August 19, 2016

5 Ways to Get Better Performances from Actors in Short Films

Why is it so damn difficult to get great performances in a short film? 

There are so many challenges in short-form acting; actors have less time to unroll their characters on screen, for starters. But with some thoughtful preparation, a short performance can make a lasting impression. Mylissa Fitzsimmons tackles performances in her latest short film, That Party That One Night, which recently premiered as the first in a year-long roll out of shorts from the Bureau of Creative Works. And having built a career off of short, performance-driven films, Fitzsimmons has learned a thing or two about the process. 

I had a chance to sit down and talk to Fitzsimmons about her process for the Bureau, and below are the most important takeaways I gleaned from our conversation. Some of these tips apply to feature length work, but with  tighter shooting schedules and smaller budgets (with less room for mistakes), they are especially useful for the short form. There are no shortcuts in shorts!

1. Get no-nonsense feedback on your writing

If there’s one thing that can set back an actor’s hard work on a short film, it’s writing that is trying to be realistic but isn’t. From dialogue or character motivations, making sure your script of any length rings true is crucial to nail down before you bring the actors in. Says Fitzsimmons:

When I'm writing something, I send it out to very few people. And I try to go across the board in gender and ages, to see if it kind of resonates with everybody…I think it's very important to give my work to people who are not going to just say, "No, you did a really good job, I really like it." That's not beneficial for me. It's very important, especially in the beginning stages, to trust the people that you're sending it to, that they're going to be honest with you. Otherwise, they're wasting my time, I'm wasting their time, and then I'm going to end up wasting other people's time and money.

Mylissa Fitzsimmons directing on set of 'That Party That One Night.'Credit: Bureau of Creative Works

2. Use playlists and lookbooks to create an offscreen backstory 

Because a short film is so brief, you need to work that much harder to make sure the characters are completely developed people in the world of your story. Fitzsimmons describes:

I have a character book, and I want to be able to allow the actor to mine from that. I want to allow the actor to shape and mold themself but still stay within the world. I need to be able to present, ‘here's the world that you live in.’ I want to give them enough to help them make their choices as an actor that will come from that world I've created. I also make musical playlists for all my characters, and I give those to actors. I write a backstory to them and who they are, what books they would have read, what movies they would have seen, to like help them, along with their own decisions that they've made, and their own choices that they've made.

Credit: Bureau of Creative Works

3. Consider skipping the rehearsal

If the characters warrant it, consider having your actors meet under similar circumstances as they would in the film. Like, if they’re an old married couple, have them spend a few hours doing housework. If they’re a pair of awkward teens who don’t know each other that well, consider Fitzsimmons’ strategy:

I wanted [the protagonists] to meet just to see like what that chemistry would be, but I purposely did not want them to rehearse together because I didn't want them to be comfortable around each other. I didn't want her to comfortable around him, especially, because she's not supposed to be. This is the boy that she's had a crush on for four years of her life, and all of the sudden she finds herself alone with him.

4. Let actors work within specific blocking

Keeping the takes to a minimum, as well as asking actors to keep within a very carefully chosen choreography of blocking and camerawork, can actually give them the creative freedom to deliver great performances.

There were five emotional beats that I needed to have in this film that were very important, and those five emotional beats were the ones that my DP Pedro and I blocked out. We discussed how the camera would move and where it would start and where it would end and on what line it needed to be where. There weren't a lot of takes. The actors were prepared, they knew their lines. We would do quick walking with them before, going, okay, as long as you end up here at this time and here on this point, that's going to work out with the blocking.

5. Keep your crew small

When it comes to a short film or a scene that’s all about the actors, there is nothing more distracting than a big, well-intentioned crew. So if you don’t need them, keep it small. According to Fitzsimmons:

Behind the camera, there were very few people. I think the smaller the crew, the more intimate the production is. Especially with a scene like this, that is kind of intimate. If there's not stuff going on in the background, for me, it feels more believable that I'm actually just being a voyeur and watching them. I didn't want a lot going on in the background, because I feel like there's so much going on in the scene between them, that that was enough for me.

If you want to catch more of our conversation on the Bureau of Creative Works podcast, Fitzsimmons also describes her experiences in writing about universal concepts and editing with a director, among other filmmaking insights.

Do you have experience in getting good performances from actors on a short film? What are your tips?     

Your Comment

10 Comments

Excellent read. Thank you!

August 19, 2016 at 2:20PM, Edited August 19, 2:20PM

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Daniel
Filmmaker
173

Great advice.

August 20, 2016 at 12:04AM

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Freddy Long
Writer-Director
376

I'm sorry, this is not very good advice. The reason that acting is often bad in short films is that the characters aren't real and the story isn't real, meaning that their world and their psyche haven't been made specific and detailed. Without specificity, actors are everybody and nobody at the same time, they're not a *specific* person. They are a general person having general feelings in a general situation, and without a specific agenda to commit to, the actors are standing there observing themselves and result acting. Every character is vague until it's not, and it's the director's job to push for specificity -- not specific acting (which would be oppressive), but a specific *reality* for the character.

Skipping rehearsal is a terrible idea, because of all the options that *could* work for this particular actor, only some options *do* work, and that has to be explored. On a short, you never work enough to find the buttons that unlock behavior for this particular actor. Rehearsal is more important on a short, because you can't waste throwaway scenes on slowly figuring out what makes the actor/character tick -- you have to hit the ground running.

Finally, new directors often aren't good at giving active direction, meaning simple ideas that create an entire complexity of behavior. Active direction is of course objectives/obstacles etc, but it's every idea that clicks for an actor and drives their entire behavior without them having to *do* it. If I'm playing "everything she says is really a lie", then that single idea drives my entire behavior effortlessly. That's active direction. New directors direct in descriptions and results, but beyond putting us on the same page, results cannot be acted.

August 20, 2016 at 5:34AM

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I like your last point. I find, that the "as if" (or Stanislavski's magic if) is the easiest thing for actors to grab a hold of and run with.

August 22, 2016 at 10:04AM

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Lane McCall
Producer/Director
496

I absolutely agree. Results cannot be acted. First rule of directing is to forget about all adjectives. Instead give the actor tasks or challenges to achieve the result you're after.

September 18, 2017 at 2:36PM

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My 5

1. Cast well. Actors should already feel like they are the "character", instead of trying to create a whole imaginary world for them. Especially in a short.
2. Cast actors that can act. A lot of people can't act very well. Namely, they can't be relaxed and natural, they try to force it.
3. Use "As if". Use associations for the actor. Say, "it's as if you're trying to shatter all the glass in Cleveland with your scream". Or, play this love scene "as if" you know you're secretly pregnant by another man. Whatever the case, make it specifically understandable to the specific actor you're working with. (hopefully the actor is doing this on their own, but many don't)
4. Give one simple performance note at a time. Don't overwhelm them.
5. Don't worry about a big back story. Give the actor a motivation for the scene that THEY CAN UNDERSTAND.

6. (bonus round) The motivations don't have to go in line with the script... you just need a specific behavior. Use an "as if" scenario that makes sense to your specific actor.
7. (double bonus) Rehearse, but not into the ground. There are simply things actors will never discover without rehearsal.
8. (triple bonus) Actors need lines down without needing to think about them. The emotional moments can fly when actors aren't thinking.

For a while I did an acting blog... here's an article if you're interested. No plug here. I don't teach it anymore much. http://www.badcolors.com/blog/2012/11/17/5-common-acting-mistakes-and-ho...

August 22, 2016 at 9:58AM, Edited August 22, 10:02AM

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Lane McCall
Producer/Director
496

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August 24, 2016 at 8:31AM

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Very abstract topic but a wonderful resolution.

September 12, 2016 at 11:33AM

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Francisco Montes
Producer
74

The major problem with most films short or feature is that directors of today know nothing of the actor's process.
Directors desperately need to take acting classes.
Also, get actors who have professional acting training, it will make a world of difference.
Lastly, if both director and actors know an actor's process, rehearsals are much needed.
It's knowing how to utilize rehearsals.
Spontaneity comes from rehearsals

September 12, 2016 at 12:13PM

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martin woyzeck
Actor, writer, acting teacher/coach
191

Love these types of posts

September 12, 2016 at 12:56PM

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Nathan Presley
Director
96