Are You Over or Under Directing Actors ?

– Posted in: Directing Performance

ADK -Steve Directs Rnd

Why are do new film directors tend to fall into either over or under directing actors ?


Some of this likely comes from on-set nerves because most new film directors don’t yet know how to use pre-production to discover what kind of guidance an actor needs.

Where do you fall on the “over or under directing actors spectrum?”  

If I’m not careful I tend to swing toward over directing. I know this, so I work at being clear and concise.

In the video below I share a lively clip from an on-camera acting workshop. We hear from an actor talk about how she became self conscious when working with a director who didn’t know how to give feedback. I promise listening to her will make think twice before going into a shoot unprepared.

But before you watch the video I suggest you read this quick post.

If you’re new to directing film and video I’m confident you’ll pick up some good advice and if you’re a veteran shooter who stumbles when it comes to directing performance, I have a feeling you might find a new way of approaching the process.

In a nut shell, good directing is a result of:

  • Understanding the most important story points of the scene.
  • Knowing specifically what each of your character’s want in the scene you’re shooting
  • Knowing what the unfolding information and action means to each of the characters individually and as a group.
  • Being aware of how each character feels about the other characters in the scene at any particular moment.
  • Understanding how past events influence the present scene and each character’s objective.
  • Knowing how the events in this scene will effect future scenes.

Truth is the basis from which all good directing comes from!

It’s the director’s job to help the actor adjust a performance in a way that is more truthful and simultaneously serves the story best.

Determining and then communicating “what about a performance you want the actor to adjust” is almost impossible until you understand what’s really at stake for everyone. As directors we must understand the characters inner world and all the dynamics of the event before we can evaluate the truthfulness of the performance.

This is done in pre-production.

If you have no insights or opinions on what the character is experiencing or why, you probably haven’t done your home work and you’ll likely be under directing actors.

If you have insights and opinions and don’t share them, you’re definitely under directing actors.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic.  Get my free “Directing Actors Mini-Course” Enroll now by clicking the button below.

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Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it might seem in the beginning.

Most of us go through this process when we describe the way a friend, a relative or an ex-lover behaved during an event.

If we know them well we might speculate on:

  • Why they did or said, what they did.
  •  How their past events may have influenced their present actions.
  •  How the present event  may effect future events and relationships with those involved and with others.

That’s very similar to what we’re doing when we’re preparing top direct a performance. The difference is that as directors we tend to stay objective and disconnected from the personal drama. We’re talking about “make believe characters, so we don’t take it personally.

In real life we’re evaluating the actions and speculating on the motivations and feelings of people we know – “real people.”

There’s an important clue here.

It’s easier to become empathetic when were discussing real people whose backstories and tendencies we know. It’s emotional, and were tapping into an empathetic part of ourself.

We get more personally involved!

When we’re directing, were on-set and surrounded by lots of people, asking lots of questions. We’re processing a lot of logistics. So, it’s hard to engage the empathic part of ourselves. Our logic-brain is overpowering our empathetic-heart. This makes it easy to fall into the trap of either over or under directing actors.

That’s the problem!

The “logic-brain” is a difficult place from which to guide and actor into a truthful performance.  Or even recognize and acknowledge a truthful take when it happens.

If we are to distinguish between an actor “indicating an emotion” from “experiencing the emotion” our brain and our heart must come together as one.

My advice to new film directors. 

Take your time in pre-production and use your brain to process the scenes dynamics including:

  • what kind of life events your character has been through
  • what they need now, what they want most and
  • what makes them mad, happy and sad to name a few.

Get to know your characters the way you know your family, your friends and the people you work with. Work through the scenes and identify the beats. Determine what these beats mean to these characters and write your observations down.

These are your cliff notes. Take them to the shoot.

And most important, briefly revisit them before you direct each scene. Use these notes to anchor yourself empathetically at that particular point in the story and then deal with each characters emotional narrative. Take a break form the production logistics and enter their world the same way you would if it were happening to people you truly care about.

Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to guide the performance toward truth!


Without this knowledge and the emotional reset you’ll become lost in the logistics of production. You’ll call action and then cut, but you’ll have no idea of what really happened in between. And like so many before you, you’ll either babble nonsense about the performance and say “give me another take with a little more emotion” or you just simply ask for another take and hope you’re getting what you need.

This is lazy directing and it’s how we find ourselves over and under directing.

You don’t need to do it perfect, but you must put in the effort to find the truth!

Indicating is for Amateurs 🙂

The clip below is an excerpt from a workshop. If you’d like to into more depth on”over and under directing actors”  I’ve got a 60 Minute Mini-Course available for free. Just click the enroll now button below.

Click Here to Enroll


Directing Actors for Film Roles – Are You Under Or Over Directing? from John Holser on Vimeo.

Here’s the Transcript

Olga: I also had experience with a director who was not only under directing , there was nothing at all. It was action, roll, it was like one, two takes, and then move to the next scene. I, as an actor, felt a little bit, started feeling lost and I’m not sure, and a little self conscious because there was no feedback whatsoever, as I was doing the scene, afterwards you’re like, “Oh I could do something else,” but I couldn’t even feel that I could approach the director with those ideas because it as complete white-wall. I felt like there was no communication between what the idea was for the full shoot, for the full feel for the full scene, and I had to basically invent it on the spot and hope it going to go well.

John : That’s horrible. That’s going to be … I classify those as, not always as backyard filming, sometimes filmmakers who have done it beyond that are still like that. There’s two interesting things I want to point out of what Olga said there. She felt self conscious, so our job is to, if nothing else, a director’s job is to encourage you, that you’re going. This is the guide. In my email, I said my job is not to manufacture or create your performance, but to help guide you. She had no idea, you guys are looking, and if you’re all new to this, and I’ll get to this at the end, you can ask the director certain questions unless they’re so behind schedule or they’re so nervous that they’re just not going to give it to you, and then all you can do is what Olga did, is just do your best.

The other thing I wanted to point out is that Olga wanted to explore. She wanted an opportunity to explore because you find, in the environment, when you own the environment, when you’re there working against the other actors that things start to come up. My thinking is, from a director point of view, if it feels right, do it. That’s me, and I would rather go, “Eh, you know what, I felt good, but that’s not the direction that I want this story to go in,” but I love the idea that the actor has an opportunity to explore something new, and is staying in the moment, and working off of whatever happens. If you only have two takes, that can be a little difficult, but there’s no just one way to do it.

David Fincher does thirty-five takes, some people think that’s crazy, there are other directors, we’ve heard stories. Burt Reynolds was one of the stories, and there’s some other top actors who are like … New Film Directors shake in their boots because it’s like they’re going to give you a take, that’s it. You better have your camera people ready. I once heard a story, and I think this was Burt Reynolds, it’s like, “All right, let’s do another one,” and he said, “What do you want?”

“Well, I want to do another take.”

“What do you want? If you want to give me a specific direction and change something, I’ll do another take for you. If you just want to do another take, just to see something else, no. I gave you a good performance. Give me a specific direction and I’ll take it.”