10 Tips for Directing Your Actors

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It is often said that it is far easier to direct the camera than the actors but sooner or later, you’re actually going to have to talk to them. And not just talk. Direct. Here are some tips that we’ve gathered, from both actors and directors, about what works in the relationship – and what doesn’t.

1. Take an Acting Class

It’s a lot easier for a director to understand what an actor needs if they’ve actually tried acting themselves. Actors have their own jargon, picked up in school and shared across the profession, that isn’t just “in-speak”. You need to understand what they’re asking for from their director, and relate to the difficulty they may be having with a particular character or scene. The road to being an effective director begins with an acting class.

2. Acting Isn’t About Pretending

If you want your actor to be filled with rage, you’re never going to get what you’re looking for by asking him to be angry. You need to get him to feel angry. Acting is all about transmitting genuine feelings and behavior in a fictional universe. The director’s job is to provide the right environment for the camera to capture an actor experiencing a real emotion.

3. Keep Your Intrusions Brief

Much of an actor’s skill centers on being able to fully immerse themselves in the character they’re portraying. Providing direction is a real-world intrusion that cuts-in on their fictional bubble. Keep your comments and requests short and to the point or you will dismantle the actor’s temporary persona.

4. Protect Spontaneity

Even though your actors are following a script, great performances are those that convince the audience that the character didn’t know what was going to happen next. Wherever possible, protect the actor’s ability to be spontaneous. Don’t give direction to two actors at once – leave room for surprise in order to provoke a genuine response.

5. Know What You Want

Don’t ask an actor to do something until you know exactly what you’re looking for from their performance. If you don’t have a clear sense of purpose, you won’t be able to explain the intent of the scene and your actor is unlikely to perform well. If you’re nor sure why something isn’t working, stop directing and start talking. Admitting you’re at a loss and asking actors for input is far better than shooting over and over in the hope that the actor will somehow “get it right”.

6. Actors are Not Pieces of Equipment

Creating a positive, welcoming environment on the set is the single biggest thing a director can do to encourage great performances from their actors. Answer questions, provide encouragement, and pay attention to what your actors are doing. Take the time to explain why you need an extra take or a radical change in the schedule. If your actors are relaxed and feeling acknowledged, they are far more likely to give you their best work.

7. Banish Indecisiveness

The last thing you want to see when you’re being prepped for surgery is a doctor leafing through a medical textbook. Your actors need to have absolute faith that you know what you’re doing or mutiny will spread through the ranks like the plague. Make a decision, provide direction, and exude confidence. Making mistakes is fine, losing control is not.

8. Never Break Trust

Don’t talk about actors with other actors, and never compare them to others. Actors make themselves extremely vulnerable by the very nature of their profession, and need to be able to have absolute trust in their director.

9. Don’t Overdo It

As much as actors need you to be specific in your directions, their work will suffer if you don’t give them the space to exercise their creativity. You need to tell an actor what you want and why you want it, but should let them figure out for themselves how to provide it. After all, that’s the essence of their talent and you’re doing your production a disservice if you don’t let an actor do what they do best.

10. Recognize the Work

Acting is a profession and needs to be acknowledged as work. Your actors need to feel recognized, which means providing constant feedback and encouragement. Commenting on a performance, however briefly, before moving to the next scene shows that you’re paying attention and value what your actor has just contributed to your production.

Good directors share the same skill set as any professional who manages the work of other people. This includes communicating clearly, having identifiable goals, and providing support and encouragement. Confident leadership, coupled with the ability to engage others is solving problems, is the key to bringing out the very best in those around you. And in the entertainment industry, making actors look good will inevitably make you look great.

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