Everyone can now get a great camera and lenses. Post production at home in native 2k, with full After Effects integration opens up endless grading and VFX possibilities. Technology has transformed film making. A few hours on Vimeo will illustrate just how mind bogglingly sophisticated the world has become.
So, when working in drama, how can we compete with all of those filmmakers? And how can we compete against the mighty Hollywood? What should we choose to make?
Of course, it starts with a great story told through a page turner of a script (ideally in a clear genre).
It always should do. We all know this right?
But what else can we do?
I believe that the most exciting cogs in the machine of your low budget story are now your actors.
It probably always was. But the fact that visually and technically, so little stands out anymore (by virtue of there being so much amazing stuff being made all the time), the value of the performer has, at least in my mind, been brought into sharp focus.
As cinephiles we all love the aesthetic of the image, the special effects, the clever use of music. But when the script and performance is strong, nothing can compete with the raw and authentic connection that manifests between the audience and the cast.
Actors are the humanity in our stories, they are what technical wizardry needs to make it feel real, to bring meaning to all the craft around the frame.
How To Get Killer Performances
1. Write killer parts! Obvious, but you’d be surprised how few really great parts are written. So write one.
2. Take your time casting. I would say the director should spend at least 50% of prep finding their cast.
3. Take acting classes. It will open your eyes to how actors communicate and work.
4. When on set, don’t hang out with the crew, hang out with the cast.
5. Be a firm, but collaborative leader. Actors will risk more if they believe you have vision and their best interest at heart. They want to be heard and collaborate, but ultimately want to know YOU are in charge.
6. Be unconventional and play with your cast, creating a sense of freedom to explore on set.
7. Talk with your actors and maintain eye contact. Listen to them and don’t be afraid of touch. This physical and emotional bond is an important part of helping create the space for great work. Actors do this among themselves, you should too.
8. Take the time to feedback to your cast after a take, and do this as quickly as you can. Be authentic in your response, they will sense any disingenuous comments. Walk over and talk, don’t yell from behind the camera unless unavoidable.
9. Understand that audiences LOVE to watch actors, to figure out what is going on in their minds, so allow actors the time to think on camera. Often a thought and look conveys so much more than a line. You can always trim it in post.
10. Shoot reactions during conversations, but throw in new lines (that you may even perform) to get heightened responses – we LOVE to watch reactions in stories. Take the time to film the listener in a scene.
Above all, remember your cast are the human hearts of an entirely artificial world that you have created. Without their passion, courage, belief and intimacy, you may have pretty images, but your audiences will be left observing rather than experiencing.
Onwards and upwards
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author