A million years ago in the age of silent films, a popular actor on Broadway was hired by one of the film studios to make his first film. After signing his contract, he left the studio head’s office and went directly to the studio’s equipment facilities to check out one of their film cameras because he wanted to take it home and dismantle it to figure out how it worked. What that actor, Buster Keaton, learned that night about the film camera he would use to create a body of work, which would influence both comic and dramatic actors and filmmakers for generations to follow and still does to this day.
One great filmmaker who followed was Alfred Hitchcock, whose understanding of the film camera resulted in his always directing his actors to play their love scenes like murder scenes and their murder scenes like love scenes. What did Hitchcock understand about the film camera that would lead him to give directions like that on every movie he made?
What does another great filmmaker who has followed understand about the film camera that has allowed him, time and time again, to create with his actors some of the film industry’s most unexpected film performances of the past 20 years? Whether or not you like all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, when it comes to creating cinematically compelling performances, he might be the most interesting director working today.
What Keaton discovered, and all great actors and directors of actors ever since have known, has to do with the same phenomenon that makes images in a film negative appear reversed, makes the color white in a film negative appear black, and the color black in a film negative appear white.
This same phenomenon is the reason why on film, when actors give every line a different line intention to make a scene interesting, it makes the scene boring. This same phenomenon is the reason why on film, when actors move in the frame to appear naturalistic, they instead appear awkward, and when they are completely still, they appear natural. This same phenomenon is the reason why the concept of “acting is reacting” is overacting on film. This same phenomenon is the reason why the seven words you never hear in acting class are “…and here’s why it works on camera.”
Something happens to an actor’s performance when it makes its way through the film camera and comes out the other side as a moving image on a monitor or screen. No matter how technologically advanced the film camera has become, since Keaton used it to break the hearts and tickle the funny bones of audiences across the world, it is essentially the same machine, and it operates in the same way. The film camera changes the alchemy of what it captures and turns it into something aesthetically compelling. The actors and filmmakers who understand this are the ones who create the timeless and iconic film performances we all know and love.
What are the hallmarks of a timeless and iconic film performance? One: While watching it, you’re thinking more about the character that the actor has created than you are about the scenes in which the actor’s character is appearing. Two: You can watch the whole film with the volume muted and still be mesmerized by the actor’s performance and moved by his or her character’s emotional journey. Three: You are always wondering about the character that the actor has created, always wondering what has made him or her the way he or she is, always wondering what he or she is thinking or feeling instead of always knowing what he or she is thinking and feeling, because the actor and/or director wanted to make sure you knew. Great film acting doesn’t answer questions, it provokes them.