There’s a big difference between acting and building a film performance, and most of the actors and aspiring filmmakers who are reading this now have never thought about it. Acting is about connecting with a character, being affected by other characters and the world, creating moments that capture what the character is thinking and feeling and making it all real. Here’s what most actors and aspiring filmmakers don’t understand: Once all of the above is accomplished, then the work of building a film performance begins.
Everything created using the actor’s process, the film camera sees as wonderful raw material. It’s the job of actors and directors of actors, as film artists working in an aesthetic medium, to take that raw material and shape it, or sculpt it as it were, into a work of art. Otherwise, we’re focusing only on the actor’s experience and not the film camera’s experience. If we’re not focused on the film camera’s experience, we’re not focused on the audience’s experience. If we’re not focused on the audience’s experience, everything we create with the actor’s process is a waste of time.
Let’s start with all those individual moments actors like to create. No matter how wonderful they are by themselves, they don’t add up to a believable human being on camera because they don’t create “conversational flow.” Conversational flow is how human beings communicate with each other. Conversational flow is how “relationship” is created. Conversational flow is how emotion comes alive on camera. Without conversational flow, all of those wonderful moments can’t be edited together in editing. Every time we would want to cut back to the actor, it would be an emotional jump cut. Keep this in mind. We don’t hire cinematographers if we have to teach them how to light a shot or move a camera, and we don’t hire actors if we have to teach them how to be believable human beings on camera no matter how wonderful their individual moments.
Once the wonderful actor has been turned into a believable human being, the next step is to create a specific human being or specific character, and the film camera thinks about “character” differently than actors do. When actors think of a character, they think of the scene, the relationship, the backstory and themes of the story. The result on camera is a very believable version of a nonspecific human being. When the film camera thinks of a character, it thinks of the characteristics of a character. It is the characteristics of a character that captivate a film camera, allowing the scene, the relationship, the backstory, and themes to move the audience.
Creating character correctly for camera is the most important aspect of the film acting process. It is also the most overlooked aspect of the film acting process, which is a shame because it’s also the easiest aspect of the film acting process. Pick three characteristics to describe your character and play the scene once communicating only those three characteristics to the film camera. After that, everything else is easier.
Finally, give the character an emotional mission. Acting is about how a character is affected by the other characters. On film, it’s the opposite. What the film camera loves more than anything else is watching a character fighting to impose his or her own emotional worldview onto the rest of the world while struggling not to be affected by the other characters in that world. That’s the conflict that interests the film camera and therefore the audience. As long as neither side wins that battle until the end of the story, the film performance will work.
It’s not for nothing that since the very first film was made every film take ever filmed has begun with the word “action.”