Harnessing the Power of Rehearsal for Your Film and Video Projects
It’s time we highlight the importance of the rehearsal, as well as the actors’ performances, in your film and video projects.
We live in a truly great era for film and video professionals. Not only do we have unprecedented access to cameras, gear, and equipment — thanks to a thriving market — we also have the vast powers of the internet at our fingertips to research, study, and hone our knowledge and skillsets for film and video production.
Yet, for every camera buy-guide or Premiere Pro tutorial, there’s one aspect of the film production that often goes ignored on these filmmaking channels: the highly important role of the filmmaker in rehearsing and directing actors and their performances.
If you’ve ever watched film school students’ short films, or just worked on some DIY projects of your own, you’ll notice wooden performances and awkward faces and reaction shots that seem much different from their big budget and TV screen counterparts.
In some ways, this may be a reflection of the actors and their skill level and professionalism. However, it’s really a reflection of the filmmakers and directors who have the job of conveying, coaching, and bringing out these performances.
Look at some of your favorite classic and modern films as examples. More than likely, you’re watching the final products of months of rehearsals, deep character conversations, and endless takes searching for those perfect line deliveries and reactions. So, for the sake of your next project, please heed this advice and give your actors, their performances, and the highly important rehearsals the diligence they are due.
Hand out Character Packets
Let’s start at the very beginning of your filmmaking process. You have an idea for a short or feature film. You may not even have a script written, but you have an idea of the characters, the events, and/or the conflicts involved. As you develop your story and refine your script, keep in mind that you’re creating characters that actors will need to understand, make their own, and portray in front of the camera.
Many film productions, especially when dealing with auteur writer/directors, will give perspective actors character packets or other materials to help the actor start to understand his or her character and role. These can be whatever you want them to be — background story, images from a magazine, clips from other movies, and so on.
The goal is not only to write a script and hand it to an actor to read the lines, but also to start thinking about it as creating a character who can exist in this cinematic world. Help your actor share this vision, making it his or her own as well.
The Table Read
In many productions, the first rehearsal (of sorts) is the all important table read. Ideally, you’ll have the full cast present (as well as the majority of the people involved with the production) to really start hammering out the script and what’s going to need to happen for each scene. Unfortunately, while table reads are helpful, they are rather stunted in how much of a “rehearsal” they actually can be. Your actors are stuck sitting at a table, not in wardrobe, hair, makeup, or often character.
The table read really should be the most rough of rough drafts, not your first and only rehearsal. It’s just to make sure everyone knows the full story and that there are no obvious problems with the script. It’s also highly important for everyone to take lots of notes! Ideas will start forming here and they’ll need to actually be addressed once you begin real rehearsals.
Rehearsals and Blocking
On the biggest budget of features and on projects where talent can be given the time it needs to rehearse, you’re looking at several weeks of intensive rehearsals and blocking. (And even much longer than that if you’ve written complex action or stunt sequences.)
However, that might not always be available for many indie or DIY productions. Still, at the very least, you should dedicate one or two “rehearsal weekends” where you can spend a full day or two working with your actors on their performances.
Blocking is another huge aspect of the filmmaking process that can be just as complex and important as the lines and deliveries. If you can start rehearsing on the same set you’re filming on, that will be a huge help. If not, you should have a strong understanding of what the sets will look like, where you’ll want your actors to go, and what you want your actors to do.
The Emotion Scale
A nice trick of communication a filmmaker or director can have with his or her actors is the “emotional scale” exercise. At any given time in a scene, an actor’s character will be feeling and conveying an emotion(s). Whether that’s anger, fear, love, desperation, or even a combination of multiple emotions.
As a director, it’s your job to convey to the actor what level of these emotions you want to see and capture on camera. It’s a great warmup and also very helpful in rehearsals to have your actors practice going through these emotions at different ranges (one being the lowest visible level and ten being the highest extreme level). When in a scene, it can be a quick way to check in and convey at what level your actor’s character should be at.
Treating the Camera as a Character
Finally, while you should absolutely focus on your actors and their performances, as a filmmaker or director you should also be just as focused on your camera and how it too will be interacting within a scene. We rarely see the static camera simply capturing performances as if they were a play.
Instead, the camera is often very much a part of the action. Whether it’s on dollies, gimbals, or even straight handheld, having the camera’s movements and blocking planned out is important, not just for capturing dynamic shots, but also the safety of your camera and actors, as well.
I’d go as far as suggesting, in those earliest days of rehearsals, to have your camera (or a camera stand-in) in those sessions. Begin rehearsing where the camera will be at any given time and what the framings will be for the different scenes, sequences, and shots.
Cover image via FrameStockFootages.
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