‘Acting’ is defined as “the art or occupation of performing in plays, movies, or television productions.” So, we can safely say acting is performing. Of course, that’s not wildly informative as we ‘perform’ when we drive a car, watch a child, work, etc. Not to mention all the athletes, musician, fireman (and firewomen) – performing is part of being human.
So then why is it that some folks are able to be thoroughly convincing in their role as an actor, and others seemingly ‘fall on their face’?
Great question, I’m glad I asked. As usual, it’s not just one thing. A good actor will have several techniques they can use to sell their performance. It might be a small hesitation here and there. Perhaps something a bit different in how they deliver their lines. But at the heart of a good performance is a ‘sense of the genuine’. Whether selling cars or performing in the next Star Wars film, it is this sense of genuiness that gets us to ‘buy’ the actor’s performance. And that used car salesman doesn’t ‘read’ well because he likely hasn’t been genuine in so long he doesn’t even know how to pretend to be.
We’ve all heard stories about Hollywood actors who will stay in character all day, from the moment they arrive on set or on location. We’ve heard about weeks or months spent learning skills or affectations to better play a role. Good actors are primarily consummate artists, convincing us that they are whom they’re supposed to be, causing us to suspend our disbelief.
Here in the more mundane world of video production with limited budgets, we still need to get the best performances possible, whether for spokespersons, role plays or dramatic scenes. It’s just that instead of trying to land Morgan Freeman for a small role, we’re wondering whether cousin Bob can handle a walk-thru without looking at the camera. It’s all relative.
So what can we do to get the best performances?
1] Choose your talent wisely. There are an awful lot of folks who want the attention, and perhaps are even willing to work hard, but just do not have the skill set or presence to be effective. This is actually far and away the most important task of the director/producer, since the project won’t recover from a poor performance by a lead character. There may well be hurt feelings and a bit of drama surrounding the development of roles, but a wise director will be able to choose well and act with grace in dealing with those in front of the camera.
2] As noted above, be genuine! When the character is a narrator or spokesperson, practicing the art of appearing genuine is critical. How does one appear genuine when the topic or program effort is not? (Imagine that used car guy again.) Well, gee, that’s what acting is about, isn’t it. Making the false seem real. The best technique I know of is to literally ‘become’ the character. See yourself, feel yourself, hear yourself as genuinely this person. Use a mirror to check out your expressions as you deliver lines. Pretend to have the same likes and dislikes as the person you’ll be representing. All of these things together will help you pull off your acting job, and additionally they’ll help give you that wonderful on-camera ‘presence’, a quiet assuredness in what you are about.
3] Work within your limitations. Most of us do not have the luxury of spending weeks to develop a role. In most markets, you show up for a day shoot and only then learn what you’ll be doing. At best you may get a script to review ahead of time. Feel out the director as best you can to learn what she/he is after, and of course do your best to give them what they want.
4] Understated performances may be better than overstated ones. So if you’re playing someone on drugs, or wildly upset, you probably won’t overstate the acting. High drama often involves ‘big’ performances. What many actors fail to understand, however, is how effective it can be to be more understated in a performance. Big Voice – “It slices, it dices, it cleans itself and makes anything you throw in there taste better.” When you hear over the top copy delivered in an over the top fashion, you know the vid is appealing to an unsophisticated audience, and even so that spot is likely ineffective. Small Voice – “You know, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I saw it actually slicing and dicing, and when I took the food out, it cleaned itself (with a shoulder shrug like I have no idea how that happened.) Big Voice is obviously a bull-shitter trying to get in your pocket. Small Voice is just a curious person, and you’re a curious person too, so maybe he’s onto something.
This is a topic with no bottom, if you will. Like so many artforms, acting is ultimately a creative act, and there is no right way to do it. There are just ways that feel good and true and others that feel less so. Following the points above may not have you rival a Hugh Jackman or Meryl Streep, but it will add to your project’s ability to create the ‘suspension of disbelief’ which is what we are usually attempting with our video and film productions.