Direct Like the Masters

Directing talent for video isn’t a craft with a readily explainable set of procedures. Instead, it’s an art: a mysterious product of talent and experience that’s as fundamentally unexplainable as psychiatry, salesmanship or politics.

What you can’t teach through formal instruction, you can often transmit through apprenticeship to a master artist–a modern master like Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg or a classic giant like Charlie Chaplin or Alfred Hitchcock. Before seeing how great directors handled their actors, we need to understand why actors need handling in the first place. While you probably do not have the good fortune of working with professional talent, you assuredly point your camcorder in the direction of human beings from time to time. Motivating on-camera subjects is a skill that is central to making video.

Actors: Who Needs ’em?

You do, unless you churn out programs on redwood trees, locusts or bighorn sheep. Drama, corporate, educational, event, family–almost all videos, are about people, and those people are actors, whether they’re playing fictional characters or "just being themselves," (which is often difficult).


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Many first-time directors notice that mature, considerate people grow strangely difficult to deal with when they step before a camera. Some become devious and manipulative, while others turn into arrogant prima donnas.

Typically, actors become difficult because they’re insecure; and they’ve every reason to be uncertain or even downright scared because they’re clueless, powerless and exposed:

  • They’re clueless, because you shoot programs in small pieces and usually out of chronological order. The actors don’t know why they’re doing anything. "Now," you direct, "open the door with your left hand, then look apprehensively over your right shoulder." Why all the lefts and rights? To match other shots. Why apprehension? Because the murderer, who was taped last week, is supposedly lurking behind. The actor doesn’t know any of that, but she has to do it accurately and convincingly.
  • They’re powerless, because they seem like an afterthought in a complex technological process. It’s easy to treat the lights, camera and microphone with more care and importance than the talent. The actors cool their heels during endless setup periods, but when it’s finally time to perform, they’re required on the set right now!
  • They’re exposed, because they will ultimately end up on screen, where every physical blemish and awkward movement will be magnified, and every performance flaw repeated each time the show is screened.

Clueless, powerless, exposed–it’s no wonder actors need the reassurance of an authority figure, as master directors from D. W. Griffith to James Cameron have always known.

The Man with the Plan

To the end of her very long life, Lillian Gish referred to her first film director as "Mister Griffith," rather than David or even D.W. The maker of Birth of a Nation radiated an authority that supported insecure talent. "He knows what’s going on, even if I don’t," they felt. "He appreciates me and values my talent. He will ensure that he records only my best work."

75 years later, James Cameron could convince his talent that he kept the unimaginably complex equation of Titanic in his head. If he told you to jerk your hand out of the frigid water swirling at your knees, when in fact, you were kneeling on a green covered box in front of a green screen in a dry sound stage, you trusted that Cameron knew what he was doing.

From Griffith to Cameron, all great directors have convinced cast and crew that they were in charge, and the production was in capable hands. Even if your shoot seems out of control, and you’re lurching from one desperate improvisation to the next, lurch calmly and authoritatively.

With some directors, the reassurance of authority is all the support that the actors receive, but the best directors also communicate actively with their talent. They listen to them, praise their work, and show that they pay attention. Other directors, like Elia Kazan and Mike Nichols, are actor-oriented because they come to movie making from the theater. Directors like Rob Reiner and Ron Howard communicate well with actors, because they began as actors themselves–before moving to the other side of the camera.

No matter how positive you feel toward your cast, you shouldn’t blindly praise them for everything they do, whether it’s good or not. You can’t shape performances to your needs without suggesting improvements, and people see through indiscriminate approval, leaving you looking like a liar or a fool.

When you have to criticize an actor, remember the old management rule: praise in public; blame in private. Watch an actor-savvy director like Steven Spielberg and you’ll notice that he may loudly proclaim in front of everybody on the set, "I loved that bit where you…" Then might continue, "I’ve got an idea…," and lead the performer off to talk quietly. Chances are, the private conversation delivers diplomatic suggestions for improvement.

Practice, Rehearse & Prepare

The biggest source of actor insecurity is the fear that they will not perform adequately, and the best therapy for that fear is preparation. This means studying the script, and rehearsing scenes.

By far, the most important actor preparation is rehearsal. Different directors take varying approaches to it. At one extreme, stage-trained directors may book a rehearsal hall for weeks at a time and rehearse the whole movie as if it were a play. The advantage of this technique is that it delivers an unequaled feel for the program as a whole. The down side is that it’s expensive, and it can’t anticipate the staging demands imposed by locations, lighting, cameras and miking.

The middle way is to rehearse each scene just before shooting it, first with actors only, and then with camera and mike as well. Tape is so cheap, you might learn a trick from George Stevens, who directed Shane and The Diary of Anne Frank. He shot many takes of each shot. In effect, the cast was rehearsing on-film. That way, he could save any special moments that happened only once for use in the movie.

At the other extreme, directors like Robert Altman often let their actors improvise. After discussing what purpose a scene serves, and what each character wants in it, Altman sometimes lets his actors improvise. You can do this too, as long as your cast keeps dialogue and movement the same from one setup to the next. The videographer can’t hold an actor who suddenly rushes out of the frame, and the editor can’t cut together two shots when the speeches don’t match. Improvisation can work amazingly well if you’re Robert Altman directing Robin Williams, but the scene-by-scene rehearsal method is usually safer.

Finally, don’t forget the technique of baptizing characters in their roles by total immersion. John Huston defied studio practice to shoot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the Mexican desert so that the actors could feel the heat, sweat and sandy grit. The resulting performances created a movie classic, and the idea worked so well that he repeated it for The African Queen.

Half a century later, Steven Spielberg put his actors through a sort of army boot camp, so that they would be convincing in Saving Private Ryan. In fact, from slave ships to concentration camps, Spielberg works to surround his actors with environments that stimulate their imaginations and help their performances.

In a famous variation of this technique, Charlie Chaplin immersed an actor in, well, Chaplin himself. Before directing five-year-old Jackie Coogan in The Kid, Chaplin spent hours and hours playing with the child, to gain his confidence and friendship. The on-screen rapport that resulted produced an astonishingly believable performance from the tiny actor.

When practical, you too can put your actors in situations that help them imagine their roles. If you’re shooting on-location in a Victorian mansion, try holding a formal tea party in the drawing room (it doesn’t have to be part of the video), to give the cast a feel for Victorian ambiance. Is your star "flying" a light plane? Then take him up in one and let him feel the controls. Is your cast trapped in a collapsing mine shaft? Then pack them together on the floor and cover them with mattresses. That’ll give a great sense of darkness and claustrophobic helplessness.

The next aspect of actor preparation involves the script. Some actors can improvise, but most feel more secure with a full text. By reading the entire script, they can discover how they fit into it. With written lines to memorize, they don’t have to invent on their feet.

The great writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz tried it both ways. For All about Eve, he provided his cast with a polished screenplay to study well in advance. For Cleopatra, however, he often dashed out new scenes just minutes ahead of filming them. All About Eve won all kinds of awards, while Cleopatra gobbled into the turkey hall of fame. You can write your own moral to this story.

A Guiding Light

Holding rehearsals means more than showing actors where to move as they read their lines. It’s really about helping them build a performance–whether that performance is as complex as portraying Hamlet, or as simple as running a lathe for a training program.

Start by making sure the actor knows what he or she is doing in the scene, and how the scene fits into the video. To reprise our former example, you might have a short dialogue like this one:

YOU: Open the door with your left hand, then look apprehensively over your right shoulder.

ACTRESS: What am I afraid of?

YOU: Remember: he’s chased you all the way from the library here to your dormitory.

ACTRESS: Oh, yeah; then maybe I should be breathing hard too.

YOU: Great Idea! [Contributing to the scene makes actors feel good].

ACTRESS: But why do I have to look over my right shoulder? Its awkward.

YOU: It’s uncomfortable, but you have to look screen-right because we shot him looking at you screen-left. Besides, you should be uncomfortable, someone is chasing you!

Notice your last reply. You showed that you listened to the actor’s input, and sympathized with the problem. Then you politely gave a good reason for shooting the scene your way.

Some decades ago "The Method" was a near-holy system for developing an effective performance. Film directors like Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) were fervent believers in "The Method", as were actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando. The Method approach is complex as a whole, but you can easily understand and apply one of its most important principles. The basic principal is to ask actors not for emotions, but for actions. Don’t tell them what to feel, but what to do. Instead of telling your actress to feel frightened, tell her to escape before her stalker murders her. By giving actors actions instead of emotions, you hand them tasks that they can successfully perform for the camera.

You sneakily build the cue for the emotion into the action command. For example, directing your talent to "escape the stalker who intends to murder you" is the same overt action as "escape the nerd who intends to date you." However, the contexts are so different that the two commands will produce totally different performances.

The Experimental Methods

We’ve focused on movie directors known for working sympathetically with actors, but it’s only fair to mention some notable captains who were not communicative–or nice, to their thespian crews. You could classify these directors as "The Sadists," "The Olympians" and "The Space Cadets."

The Sadists believed that the more you stressed out the actors, the better their performances would be. Erich von Stroheim (known in his day as "The Man You Love to Hate") was notorious for abusing his talent, demanding take after take until his performers teetered on the edge of hysteria.

William Wyler, famous for films as diverse as Wuthering Heights and Ben Hur, sometimes drove actors crazy with this diabolically simple approach:

WYLER: Do it again and do it better.

ACTOR: Better in what way?

WYLER: Just better!

Through take after take, the increasingly desperate actor would try one approach after another until finally finding something that satisfied his fiendish director. The system worked, but the human wear and tear was awful.

The Olympian directors are not sadistic, but simply remote. John Ford (Stagecoach, The Quiet Man) communicated so little that one of his regular actors described working for "Pappy" Ford as: "I show up, hit my marks, say my lines and go home."

Alfred Hitchcock would set up a shot, rehearse it for the camera, and then ostentatiously snooze in his chair while it was being filmed. The master’s reverse psychology worked wonders. The less attention he paid to his talent, the harder they worked to obtain what he wanted.

Finally, there are The Space Cadets–directors so enclosed in their private processes of creation that their communications with planet Earth seem infrequent and obscure. David Lynch produces an eerie effect, because he looks and acts like the All-American Boy grown up. However, from Eraserhead to Twin Peaks and beyond, his work has been relentlessly peculiar. Typically, his actors do what he tells them, resigning themselves to permanent bafflement about what’s going on.

Federico Fellini, who enriched world cinema with films from La Dolce Vita to Amarcord, carried actor cluelessness further than any other director. He sometimes shot a scene without bothering to write the dialogue, or comprehend the gist of it, so he would have his actors converse by saying "one, two, three, four." Later the actors would dub in appropriate dialogue to replace the meaningless numbers.

Is there a moral in here someplace? Maybe it’s this: in directing video actors there are many reliable tricks and techniques that you can learn from the masters. Direct with confidence, listen to your actors and help them understand their characters. But in the final analysis, it all comes down to: use whatever works!

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