ACTING with a CAMERA
In this “YouTube” Generation, where we see more and more characters with cameras as their primary vehicle to express what was previously communicated through physical behavior and dialogue- How does an actor like myself make well-informed choices and respond truthfully, as that character, through the lens of a camera?
I am a trained actor. I have a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. I am a lifetime member of the Actors Studio. I have studied Shakespeare, Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, and Improv. I have vocal training; I have studied the Alexander Technique; I have taken dance at Alvin Ailey. I have extensive theatre, film, television, and commercial experience. And now- apparently- “I am a camera”…BUT I have never taken a class in CINEMATOGRAPHY.
Believe it or not- 3 out of the last 5 projects I’ve worked on involved a cameraman as a pivotal character. One was documentary-style and the Director of Photography played himself, shooting the entire film. In the Second, I played the main camera operator and the DP shot the film with me chasing close behind him to deliver my lines- mind you, never making eye-contact with the other actors for fear it would divert an eye-line and, in some cases, staying out of scenes altogether- simply because the locations were too small to fit an extra person. And the last project was a television show where- again- I was playing a camera operator, but this time I shot the footage myself, under the guidance of the DP. Of the three, this was the most fulfilling experience and produced the most creatively complete cinematic vision.
This begs the question: Who is better equipped to play a role like this- an actor or a cinematographer? An actor is better equipped to deal with the emotional arc of that character, but a cinematographer can make more educated decisions about the visual composition and what that projects, with regards to how that character feels.
When “The Blair Witch Project” was released in 1999, no one questioned the shot selection or composition of these student filmmakers because they were presented as technically trained in the field. But the fact was- the directors gave cameras to the actors, sent them on a wild goose chase in the woods, and instructed them to film it. They were actors… with cameras- not student filmmakers. SO- Were the choices they made based on them as actors trying to appease the directors and get the best shots? OR were their shot selections based on the instincts of the characters? And, more importantly- Were those choices informed?
An example is the famous confessional scene that the character of Heather captured. She turns the camera on herself in the middle of the night, shines a flashlight in her own face, and proceeds to apologize, taking the blame for their dire situation and impending doom. I understand the guilt and the need to take responsibility, but who decided to do this in the dead of night with unseen danger lurking all around. Was this a directorial decision? Or did the actor make this choice? And- Did this fall in line with the character’s truth? Was the risk of drawing attention, and ultimately dying, less important to her character than the desire to confess her sins? …Evidently.
In the 10 years since the “Blair Witch” phenomenon, various other models of this Neo-Documentary style have cropped up, and special effects have now entered the picture- thus, propelling this dilemma to new heights. The most recent being “Cloverfield,” which has been the subject of much debate… Does the continuity of footage violate the suspension of disbelief? More specifically- Does the audience believe that the character of Hud (who is operating the camera for the majority of the film) would continue to shoot in the given circumstances of the story (…that being an evident Armageddon)? If the actor actually filmed it- Was he given or did he obtain any basic training in cinematograghy? Or did the DP shoot it without regard for the character’s truth? A crew-member I know said the film was shot by the DP, with the actor giving his lines from behind camera.
A clear example begins with Hud’s fixation on his crush, Marlena. Early on, he seems infatuated with her, neglecting his duties to document the going away party. This unites what is happening on screen with what the character is feeling off screen. But as the film continues, his emotions become more complex and his point of view is obscured- leading us away from understanding who he is. He disintegrates into a faceless stranger. The only thing reminding us of him is his voice.
At one point, Hud is asked if he’s still filming and he replies, “Yeah. People are gonna want to know… how it all went down.” This is an obvious device used by the screenwriter to renew the artistic license of the piece. It actually violates the truth of Hud’s character and sacrifices the integrity of the entire film. It’s great for the trailer, but it just rings false coming from the Hud we’ve gotten to know up until that moment. I buy that the character of Rob would keep filming, but not Hud.
Now- I ask: Did the actor have any input into this process? Or did the uninformed triumvirate of the writer, director and cinematographer make intellectual decisions before the actor was ever involved in the project? I don’t want to take anything away from the potential foresight of the people that conceived this solidly intriguing, well-made film, but- Did they think about the actor’s contribution at all?
I am an actor. And, as an actor, I ask questions…. like- Where is this character coming from? What does he want? How does he relate to the other characters? What does he need from them?
When a camera is placed in that character’s hands, the questions get more complicated… like- What am I filming? What am I not filming? How does the camera relate to the characters I am filming? What is the difference between choosing to stay in a wide angle and zooming into a close-up? How is that perceived differently? Who is my audience? And, most importantly- Why am I filming in the first place?
Some of these questions can be answered beforehand, through script analysis, and some can be answered at the moment of execution, through spontaneous discovery. If you think in terms of responding truthfully in the given circumstances of the fictitious world, the other actors’ behavior will inform your decisions as the character, and your responses will be instinctual. But- Are our acting instruments prepared to respond instinctually, skillfully under these conditions? Ultimately- I don’t believe they are.
The exception that proves the rule happened on the television show I mentioned earlier: The scene consisted of 4 actors, one of which was working the camera. The 3-Step process was as follows- To have the actors rehearse (with camera); Shoot approximately 3 takes; and then hand it over to a professional camera man to shoot with a better camera. To make it easier, the sets were 360 degrees. After the rehearsal(s)- before anyone shot a take- the director and DP would consult & collaborate with the actors. Once all technical and directorial decisions were made, the actors were sent into the set to shoot.
Now, this scene in particular was a highly emotional scene and required full concentration from everyone involved. When the 4 actors were in the set alone, left to live the scene truthfully as it happened, the moment came alive, tears were shed, and it was as real as it could’ve been- even down to the camera’s auto-focus magically adhering to rhythm of the emotional melody… the other actors’ behavior directly informed what the actor ultimately did with the camera, as their character.
But when the professional camera man entered into this precious environment and tried to micro-manage the camera movement and manual focus, the emotional balance was compromised and the 10 + takes that followed were sabotaged from the start, never reaching the magnitude, pitch or eloquence of the previous 3… In this case- He was the “extra cook” that “spoiled the broth.”
What was about this situation that allowed an uninformed actor to create such a masterful series of visuals? I’ll have to pass it off to a “happy accident” because it certainly wasn’t the result of cinematic expertise! Could it have been duplicated by an attuned camera man? Sure, but then why can’t an innately attuned actor do the same intentionally with some basic camera skills?
Actors are equipped to deal with many things with regard to dramatic conflict, and prove to be quick studies when confronted by other obstacles or tasks they aren’t prepared for. But when all is said and done, the fact is that the eyes of the cinematic world have been placed in the hands of the common man, who has access to equipment and means of communication, previously unheard of. So it is no surprise that these characters are making their way from the internet into the realm of film and television. If this continues to be the case, it becomes the obligation of the efficient actor to prepare himself for such situations.
The challenge requires a full understanding of the cinematic art; knowing what questions to ask, asking them and being equipped to answer them; and finally- understanding who the audience is, what you can express to them through the scope of a camera lens, and how to execute it.
Collaboration is key. It becomes exponentially easier when the writer, director and cinematographer are working along side the actor to navigate this un-chartered obstacle course.
It’s the Age of New Media in this ever-changing technological world, with innovations at every turn. Cinema Verite has evolved and we must, too. It is our job as actors to preserve the art of storytelling, harnessing the talents we have and utilizing every resource at our disposal- to continue holding the “mirror up to nature” …and to continue with faith, inspiration and perseverance to entertain, enlighten and educate the paying public.
I believe we can conquer this new frontier… But that’s just one actor’s opinion.