Second day of shooting for this short in which I’m not only mixing sound, but also have a speaking part in, just went down. My respect for actors continues to grow. The sheer will to get into character, and to not only deliver one’s lines, but to also think about the mannerisms, hand gestures, vocal inflections and so forth, without tripping up, requires tremendous focus. For some actors, getting to that maximum level of focus (in the zone) requires impeccable timing. Not every actor can stay at that maximum level of focus and intensity all day long. Certainly not myself.
I had faithfully read the script again and again on the days leading up to the shoot. I was supposed to have a hint of a mysterious Eastern European-sounding accent, and come across with a certain nefarious flair. I thought I had it down pretty well. On the first day of shooting, I studied and practiced my lines like a maniac every chance I got during breaks from mixing. I walked around the set speaking them in my voice and with my facial expressions and it cracked everyone up (presumably with how good it was coming across). I kept getting told it was great. But when it came time much later in the day (evening actually) to let another person mix while I stepped in front of the camera to play my part, I was physically and mentally tired and found myself forgetting lines and not putting in the energy I should have been, despite the best efforts of the director (and an extra-large coffee) to get me back into it. I was told it was a good performance though. But talking with the director afterwards, decided for the next day of shooting to not expend so much energy on getting into character perhaps until I was in costume.
So, for the second long day of shooting I diligently avoided getting emotionally wound up, and working the energy level up for the character until I went into wardrobe and makeup. But that zipped by quickly and I was in front of the camera before I felt I was really in the zone. So for day two, I just didn’t feel I was prepared. I wasn’t delivering with the intensity I should have, and was occasionally even forgetting the accent: not because I was physically tired or emotionally drained, but because it took me longer than I had thought it would to get really ready. I think I did satisfactorily overall, but I could have done better. I realize now that I needed at least an hour of running lines right up until go time. Instead, I think I ran them with the actress I was in the scene with for maybe ten to fifteen minutes before the director called for us to get on our marks. It’s shoots like these where you are glad you were nice to the script supervisor!
I have some friends who have been acting for many years who confirmed my suspicions on how actors need a certain amount of time to prepare for a scene, and then can often only stay ready for a certain amount of time before the preparation wears off. It differs from actor to actor, but everyone has that “zone” they need to get in and stay in. I thought about the plight of relief pitchers in baseball who get up to start warming up, and then sit down for a while, and then get back up, and so on. Once you get to know what those timings are for you (and they can differ from shoot to shoot depending on the emotional requirements of the scene) you can better plan when you need to start “warming up”. It is always a good idea to confirm the call times and shooting schedule with the production manager or director to make sure you have ample time to get into character, but not so much time that the feeling starts to wear off and you come down too far from your peak.
I envy those actors who can get into character quickly and stay there for a long time. That is not me at the present though. But this was only my second acting role and I’m definitely learning a lot (I’ll write up my specific thoughts on working on set in all the roles and responsibilities I’ve undertaken some day in my memoirs). I can’t say for sure that doing sound is more or less challenging than acting. They are certainly different. And I certainly enjoy facing both of these types of challenges. Let it suffice to say that if I continue to be fortunate enough to land more roles, that I hope I can learn these essential lessons, such as on how to prepare. I tell you though, when I watch a film now, my mind sometimes wanders into wondering how the actor perhaps prepared for their role.
So many filmmaking folks feel that there is some kind of tall wall between those in front of the camera and those behind the camera. Many of the crew actually stand in awe of the actors for their ability to transform themselves into a fictional character. Often the feeling of awe is reciprocal. I notice on set actors sometimes gazing with awe at the jumble of cameras, dollies, cranes, lights, microphones and audio equipment. I think both are justified in being in awe of the other. To pull off a decent film requires dedicated teamwork under the auspices of the director (creative) and production manager (scheduling and logistics and so forth). It isn’t often you come across someone who is both comfortable and confident, both in front of and behind the camera. Sometimes directors write themselves into a part and try to do both. As I’ve learned from first-hand experience, unless you are both very good at directing and very good at acting, this can be a formula for failure.
Occasionally, I see someone else make the transition from one side to the other, and I find it interesting for various reasons. Firstly, a lot of people working crew just assume they can never be an actor. They assume (and rightly so) that acting requires some innate talent that while it can be honed with lessons and coaching, cannot be created out of nothing. But a lot of people don’t really know what latent talents lie hidden beneath layers of personality shaped by that dull grinding day job. There is often an actor waiting to be “discovered” and nurtured in that person who moves the lights around or decorates the set. And conversely, there are often actors who have a good eye for lighting or ear for sound, who when called on to lend a hand, can turn out to be quite proficient in helping out the crew after his or her’s parts have been filmed.
Some crew folks have great personalities, a fantastic sense of humor, and often ham it up behind the camera. Why shouldn’t they at least give it a whirl? And on low-budget indies, one would think directors would always be on the lookout for cheap (read: free) fresh new talent. But unfortunately we local small-time filmmakers tend to make this transition more difficult than it need be by insisting potential actors go through hoops before working for food. We too often require formal things like a headshot, resume, demo reel, and references even for someone being cast in a role with three short lines, before we’ll even consider auditioning them. It seems a tragic waste of potential to be overlooking those who simply never considered taking the time to put all those “hoops” together. But there are progressive directors who just seem to instinctively know they like someone for a part. And quite often these directors are able to elicit a more credible performance than they might from spending many hours reviewing paperwork and holding auditions.
I recently was working sound on a production, and had as usual been goofing around and hamming it up during breaks with my mates. I hadn’t realized the director had been watching. He approached me later in the day to ask if I was interested in playing a short role with maybe a half-dozen lines for a character that he thought I just might be perfect for. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, but also curious, so I jumped at the chance (fortunately there was another guy there qualified to take over the mixing). It was quite an eye-opening experience. I learned how really difficult acting is. It was not just about memorizing a script—that was the easy part. My bigger problem was getting heavily into the character I was playing and practicing it until I felt I was that character, and then staying there for hours as delay after delay in shooting pushed the schedule back. By the time they got around to shooting my scenes, I was rather tired and no longer “in the moment”. I had lost my edge. There was a huge lesson to be learned about peaking too early. I managed to fix this somewhat with an extra large coffee. If you’re wondering how it turned out, it’s still in post, but the director told me he was quite pleased with the footage.
I’ve heard other stories about astute directors noticing crew members and also guests hanging out on set, who were carrying on off camera in a certain way. After a brief discrete chat, and a script tweak, there’d be a newbie on camera as an extra or maybe with a small speaking part. Different people react differently when asked if they want to be on camera. Some are just not into it at all and run for the hills. Kudos to these directors who have open minds and aren’t afraid to take chances on occasion. It’s great for the local film community as a whole to give people an opportunity to contribute in different ways. But I’ve also known plenty of directors who won’t give anyone a chance unless they go through the official channels (acting agency) and jump through the formal “loops” (demo reel, resume with proper headshot, and references, etc…) And that’s a real shame since many of the best performances you’ll see in micro-budget Indieworld are pulled off by folks with little or no formal acting experience or training. Danny Trejo supposedly was discovered after he was released from prison and turned up on set as a guest of someone he was helping with a drug addiction problem as his sponsor. The point is you never know where the next new talent might come from.
Having myself directed several shorts, I feel it is not just my duty, but a smart thing to think outside the box and consider all possibilities. That tall geeky guy holding the microphone boom, clowning around—he might just be perfect for a geeky nerdy character who clowns around in the same way. In this small-budget indie film world, we have a golden opportunity to not be hampered by artificial lines of separation imposed by guilds and unions and studios. So keep your eyes and ears open all the time, because fresh, exciting, undiscovered talent might just be as near as your own set.