Watch: 6 Directing Tips That Will Help You Get More Natural Performances from Actors

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.

'Lost in Greece'

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.     

Your Comment


Good one.
Happy to see my place in his video.
Travelling around the world, with a camera... woww.. like a dream :)

July 10, 2017 at 2:06AM

Sameir Ali
Director of Photography

All good suggestions. I would like to include another suggestion. Cast the VERY BEST people you can find. Then step back and let them do their work. Only intervene to 'nip and tuck' if necessary. In other words, honor their talent by not telling them what to do.
I'm still in awe by what my actors did with my script! They came up with interpretations that were powerful and further enhanced my movie far beyond what I was thinking. If I would have stepped in and told them what to do, all those enhancements would have been lost.
Conduct a casting session and see what your acting candidates can do with your script. I'm surprised at how many filmmakers skip this step! Be sure to video the sessions and review them after a week. You'll be amazed at what sometimes emerges. I almost cast a key role in my film 3 OF A KIND on the spot - but after reviewing the videos, my final selection was changed for the better.

July 10, 2017 at 11:28AM

Greg Green

Give them people to react to always, even if green screening.

July 10, 2017 at 12:24PM, Edited July 10, 12:24PM


Or maybe you just hire good frikking actors that comes prepared, does the hard work and use themselves to fill out the character with goals and inner workings etc.
Then you just need to get the fuck out of their way and let them do their work.
Give them a few tries(Very few actors nail stuff on the first take) before you step in and start babbling away about emotions.

If a director told me that coffe shit i would feel limited as an actor.
(Good actors already have goals)
Putting stuff in actors hands on the other hand is often very good(If they don't already have this).

Also. Overacting and Underacting doesn't fucking exist people!
There is only two sorts of acting. Belivable and non-belivable(Sometimes people can't agree on which is which becuse hey it's art and whatever).
I have heard people refer to DDLs acting in There Will Be Blood as "Over-acting" and i refer to those people as "idiots".

You can never act too much as long as it is belivable you can scream and shout, tear down walls and whatever. Maybe that's not what you want so then you ask them to "scale it down a notch". Simple as that.

Also, create an environment where the actors feel safe to express themselves whitout being judged by the crew. Don't hire assholes and people with no understanding of why it's sometimes emotionally hard for actors to do their work in a good way. If it didn'nt took hard work to be a good actor then everyone would be a great actor. So let them prepare and do their work even if you have zero understanding about their process. Don't be an over-technical jerk that only wants "pretty picures" for your reel. Respect your actors and they will respect you.

July 14, 2017 at 5:07PM

Joe Sand
Actor, Writer, Director, Editor