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Understanding Actors

One of the areas I’ve had limited exposure to is working with actors, so it’s an area that isn’t as familiar or comfortable to me as the technical side of filmmaking. A while back, someone had suggested Uta Hagen as a great source for understanding the craft of acting, the process actors go through, and the techniques they use. Wanting to understand the techniques and lingo so I, as a director, could understand actors and acting better, I sat down and watched Uta Hagen’s Acting Class (Part 1) courtesy of Netflix. Here’s a clip from it:

It not only was an interesting watch from the acting side of things, but also as a reflection on human behavior and self-observation. I’d recommend watching it if you’re interested in those kinds of topics. Here are some acting techniques and principles I walked away with:

  • Destination – Humans are never still without purpose, we are always in between destinations. We don’t just stand (or pace) in-place. Doing so is unnatural. If you get up from your seat to get a drink from the bar, it can be natural to find yourself standing still because you know your purpose and destination. But if you’re standing still without knowing what your destination or purpose is, you will become conscious of your movement, or as it’s commonly referred to, you will appear stiff.
  • Emotional Trajectory – Emotions are not structured. They don’t rise, reach a peak, and then fall. Our voices don’t rise, become loud, and then subside. Sometimes we whisper, sometimes we’re silent, sometimes we stutter. There is no structure to our emotional trajectory. We don’t choose the emotion to express. It expresses itself in its own way. Most of us can usually tell someone how we feel, but few of us are able to observe ourselves to know how feelings are manifesting themselves through our behavior.
  • Fourth Side – This refers to the fourth wall where the audience or viewer resides. It requires knowing your setting such that you can define the fourth side for yourself. What are the spots you focus on? Where does your involuntary attention take you? It’s often a crack in the wall, an exit sign, the edge of a bookcase, etc. If you don’t know your fourth side, you become focused on not focusing (like avoiding looking at audience members, the camera, etc.). You end up hunting for your fourth side during the scene.
  • Moment to Moment – A matter of not anticipating and really being in the moment. The ability to truly expect and react in the moment, otherwise, if you truly are not expecting, then what’s the point. For example, if your purpose is to locate something you’ve lost (i.e. keys, your child, etc.), you have to truly expect to find it, otherwise why would you be searching for it. And if you already know where to find what you are looking for, then the process of searching for it is an exercise in anticipation, not one of expectation and reaction. It’s like knowing where you lost something but still looking for it.
  • Transference & Substitution – Defining behavior through the substitution of a time, place, or person. For example, superimposing you real life ex for the person you’re in the scene with. However, it’s not simply superimposing someone’s face onto your scene’s partner – many stop there and hang onto that substitution. Instead, it’s about that substitution defining the relationship you have with scene’s setting/partner.
  • Endowed Reality – The realities of the scene that aren’t true reality. For example, the ability to walk into a room and out of the rain, and create that reality without truly being wet. Being truly wet would distract the audience, be impractical, etc. Instead, you have to provide that reality to the scene.
  • Changes of Self – These are the 3 “you”s within a scene and how one builds on top of the other.

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