Early collaboration with your cast is often easier said than done, but the results and impact on your project are well worth it. Working alongside actors is a vital part of the process of getting better performances and memorable characters.
The project is your creation and your vision, but bringing it to life requires a group effort. Actors are a big part of the creative process and if you want your characters to resonate with audiences, you’re going to need to work with the cast rather than against them.
From the Top
Including your cast in the process allows you to develop characters who pull audiences into the story beyond your script and cinematography. Collusion begins from the moment you hire your actors. Ironically, unlike what you see in TV/movies, you don’t just start working with actors during on-set rehearsals.
If you wait until that point to include the cast in the development process, you’ll be too late to make any significant impact on your characters. Instead, gather feedback from the cast as soon as they come on board. Get a script in their hands and encourage them to take notes and ask questions. This kicks off the kind of open dialog you want to continue throughout the entire project.
The cast is your first audience and any questions they have about the characters as they read a script will likely be the same questions viewers will have.
The cast is your first audience and any questions they have about the characters as they read a script will likely be the same questions viewers will have. It's a good way to gauge how others perceive the characters and ensure it's what you want. If an actor brings up a potentially major issue to your story, it's better to catch it early than try to fix it on set.
What’s My Motivation
The next step is a table read. Newcomers often skip this step, feeling rehearsals serve the same purpose, but it's vital in developing strong characters. While a table read is a more relaxed environment, it gives you and the cast a chance to hear how the story is going to sound. Dialog on the page doesn't ring the same way as when it's said aloud, and table reads allow you to notate the differences and adjust the script or performances as needed.
Throughout, you'll get a sense of pacing and generally, how characters are going to appear to viewers. Maybe you had an idea in your head about how certain characters would behave while writing the script, but hearing them in person may change how you feel. This could cause you to adjust the dialog or even shift the tone of a character altogether.
Feedback from your table read is where you address the "what's my motivation" questions from the cast. Hearing dialog from other actors may change how they want to approach their own character, or something just may sound weird or out of place for them to say.
As a group, you can settle on the best way to get around it. This lets actors know exactly what's expected of them when it’s time to film, gives everyone a mental image of the character dynamics they can utilize while practicing and memorizing their lines.
From the table read, you move into full rehearsals. These give you an idea of how the characters you've crafted work in a 3D space while directly interacting with others along with the sets and props. As scenes begin to come into focus, more adjustments to how the characters are being portrayed might be needed.
Mannerisms can be just as important to character development as the dialog. Rehearsals are the time to nail down the body language for characters and where you want to gather the most input from your actors. Since you’ve been including the cast from the beginning everyone already has a solid idea of what makes a character tick.
Rehearsals offer the chance to experiment before being locked into a performance while filming. Regardless of what you decide, this step ensures the cast is consistent in their portrayals from scene to scene. Nothing kills character progression faster than having characters drastically shift mannerisms or personae midway through.
Think of your project's characters almost like sculpting a statue. The script is your starting block and your rough outline of the shape. Actor notes and feedback from their read-through is knocking off the rough edges and working out the details. The table read is where you carve the finer attributes, and the rehearsal polishes it all up for presentation.
Including your actors in this process at every step ensures everyone works toward the same story goals. This not only reduces friction on the set, but allows you to shift your focus to the myriad of other tasks on the set. You'll still need to adjust performances here and there, but those moments won't require everything to shut down while you explain and get the cast on the same page.
Jordan Maison is an editor and VFX artist who has plied his talents in web content for Disney Studios and many movie/videogame entertainment websites.