3 Directing Techniques Actors Can Use to Look Brilliant

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Attention filmmakers: As you are no doubt aware, much of your time as filmmakers will be occupied by your working relationship with a group of artists known as actors. Rest assured, they take their jobs very seriously. This will, however, present you with a problem because their jobs, in their minds, is to be “true to the material,” and your job, primarily, is to be “true to the camera.” In other words, they will be thinking literally, while you will be thinking cinematically. Remember, your job, as a filmmaker, is to make the audience imagine the possibilities of what could happen (which is the result of thinking cinematically) versus simply observing what is happening (which is the result of thinking literally). Don’t panic. All directors must deal with this phenomenon and all directors, eventually, devise clever techniques for quickly fooling their actors into thinking cinematically, while that actor is also, at the same time, being “true to the material.” Here are three of my own cinematic techniques for you to use as a “starter kit” of sorts.

Directing Technique #1
Before you roll camera on an actor, tell the actor that, for everything his or her character says, there are five other things his or her character could say but chooses not to say, and to play those five other things. This technique will pull the camera and the audience past the conflict of the scene to the inner conflict of the character. Now the scene will be working on more than one level, giving it more dimension. (And, this is the exact direction I gave to Danny DeVito before shooting “the breakfast cart scene” in “The Big Kahuna,” the one in which he created all of those wonderful moments with his eyes.)

Directing Technique #2
Before you roll camera on an actor, tell the actor that, right before the scene starts, and for the duration of the scene, his or her character is having a premonition of what will happen when the scene is over (the character will fall in love, or experience heartbreak, or get revenge, etc.). This will instantly make any performance cinematic, and, by the way, is the fastest way to create suspense on film.

Directing Technique #3
Before you roll camera on an actor, tell the actor to imagine that the camera is someone standing across the street, observing his or her character during the scene, and that his or her character is aware of being observed but pretends not to notice. When human beings feel they’re being observed from a distance, they don’t act any less naturally, but they do present the best version of themselves. This is the fastest, most effective way of making every moment the actor plays usable in the editing room.

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John Swanbeck
John Swanbeck is an author, columnist, speaker, creator, and publisher of CleverActorTips and Chief Creative Officer of BlueSwanFilms. He is a renowned director and teacher of actors, directed the existential comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, and has packaged his best original techniques into the much-acclaimed book, “How To Steal The Scene & End Up Playing The Lead,” available on Amazon & iTunes.