Filmmaking 101 For Actors By An Independent Filmmaker

Filmmaking 101 For Actors By An Independent Filmmaker

I started my journey as an independent filmmaker a couple of years back. It is one of the greatest joys one can experience when you take a one-liner thought and turn it into a movie. Seeing your creation live is like living your dream! In this journey of mine, I have auditioned, directed, and worked with actors of various skill levels, training, and background. Hence, I thought it may be a good idea to share some tips for actors from an independent filmmaker’s perspective. Of course, if you work with a big production house things could be a lot more amplified and, at places, different. So, look at it as a general reference than a rule book. Let’s jump into it now.

What is typical filmmaking progress?

If you ever wondered as an actor what an end-to-end process for a movie is like, you are not alone. You see the journey of a movie begins much before an actor joins and it continues much after the production/shoot is completed. So, it is but natural that you may not have seen the other crucial aspects of filmmaking. A movie has broadly three stages.

  1. Pre-production: In this stage, that thing that was just an idea starts taking a concrete form. It often involves preparing the screenplay, developing storyboards, identifying locations, and securing funds/sponsors. The Director and other critical members of the crew come on board, and the cast is finalized. The rehearsals begin now. In parallel, the Director and crew members work on other aspects of the movie, like camera angles, shots, lighting, sound, etc. Suffice to say this is the most critical stage for every movie. The more you plan and prepare, the better you’ll be able to execute. We will talk more about how you can participate as an actor to make the most out of it.
  2. Production: This is when the actual movie shoot happens. A short movie can perhaps be shot within a day’s timeframe. Whereas, a full-length feature film can easily span over a few days.
  3. Post-production: This is where the movie is baked and released. It typically involves movie editing, color grading, and sound editing. Any special effects (such as the visual effects) are also done here. While all this post work is going the marketing and promotion may be happening in parallel or right after the movie is ready. And, finally, the movie is released.

So, as you might have gauged by now, even for a simple film all of the above stages apply.

What are some common roles in filmmaking?

Now that we understand various stages let’s talk about some common filmmaking roles. Keep in mind that independent filmmakers often end up performing at least some or all of these roles themselves. Put another way even if someone is making an independent movie with no crew, they are still fulfilling almost all of the roles below. Yeah, no kidding!

  • Director: A Director is overall in charge of end-to-end production. They are often the boss on the set, and they work with other stakeholders to deliver the movie.
  • Producer: They primarily secure funds for the movie.
  • Screenwriter: They develop the screenplay for the movie.
  • Casting Director: They are responsible for finding the cast.
  • Director of Photography (DOP): They are responsible for everything related to video including camera and lighting. A DOP will work with the Director to understand and deliver their vision. They may have additional members to assist, such as the Camera Operator, 1st Assistant Cameraperson (1st AC), and Gaffer (lighting technician).
  • Production Sound Mixer: They are responsible for capturing the best possible audio on set.
  • Boom Operator: They operate the boom mic and related accessories.
  • Production Designer: They are in charge of the art design of the set, such as the props to be used.
  • Editor: They edit and stitch the shots to deliver the Director’s vision of the movie.
  • Visual Effects (VFX) Editor: They add any visual effects for the movie.
  • Colorist: They are in charge of the overall look of the movie. It includes consistency of look between shots using color and related aspects (like saturation and brightness) and color grading to go with the mood of each scene. For example, for a sad scene, they may go with a more gloomy look.
  • Sound Editor: They handle the final sound of the movie, which includes dialog, music, and any sound effects.

Familiarize With Common Terms

Filmmakers often use terms for specific purposes. So, it’s good to familiarize yourself.

  • Screenplay: Often, people use script and screenplay interchangeably. A script is mainly the dialogues. However, a screenplay can include additional elements for cinematic rendition, such as camera movements, art design, and so on. The idea being a screenplay can give the respective area experts guidance on how to tell the story best.
  • Scene: A scene is a part of the movie intended to deliver a specific part of the story. It typically comprises a set of things, such as action and dialogs. A movie is a collection of scenes.
  • Shot: A shot is a continuously recorded clip. A scene comprises one or more shots. A Master Shot is a primary shot for the scene. There can be additional Coverage Shots that cover the entire or part of the scene from a different perspective. For example, the Master Shot may show two people talking, and there could be 2 Coverage Shots showing the conversation over the shoulder (OTS) from each actor’s perspective.
  • Take: A specific recording of a Shot. For example, Shot 1A Take 2.
  • Shot Types: A Shot Type (a.k.a. Shot Size) refers to the camera frame composition and helps in telling the story in a certain way. For example, a Close Up is typically used to show the expressions or details. Following are some commonly used shot types.
    • Wide Shot (WS): It shows the actor(s) along with important details in the surrounding. It is often used to establish the location of the actor(s), such as a park. A variation of this is Extreme Wide Shot (EWS), in which the actor(s) appear smaller with more emphasis on showing their surrounding.
    • Full Shot (FS): It shows the actor(s) from head to toe.
    • Medium Long Shot (MLS): It shows the actor’s body from the knees up. It is also known as Medium Wide Shot (MWS).
    • Medium Shot (MS): It shows the actor’s body from the waist up.
    • Medium Close Up (MCU): It shows the actor’s body from the chest up.
    • Close Up (CU): It shows the actor’s face. There are variations of this, such as the Extreme Close Up (ECU) that show part of the face (such as eyes) to show finer details or expressions.
  • Storyboard: A visual outline of the movie. Think of it as a visual representation of the screenplay. I often use storyboards to show my actors a preview of the movie.
  • Shot List: A list of shots for a given scene. Besides using it as a checklist, I also use it to orchestrate the order in which I would shoot my shots which may be different from the order in my storyboard. For example, I prefer shooting all the shots for a given location whenever possible regardless of their scenes. It helps me save time setting up the camera and other equipment.

Pre-production Tips For Actors

Audition Tips

  • Apply properly: Go through the casting call carefully and review any details requested in it. If the Director has asked for specific artifacts in advance, make sure to include those in your application. For example, I often work on movies in the Hindi language and I ask all applicants to provide a video reel (a.k.a. self-tape) along with the cover letter. Likewise, if any script was provided for the audition (a.k.a. sides), make sure to prepare. If the Director has asked for information like your profile, headshots, etc, do include those.
  • Do your homework: If the Director has asked for specific preparation, such as camera and mic set up, any specific wardrobe or look, make sure to have all that ready in advance.
  • Be punctual: That’s your first impression!
  • Take directions: During the audition, the Director may ask you to try out some variations. Here they are judging not just how well you perform, but also your ability to take directions. As a Director, this also makes me see the “range of actors,” and sometimes it inspires me to tweak the screenplay because I see a potential to do better.

Rehearsal Tips

Congratulations if you got selected! Often there are multiple applicants for a role. So, by choosing you, the Director has shown belief in your fitness for the role. Now, it’s time to show they were right in selecting you.

  • Be punctual: Scheduling is one of the biggest challenges of filmmakers. So, one thing that you can do to help is to meet your time commitment. This not only goes a long way in showing your professionalism but also encourages other actors to do the same.
  • Practice and prepare: Do all you can to be better prepared. It starts with ensuring you have read the script thoroughly, understanding the character, and what they are trying to accomplish in the movie. If something is not clear, do not hesitate to ask questions. After all, you want to deliver your best performance. At the same time, understand the Director’s vision and work with them to ensure your performance is in line. In this digital age, it is not surprising that a majority of rehearsals are done online. Understandably, it is not the same as in-person rehearsals where you can have a more realistic experience. However, if online is the only option, you better try to make the most of it. Listen to the directions. In all of my movies so far, I preferred online rehearsals even when the actors were local as it becomes so much convenient that people do not have to travel for rehearsals, especially for working professionals. In addition, a Test Shoot can be planned, if possible, to be better prepared before the actual production.
  • Be clear about your interest: While everyone wants the movie to succeed, not everyone has the same interest. Some actors like to showcase their performance, some want to add a new skill to their portfolio, and some want to learn filmmaking skills (like operating the equipment). Whatever your interest may be, make sure you communicate openly with the Director in advance so that you both can achieve the best possible outcome. I like to share quite a few details with my actors so that they are better prepared. And for those who are willing to learn, I would even let them operate equipment on set whenever it is reasonable.

Production Tips For Actors

Finally, the day has arrived when all the hard work and planning, is put to test. It is a given that everyone wants to do their best. Following are some guidelines to have a successful shoot.

  • Director is the boss: While it may indeed be daunting for you as an actor to perform your best under time pressure, it only gets more daunting from Director’s perspective as they have to orchestrate not just the actors, but also the crew members (if any), the equipment. And, all that within the budget and time constraints. So, it is best to let the Director make the calls.
  • Sound is key: A quality sound boosts the production value of the movie big time. Hence, you will find Directors emphasize a lot on audio quality (sometimes much more than video).
  • Continuity: It refers to the consistency between shots. For example, in the first shot of the scene, the actor had a glass in their right hand, and in the subsequent shot, it is in their left hand. These types of mistakes are common on the set and typically the Director of Photography (DOP) or the Camera Operator will catch these. But, it is a good idea to beware and avoid them.
  • Whose Left or Right: In filmmaking, it is always the camera left or right. That is, left or right as seen by the camera (and thus by the audience). So, when the Director or DOP asks you to look Camera Left or Camera Right you look to the left or right as if you were seeing it from the camera, respectively.
  • 180 Degree Rule: This is a common technique in the frame composition so that the audience knows the relative position of the characters. So, a character shown on the left side of the camera in the Master Shot will generally always be on the left side in all the other shots for that scene. Think of it as an imaginary line between the camera and the characters and the camera never crosses on the other side of the line unless it’s an intentional choice of the Director.

Following are some common protocols that are followed on the set.

  • Blocking: This refers to identifying the actors’ movements during a given scene. Before recording begins, the Director with their crew and actors would block the scene to know the exact actor movements. It is certainly important for actors. But, it is equally important for the crew. For example, the camera may need to follow the actor as they move.
  • Each shot follows this sequence, typically.
    1. Sound Rolling: The Boom Mic Operator announces this to indicate that the sound recording is on.
    2. Camera Rolling: The Camera Operator announces this to indicate that the camera is recording now.
    3. Shot Announcement: This declares the shot (example, Scene 1 Shot 1A Take 3). This is often done by the Clapboard Operator.
    4. Action: Only the Director can say this. At this point, the actors can start performing their part and continue until the Director calls Cut.
  • It is not a cut until the Director calls it. Let’s say an actor makes a mistake during a take. Still, the scene should continue, and no one should bail out until the Director calls cut. Simple reasoning for this could be that the take may still be useful during editing and there may be additional takes of the same or other shots that can be used during the editing to overcome that mistake.
  • The Director may speak during the shot to give specific directions like “walk out now.” Similarly, the Director may say Pause/Hold/Continue to indicate a short pause for reasons like a temporary ambient noise (such as when a loud truck passed by) without stopping the recording.
  • Back to One: The Director will typically say this to reset to the beginning of the scene. So, each actor should go back to their position at the start of the scene. And, any other objects used during the scene should be restored to their original position.
  • Backup a couple of lines: The Director will typically say this while the recording is still on to cover up for any mistake or glitch that happened without having to restart the recording.
  • Silence on the set: The Director or a delegate will typically say this when an important sound-related activity is about to commence. Everyone should stay quiet without making any movements. For example, when recording the Room Tone, the Boom Operator will say this so that only the room tone is captured.

Even with this condensed overview, you can see the various moving parts that have to come together to make a movie. Suffice to say that filmmaking is a good example of teamwork no matter what the team size is. And, hopefully, this gives you a broader perspective now. So, be creative, participate, do your part, and enjoy your next creative endeavor.

Have fun creating!
– Nitin

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