The Director and the Actor/Notes to the Cinematographer

While previously I’ve focused on technical aspects of pre- and production, this time I will examine the importance of actors during production. Also, I will engage with the creative and technical differences between focusing on sound and sight.

In my reading of Mackendrick’s ‘The Director and the Actor’ (2004), a few points stood out to me as interesting. The idea that actors should have a general technical idea of how production works, and the usage of props to enact a more natural performance from the actors.

The idea that an actor should be able to have “the unselfconscious and automatic ability to adjust to the position of the camera, a sense of its place…and an understanding of continuity” (180) is a concept which I have only read in print for the first time, but something I’d always thought should be the case. Similar to a stage performer’s need to understand voice projection or blocking, a screen actor’s repertoire of skills should include the aforementioned awareness of camera angles. While obviously there are dedicated roles for these factors in filming – the camera operator, the continuity person etc – it would make the process a lot easier if the actor acts like, as Mackendrick suggested, an athlete in their automatic physical response when acting. Similarly, because of the ability to cut closer or intercut between visual aids in screen, actors need to be aware of constant scrutiny across every facet of their visual presentation as possible; they have to not only be “imagining” their characters (179-180) but they also have to perform and act out every part of that character in relation to the camera, and more importantly, the possibilities that the editor may create from their acting. As Mackendrick noted, subtext and nuances created in post-production editing does rely on the actor understanding that a meaningful glance needs to be conveyed through a series of cuts, not necessarily a moment of silence as the action is performed (181), and so the actor would have to, in this example, understand not only camera angles, but also how their action could be utilized to the maximum when cut between different angles. In this sense, Mackendrick’s assertion that an actor cannot not be informed in facets of technical production is incredibly insightful.

However, if an actor is not skilled, or as Mackendrick puts it, too “self-conscious” (or, inversely, too over confident) (186), there are ways in which the director, in working with said actors, can create a natural frame in which the actor can be in relation to the camera. With props, the director can essentially direct the actor towards a certain mark, and have them stay there for the duration of that mark while using or interacting with the prop. This, Mackendrick describes, has no inherent significance to the narrative, yet can occupy the actor’s focus and/or overall body-language in a more natural way (186). For example, when fiddling with a bottle top, or doing something like dressing themselves, the actor can much better pace and organize the way in which they shift focus from and to their co-star, and the prop/action at hand. It can also negate any over-the-top or unnaturally dedicated focus the actors may have with each other while on screen, thereby avoiding a “pretentious” cinema moment (187). This I feel to be a point that I would take on when I watch TV or film from now on. Especially in important dramatic moments, or even in innane dialogue, I will be watching for the existence of props that have no narrative meaning – ie, drinking coffee in the morning may have some narrative meaning in the sense that the character is tired, but picking at their toast would probably have no narrative meaning – but instead help create a paced and natural way that the actors speak to each other. This is also something which I wish I had read sooner, because in my short film for another subject, which featured dialogue heavy chunks, I didn’t direct the actors to focus more on their prop (or, for that matter, provide much prop) which would, in the next few weeks, provide a challenge when editing.

In Bresson’s 1986 ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’, a clear distinction is drawn between the virtues of sound, and that of vision. “What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear” (50), especially, draws attention to the separate but equally important roles each plays in a screenplay. This was something which was mirrored in screenwriting lectures, where I was told to not say what can be acted. This in turn translates to sound and sight, respectively, where we do not hear what can be seen (dialogue vs action), yet we don’t have to see what can be conveyed much clearer with sound (a series of actions where we can just hear the sound for it). Having not had much experience when dealing with sound, thinking about both visual and sound as separate parts of a greater whole is something I missed out on doing productions this semester.

Bresson also makes a point that “the ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer” (51), which extends upon the idea that sight and sound speak to different parts of the mind. Using this logic, that means if the scene calls for a lot of emotion, whether to reflect the character on screen or to evoke one into the audience, the is more effective to focus on a richer sound track than to, for example, show a lot of emotion-evoking imagery. However, the two should be working in sync as well – to explain that a character is energetic and cheerful, it’s better to show both the character being upbeat, using dynamic shots and cuts, and also an upbeat soundtrack with a fast tempo or a series of sounds that are quick (ie not long, slow sounds).

These ideas, while new, are ones which in some ways I’ve already implemented in my work. However, in future works I plan to pay even closer attention to these factors.

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