7 Need-to-Know Tips for Acting On Camera

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This week at Backstage, we’re delving into on-camera acting in a major way. From our extensive guide on becoming a master to a focus on the film schools that will help launch a healthy career, there won’t be a stone left unturned. Whether you’re a newer actor with a dream to make it on screen (big or small), or a stage actor itching to transition to on-camera work, there are certain things you need to know that apply specifically to this facet of the craft. Below, check out a few must-know tips from Backstage Experts that you’ll want to get down before the next time you hear “Action!”

Know your nonverbal skills.
“To define the difference between acting for the stage and acting for the camera, all stage actors are trained in two channels of nonverbal communication: the body and the voice. However, what separates the on-camera actor from the theatrical actor is the on-camera actor must know the three channels of nonverbal communication: the body, the voice, and the face. Some people are wired to internalize emotion, meaning what they’re feeling isn’t being revealed, whereas there are externalizers who know what emotions look like but they don’t connect to the intensity unless they have a lot of stimuli. This same idea can apply to your headshot, too, if you’re wondering why all of your headshots look exactly the same!” —John Sudol, acting coach and author of “Acting: Face to Face: The Actor’s Guide to Understanding How Your Face Communicates Emotion for TV and Film”

Relax into your performance.
“Start by relaxing and getting into your body by just ‘slobbing out.’ You need to get out of your head and into your body. It’s important to physically loosen your body and to unfreeze it so that natural life energy and subconscious reactions are set free to happen.

“I always teach students a simple relaxation technique of breathing in through your nose on a count of four, holding for a count of seven, and breathing out through your mouth on a count of eight. Deep-breathing is the fastest way to balance and relax. The counting helps your brain to shut down so that you can be more in the moment instead of spinning past everything.” —Cathryn Hartt, Dallas-based acting coach, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio, and Backstage Expert

Seriously, do less.
“I believe the ‘secret’ to film acting is telling the story as simply as possible. In the theater, a performance must carry to last row. In film, cameras and microphones are perilously close and capture even the smallest gesture and sound, but the ‘internals’ for the actor are exactly the same as they would be for the stage, only their outward expression must be much subtler. Theater-trained actors, with limited or no on-camera experience, tend to reveal too much of their work externally. ‘Less is more’ is never truer than when it comes to acting for film.” —Todd Thaler, casting director, acting teacher, and private on-camera audition coach

Get to the point—ASAP.
“Most actors, whether they realize it or not, are trained for the stage. All of the famous methods and techniques were designed for the stage, not the camera. These methods carry with them certain assumptions. For example, most methods presume a long rehearsal time that gives the actor a chance to explore the text and the character deeply with the help of a supportive director.

“This, of course, falls completely apart if you’re working in TV/film, where there is sometimes no rehearsal and oftentimes the director doesn’t know your name. Actors who recognize the difference are able to immediately adapt to the rigors of film by finding the most compelling intersection of themselves and the character, and are able to call up the right qualities whenever action is called. They don’t need tons of rehearsal, they’ve done the work themselves and are ready at a moment’s notice to connect and shine.” —Craig Wallace, acting teacher and Backstage Expert

Specificity is invaluable.
“On camera, limitless possibilities translate as general. Human limitations translate as clearly defined character. Human beings, and therefore characters, are defined by their prejudices which limit the ways they see and respond to the world. Watching a limited human being or character clash with the world is what makes a story interesting. The ‘you are the character and the character is you’ approach would actually work if actors isolated specific qualities or character traits (or character limitations if you will) that they themselves possess and let those specific qualities dictate how they play the entire scene.” —John Swanbeck, director, author, and Backstage Expert

Let the camera come to you.
“Camera acting is acting ‘without an audience.’ Think about it: Although there might be 30 crew members standing around when a TV show is being filmed, there’s literally no audience present. The camera is there only to record what happens between the two people. You do not have to “send” your performance anywhere. Unlike stage work, the camera comes to you.” —David Dean Bottrell, veteran actor and acting teacher

Over-enunciation is an enemy.
“Even if you’re loud enough on stage, you still have to speak clearly and enunciate your words so the audience can understand you as well. But when stage actors bring that practice into on-camera acting IT CaN SounD LiKe ThiS, which can be very distracting, obviously. I have to remind actors that it’s actually very hard to not understand someone speaking English, so feel free to be Mushmouth. Not mumbly or slurry, but you just have to know when to let go oF BeinG So CleaR WiTH EaCH WorD.” —Shaan Sharma, co-founder of the Westside On-Camera Acting Studio

Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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