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How to Get Good Performances from Actors

A major determining factor in how your story is told is the performances of the actors. Every director wants good performances, but even that isn't enough. What you want is the right performance. In this segment, we go over how to prepare your actors before the shoot, and how to direct them during the shoot.

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Video Transcript

A major determining factor in how your story is told is the performances of the actors. Every director wants good performances, but even that isn't enough. What you want is the right performance. In this segment, we'll go over how to prepare your actors before the shoot, and how to direct them during the shoot. Help put your actors in the right mindset for each scene and they'll make your production shines.

Before you start, the one thing to remember is that actors are in a vulnerable position and are eager to please. Everything they do is under scrutiny by you and the rest of the crew on set. To start, you'll want to prep them before the day of the shoot, so they're ready to give their best performance, without worrying about being nervous. As you begin, make sure your actors are familiar with the five W's of their character. Who am I? Where am I? When is it? What do I want? Why do I want what I want? This will help the actor get in the frame of mind they need to be in to play the character.

Schedule some time on set with the actors in order to rehearse lines. Rehearsal should be a closed set, meaning it should only be them and you, along with the script supervisor to make sure the lines are being performed as written. By rehearsing on a closed set, you don't have to worry as much about actors' nerves influencing the performance they give you. On set, actors are being judged by everyone, from you to the electrician, and they know it.
At rehearsal, let the actors act out the scene with no direction from you. Just watch. What you're looking for here is that actors are telling the same story you are. Sometimes actors will give a beautiful performance of the scene they're working on, but will give it with only the current scene in mind.
It's your job to make sure the character they play is the same character in every scene. Consider where the character has been by the time that scene happens and where the character plans on going. Take notes to remind you what needs to change for the next read.
Before the actors start the second read-through, talk to the actors about what you inferred from their performance. Use phrases like "I felt like you were saying this..." or "It sounded like your character was feeling that..." Often times you will have gotten exactly what your actor was trying to do, and if that's the case, give them praise. As their confidence builds, so will their willingness to go to extremes to give you the performance you need.
One strategy for putting the actor in the right frame of mind is to go over the emotions and motivations of the character. Is the character supposed to appear frustrated and impatient? Tell the actor to imagine they have a headache, and not just a normal headache. Tell them they're having a vice clamped down on their temples. The headache might not be written into the script, but if the thought of a splitting headache makes the actor impatient or short tempered when that's what you need, then mission accomplished.
Finally, rehearsal is a great place to experiment. Experimentation is a good way to take some of the pressure off of your actors, since they know the stakes are low if an experiment doesn't work. Use words like " I'd like you to try..." or "Let's have to say it like this, and see how it works." The more experimentation you have time to do during rehearsal the better idea you'll have as to what the actors will be able to give you on set.

Once on set, and the camera rolls, remember that the actor is no longer just performing for you. The entire crew is watching, and if it's almost lunch time, you can bet they'll be hoping the actors nail each and every take. A lot of actors will really feel that pressure, and so acting on set can be a nerve racking experience. To help them stay comfortable, don't direct from behind the monitor. That is, when you need to criticize their performance, approach them and talk with them one-on-one as opposed to yelling from the director's chair. No one likes being called out in front of their peers. Actors are no different.
That said, you'll feel them out and find out what each actor is comfortable with. While you'll want to go easy on some actors, others may thrive on pressure, even requiring the judgment of others to really give their best performance.
As you spend more time directing, you'll find that actors often have specific key words they respond to. You can talk about back story and motivation until you're blue in the face, or you may find that simply saying something like "Give it a little more color" may be all an actor needs to turn a performance on its head. Ask them questions that set a tone. Questions like "Who's in charge here?" or "What is he trying to hide?" Tell the actor what you're looking for, but don't tell them how to give it to you. As you're giving direction, think about the feeling behind your key words, and not the literal meaning.
iv. After a few takes, you'll find your actor is very close to giving the performance you want, but they just need a bit of a nudge toward something more. Talk with them in terms of degrees of commitment. Say things like "The passion your character is giving us right now is a five. For the next take, try to give us a seven or eight." Or "Your character's anger is near explosive. Let's tone it back down to simply heated."
Finally, when your actor gives you a performance you love, make sure they know it. The traditional words of approval on set are "Print it" or just "print" which means that is the take the director plans on using in the film. You can say anything you want, but the message is always the same. The performance your actor has just given you has your approval. For an actor, this is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Giving your actors constant encouragement is important in making sure you get great performances take after take.

Actors are put in a delicate position. They're often pushed to their emotional limits in front of an entire film crew. If you make time to rehearse with them, give them appropriate direction, as well as plenty of encouragement, you can be confident they'll give you exactly the performance you're looking for.