The learning curve when making the transition from film and television can be steep. The two are vastly different mediums and have separate technical issues and challenges.
Many of these techniques can take many, many hours of trial and error just to discover, let alone master.
However there are two very basic and yet powerful tools that can make a tremendous difference in your film and television work.
Volume and time are two tools that a theater actor simply cannot use. In theater, because of the distance of the audience, actors are required to “play to the back of the house,” which means they need to project to ensure that everyone—even those in the back row—can hear them. Many of us have also been trained to keep the dialogue moving or to “pick up the pace” because if too long a time passes without the actors speaking, the audience has an extremely hard time understanding what the character is thinking and feeling, or sometimes even doing, so the story isn’t being conveyed, and the audience will start to get bored.
In film and TV, however, the audience is in very close proximity to you. Due to the specificity of the frame, the audience, for all intents and purposes, is well within 24 inches of your face. In this case, what you think and feel and do is the story, and not what you say. This allows you as an actor, to simply think and feel and still be storytelling, and hence the time between lines becomes less important.
On set, the microphone might be even closer, often only three or four inches from your mouth, so even the slightest whisper can be heard by the audience. Notice when watching film and television, how often the actor is truly whispering their dialogue despite the actual distance of their scene partner.
But there is another reason why volume and time can be helpful to an actor, and that’s because they can help to create vulnerability. When we are feeling vulnerable, hurt, or have to confess something very personal, it takes time to gather up the courage to speak, so pauses due to thought and emotion are natural, and because of the subject matter and depth of that emotion, very rarely does what we say come out at full voice.
On top of that, scientists are beginning to realize that human beings experience emotions from the outside in. We wear the expression of a thought of emotion before we even think or feel it. Because of that phenomenon, we can change our mood by simply smiling or adopting a posture. (Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk here to see even more about this.) As someone who occasionally suffers from depression, I can attest to the fact that laughing, even when I feel I have nothing to laugh about, will often jar me out of the funk that I am in.
Knowing all of this, we can use these techniques to our advantage. As actors, we are thinking and feeling for the character, but even the best actor can have a hard time “getting there” when the emotion is very high. In my class, when an actor is struggling with a moment or emotion like this, I ask them simply to slow down the dialogue or pause altogether. I’ll ask them to pull their volume down to a whisper, or both of these tools and suddenly, the emotions come up naturally and the tears will begin to flow. And if they still don’t get there, when using these techniques, it can still be affecting for the audience.
The audience gets the time to see and interpret the thoughts the actor is having, to imagine what the actor might be feeling, and because of that time and volume, the audience will empathize even more with that character.
So experiment, play with these new tools, and see what these techniques can do for you. I think you’ll be surprised at what comes out of you and the audience.
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