One of the most challenging aspects of acting for film and television is stepping in front of the lens. As the actor, it is your responsibility to bring the character to life but your job doesn’t end there. Once you’re on set, the next part of the creative process is telling your story through the lens of the camera.
Knowing where your camera is, staying open to the shot, and having a basic understanding of how shots are composed can give you the confidence you need to elevate your performance for any on-camera role. To keep your performance on point, follow these quick tips.
Know your camera/know your shot.
Where is the camera positioned? Is it an over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot, where the back of the other actor is also in the frame, creating the feeling that the viewer is witnessing something that is intimate, private, and intense? The OTS shot emphasizes a relationship, usually in some kind of power struggle between two characters. Who is in control, who is subservient?
Is it a two-shot, where two characters are simultaneously open and exposed to the camera, i.e. a couple sitting up in bed after a long day; two strangers on a park bench; a mother driving her teenage daughter to school, etc.?
The two-shot is most effective when establishing that what both characters are feeling is equally important and of interest to the audience. It is a great way to underscore tension before cutting to a different angle. In the two-shot, both characters are communicating their feelings to each other (dialogue) and most they are communicating with the audience (non-verbally) about how they really feel.
As the actor, you make choices in these different shots—say, where you direct your eyeline—that allows the camera to pick up the subtleties and nuances of character.
Or maybe it’s a clean shot, with the camera focused solely on you in a close-up (CU) or extreme close-up (ECU). When it’s you alone with the camera, your point of view is all that matters and conveying that POV is paramount not only to pushing the plot forward but also for the audience’s understanding of your motives to the point where we empathize with and experience the narrative vicariously through you.
The CU and ECU are more about how the character is affected by the those around him/her. Attention to detail is very important here; the moments are usually more distilled and subtle.
Not how the camera is positioned.
Is it tilted slightly up? This creates a feeling of power or dominance. Tilted slightly down? This creates a feeling of subservience, victimization, etc. If the camera is level with your head, this indicates the protagonist and audience are equals.
Status is everything in a scene. Knowing how your camera is positioned can inform where you need to be emotionally.
Be aware of whether it’s a full-length or medium shot.
Because more of the body is exposed to the camera in a wider shot, it allows the actor to live out experiences more physically. When there’s blocking or movement, the wider shots allow for full-body involvement in a more animated way.
As an actor, you want to seize any and every opportunity that will elevate your performance through the lens. Having the fullest impact possible on your audience is the whole point of film and TV acting, so make sure you know what you’re doing as it relates to the camera.
*This post was originally published on May 11, 2018. It has since been updated.
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