Shaping Actor Performances

Unless you exclusively shoot nature shows, your videos are full of performers, whether characters in a story, demonstrators in a training program, spokespeople for business or civic groups, or just family members. Your goals with these performers are always the same: to make them seem to be unselfconsciously living rather than acting in a video, and to help them display the emotions or attitudes that you, the director, want.

Since you may not work with seasoned media professionals, you have probably run into talent problems just like these:

  • On camera, your normally lively subject shows all the sparkle and excitement of a stuffed moose.
  • Your performer blows the end of every shot by glancing at the camera, as if to say, "Was that OK?"
  • Your amateur thespian emotes so broadly that the scenery winds up with tooth marks.

    These are some of the many problems arising from performer insecurity, inexperience or inability to act as well as Gene Hackman. Not surprisingly, directors have developed ploys for solving most of these problems. So, let’s review the basics of directing talent. We’ll show you how to bolster performer security, teach good camera technique and improve acting skills on the spot.


    All actors feel insecure some of the time and some, especially amateurs, are anxious all of the time. The most common effects of actor insecurity are stiffness produced by tension, dialogue problems and stage fright.

    Stage fright can afflict people making speeches, giving corporate presentations or appearing in plays or concerts, because it is the fear of looking inadequate in public. This is a fear that can paralyze expressions, play havoc with dialogue readings and actually make the worst sufferers tremble uncontrollably.

    To combat stage fright, you must convince fearful performers of one key fact: When shooting a program, they don’t need to fear looking silly in public because they are not in public! Aside from an occasional location rubbernecker, only the crew sees camera performances. Once fearful performers perceive and understand this, it’s fairly simple to get them to understand that:


    8 Tips for Making a Stellar First Video

    Free eBook


    8 Tips for Making a Stellar First Video

    Free eBook


    Thank you! Your free eBook will be sent to you via email

  • They can make as many mistakes as they like, because the public will never see them. Every humiliating goof will be left on the cutting-room floor.
  • They can repeat shots as often as necessary until the results are perfect.

    Even with stage fright vanquished, talent may still walk and gesture stiffly, often because they are thinking about movements that they must repeat exactly from one setup to the next.

    First of all, don’t leave performers like on-camera narrators or spokespeople standing in a void with nothing to relate to and nowhere to put their hands. If you need to have them stand-up, establish them in a wide shot, then move in tighter and give them an out-of-frame high stool to sit on or at least a chair back to rest their hands upon. The resulting body language will be much more natural.

    As a general rule, keep physical directions simple. Don’t ask a player to deliver fully scripted dialogue on a cordless phone while walking around an office (hitting blocking chalk marks in the process) and stuffing documents in a briefcase. Only a real pro can make that look natural.

    Words, Words, Words

    Dialogue difficulties can be a big source of performer stiffness, and often the problem is not the actor but the script. Some lines are so unnatural that nobody could say them believably: "Why have you left your lonely outpost on the eastern frontier, thereby subjecting our lamentably helpless kingdom to the threat of barbarian incursions?"

    In other cases, the words themselves rattle and clank together unpronounceably: "The campus book store sells the best texts." Or, they set up unintended tongue twisters that can have disastrous consequences. (I once had to deal with voiceover narration that included the phrase, "three-tree fog." It took about a dozen tries to stop saying "tree frog.)

    Unless the writer’s a real prima donna about his golden prose, it’s not hard to catch these problems and do rewrites on the spot. And, if you’re the author of the script, you should read every sentence aloud as you write, to find and remove the glitches before the actors ever see them.

    But even the best scripts will become hash if the performers can’t memorize them. Professionals often have tricks for getting their lines down pat, but many amateurs can’t do this or won’t try. Here, in order of preference, is a list of ways to finesse this problem:

  • Rehearse scenes again and again, so that performers can memorize lines on the spot.
  • Divide scenes into shorter sections of closely related dialogue. These "beats" are easier to memorize.
  • Allow performers to internalize the basic content of the dialogue and then improvise the actual words. (But be alert for mismatches when you cover beats from multiple setups.)
  • Letter cue cards with key words to jog the memory, and place them off-camera where performers can see them.
  • Print out difficult speeches in-full on cue cards and allow performers to read from them.

    Cue cards should always be a last resort, or lazy actors will come to expect, and demand, them. However, long speeches by on-camera spokespeople should be set up on prompters.


    With non-fiction programs, performers need only project an appropriate attitude, whether cordial but dignified for a corporate speaker, friendly and welcoming in a commercial, or sincere and concerned in a community fund-raising public service announcement.

    One way to obtain the right attitude is by having the performer imagine a particular audience and speak directly to it. Ask the CEO to talk informally to company stockholders; have the storeowner pretend that the camcorder shooting the spot is an actual customer, and so on.

    Fiction programs demand more from their performers; and amateur stars often have troubles with creating characters, expressing emotions and scaling their behavior to fit the screen.

    Even in Hollywood, Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen would never play the same type of character. To help performers out, give them roles as close to their real personalities as possible.

    Then, when directing them, don’t ask them to play emotions. Instead, have them focus on what causes the emotions. Rather than saying, "OK, you’re enraged," suggest, "You’re enraged because they’ve got your daughter hostage. Now think what they might be doing to her.”

    Whenever possible, give actors something to want, to do, to strive for. Instead of explaining, "You’re questioning a subject," say, "You’ll discover where your daughter is if you have to kill that suspect in trying.

    Finally, unless you have very skillful performers, don’t ask them to hold more than one emotion at a time. That is, don’t frame a two-shot in which one player tells the other, "You won the lottery but I lost your ticket." Meryl Streep could respond to those mixed signals but your local Mighty Art Players can’t.

    So separate the sources of the conflicting emotions: TWO SHOT, BILL: "You won the lottery!"

    CU, MABEL: She registers shocked delight at the news.

    CU, BILL: "But I lost your ticket."

    CU, MABEL: Her furious reaction.

    By separating Mabel’s reactions into two shots, you give her time to work into each one.

    The last major problem with amateur actors is scale: some emote for the second balcony while others stand there like boulders. Usually, playing back a scene on a reference monitor will embarrass the hambone into toning it down. With under-actors, a few tricks can turn on-screen stolidity into subtlety.

    First, shoot closer to inexpressive actors. Often, their faces will reveal fleeting emotions that wider shots don’t pick up. Next, allow pauses to pass for thinking and feeling (Clint Eastwood’s made a whole career of this.) This is just one example of a general rule. It’s better to build dramatic scenes and then shoot them; but when that doesn’t work, you can create a good deal of drama or at least enhance it in the editing bay.

    So, roll camera… mark it, and… ACTION!

    [Sidebar: The Wag and Waver]
    Looser framing can help waggers and wavers. Waggers are people who unconsciously punctuate every third word by bobbing or shaking their heads. In tight shots, this annoying habit is emphasized by contrast with the motionless frame around the image. So if performers bobble and jerk, widen from closeup to medium shot, for a much less nervous-looking effect.
    Wavers do the same thing, but with their hands and arms, semaphoring punctuation as they talk. To cope with this, you can go either way: to a close shot that frames off hands and arms completely, or to a waist shot that lets them lash around as they please. But avoid medium closeups that allow hands to flail in and out of the shot at the bottom of the screen. This drives viewers nuts.

  • The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.