Whether you're working with professionals or non-actors, these directing tips will help you get more natural performances.
Directing is a bit of an enigmatic art form. Their medium is essentially the expression of emotion through actors, but their process for crafting these expressions isn't simple to explain—or teach. It's difficult to really pin point exactly what a director does to get good performances from their actors, but in this video, Director Brandon Li, who has had several of his videos receive Vimeo Staff Picks, including the viral Hong Kong Strong and Nomads of Mongolia, shares six tips on how to direct actors to help them give more dynamic and natural performances.
The great thing about Li's tips is that they apply to filmmakers of all kinds: narrative filmmakers, documentarians, wedding videographers, you name it. So, whether you're shooting your first feature film or your first wedding video, you can implement these techniques to produce better, more natural performances from your subjects. Here are the six tips Li mentions in the video:
Keep you subjects distracted with an action
Give your subjects something to do. If you're shooting a scene at a bar, have your subject stir their drink. If you're shooting a documentary about a laundromat owner, have them tell you about their experiences as they lay out clothes. This will help take the pressure off of them as they deliver their lines or "talk to the camera."
Give your subjects a goal, not an emotion
Don't be that director—the one who tells an actor how to do their job (poorly). "Yes, lower your head and be sad. And action!" Giving your actors a goal rather than an emotion allows their natural emotion to flow unhindered by trying to produce said emotion. I use this trick all the time with my daughter. If she's bummed that she can't go outside and play, instead of telling her to feel differently about her horrible and unfair imprisonment, I tell her that she can do it as soon as she's done cleaning her room. Goals allow her (and your subjects) to process emotions naturally, which results in better attitudes (and performances).
Subtle expressions are usually better
Both overacting and underacting can be a real problem, but if I had to choose one, I'd choose underacting. This is because a blank expression or a very tempered reaction can be infused with emotion by the audience, especially if you use creative editing techniques like the ones mentioned in the video.
When in doubt, shoot in slow motion
Slow motion can make a moment seem a lot more epic than it actually is. It allows the audience more time to focus on the minute details of an image—clothing, an expression, composition, a blink or slight hand gesture—and this can turn a seemingly neutral performance or shot into something dynamic and emotional.
Subjects should treat the camera like a person, not a camera
This is especially true for non-actors and doc subjects who aren't used to having a huge camera in their face. Li suggests getting your subject comfortable with being on camera by spending time with them without it, talking with them, asking them questions about themselves, making them laugh. The less aware or distracted by the camera your subject is the better.
Just keep shooting
Getting the performance you want can be a struggle, but Li says that you should just keep shooting. Keep shooting even if you've shot a ton of takes without much success. (Be sure to communicate with your actor first before you make them do a ridiculous number of takes, though.) Keep shooting even after you've said cut, because what happens between takes could be exactly what you need.
What are some other things directors could do to get more natural performances from their actors? Let us know down in the comments.