There are many commands on a film set. But "Action!" is definitely the most iconic word in the filmmaking jargon.
What are the reasons for that, though?
A few months ago I was listening to a Director’s Cut podcast with Clint Eastwood. Throughout the conversation, he explains that he doesn’t use "action" at all!
In his mind, using loud and abrupt commands can be distracting to actors. For his films, he prefers using simple commands, in a low tone of voice.
I thought it's really interesting, so in the following kind-of-an-essay video, I explore all the reasons why "action" shouldn't be a default.
Do you know that there’s a legend explaining why we call "action"?
One day, director DW Griffith got quite upset about how slowly things moved from one setup to another. He was short on time, and in that frustration, he shortened a regular exchange of confirmation sentences and just screamed out, “Lights!” to get the electricians to set up the lights, followed by, “Camera!” to get the cameraman cranking, and finally followed by, “Action!”
It does make a lot of sense. We couldn’t really say "start" or "begin" because it would be confusing as to what should start or begin. Also, the word "action" itself starts with a vowel which makes it easy to scream out loud.
Sam Fuller sometimes fired a pistol into the air to give the actors much-needed cue. Quite extreme, I know.
If you already watched the video at the top, you know that I asked a few of my friends (and definitely more accomplished filmmakers) what their take on the subject is.
Do they call "Action"?
When, if at all, they decide to avoid using that command?
What else do they do to help actors with their performance?
Here're a few takeaways from the interviews I conducted.
Jim Cummings (writer/director/actor for Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hallow, The Beta Test)
It really depends on the actors that you're working with. If it is a child, sometimes you do need to say "action" (...) and then if you're working with someone who is really "in-the-moment" it's better to let them go on their own cue.
Stefanie Butler (actor & writer)
I love that somebody will say "whenever you're ready." This feels really respectful and very collaborative for an actor because it's not like, "P.S., you have to be ready on my word." It's like, "Hey, I know that this is a lot of work and I know that you are getting there. You take the moment and when you're ready to go we'll be already rolling."
Justin Robinson (writer & director for My Brother Jordan, Snowbird, Guest of Honor)
I think I try to say "action" with the intent of the emotion of the scene. (...) Sometimes, if it's stunt-related or it's a really emotional moment, the director can just say, "On your own cue."
Sven Pape (film editor & YouTube creator)
"Action!" can create some formal stress with actors. Especially if you go really big. It kind of shocks them a little bit. During my student days, the director actually always asked me to say "Action." I would try to be very quiet doing it because the actors are sort of getting into the moment before they start performing.
What else can a director do to respect the emotional state of the actors?
Here's a written response I got from Udo Flohr, a German director.
I consider tail slating a great tool for difficult scenes, i.e. when actors are still "in their heads" too much. I then ask them to improvise into the take, and it certainly helps not to interrupt that process by yelling "action." Of course, the method requires briefing my crew beforehand; I generally like to go over stuff such as the tail slating procedure with them before the first shooting day.
Jim Cummings said to me:
My buddy Danny Madden, when he directs, he doesn't use a clapboard. You don't need to have that interruption in front of an actor's face.
I find this idea to be extremely insightful.
Slating is not only a sound for an actor but more often than not someone needs to hold a slate in very close proximity to the actor's face. I imagine it can be really tough to get into the zone under so much pressure.
Talking with these more experienced industry colleagues of mine I concluded that having that conversation is valuable. We treat "Action!" as something that's the default. And that’s fine, as long as you understand that you can change it depending on the circumstances.
For some scenes, it makes a lot of sense. But for both physically demanding or emotionally intimate scenes, it doesn’t. Saying something like, “Whenever you’re ready,” allows the actor to begin on their own terms while the cameras roll and wait.
All I know is that when I get to direct one day again, I want to be mindful about it. I want to respect my actors. I just want to brief the crew on how I’m gonna handle the set and just do it in a way that will bring the best possible performances.
What do you think? Will this article and video have any effect on how you're gonna handle your set in the future?
Let us know in the comments. I'll be here to read it and interact.