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Backstage Guides

How to Act for the Camera

How to Act for the Camera
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Have you always dreamed of appearing on the silver screen? Or wanted to put people in stitches as an actor in sitcoms? Or seen a good commercial and thought, “I could do that”?

Regardless of medium, the desire remains the same: creating truthful characters to convey a story to an audience.

You’ve probably heard the stereotype that stage acting needs to be large and loud so it can reach the last row of the theater, while acting on camera is small and nuanced since the lens picks up your every move. While true in a general sense, there are specific techniques that help create a more effective performance for each type of acting. Here, we break down the basics of acting for the camera to get you on the right track.

What are the different types of on-camera acting?

It’s good to start with the main genres of on-camera acting:

Acting for film: This is acting for a story that can generally stand alone as a piece in-and-of itself. It’s important to remember it’s intended to be shown on gigantic screens, even though watching films from the comfort of your own computer or TV is becoming more and more popular as technology advances.

Acting for TV: Acting for TV means that you’re acting for a show that’s usually part of an ongoing storyline. TV is having a bit of a renaissance and is of a better, more complex, and varied quality than ever before with the advent of video-streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. So while the format can change—typical 30-minute or one-hour spots to individual series creating film-like episodes (i.e., “Sherlock,” etc.)—there are still two main types of TV filming: single camera and multi-camera.

Single camera is when there is only one camera shooting, and it’s moved to various angles to get different shots. Multi-camera means multiple cameras are all shooting at the same time. The latter is still the popular method for sitcoms and soap operas.

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Acting for the web: Web series are an extremely popular storytelling method today. They’re usually shorter in length (in the five- to 30-minute range) and are often part of a series that develops characters over time the same way a TV show would. They’re a great way to gain film experience on a smaller scale or even produce your own work. Web series can also be useful for getting footage for reels and having work online that can be easily viewed and shared by industry professionals.

Acting for commercials: Commercial acting is its own art form. There are the usual TV commercials, but increasingly, there are also commericals for the web. Commercial acting requires the ability to sell a product while also appearing natural and at ease.

Acting for industrials: An industrial is a production for non-broadcast use that’s usually shown in classrooms, stores, dealer showrooms, or corporate offices. Similar to commercial acting, you’re often selling a product/service, but you can also be teaching/explaining something to the audience. Either way, it’s important to still appear natural and easygoing.

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What’s the difference between on-camera and theatre/stage acting?

As Backstage Expert and acting teacher Craig Wallace says,“Good actors are good actors no matter what the form…. Their talent and work ethic doesn’t change; they simply make the technical tweaks necessary to make their work appropriate to whatever medium they’re working in.”

In theater/stage acting, your body and voice play a large part in your character’s creation. You, not the camera, are also responsible for directing the audience’s focus onto certain parts of the scene. To this end, you must develop your physicality, vocal range, and endurance to accommodate the demands of the stage and possibly even eight shows a week.

Meanwhile, with on-camera acting, stillness is of great importance. This isn’t to say you don’t use your body and voice, but you must be able to convey your thoughts, feelings, and emotions with minimum movement. What you’re doing with your eyes and your ability to tell your story through them is vital; you need to be able to convey expression and vulnerability through your eyes alone.

Understanding and getting rid of any personal tics you might have that aren’t specific to the character is helpful. Your movements will be magnified exponentially from what an audience member sees in a play versus a movie theater, so you need to understand the impact each movement has when viewed on film and be sure everything you do is truthful and honest to the utmost degree.

A great way to really explore this difference is to perform a favorite monologue the way you normally do for theater auditions on camera. Then, sit on your hands and tell the same story. You can even try it with different size camera cuts. (Is the shot of your torso or a full-body shot?) Notice the differences in your body, volume, and eyes as you perform the piece with different camera cuts in mind. You’ll be able to start seeing how the same piece translates for both outlets.

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What makes an audition for on-camera work differently?

The nice part about auditioning for on-camera work is that you usually get multiple takes, especially if you’re doing a self-tape. While it’s always important to do the best work you can—especially if your on-camera audition is in person—allow yourself to go slightly different places with different takes. Remember that a note is a gift to the actor; take it and run with it so the director knows you’re coachable.

Also, for the best-quality shot, it’s important to know what looks good on camera technically speaking. Film directors usually interpret your audition as the final product you’ll provide if hired, whereas theater directors tend to see your audition as a starting point from which to grow. (This has to do with the truncated film-rehearsal process compared with the extended nature of theater rehearsals and is important to keep in mind when prepping for film auditions.)

Additionally, make sure to be aware of what clothing looks good on tape. Avoid busy patterns, logos, and anything that washes you out or leaves you looking shapeless on camera. If filming at home, be sure to do it against a solid-colored wall with good lighting. Cell phone cameras are of high-enough quality today that you can use them to film, but consider investing in a tripod, detachable lens, and two lights for picture quality. Be sure to always have a reader work with you as well. Only saying your side of the dialogue won’t impress anyone, unfortunately.

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What tools do I need to be an on-camera actor?

A lot of the tools you need for on-camera acting are the same as you need to be a stage actor:

Headshot:Your headshot is your calling card and where many casting directors will get their first impression of you, so it’s important to have high-quality, color photos that illustrate who you are as a person. For example, if you’re a jokester who mainly performs comedy, a stern, serious headshot won’t be right for trying to sell who you are to a casting director. In this case, perhaps a more colorful shot with a bit of a smile is the way to go. Check out our full guide to headshots here.

Resume: Just like a standard business resume, there’s a general format for acting that you should use. Your name should be the largest item on the page and at the top. Also, at the top of your resume in smaller font should be your contact information (email, phone number, and website—never put your home address or age!), union affiliations, as well as representation contact information. You should have a section for film, TV, theater, new media, staged readings, training, and special/other skill. (Special skills/other is where you can list things such as foreign languages you speak, athletic abilities, etc.— just make sure you can do anything you list on command! If you say you can juggle, be prepared for them to ask you to juggle on the spot.) If you’re applying for a film role, make sure to submit a resume with the film genre at the top. If you’re auditioning for a TV show, switch to the resume with that section as the first on the list. In other words, tailor your resume for exactly what you’re applying for. You don’t want to list all your Shakespeare experience first when auditioning for a modern, comedic web series. And remember, never, ever lie on your resume. It will inevitably come back to haunt you. For more tips on formatting your acting resume properly, check out this list.

Website: In today’s digital world, it’s important to have a website with all of your materials in one easy-to-find place. According to Amy Russ, Backstage Expert, actor, and web designer, the materials you should list on your website include your headshot, resume, reel, and links to your social media. Be sure your domain name is something easy to remember and as close as possible to your name. If your name is common, try something like “your name” + “actor” (i.e., johnsmithactor.com). Make sure all of the most pertinent information is on the first page of your website (i.e., headshot, reel, union affiliations, agents, and resume link) so visitors to your site don’t have to dig through to find the information they need. In addition to an all-inclusive homepage, feel free to create other pages, such as a biography page, gallery of production stills, a page for individual video clips, etc.

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Reel:Your reel should be a short compilation of your best on-camera work. Be sure to put the clips you’re most proud of at the beginning and avoid creating montage scenes. Try to make the entire reel two minutes maximum. Be sure to add the production’s name onto each clip. See our complete guide to creating your reel here.

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Also popular these days is the idea of creating individual clips of your best work from specific TV shows or films and/or a comedy- or drama-specific reel. These additional clips shouldn’t replace your main reel but instead be used in addition to it, either for more material or if a casting director is looking for something specific. These can be located on a different page of your website.

Social media: Make sure to keep all of your social media professional; once it’s online, it’s there forever. Being able to share links to your camera work is especially important. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are some of the most popular social media sites and are excellent for marketing purposes.

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Training: In addition to any studio, bachelor, or master programs you may have completed, be sure to take camera-specific training classes. Seeing camera-specific classes on your resume is very appealing to film- and TV-casting directors. Here’s our guide for how to choose the best acting class for you.

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Survival job: You don’t need us to tell you how hard it is to make enough money to live off of as an actor. You know it, you get it, you love to act, so you’re doing it anyway—it’s not about the money. Which means it’s essential to have a survival job that can sustain you between gigs and help pay for all of these necessary acting tools. The key to having one is flexibility; you need to be able change your schedule at the drop of a hat because auditions can come up day-of. Having co-workers who can cover you, an understanding boss, or the ability to be in charge of your own schedule is key. Remember, though, if your friends help you out and cover for you, be sure to return the favor when they need it.

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Do I need an agent or manager to help me get on-camera work?

The simple answer is no. That said, having an agent or manager can help get you into rooms for bigger roles or shows, but it’s definitely possible to carve out on-camera roles for yourself, especially as a beginner. (Side note: The main difference between an agent and manager is that an agent has to be licensed and can only take a 10 percent cut of any job, while a manager isn’t regulated and can charge whatever he or she sees fit, sometimes as much as 15 or 20 percent. Additionally, an agent will theoretically be more focused on getting you into auditions, while a manager will try to help you steer your career.)

It’s also helpful to mention unions. Most bigger roles will fall under SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), which is the film and TV union in the United States. In order to get into the union, you’ll either need to be hired under a union contract, gain three waivers while working on union sets (a waiver is formally called a Taft-Hartley), or join through a sister union such as the stage union AEA (the Actors Equity Association) after at least a year of being in that union. Keep in mind that the dues to join SAG-AFTRA are $3,000 in addition to yearly union dues based on your income through the union. However, the great thing about being in the union is that it will offer benefits such as base pay determined by the type of contract and size of the role you’re hired for, specific working conditions, possible health and pension if you qualify, as well as other perks and advantages.

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In terms of self-submitting, online submissions sites like Backstage are a wonderful tool for actors, especially those looking to start their on-camera careers.

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Does on-camera work pay better?

On-camera work does generally pay better than stage work, yes. Since TV and film can potentially reach more viewers via ticket sales, DVDs, downloads, streaming, etc., there’s more interest from advertisers. More interest from advertisers equals more money, especially compared to a small theater.

You should also note that if a production is union, you’ll likely be paid more than a non-union project as the union mandates a certain base pay for everyone determined by what type of contract they’re hired under. Non-union actors are often used as a way for the production to save money.

Additionally, some film/TV projects have residuals, payments made to the creator of the piece and/or performers for reruns. This means that you’ll continue to receive checks for as long as the project is aired.

What are the different kinds of TV and film roles?

Although there’s a lot involved with contract negotiations and the different types of things you can be paid for (i.e., bumps in pay for performing in water, providing your own wardrobe, etc.), it’s helpful to understand the main terminology regarding the type of contract for which you’re being hired.

For TV:

  • Series regular: one of the lead actors of the entire series
  • Recurring: a role that recurs throughout the series but isn’t necessarily on every episode
  • Guest star: an actor who’s usually in only one episode of filming but is often seen throughout the episode in multiple scenes
  • Co-star/under-five: a character that usually has five or fewer lines and is often only seen on one episode of the series and used for only a day or two of filming
  • Background/extra performer: A background/extra performer doesn’t have any lines and is used to help fill out the scene and make it realistic. You can be hired to work multiple days as an extra for the same TV show.

For film:

  • Lead: one of the main characters throughout the film
  • Supporting: a secondary character throughout the film
  • Principal/day player: You will usually only be used for a day or two of filming.
  • Background/extra performer: no lines, used simply to fill in the background so a scene looks realistic

Please note for SAG-AFTRA Ultra Low Budget (ULB), New Media, and Student Film Agreements, there’s often a flat rate for all performers or the payment may even be deferred until the production company makes a profit off the project.

While there’s a lot more information out there about different SAG-AFTRA contracts, this is a good starting point to understand what the different levels of roles are for which you may be hired. Additionally, if you have an agent, he or she can help you understand the type of contract you’re being offered and negotiate it for you. If you don’t have an agent, your city may have organizations that offer free legal advice like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) in New York.

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What if I’ve never acted on camera before?

If you’ve never acted on camera before, be sure to take classes to get hands-on experience and nail down basic techniques. Once you’ve taken a class or two, try getting your feet wet with student films and web series. Then cut a reel together and be sure to make it available on your website and actor profile on Backstage.  From there, you can continue to build your resume while trying to get into SAG-AFTRA and hire an agent— both of which can help you land bigger roles. Erin Cronican, acting coach and Backstage Expert, also suggests "getting to know indie filmmakers who are also growing their careers" and going to networking events, local festivals and screenings.

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What does it mean to be “camera ready”?

If you book an on-camera job and you’re asked to come “camera ready,” it means you should arrive in the clothing, hair, and makeup you’ll be wearing when you film. There may or may not be a hair, makeup, or wardrobe supervisor there to make tweaks, so be sure to either get completely ready before you arrive on set or get there early enough and bring extra hair tools, makeup, and changes of clothes to do it yourself. This is usually a time- and money-saving request on behalf of the production company.

How can I look natural on-camera?

According to casting director and Backstage Expert Marci Liroff, “You’ve got to know where the camera is, what your blocking is, and which is a wide or close-up shot, then forget it. Forget it and lose yourself in your character.”

As the audience watching something on camera, we want to see you thinking as your character in the moment. We don’t want to be aware of any technical marks you’re thinking through or trying to hit. Do your preparation, know what you need to be technically aware of, and then go for it.

Also, practice, practice, practice. Watching yourself on tape and knowing what fixes to make when something doesn’t look natural is how to constantly improve your craft.

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What are some on-camera terms I should know?

The following is a list of technical terms that you will encounter on set. Get to know them so that you can go into your shoots with a working vocabulary of what’s going on around you:

  • Action: the director’s orders to start the scene
  • Aerial shot: an exterior shot filmed from the air
  • BG: background; can mean either the background of the shot or the extras
  • Camera angle: the specific location of the camera to get a certain shot
  • Camera crew: general term for the people hovering around the camera while shooting
  • Camera left or right: left or right from the viewpoint of the camera
  • Camera operator: the person working the camera and looking through the lens to get the picture; often referred to as the cameraman or camerawoman
  • Check the gate: The gate is the area where the lens connects to the camera. After the director is happy with a take, he or she will say, “Check the gate” to make sure this area doesn’t have any kind of lint or debris. Usually the first camera assistant checks this and, if all is well, says, “The gate is clear,” meaning filming for that scene is complete.
  • Clapboard: Also known as a clapperboard, this is the piece of equipment held in front of the camera before acting begins so post-production knows the scene and take. The noise it makes also helps editors sync sound with image.
  • Cross: when actors move across the set from one area to another
  • Coverage: all the different shots taken of a specific scene for the editor to have enough footage to put it all together in a fluid piece in post
  • CU: close up; a shot that focuses on the actor’s face
  • Cut: denotes the shot is ending; always stay in character until you hear these words
  • Deep focus: a shot that keeps the background, middleground, and foreground all in focus
  • Director: the boss on set
  • Dolly: a piece of equipment that holds the camera and moves to get a shot in motion
  • Dolly grip: the person who operates the the dolly to make the camera move as smoothly and accurately as possible
  • Downstage: the part of the set closest to the camera or audience
  • DP: director of photography, also known as the cinematographer; the main cameraman who calls the shots behind the lens and is responsible for the overall aesthetic of the cinematography
  • Fade in: when the image is blurry or dark and becomes clearer as the shot goes on
  • First assistant director: first AD; runs the set making sure everything the director wants is done
  • First camera assistant: keeps the camera in focus; can also be referred to as the “focus puller” and will often be seen measuring the distance from the camera to the actor’s mark to make sure the image looks crisp on screen
  • First unit: a camera unit where the director is present
  • Framing: the cut of the shot. It’s customary for actors to know what their framing is so they know how big or small of a shot they need to act within.
  • Gaffer: head of the lighting crew and answers to the DP to get the lighting desired
  • Grip: handles the lights, props, and equipment on set, moving them around and making sure they are where they need to be
  • Key grip: the person in charge of all of the grips on set
  • Location: filming at a place away from the studio
  • Mark: a physical marking placed on the floor with gaffer’s tape that lets the actor know where to stand for proper lighting and focus
  • Pan: a shot that moves continuously from right to left or left to right
  • Print it: The director likes the scene and wants to see the footage printed out. A film camera shoots on negatives, so in order to see the scene, the negatives must be developed. If a director says to, “Print it,” it’s a good sign that he or she liked the work. However, as a lot of cameras have changed from film to digital these days, this term is not used as much anymore.
  • Producers: the people in charge of the money that goes into a production and make a lot of the decisions regarding hiring, casting, contracts, distribution, etc.
  • POV: denotes a shot being seen through the eyes of a particular character
  • Rolling: can refer to both film and sound to make sure they’re recording. The term “roll sound” lets the sound technician know to start recording sound for the scene. Similarly, “roll camera” lets the camera operator know to start recording the film.
  • Second assistant director: In charge of logistics; usually checks actors in and out, tells everyone where to go and where to find things, etc.
  • Second camera assistant: deals with the clapboard, loads and unloads camera film, and brings equipment to the camera operator or second camera assistant
  • Second unit: a camera unit sans director that goes to a location to obtain extra footage like exteriors, cutaways, etc.
  • Sequence: how the scenes flow together in the script. For ease of logistics, most films are filmed out of sequence.
  • Stage directions: how the director will talk to you and tell you where to go
  • Stage left and right: the left or right from the viewpoint of the actor
  • Stand-ins/second team: The lead actor will often have stand-ins who match the actor in appearance to stand where the actor stands while the lighting and equipment is being set up. The lead actors are referred to as “first team,” while the stand-ins are referred to as “second-team.” Stands-ins are used so actors can do things like get makeup/hair done, go over script changes, etc.
  • Storyboard: a graphic representation of the arc of the story
  • Take: when the camera operator is actually rolling
  • Tilt shot: a vertical panning shot where the camera moves from up to down and down to up. These shots are usually end-of-movie shots.
  • Tracking shot: when the camera moves on a dolly alongside the action
  • Upstage: the part of the set farthest away from the camera or audience
  • Wrap: “that’s a wrap” means a shoot is over
  • Zoom: a shot that uses a lens with a variable focal length so the cinematographer can change the distance of the object you’re viewing without actually having to move the camera

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Any other tricks of the on-camera trade?

There are a lot of easy, technical tricks that can help your performance. Here are some you can employ to elevate your craft:

Never look directly into the camera lens unless explicitly directed to do so. It will come off as jarring and perhaps overly intimate to the viewer. Instead, look slightly to the side or above/below the lens. This still looks like you’re gazing into the camera from the viewer’s perspective, but avoids that off-putting effect actually doing so creates.

When acting with others in a scene, always pick one eye of the other actor to focus on. When speaking with someone for extended periods of time, your eyes will naturally go back and forth between their eyes in terms of focus, creating a sort of “pinging” or “wiggling” effect as everything is magnified on screen. Always try to pick the eye of the actor closest to the lens.

If you’re the other actor in someone else’s close-up scene, get as close to the lens as possible without it catching you so your scene partner is captured properly on film.

Avoid blinking as much as possible—it can be distracting on film.

Silent acting can be the most powerful kind on film. Even if you aren’t speaking in a scene, listen intently to what’s going on. Think of what you would say, then decide not to say it.

Do the work you need to when you’re off camera. Don’t expect to get what you need from the other person in the scene, especially if it’s a close-up on just you. (The person saying the lines might not even be the actor you were acting with.) It’s important not to have to rely on the other person’s acting to get you where you need to be emotionally.

Stay in character from before the director says action until after he or she says cut. You never know what he or she might use or edit together in post-production.

Make sure you know the size of the picture for each new shot so you have a good sense of how you need to adjust your performance. Your close up shouldn’t be acted in the same way as the establishing, wide shot.

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What locations are good for finding on-camera work?

There are lots of TV and film markets besides L.A. and N.Y.C. these days. Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, and Vancouver (if you happen to have a Canadian passport for those last two) all have booming film and TV markets. Some people prefer to build up their film and TV in smaller markets before moving onto the bigger ponds.

However, if you’re doing well in a smaller market, it might be beneficial to stay there and continue as a working actor where you’re known and doing well. It all depends on your eventual career goals and where your support network is based.

What should I do on set?

Be on time, meaning at least 15 minutes early. Set an alarm, set a second alarm, have a friend call you—do whatever you need to make it happen.

Be sure to pack everything you might possibly need for the day: your phone and charger, laptop and charger, ID for your W-2, a pen, and something to read while you wait can all come in handy.

When you make it to set, try to find the AD. He or she will know where you should be and how the schedule/timeline is going for the day. Then, make your way to your holding area or trailer, and be sure to get settled.

Be sure to warm up and complete any pre-performance rituals you normally would, and then relax! You already booked the job, now go do your thing. And remember, always be professional at all times. Your reputation is your ultimate calling card as an actor.

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What about “extra” work?

If you don’t have lots of experience on set, working as an extra can be a great way to see how professional film and TV sets operate. It’s also a good way to get yourself into SAG-AFTRA if you’re hired under a union-extra role three times and receive the requisite Taft-Hartley waivers as a result. Working as an extra also pays decently for a day’s work, especially if you’re under a union contract.

However, never list extra experience on your resume or try to pass it off as having a speaking role when you didn’t. Once you’re labeled as an “extra” actor, you can be pigeonholed, making it tough to get other on-camera work. Extra agencies such as Grant Wilfley Casting, Lee Genick/Sylvia Fay & Associates Casting, and Central Casting can help you get started with extra work.

What if I hate watching myself on-camera?

Get over it! But really, watching yourself on film is something you actually have to come to terms with, as it’s the only way to improve your craft. A great way to do this is the first couple times you watch yourself and your perceived “flaws” inevitably come to mind, let yourself have those thoughts, accept that you have them, then throw them away and get to work focusing on the actual technicalities of what you’re watching. Pay attention to repetitive, distracting mannerisms that you, not the character you created, are emitting. Watch your eyes carefully. Are they telling the story and being emotionally truthful? Are your reactions too big for camera? Do you need to bring them in a notch? Are you grounded? Is your voice resonant?

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Do as much film work as you can, take classes, watch your work, and learn how to improve it. Remember that all actors have to start somewhere. Michelle Williams started her acting career on “Baywatch,” Ryan Gosling in “The Mickey Mouse Club,” and Michael Shannon in a role for the TV movie “Overexposed” as a character known only as “young man.” And if it helps, you can check out the  2017 Oscar nominees’ first on-camera roles here.

What are some other helpful resources?

If you want to continue your on-camera education in addition to taking classes and reading helpful guides like this one, check out this list of 11 amazing books for the on-camera actor.

Acting on camera can be a tough profession. But if you start by taking classes, getting footage and gaining experience from student films and web series, making sure you have all the tools you need, and religiously honing your craft, you’ll set yourself on path to the silver screen.

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