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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Lenny – Alex’s Cut

Lenny was the first time I ever filmed in a very industrial setting, with camera setup, boom mics and crew roles, and the first time I used traditional editing methods when editing. Below are my reflections of the process.

(You can watch Lenny here.)

Pre production: We as a group tried to plan and block out the three shots – OTS 1, OTS2 and Double Shot – without first looking at the location. We wanted to achieve a shot where we see Van walk in while being able to see Lenny at the same time. It was a little difficult to communicate this idea visually to the other team members who weren’t sure what the other half had meant, and drawing
it didn’t clarify it either. It was because of this that we decided to go to the location and physically block out what we wanted. At the location, we realized the geography of the location meant that the shot that we wanted to achieve would be very difficult to achieve while keeping cinematography in mind. In the end, we decided it would be simpler as a first exercise to do a classical OTS shot without anything fancy. We also took images of the location to get a framework of the different shots we might want to achieve. Matt did sketches of how the characters will enter, as well as roughly where we will place the camera to film.

Production: Unfortunately, all the preparation wasn’t enough for us to achieve an efficient shoot. Part of the issue was the set up of equipment. Our group was 2 people more than the other groups, meaning we had more voices trying to determine what we had to do. Furthermore, not a single of our group had actually done any filming before in terms of using a proper camera and boom setup, so
it took nearly half of our allocated filming time to set up everything, including focus and white balance. As a result, we took the advice of the tutors and filmed our two-shot first, so that we have everything on film that we may need should we not be able to do the other two shots. The situation was made more difficult in the constant changing of roles – for some reason, no one decided to take charge, but when we did appoint someone as director or AD, others would suddenly try to take over the role as well. As a result, time was wasted working out who should use the slate, who should say ACTION, etc. The takes themselves were not too badly done – it was a simple scene – and despite the time constraints, we were mostly able to do at least 2 takes of each shot. I feel that overall group cooperation was what pulled us through the lack of previous experience, but a lack of organization meant we wasted a lot of time establishing roles and process.

Post: I feel that post production is the most interesting and fun part for me. To me, choosing and editing shots together is extremely interesting, because I can have control over aspects which I couldn’t during the shoot. So far, what we edited was mostly for technical reasons, ie to clean up and cut bad shots, for continuity, etc. It was extremely rewarding to attempt J and L cuts, where
even though the voice doesn’t match the actor, there was still a sense of continuity. If anything, continuity was even smoother when J and L cuts are employed correctly, and I learned a lot about timing when editing – that is, to watch for when I made a cut, and try to replicate that movement in the next one. This was also the step where I truly appreciated the effor that had gone into Pre
and Production in terms of blocking, rehearsals and camera angles, because some of this wasn’t so well done in the Lenny test videos, and no amount of careful editing can make it look natural.

Conventions of Sound

Sound production, manipulation and mixing is something which I do not have much prior experience in. Ruoff (1993) outlines some interesting and important factors when working with sound in media, which I explore below.

Having come from a linguistic background, Ruoff’s outline of how conventional spoken conversation and dialogues differ greatly from scripted or written dialogue, purely because the spoken dialogue will always contain interjections and “hemming and hamming” as a natural and necessary part of lingual semiotics. However, it was very interesting to then expand on this knowledge to the scope of documentaries, within the discourse of audience understanding of conventions. For example, if a conversation that was supposed to be candid, or observational “fly on the wall” was too clean, or too organized and orderly, the audience would immediately feel that it was put on, regardless of whether the camera frames the subjects in a ‘hidden camera’ manner, or any other visual cues. By the same token, if a face-to-face interview was too disorderly with interjections of “uh huh” or other verbal prompts, it would be distracting to the viewer or listener. This fully explains the importance of recording through separate channels (and using directional mics – shotgun mics) especially during an interview, as to minimize and have full control in post over the interjections if
they occur during the interview.

It’s also interesting to learn about interview techniques that are specific for the screen, or for audio productions. My background was in written and published journalism, so interview techniques mostly taught us to not use leading yes/no questions, or to allow the subject to tell their own story through their own words, not through your questions. This remains true for video and audio interviews, but even more importantly, it’s a matter of recording and interviewing for the answers to be used in the final product. So, the whole idea of asking the interviewee to answer in a full sentence allows the editors in post to leave out the interviewer’s question. This obviously goes against a ‘natural’ conversation flow, but this is a discourse unique to interviews, where the staged theatrics of a ‘conversation’ is how we expect a successful and coherent interview to go.

The above points are majorly important to the projects which I am working on this semester, but are also widely applicable when creating any kind of media product which may include sound.