There are things they don't teach you at film school. How writers should get an agent, how directors should do their taxes—and what actors should know about cinematography.
This post was written by Indeana Underhill and Haeleigh Royall.
“First team to set!”
It’s your first day as the star of a Tier 1 feature. You’re being ushered by a nameless production assistant to set—to shoot the end of the movie. After hundreds of self-tapes in your studio apartment—pushing your bed against one wall and the Ikea room divider to the other side—and “no” from nearly every corner of the industry, today is the reason you decided to stay. You’ve studied acting for over a decade, spent tens of thousands of dollars on classes, and been broken down to find your inner “truth” to pull from.
You have prepared, rehearsed, and are completely confident in your lines, character, and what you are bringing to the role. You find your place in front of the camera—C-stands, white rags, and lights all obstructing your view from the 30-person crew. A single dolly track lays diagonally 40 feet across a field. You heard it in the rehearsal:
Run across from over there and land exactly right here—here’s your mark. You will pick up your dying father in your arms. We are going from a wide to a close-up and will continue to push in just as you say the line, “It’s okay.” Make sure to look up over here so we can see your moment of realization. It’s a oner, so we need to nail it.
You hear someone mention an eyelight—is that something you need to know about? And while you’re running, are you supposed to pace the camera, or are they going to follow your speed? Where exactly is “up over here”? What if you don’t look up high enough, and they miss it? What is a “oner”?
You shrink as you realize that this isn’t the direction you were prepared for. How can you drop in when you are preoccupied with so many technical directions?
The Things They Don't Teach You
The difference between an A-lister and you is not in your ability to perform. Instead, it’s the understanding of the technical demands of an actor on set. A-listers have the advantage of having real, on-set experience. They understand what their frame sizes are based on the focal length and proximity to the lens, they understand how to master the placement of eyelight for that important line, and the type of communication they should have with their operator.
But if you are a new actor, how can you learn this if you aren’t being booked? Most actors in the film industry are at a huge disadvantage because they aren’t being taught the technical requirements of film, television, and commercial work. Actors spend upwards of $1,000 per month studying the art of performance and character, while the current on-camera courses available are limited to audition techniques and rudimentary front-facing static camera setups.
Test your knowledge with these 10 fundamental technical questions for actors
- How does your eyeline’s proximity to the lens affect the emotional connection your character has with the audience?
- How should your physicality/movement change based on what lens was swapped out in the scene?
- How can visual emotional cues (like tears) be aided with the addition of an eyelight?
- Who sets the pace when both actor and camera are in motion? (Hint: It’s not always the actor.)
- How can you utilize light to reveal or conceal moments of your emotional performance and storyline?
- Which of your scene partner’s eyes should you look at when shooting your coverage?
- How can you best help a camera operator if your scene partner shifts during multi-cam coverage?
- What is telegraphing and what role does it play in your relationship with your camera operator?
- How can you predict your frame size? Who should you ask?
- How do your interactions with crew members affect your performance? What questions should be directed to them based on their role?
Most actors will be unable to answer all of these questions. However, these are exactly the type of lessons we are teaching actors.
Cinematography for Actors
In September we launched Cinematography for Actors, a community for actors and newer filmmakers. Our goal is to help actors feel more confident when they walk on set by teaching them the technical side of performance. An online course platform serves as the hub, which releases new classes monthly.
With a plan to release 27 classes, there is no shortage of technical knowledge actors can prepare themselves with. A few upcoming releases are The Actor/Director Roundtable: Actors Ask, Blocking with Different Directing Styles and A Coverage & Angles Masterclass.
Our decision to create a community for actors came after Inde’s realization that actors do not have the same access to support as the crew. Every department has a network of support around them.
For example, cinematographers have vendors, rental houses, their crew, and the heads of department to collaborate with. But who do actors have? Other actors, and sometimes SAG-AFTRA—if their dues are current.
We also created a weekly podcast, Topanga Collective, that provides transparency about working in the industry from an actor and crew perspective with episodes such as:
- The LA Actor's Financial Bootcamp Part II: Side Hustles
- Growing Up in Hollywood with Director John Michael Riva Jr.
- Bold Truths for Actors
For those living in LA, in-person workshops (heavily rooted in technical education and cross-department networking opportunities) will be announced through our newsletter here.
For the first time, actors can become a true part of the storytelling process, stemming from building authentic connections in this industry.
Being Prepared for Set
There is a world where every actor can step on to set feeling confident regardless of experience level. Actors are able to be truthful and technical. They can be prepared on both sides of performance: the technical and emotional.
They can have a thorough performance by utilizing the time for takes and variety, rather than technical missteps like moving too quickly on tighter lenses, going past minimum focus, blocking a partner’s camera coverage, not using an eyelight set for them, etc. Together we can bring all departments closer together with more transparency across the board. It’s time to bridge this oversight in actor training by creating a community for actors within the industry.
For the NFS audience, get 40% off all courses and bundles, including “The Entire Collection” subscription, which gives you access to all current and upcoming classes. Follow this link and at checkout, use code NFS40. As well, for a limited time, use code NFS10 to gain access to the two-hour Director’s Roundtable for only $10.
If you are interested in attending future in-person events, subscribe to the Cinematography for Actors newsletter to stay in the loop.