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All Good Video Directors Should Study Acting

In our increasingly tech-driven video production culture, young directors often have technical expertise but lack the knowledge of how to deal with the actors who perform in front of their camera.

Most modern video training focuses on the mechanics of production and not the human communication skills needed to coax actors into giving their best performance. Without knowing how to say the right words in a helpful way to actors, it is very easy to make a bad situation worse.

Great actors often interpret a script in ways that surprise directors. An actor’s deep understanding of a role is the stuff of great performances. The director has to get out of the actor’s way and let creativity flourish. Backing off and giving actors free reign to do their best work is an essential directing skill.

However, when an actor is overacting or not interpreting the material correctly, it can ruin a performance and become very irritating to the audience. Keeping performances from becoming exaggerated or melodramatic is just as essential in the director’s craft.

Experienced actors don’t do this, but amateurs can come off without authenticity in a part by overly expressing intense emotions.

This sometimes happens when theatre actors try to translate their stage performances to the video screen.  In a theatre, actors must project to all the seats in the house. On camera, this type of performance can look exaggerated and needs to be adjusted for the more intimate video medium.

At times like this the director must take subtle actions to steer the performance in the right direction. The director’s role is no longer technical — it has now shifted to human interaction.

Directing actors at the Maine Media Workshops

The skill of what to say to an actor at the right moment rarely comes naturally. In my own case, I had a lot of trouble early in my career working with actors. I just didn’t know their language, their craft or how to get the performance I thought I wanted.

Never once were actors mentioned in my television production training at Journalism school. It was all about the technology basics — cameras, lenses, sound and lighting. This knowledge got me a job, but not the ability to do it well.

When I met Ronald Neame, a legendary British cameraman and later film director, he gave me some career-changing advice: no matter the medium you work in or the kind of story you do, the director must understand the craft of acting. Without it, any director will fail.

He was so right. I found an acting class in Los Angeles targeted specifically to directors who know technology but never studied acting. The class, taught by Judith Weston, was an “ah-ha” moment that opened my eyes and showed me clearly why technical skills were not enough for the job.

As a director, I studied acting for directors in both LA and New York City for seven years. Not only did I try to perform myself (I was a terrible actor, but I learned a lot about the actor’s job.) The main thing I learned is how to speak with actors in their own language.

The Factor Acting Studio

There is specific language that a director uses to shape a performance. Just as important, sometimes it is best for the director to say absolutely nothing. It’s easy to say the wrong thing to an actor…sometimes the poorly chosen words can really set back the performance. Learning what to say and not say is usually an acquired skill. Few do it naturally.

Basic acting classes are taught nearly everywhere. If you direct human beings in video — even corporate executives — knowing the acting craft can help you better communicate with on-camera talent.

Good directors don’t tell people what to do directly — but create an environment for them to find the right way to do it themselves.

In my Acting for Directors class in Los Angeles, Judith Weston told us that the director’s “best weapons are an iron-clad connection to the material and an organic authority in relation to the actors.” She said that is a priority of any director on any set. Weston’s book, On Directing, is an excellent read that addresses the subject much further.

Directing actings in an old film

There are also books by great acting teachers like Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and Uta Hagen that can help video directors find ways to communicate with actors.

Two books I especially like are On Directing by Harold Clurman, published in 1972, and On Directing Film by David Mamet, published in 1991. The teachings in these books apply to all directors, regardless of the medium.

The late actor Martin Landau said “a good director makes a playground and allows you to play.” That is a simplified way to describe how a director should create the right environment, or “playground,” for actors to work in.

Though all of us are under pressure to use the best video technology to save time and money, it is important to remember that the performances on the screen are the most important part of any production.

If you are a director, a knowledge about a myriad of subjects is essential. But understanding how to effectively work with actors is key to your ultimate success. Find a way to study acting and your powers as a director will expand significantly.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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