Ryan R. Williams
6 Secrets That Will Save You From Bad Film Acting
Updated: May 7, 2019
“Just bring it down for film."
Have you ever heard an acting teacher say that old chestnut? A simple enough sentiment, but the process of translating theatrical technique over to film is far more involved than that line makes it seem. It’s not something that will magically happen; it’s up to you to learn and adapt.
At Screen Actors System, I teach bring-it-down every week, to everyone from beginners to Academy Award-winners, and I can tell you that actors have always struggled to “bring it down.” But the great ones have eventually found a way.
It can take decades to organically figure out the cinematic process, but I believe in accelerated learning. Here are six ways to turbocharge the journey.
1. Never push for emotion. However you achieve a powerful emotion, beware of forcing it out while the camera rolls. If the editor uses that over-emotive footage, you’ll look ridiculous. Instead, play the feeling as an obstacle. Contain it, but make sure it’s deeply felt or it will disappear on film. You want to play an emotion so viewers notice the power, detail, and nuance in your performance, not just a single solitary emotion that screams “I’m sad!” or “I’m angry!”
Be the break (not the gas) while on film. Less is more, I promise.
2. Manage your state.
Every actor you see on TV and film was good in the audition room, so why are there so many bad performances out there? Even the best actors crumble when a DP yells at them to move less, or a screenwriter delivers new pages on the day.
Film shoots tend to capture whatever vibe was present on set, so try your best to give off a good one. If you’re unfamiliar with the technical aspects of film, you may read as nervous and stiff on film. But it’s crucial to stay calm.
After all, this is the fun part.
3. Move minimally. I can’t stress this enough. Yes, some scenes will actively call for movement. But as soon as you start contorting your face or moving around extraneously, you lose the ability to let the audience interpret your performance for themselves. Every movement should be deliberate and thoughtful so it shines.
4. Find a proper film acting class. If editing and writing are not already in your wheelhouse, find a class where the basics of those disciplines are incorporated. Most film acting classes just teach you to be entertaining in a small classroom, but that’s not the same as performing in a tight close-up. (And no amount of lip service from the teacher will make it a proper film acting class.) You need to learn to think like a dynamic filmmaker, not just another actor praying for a callback.
5. Learn to edit. I’m not saying you have to become a Final Cut wizard, but try editing your own footage. It’ll serve as a great education in what you actually look like on film (versus what you think you look like). You’ll be forced to really take stock of your on-camera presence and make choices about what’s worthy of your reel. Some of the biggest gains and realizations my students have come when they edit their own class reels.
6. Learn story. Read the book “How to Write a Movie in 21days” by Viki King. Follow her steps. Learn them. It’s the classic structure most “A” picture movies follow. Movies are not about what’s currently happening, but what’s happening next. Mastering story will shed light on why less is often more. It will also make you a master of text analysis. And as a side benefit, it will help you avoid bad material once you’ve arrived.
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