Film Acting Tips From An Editor
Editors may not understand the craft of acting but they are masters of molding performance. They spend hours watching footage and choosing takes, so here are some technical acting tips to help you avoid the cutting room floor. Acting in motion pictures is very different than acting in class or on stage. On stage you usually have weeks to prepare; your blocking becomes second nature and you have enough rehearsals to work on your performance. In film you are lucky if you get a rehearsal and you might just have one shot at practicing your blocking. Getting cast is an incredible milestone, so understanding some basics can help you prepare and get booked again.
In this article, we’ll discuss the following acting tips from a working Film Editor:
- Come to set prepared
- Understand coverage
- Understand blocking
- Start and end with emotional energy
- Learn to ask for a do-over if you flub
- Learn to nail dialogue
1. Come To Set Prepared
Casting happens at the speed of light. One day you are juggling your day job with auditions and rejections, the next, you are on location in a makeup chair getting ready for your scene.
The minute you get booked, get to work. Learn your lines, do your homework and get plenty of rest. Trust me, the camera sees everything. If you stayed out too late, it will see it. If you don’t make choices about your character and your actions, it will see it. If you don’t know your lines, you will slow the set down and cost the production money. No matter how small the role, take it seriously, be prepared and the camera will love you.
2. Understand Coverage
After his success with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cameron Crowe finally got to direct his first feature, Say Anything. On his first day they filmed a master shot and Crowe loved the performances so much that he was confident he “got it!” Ready to move on, it was Actor John Cusack who pulled him aside and told him that they now had to do coverage.
Not every scene will have coverage, but as a general rule, each scene is shot from various angles so it can be cut together later. Understanding the pieces will help you earn more screen time. Here are the basics: the wide shot known as the master (usually shot first), the medium shot and the close up. The latter two can be a single or two shot – one or two people in a shot.
Three key points to remember when shooting a scene are:
- Whatever you do in the wide, you must do in all your other setups, so pay attention to your actions and do the same in each take.
- In your close-up don’t make faces or move too much. Moving can be distracting. Try to avoid shaking your head and excessive nodding. It also can mess with how the shot is framed. If you believe the emotion of the scene, the camera will pick it up. (This is a hard lesson for Stage Actors who are used to acting for the last row of a theater.)
- Listen actively. When it comes to dialogue scenes, the Editor (and ultimately the Director) decide whether to stay on the person talking or on the person listening based on story or performance, so be a good listener.
One thing to note here, it’s possible that when you get to your singles (you on camera alone) that you won’t be acting off another Actor. It might just be you, the Script Supervisor, and the camera. Don’t let this throw you; use your imagination and don’t forget to listen, no matter who is reading the lines opposite you.
If you are given a prop, use it efficiently. Don’t bring too much attention to it and be careful not to cause continuity problems. Because scenes are shot in multiple takes and as you learned above, you should make sure you match your action in each take, it may seem redundant to tell you that you must do the same with your prop. But it deserves repeating. If you are going to sip a cup of coffee during a scene, you must do it at the same time each take. If you open a drawer with your right hand, you must use your right hand every time.
3. Understand Blocking
If you have done stage acting you are familiar with blocking. The biggest difference in film is that you don’t have much time to practice and you need to be aware of the camera and light.
Don’t worry — you are not in this alone! The Director will go through what is expected of you in a scene. He or she will walk you through your action and tell you when to say what. It is up to you to clarify, demonstrate, and remember. Tape will be put on the floor to mark where you will stand and you will be expected to “hit your mark.” You can’t look down, so you have to establish muscle memory quickly. Be aware where the camera is placed in relation to you and other Actors and make sure you are not upstaging anyone. Hopefully you will have the chance to rehearse a few times and as you do you will become aware of when you are in your light. If you find yourself drifting from the light during a take, find it.
4. Start and End With Energy
Editors scour every inch of footage to find the perfect moment in a performance and that includes before the Director calls “Action!” and after she or he calls “Cut.” Many Actors get in character the second they hear “rolling,” which gives Editors more to work with. Also, Directors often call “Cut!” when they are moved or excited and loved your performance. That doesn’t mean you freeze or stop. Follow through on your action to help your Editor find a good cut point. You should also keep going if the Director doesn’t call “Cut!” It means they like what’s going on in the scene, so give them more.
5. Ask For A Do-Over If You Flub
You will flub at some point. You are human. If you forget a line, the Script Supervisor is there to help. Ask him or her for a line and he or she will read it back to you. Make sure when you get that line that you don’t just say it; really deliver the line. Actors are sometimes so nervous that they throw the line away. Take a moment to recalibrate and give your performance.
If you skip a line by accident, you can stop and ask to take it back a line or two. A Director may take the scene “back to one,” (which is from the top) or give you another starting point. Don’t apologize. Take the do-over and keep going. The same thing goes for physical mistakes – if it is minor, don’t worry. But if it is something like you forgot to close the door behind you and someone will need to knock on that door, it should be addressed. If you remember quickly enough, do it in character. Turn around and close the door. The more you know the scene and what you are supposed to do in the scene, the more professionally you will be able to handle mistakes. Be confident and take the opportunity to do it better, just don’t make a habit of it.
6. Learn to Nail Dialogue
It may seem obvious, but know your lines. A lot of people worked really hard to get those words right, so honor them and deliver them as they are written. If something really doesn’t roll off your tongue, talk to the Director, don’t rewrite the script to accommodate yourself. On the flip side, don’t over practice your lines; give some room for discovery and for taking direction. The brain is a funky thing, if you practice your dialogue too much in one way, it becomes ingrained and the camera captures a robotic performance.
There’s a lot of talk about overlapping dialogue. Here’s the skinny: It’s okay to overlap dialogue if it happens naturally, like in a fight, and if you are in a wide or a two shot (when both Actors are on camera at the same time). If you are in a single, Editors like to have the dialogue clean, so wait for the other Actor to finish the line. Editors can overlap dialogue if they need too. Also, make sure that you don’t step on any lines. Sometimes newer Actors are so prepared that the words come out so fast that the other character hasn’t finished their line. The best way to avoid this is to remember to listen.
And last but not least, try to avoid grunts and groans. Unless “Uh” or “Ah” is in the script, leave it out.
You Got This!
After you get on set a few times, all this will come naturally. Until then, try practicing at home. Use your phone and a tripod to shoot coverage of yourself for a scene, then try to cut it together. See what challenges you face. You might discover bad habits and have an opportunity to correct them before you get booked. And when you do get booked remember that the people on set are there to help. You got cast because you’ve got the chops and you are a professional. You did your homework and you’re ready. Be gracious, ask the right questions and you will be on the way to a career in no time.