3 Tips for Directing Actors Onset

– Posted in: Directing Performance

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1. Be Concise – Use Specific Action Verbs and “As-If” Direction

Over-directing is common, but unfortunately not limited to the first time director. If you’re talking in-between takes for more than fifteen to twenty seconds, you’re likely confusing the actor and wasting time. Conversations about backstory, character development and relationship dynamics should happen before you’re on-set.

This is the stuff you talk about over a beer, coffee or during rehearsal. If you can’t get together in person, then do it on Skype or Google+.

Don’t waste precious time talking about this stuff on-set.

Every scene has a character dealing with a situation. Like “real” people, they want something.

How they act or react is largely based on if they get what they want or not. This “what they want” is their objective and what it is should be very clear to you both prior to and during the performance.

If the actor’s performance isn’t working, you might ask them to change the objective (what they want). You might say to the actor, “Instead of trying to show him you like him, make your intention to seduce him.”

This concise, subtle or maybe not so subtle change can be powerful and is a great example of using an action verb – to seduce.

Or, if the objective seems good, you may consider creating an “as-if”. If in the above seduction example, the actor is coming on too strong, you may suggest doing it as-if it’s a teenage flirt instead. Be careful.

If after the change, you think the actor is seducing like a call-girl, you wouldn’t want to then say, “Don’t act like a hooker!” Give positive adjustments instead.

Negative direction only serves to describe what you don’t like. It doesn’t help the actor understand what you want. It also make the actor less spontaneous because they’re editing their behavior instead of committing to an active doing.

2. Create a Supportive On-set Environment

Most people know that if you’re shooting an intimate scene, you need to create an environment that feels safe for the actors. What’s less obvious is that it’s also important to recognize the energy of the set and to try and match it with the energy of the scene.

If the scene is serious, try to keep any on-set laughing and loud talking to a minimum. Experienced actors can usually tune the “production out” but why make them work any harder than they already have to?

Inexperienced actors will need all the help they can get.

If the scene is about a happy celebration, don’t let any on-set tension throw the actors off.  Keep the energy light and upbeat. Help them stay focused. Trust me, you’ll get better performances.

Does the actor want to be talked to by members of the crew when he’s on set?

Some don’t and prefer to stay in character the entire time. Daniel Day Lewis has this reputation. They’re not being divas, but rather working on their craft.  It’s your job or your AD’s job to make sure they’re supported.

Every actor has a different way of working. 

Don’t assume. Find out how they work and try your best to help them.

3. Engage & Create Trust

Don’t be too rigid. Before you and your cinematographer lock in the final camera blocking, try letting the actors run their lines while they move around the set. Let them own the space.

This doesn’t mean you let the actors block the scene or that you’ve arrived on-set without creating a coverage plan. It just means you’re willing to engage new ideas if they serve the story better. A collaborative directing style builds trust and encourages more truthful performances.

The director has the right to expect the actor to move when and where he or she wants them to. Actors train to motivate almost any movement, but this takes work, and sometimes an unmotivated move seems to forced.

Movement should always be motivated by intention.

Some of you may be thinking, “Why create a coverage plan when I can just make it up on-set?”

To that, I say “nice try”!

Creating a coverage plan in pre-production ensures that you’ve become adequately intimate with the beats, points of view and relationships in the scene. These decisions have been motivated to serve your story. They provide the “why” for the shot.

Once you’re secure in this, you can be confident enough to change any shot because you’ll know the “why” is still being served.

When the director has done a director’s script analysis and a camera coverage plan, the “why” is very clear. This clarity paves the way for the director to remain flexible about the “how”.

For the motivated director – checkout  “Creating a Camera Coverage Plan”


Check out this video by Director, Darious Britt for additional insights on directing actors.

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