The most obvious way to make your audience aware of the importance of key movie props is to shoot a closeup cutaway of the prop, but this is also the most boring and predictable method. How then, can you let the audience know – in a split second – what a prop is or its importance to a scene without slowing the scene down for a classic cutaway?
Watch the Masters at work.
I was listening to a director commentary from Nancy Meyers on a movie's behind the scenes bonus feature recently. She pointed out the natural way actor Steve Martin used movie props in the film; snapping a pair of movie tickets between his fingers before handing them off to someone in the scene. Meyers [Something's Gotta Give, It's Complicated, What Women Want ] said she asked Martin to do this to give the audience a better understanding of the tickets' significance before he gave them away. When Martin snapped the tickets, she explained, it made an audible cue that drew the audience in without having to make an obvious close-up cut to the tickets in the actor's hand – which help keep the scene moving along.
Nancy Meyers went on to explain she learned that trick from Jack Nicholson, who was the master of "stage prop illumination" [my phrase, not hers!] Nicholson had a natural way of alerting the audience to objects in the scene without obviously pointing them out.
Movie directing is a complex skill. The director is in charge of the entire production from beginning to end and needs to know how to handle crew members who come with extremely specialized skills and talent who come with huge egos, as well as keep the shooting schedule on track, fulfill the writer's vision and understand the techniques and art of movie directing. Directing talent is just a small part of a movie director's role on set.
From dialog and voice control to body movement and facial reaction to using stage props correctly, there are many ways to direct your actors through a scene. Having actors interact with the movie props is just a part of their role, yet one that they can use in subtle ways to illustrate said prop or add a more personal element to their acting.
In the movie Larry Crowne, for example, as Crowne [Tom Hanks] sits expectantly down in the employee lounge to receive what he thinks is a reward for good work, he takes a sip from his favorite coffee cup. Another actor in the scene calls his name, "Crowne", and Hanks smiles and points to the image of a gold crown embossed on his cup. This is just a subtle way to introduce and understand the person we are just getting to know. Without him actually pointing to the crown, we might not have noticed the relationship. Insignificant as it was, it helped flesh out the character and add a bit more depth to the movie.
Directing actors using subtlety is just as important as directing actors using exaggerated movements, each has its purpose in particular movies. In the 2011 five-time Academy Award winning film, The Artist*, the actors in the black and white silent movie had to exaggerate their movements due to the fact that the audience wasn't going to hear any dialog. But to over-exaggerate the moves would make them comical, like an old Keystone Kops film from days gone by, so they had to exaggerate with subtlety – a skill that comes with experience – and good directing.
The next time you watch actors working their way through a scene in a movie, take a closer look at how they interact with the movie props. Is there a reason an actor might pick up a key from a table then toss it playfully in the air? To alert you, the audience, to its presence and significance in an upcoming scene, perhaps?
Next time you direct your actors in a scene, consider how you might have them interact with the props in ways that are subtle and natural, while still being able to get the viewers' attention without screaming out, "look, this is a significant movie prop." That's skillful directing.
*The Artist: won five Oscars for best picture, best directing, best costume design, best original music score and best actor.
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