. Actors need to behave as all of us humans do when we are alone in our bedrooms and we know nobody is watching us. Do you pick your nose? Do you lay down in an odd position? Does your hair stand up before combing it? Does your belly stick out? Do you slouch? Do you fidget? All of these weird "embarrassing" things we do in private are usually what audiences relate to and find endearing.

If an actor is uncomfortable being human on camera, you cant work with them. That is, if you expect truthful human behavior.
  • 0

#10 Adam Orton

Adam Orton
  • Basic Members
  • PipPip
  • 77 posts
  • Student
  • Chicago, IL

Posted 11 June 2009 - 12:12 AM

So, ultimately, my advice is always to direct by sharing your interpretation with the actors. Since the dawn of the art form, actors have also done a breakdown of the script and interpreted it, so if the actor is a solid, professional actor and you're not getting the performance you need, the disconnect isn't probably in the acting technique but more likely in that you're reading the scene differently.


Great advice! I get so caught up in being the actor's Director (with a capital 'D') that I occasionally lose touch of the basics and what's immediately important. Thanks a lot for your insight, Jim!

Here is a simple rehearsal exercise. This is so simple and effective. Take 2 actors. Assign each of them a character from the script. But create a situation that is not actually in the script. But you privately tell each actor what their goal is. Dont make it life and death. Nothing too extreme. Something that can create a little healthy conflict, but not violent aggression. Then when they act it out (improvise actually) you watch both of them to see how they behave in trying to reach their goal. If there is overacting, that is, a rush to dramatize and be aggressive in reaching their goal, chances are they need work in understanding acting and what truthful human behavior is. But if they are playful, subtle, maybe some manipulation going on, patient and comfortable with themselves - you may have something.


Very interesting. I'd like to play around with this sometime. And all of what you said holds true to the common saying, "90% of directing is casting." Thanks for your comment!

BTW, I've read and own both of Judith Weston's books on directing. The script analysis sections have especially helped me.

Edited by Adam Orton, 11 June 2009 - 12:15 AM.

  • 0


Opal

Willys Widgets

Glidecam

CineLab

Ritter Battery

rebotnix Technologies

The Slider

Visual Products

Aerial Filmworks

Broadcast Solutions Inc

Technodolly

Gamma Ray Digital Inc

Tai Audio

CineTape

Metropolis Post

Rig Wheels Passport

Paralinx LLC

Abel Cine

Wooden Camera

FJS International, LLC

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

The Slider

Broadcast Solutions Inc

Ritter Battery

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

rebotnix Technologies

Tai Audio

Visual Products

Gamma Ray Digital Inc

Opal

Abel Cine

Technodolly

Willys Widgets

Metropolis Post

CineTape

Wooden Camera

CineLab

FJS International, LLC

Glidecam

Rig Wheels Passport

Paralinx LLC

Aerial Filmworks