Assessing Your Work In The Rushes

In chapter 12, I mentioned that one of the advantages of doing a student film is being allowed to view the rushes or the rough cut of the film. One of the disadvantages with student films is that their technical quality is often not up to a professional level, and you might not have been photographed, so to speak, in your best light. It could be hard to assess yourself from a technical point of view if you haven't been lit properly or there isn't enough coverage of the scene for you to see your acting work fully. You won't encounter this problem in professional films as a rule. Assessing your work in the context of the whole film becomes a possibility when how a scene is lit and covered is intentional and not the result of lack of experience.

Whatever the level or style of the film dailies that you are viewing, there is a way to break down your observations so that they can be specific and creatively constructive. Believe it or not, the best place to start is with the relaxation and the face.

THE FACE

The first thing to look for is the harboring of tension in the face. Watch your face and ask yourself the following questions:

• Is there a blinking or fluttering of the eyes, particularly in close-up? Tension in the eye area causes this problem, and you will quickly see why it should be eliminated; it's very distracting on the screen. It's easy to underestimate how much pressure you're feeling when you act on a set, especially as the camera comes in closer to your face. The problem of blinking could simply be that you didn't pay as much conscious attention to your relaxation as you should have while you were working. Another reason could be that you avoided something about the moment, that you didn't meet it head-on, that you weren't direct. Being direct when you act in front of the camera isn't a character trait; it's a commitment to the dramatic moment.

' Is there any part of the face that twitches or seems frozen?

This is the same tension problem as the previous example. Tension is being harbored in some area of the face. You can notice it in the corners of the mouth, the eyebrows, or the position of the chin. It is caused by not paying attention to the relaxation process while acting and not meeting the moment head-on.

Are you camera shy? Do you turn your head in the wrong direction for the camera to see what is happening on your face?

It's a strange phenomenon, but many outgoing and charismatic people can be camera shy; it turns up in the most unlikely places. Sometimes, it's just a lack of experience that causes you to move in a way that is not, photographically speaking, your best choice. The general rule is, if you can see the lens, the lens can see you, and when you act in two shots, mediums, or wider, you have many options of movement. When you watch the rushes, see if you are always moving your head in a way that looks natural in the scene, yet shows the expression of your face.

Are you utilizing the light to the best of your advantage?

It takes a bit of practice, but certainly, acting in film is finding the best way to optimize the light without anyone noticing that you are doing it. Moving your face a quarter of an inch can make all the difference in the world. This works together with not being camera shy. The camera must be able to see your face. To develop this skill, I would suggest going to museums and looking at the painting of the old masters, like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Caravaggio. A painting is like one film frame, and studying how these painters constructed meaning with light will help you to understand the possibilities when you act within the moving images of film frames.

When we see your eyes, are they in focus and looking at something, or do you stare blankly?

If your eyes are blank, it means that you have spaced out in that moment, there's nothing happening internally, and unless that is the goal of that specific moment, like you're dead or a zombie or something like that, something should always be happening in your eyes. Just as you should have the ability to stare, with expressive eyes, without blinking, you should also have the ability to move the eyes in any direction without blinking. Bette Davis was a master at this, and although that highly melodramatic style of acting is no longer

Qi in fashion, it's fun to watch her for her eye technique.

• When you see your face on the screen, do you become obsessed with the way you look?

This is an important issue, because vanity gone awry can destroy an actor. We all have physical characteristics that we are unhappy with, but when you watch the rushes, don't get involved with the aspects of yourself that you hate. Many times nature has given you these traits to enhance the uniqueness of your face. The very thing that you despise might be your best asset, because when it comes purely to looks; we are often the worst judges of ourselves. Remember that what you dislike about your looks may be the very traits that got you the job in the first place. Accept how you feel about your looks and move on, back to focusing on the things that you can change about your performance.

THE BREATH AND THE VOICE

When you watch your work in the rushes, it is very easy to see how one breath can change the intensity of a shot and make it stand out from all the other takes. The way an actor breathes or doesn't breathe is very obvious on film, if you are looking for it. If the breath is not fulfilling the emotional needs of the moment, the actor looks wooden. Whether an outside or internal impulse causes you to breathe appropriately for the moment or if just simply remembering to breathe causes you to connect to the impulse is determined by each individual acting instrument. For many actors, it works both ways, depending on the circumstances. Checking the breath should be an automatic part of any film acting technique.

Along with the breath, of course, comes the voice. Does your voice sound stagy? If it does, then all but absolutely necessary dialogue will end up on the cutting room floor. Nothing kills a movie performance quicker than a wooden or stagelike voice. Of course, we all know the cadre of great British character actors who play in movies all the time and fill them with their booming voices. The ones who do this consistently are usually playing fairy tale figures, inhumans, or superhumans. It's a certain niche that uses this stagelike voice to create a fantasy world. In other words, it's not realistic. Most movie acting is realistic in style and, therefore, requires a - more relaxed approach. The British character actors, when they are not * playing superheroes and witches, adjust their vocal production to a more cl natural vein, at least those of them who can.

x On the other hand, you might be devoicing at inappropriate moments, u which is again a problem of not meeting the dramatic moment head-on.

There is usually some aspect of the character, or the scene, that you haven't properly investigated, and it causes you to falter in your voice. It could be that you haven't found the courage to meet this moment head-on and commit to revealing what it is that you have found in your investigative process. One of the great benefits to watching the rushes is that you quickly see how backing down from the moment weakens your performance. Rather than experience regret or anger at yourself for not having done what you know you are capable of doing, learn from the experience and garner the courage for the next time around. It becomes easier with each try.

THE BODY

Moving and placing your body is often unnatural in film acting. In order to make body positions appear natural in the camera frame, they often become strange, tension-producing configurations. It's an unfortunate hazard of the craft that must be mastered. No matter how abnormal your body position is, it has to look right for the moment it is portraying in the shot. When you watch repeated takes of yourself doing the same thing over and over again, take notice of the following:

• Are you harboring tension somewhere in your body that can be seen in the camera frame?

• Is your fatigue or discomfort more visible with each take? In other words, do you get more strained rather than more relaxed each time you repeat?

Take as an example the athletes and dancers who continue to perform with excellence and aplomb, even though their muscles are screaming or feet are aching. You would never know from their performance that they are in pain or discomfort; you never see it. As an actor, you have to develop the same ability. Ideally, your acting should get better with each take, not worse.

• Is there any way that you can transform the tension creatively? Can you release it into an impulse, put it into your performance, and fill out the life of your character? ^

Sometimes, the tension that occurs in the body is a suppressed impulse. If you were to identify the tension in the body and release it, it could illumi-

nate something in the scene, bring something fresh to the moment, or create the unexpected. This is what you are looking for in film acting—using the release of tension to uncover new ground—not being relaxed to the point of being limp. Of course, you must do it in a way that stays within the g camera frame, adheres to your blocking, and is appropriate to the scene. This takes experience and practice. The exercises in Mental Relaxation and concentration are the training ground for transforming the impulse constructively in a professional situation.

• Is the body presence alive? When you see all or some of your body, along with your head, is it acting, too?

The body is a huge, intelligent playing field for an actor, but the constricting nature of some camera setups can make you forget that you even have a body, especially if you have been doing a lot of work focusing on the mid-chest and up. If this appears to be a problem, you might consider using an Overall for the character in the wider shots. This would expand the sensory response and spring the body into action. Remember, the key to using any sense memory in a professional situation is to have worked on it thoroughly beforehand. It could spell disaster if mid-movie, you decide to switch horses and throw in a technique that you have never worked on or have little experience with. Besides, it gives sense memory a bad name.

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