Great Directors use Adjectives and Verbs

AdjectivesI was asked today what the difference in skill or techniques were between a good director and a great one. There is a lot of commonality in how both directors get started in filmmaking, but once they’ve gained experience the great director works specifically on developing his adjectives and verbs.

The adjectives are the tools the director uses to convey key information to his cinematographer and production designer. He also uses it to communicate with publicity, studios and producers. The words make the difference between a good pitch and a great one—a higher budget versus a smaller one.

Adjectives give color to a conversation and ignite emotions. Since film is an emotional medium, adjectives play a major roll in determining what films get made. Films explained without adjectives fall flat and fail to give the audience an emotional ride that films are known to do.

Verbs are the tools needed to adjust the efforts of the actors. Saying, “give me a little bit more,” tells the actor nothing and frustrates her. But, changing up the verb within the direction gives the actor something to play.

For instance, let’s say the director told the actor to “urge” the other character to take a sip from the glass and it didn’t play well. The director would explore a more intense version of the same action. He might tell the actor to “exhort,” “push” or “force” the character to take a sip. Each word brings another level of intensity to the scene.

The opposite is also true. When the director wants the actor to back off of the intensity of the scene, he merely gives direction with gentler verb choices. By choosing various levels of verbs, the actor is able to picture the exact action their character might undertake.

The best news is that verbs are actions that can be played without the actor having to translate what “more” or “less” might equate to. By giving an actor a specific verb to play she can immediately determine what actions her character might take in accomplishing the verb. This frees the actor up from the acting process and allows her to stay in character while playing through a few creative choices.

More and more directors have become writers in recent years because they’ve learned a lot about words in promoting their films and directing their actors. They understand the emotional tone of the film and had to learn the words required to describe it to others. They also know what it takes for an actor to play a roll; so learning numerous levels of verbs became second nature to them.

Once you’ve learned how to use adjectives and verbs, the distance from being a director to becoming a writer/director is very short. The same is true for a good director becoming a great director.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Life from the Perspective of Peas and Peanuts

peasMy youngest daughter and I were laughing at dinner. It was hard to withhold side comments when her son attempted to stick a garlic shell noodle up his nose. My son-in-law thought the little guy’s behavior was a little illogical, because if his son really wanted something up his nose, the peas on his plate would make the attempt easier.

Contemplating any form of logic in that particular moment was worth a chuckle, so we all joined in with crazy banter, trying to one up each other on profound comments surrounding the logical choice of peas.

Soon a deep parallel was drawn to my daughter and son-in-law’s middle school youth group. This morning half of the class shared their contemplation of topics few adults are willing to address. I was amazed at their understanding and openness to discuss such controversial subjects.

The most artistic filmmakers, actors and artists I’ve met all held the same willingness to explore the depth of any topic related to the human condition. In fact, the better the artist, the more impact they made in society by addressing the difficult in the development of their works.

Charles M. Schultz is one artist that I’ve admired for years. The man demonstrated integrity in his art and consistently demonstrated how to salt in morals and ideal behaviors that the masses drank in ever so deeply.

The syndicated Peanuts comic strip was his crown and joy. He spent 50 years entertaining the world with difficult childhood emotions that impacted our society. Two weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Shultz received a sincere letter from a Mrs. Harriet Glickman, who perfectly articulated the idea of adding a Negro child into the Peanuts strip. She was also astute enough to warn him of the possible ramifications.

Schulz LetterSchultz received thousands of letters every month and rarely heeded suggestions. He was a true artist with many ideas stock piled for future strips. However, he was so moved by Glickman’s suggestion that he responded to her with his concern. Schultz feared any attempt on his part might come across as patronizing and he had no good solution.

Glickman asked Schultz for permission to share his letter with a black male friend of hers by the name of Kenneth C. Kelly and had him write Schulz with two good reasons for including a Negro child in his Peanuts strip. Kelly was also articulate and suggested Schulz introduce the character as a supernumerary that could be developed later into a main character.

But Schultz wouldn’t have it that way. He had something specific in mind to do once his fear of patronizing blacks was defused. Schulz sent a letter off to Glickman announcing that on July 31, 1968 Peanuts would debut Franklin, Charlie Brown’s African American friend.

Unfortunately, Glickman was right about the backlash Schulz would receive, but he handled it well. Larry Rutman, president of United Feature Syndicate didn’t like a scene with Franklin playing with the other children and asked for a change.

Schulz gave the perfect response, “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”

Larry printed it and Peanuts went on to impact numerous societies worldwide.

It only takes one artist with perspective and integrity to change a culture.

Peanuts

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

12 Essentials of Directing Actors

Movie director.In watching and chatting with numerous actors and directors over the years, I’ve learned a few things that directors do poorly and several they do well. During this time frame the ideals have changed within the production world, so I’m writing only those key points that relate to actors giving a truthful performance. I hope directors will find these recommendations helpful.

  1. TAKE AN ACTING CLASS. Actors are vulnerable and sensitive people who need encouragement and an understanding director.  The best way to inspire great performances is by understanding the acting process. To keep up with the latest trends, I take acting or an improvisational class every so often.
  2. MAKE A CONNECTION. An actor’s job is intense and exposed, which can cause them to feel overly sensitive or vulnerable. The director needs to come along side of them as a trusted advisor. Actors rarely need to be challenged or have an authority figure bear down on them, as most self-critique or compare themselves to their own detriment.
  3. KILL CRITICAL SPEAK. The director owns the set and must stop any cast or crew from saying anything negative to actors. Direction must only come from the director who fully understands the vision and can give proper and affirming recognition. If anyone on the set feels a need to make suggestions or confer with the director about someone’s performance, it must be done in private, if at all. The director MUST protect the actors.
  4. ASK QUESTIONS. The last thing an actor needs on set is an authoritarian or a director that bellows out commands or instructions. Each actor is an expert at her character and because the director is focused on everything, the professional actor will maintain that expert status. It’s therefore prudent for the director to change the actor’s performance inductively by asking questions. By drawing the actor into the thinking process, she is able to discover for herself what the character needs to do. This activity strengthens the actor’s ownership of the character and enhances her performance.
  5. TREAT ACTORS EQUALLY. An actor’s emotions can take its toll throughout the shooting day. Great directors try to keep an eye on each actor’s emotional status and take specific time to remind her that she is liked and respected. The director is a powerful leader that must share this treatment equally with all actors to maintain a mutually warm environment from which the actors can safely perform.  Leaving an actor out of this personalized attention can send her reeling out of control.
  6. BE COURTEOUS. Directors can raise the performance bar by being courteous and avoid the common mistake of telling an actor how she blew it. By saying, “What was that? You can’t bellow out your lines. Let’s do another take and give me less,” the director increases the actor’s fear and stiffens her next take. Instead, a director might consider saying, “I’d like to try something a little different on this next take. I wonder if you could maintain your emotional intensity and drench the other character with a dangerous calm.” This gives the actor more to work with and inspires creativity and performance.
  7. AVOID COMMON ACTING PROBLEMS. Acting is self-conscious and self-judgmental, which many times can cause an actor to act from her head instead of her heart. The director must work with the actor to make sure she is focused on the character and not herself. This approach will avoid numerous problems that typically rise during any given shooting day and help to draw out an honest or truthful performance.
  8. PROMOTE RELAXATION AND FOCUS. Relaxation is important to make sure the actor doesn’t project her voice as if on a stage. It will also impact the way she carries herself. When a scene calls for tension, it will naturally grow from the relaxed state and appear in her hands, walk, voice and face. Anytime anxiety creeps in, the actor becomes stilted in her performance. A director can improve the performance by reminding the actor of what she’s done well. Even redirecting her focus off of her feelings and back onto the character will reduce the temporary lack in confidence.
  9. CLARIFY SUBTEXT. Reviewing subtext during rehearsal will help an actor focus on each line, glance or action. Every element of her performance must lead to her character’s super objective or what she is fighting for. The subtext can be clarified with a verb to be played, a character she plays to, and an intended effect that her character wants as the outcome.
  10. KILL ANTICIPATION. It is difficult for a director to have an actor play a part “naturally” in a specific way, as the mere mention of doing it naturally makes the performance stilted. Within that moment the actor gets trapped in her head and starts to anticipate a line or action. She might also purposely hold back in an attempt to be more natural, which creates an awkward lag and reveals that the actor has done this moment several before in rehearsal. One of the best ways to avoid this conundrum is to walk the actor through the character’s thinking process, while salting in moment-by-moment clues as the performance unfolds – Just like in real life.
  11. KILL INDICATING. It’s common for an actor to increase the visible size of her performance in hopes of reaching the audience or allowing them to see her character’s personality. Unfortunately, the lens is only kind to subtle performance and the actor finds herself overworking and destroying her character in the process. Having the actor think about a secret or some internal struggle during the performance, allows the audience to see that there is more depth to the character without an over-the-top performance. Giving direction to the actor as if you’re speaking to the character also generates this subtle secrecy effect.
  12. SPEAK IN VERBS. Many actors memorize certain actions to help them “do business” during their scene and it weakens their performance because it doesn’t naturally flow from the character. Instead of having an actor pull something out of her bag of tricks, the director can share verbs that stimulate creative ideas that develop new actions based solely on the character. An example might come from a script line like, “She keeps up with her dodging in and out of shadows.” The immediate thought an actor might come up with is moving from tree to tree peering around as she tries to keep up with the other character. However, the director can bring to bear an arsenal of variations on this movement by asking the actor to “trail” the other character. Or, he can step up the intensity with each word suggested: follow, track, pursue, hunt, stalk, or chase. Each verb intensifying the action and giving a new mental picture for the actor to perform.

If I were to add a “don’t” to the list for amateur directors, I’d have to recommend NOT ever demonstrating how you’d like something played. This act instantly reduces the director’s credibility to zero and he doesn’t get what he’s asks for, as his performance never plays out the way it was in his head. It is also insulting to the actor who is the expert on her character, who would never do things like the director demonstrated. This is not to take away from the director showing an actor their blocking, as he walks the actor down the path, while discussing the character’s motivation.

The key is to remember that the actor is an expert at her character and the director can’t be due to his high level of knowledge on the entire picture. However, the director will know what works and what doesn’t and must use questions to help the actor create variations of performance until the director gets what will work best on screen – Something the actor trusts the director to accomplish.

Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers
Illustration © shambulin – Fotolia.com

Directors Stage Shots and Block Actors with Triangles

The human eye moves around a room or watches a scene based on leading lines and points of focus. The art of capturing the eye and encouraging its movement in a specific direction is done through composition. There are many types of composition like “L”, leading lines, rectangles, spirals, etc. The study of these forms is typically taught using the rule of thirds, or the golden rule section or ratio.

The cinematographer is well equipped to use these various techniques, but he first must learn what the director is trying to accomplish with the actors as they rehearse or block out their movements. The director will try to create emotional energy within the scene and shift the power between characters. It’s the cinematographer’s job to capture that engagement by racking focus, using a crane, or creating movement with a dolly. The goal of the set up is to help the audience feel and understand what the actors are emoting.

The more actors on set, the more difficult the staging of the shot becomes. The simplest way for the director to capture the essence of the scene and leverage the ability of his cinematographer is to block the actors in groupings of triangles. This can be done by height, distance from the camera, or with three various groupings.

Director sets shot with triangular grouping of actors.

The director blocks the actors in three groupings within a triangle.

In “The Proposal”, during the engagement announcement scene, the cinematographer uses three groupings of actors (orange boxes of people grouped in a triangle with red lines) with one close to the camera, the next mid way, and the last group farther away. In the last grouping, the actors were grouped in a mini-triangle (blue lines) by the director.

Three-shots can easily be turned into triangle blocking based on distance from camera, actor height, and relative position if one actor stands while others sit. Sometimes the director uses a momentary triangle, as someone walks past in the foreground or background, to break up the obviousness of the blocking.

While still shots might reveal various compositions utilizing triangles, motion pictures will many times interrupt the posing aspect that the composition might encourage with movement. A cinematographer may also choose to rack focus between points of the triangle to create more eye movement.

Copyright © 2012 By CJ Powers
Photos © Touchstone Pictures