Directing Actors

I recently saw that a film festival was offering directing classes to its attending filmmakers. Directing is one of the positions on a production team that few people really understand. Many books have been written on the subject, but few address what really happens between the director and his actors.

The best way to understand directing is for me to put it in relationship terms. The actor, who is exposing great vulnerability during each shot, needs comfort and confidence from the director. She needs to understand and trust that he will protect her performance and make sure it is not bad.

To accomplish this one element of directing, he can call on a couple dozen techniques. The three most common are:

1. Say something to the actor before and after every take.
The actor is unable to see herself or know how to feel about her performance until she takes her cue from the director. He must give her some form of honest feedback. If she did a poor job, then he needs to carefully explain that what “he” attempted in that shot didn’t work and mention that he’d like to try something a bit different. Actors are used to performing variations, so this response would be acceptable.

2. Don’t ask the actor to repeat what she just did.
If the director tells the actor to redo what she just did, she won’t know what he is referring to. Actors do movement, exude emotions, speak dialog, and about a couple dozen other things that spring from the moment, their history, and listening carefully to the other actors. Instead, the director must affirm the previous performance and suggest some action verbs that might help draw out additional emotions or visuals.

3. Give the actor permission to do business.
If the timing is a bit off with the actor’s interaction with a prop or form of touch involving other actors, telling the actor to do something earlier pushes the actor out of the character and into a robotic nightmare. Instead of saying, “pick up the mirror earlier,” the director should affirm the moment and state, “It’s okay, if you feel led to pick up the hand mirror a bit earlier.” This direction keeps the focus on the character and not the prop.

When the actor is allowed to create their character and are continually managed with the above techniques, they are free to be more creative and find a performance that is unique and screen worthy. In fact, the once vulnerable actor might receive a film festival award for best acting, with few people knowing that it was the director who made sure her award winning performance made it to the screen with confidence.

The best part of directing well is the relationship built between the actor and director during the shoot. Both will be keeping a look out for another story worth their collaboration.

Copyright © 2012 By CJ Powers
Photo © T.Tulic –

2 thoughts on “Directing Actors

  1. Once again, great insight CJ. Trust is so important. Hearing “do what you just did” so stifling! Now I’m supposed to remember what & how I did the previous take when I was involved in the moment? Great when it’s a commercial, not so much with film!

    You’ve nailed it, of course some actors will be unsure of what to do with their thoughts when a director does this, as so frequently it does not happen! Keep educating, good info

    • Thanks for your comments Francine and congratulations on landing your latest feature film role. You’ll have your work cut out for you as you learn a new dialect for the film.

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