I often work with actors who are primarily theatre based but want to cross over and start looking for screen work. I was feeling helpful, so I've compiled a list of tips and suggestions for you to consider and work on before filming
Play to the front row
In my opinion, there is a subtle misconception about what it takes to make the cross over from theatre acting to screen acting. I should mention that I am not an actor, and I've never trained to be one, but my understanding comes from working with hundreds (if not thousands) of actors. We all know the largely misunderstood cliché of theatre being bigger and screen being smaller, but I think the best way to consider the shift in your performance is to play to the front row rather than the back. Sometimes theatre actors will do nothing when acting for screen, assuming that's what it takes. And yes, whilst the camera will pick up minor eyebrow twitches and changes in dilation, but you still have to give me something! If not, the performance will feel wooden and restricted. Play to the front row. Thank me later.
Wait for action!
This one is a huge bugbear because often theatre actors will forget to wait for the director's action. A really important thing to consider when acting for screen is that there are a lot more technical things going on behind the scenes than you'd typically have for theatre (at least, during the performance). The cameraperson needs to frame, focus, adjust for lighting conditions etc, whilst constantly having to adapt to the situation happening in front of them. You may be given a performance note, but it doesn't mean you should go ahead and do it straight away because the crew may not be ready for you. Wait for "action!", and the production team will love you, as will I.
Understand what the editor is going to do for you
Before I start filming with an actor I'll often ask how much film experience they have. This is not a challenge or an attempt to make them look inexperienced, but rather, I'd like you to know that the editor is your life-saver (maybe that's a bit extreme, but you know what I mean). You can mess up a hundred times (if the schedule allows), but it only takes one good to take and that's the one the editor will use. In other words, when acting for screen, you have to trust that the editor is going to build your performance from a variety of takes. With theatre you have to get your entire performance locked in before you go on stage because it's unlikely you'll be able to re-do anything or have someone chuck notes at you throughout the performance unlike with film (hence why you don't get as much rehearsal time for screen, if any). With screen acting, you have a lot more freedom to try things in the moment and perhaps fail. But it doesn't matter, because the editor will choose your best takes.
This is a really difficult one to practice and get right, especially if you don't have a lot of experience. Things like; playing with your hair, hand movements, eye-lines, props etc. are a continuity nightmare. Because we need to stitch together the footage as to create the illusion of reality, the screen actor has to be conscious of what and how they're doing something so that it matches the other shots we are going to use. Recently I watched a scene where the actor had tied her hair up between takes and no one had noticed. The continuity was annoying as the error was clearly noticeable and it jarred - so much so, I couldn't concentrate on the scene or performance. So, when acting for screen, be aware of continuity and any movements you're making at specific times. If you can't, keep what you're doing physically to an absolute minimum.
When shooting showreels it's slightly different as I work alone and work quite fast, but when working on bigger productions, screen actors have a lot of waiting around to do. This is because the next 'set-up' takes a lot of time to get going, so typically the actors (or talent) will not be needed on set for this time (unless the production ask you to stand in to see if what they're doing will work). The best thing you can do in this situation is to just be ready, because any moment the production may call for you and there will be a very small timeframe you'll be able to get the shot. Often I'll find actors chatting and distracting themselves on their phones, but perhaps the sun has just dipped behind a cloud and you have thirty seconds to grab the shot, so you have to (have to!) be ready at all times. Even when it seems like you'll not be needed, stay focused! It's what professionals do best, and why they'll get asked back over and over.
Lastly, know how close the camera is to you
If it's a close-up shot you'll naturally not have as much freedom to move around as perhaps you would do in a wide shot. This is because when the camera is framed only on your face, so it's hard for the camera to follow you with any suitable accuracy if you're moving around a lot. Typically I would say to the actor "this is a close, so be careful with your movements". This just helps me to frame on the face and concentrate on focus rather than trying to preempt where the talent is going to fidget to next. In the wider shots it's somewhat different because the smallest of movements are allowed because you're going to fall out of frame. In theatre this is never a worry as you're always in a wide shot. You can often tell what sort of shot it's going to be by judging where the camera is placed - the further away, the wider the shot. But not always! Sometimes the camera may be on a long lens, which means even when the camera is positioned away from you, it's actually zoomed in (this will be a stylistic choice of the director but is less in fashion at the moment). So if you're unsure, just ask the camera-operator before each new set-up and then you'll have a clear understanding of what you can do with your movements and performance.
Thank you for reading 'Acting For Screen'
I've been making films for over ten years now, so my thoughts and opinions have formed from that practical experience. Therefore my biggest piece of advice is to go out there and try it for yourself - it's the best way to learn. If you agree or disagree with any of my points, I'd love to hear from you. Tweet @DHshowreels with your suggestions!