A hallmark of a truly great actor is the ability to adapt a performance to the constraints of the medium. On stage, actors have the challenge of delivering a truthful and detailed performance whilst still being seen and heard by the people in the back row of a large auditorium. On film, however, the actor needs to have a detailed understanding of the camera, and how it is capturing the scene, in order to give the most effective performance possible. Let’s have a look at how scenes are usually covered and captured by the camera in order to prepare ourselves for thriving on set as actors.
A bit of background
Hey, so, I’m an actor first and foremost. I have a limited amount of technical understanding about filmmaking and camera technique, but I do have experience in acting on film sets for the camera. One thing I’ve been considering quite a lot recently whilst watching films, but also while reflecting on some of my own on-screen work, is that there aren’t many resources out there for learning about how the camera lens affects our performance. This knowledge is usually learnt through on-set experience, which is great and invaluable, but I want to take a shortcut here, and make sure you feel as though you are prepared to go on set and do your job even if you have a limited amount of experience under your belt.
This curiosity about how the camera lens affects our performance has come from two things: watching actors who seem to thrive in the frame, and moments where my work seems stifled by the frame. What it’s taken me a little while to learn is that all the choices the director and DOP make in regards to capturing the scene: the lens, the angle, the focal length etc – all have an impact on my performance. Just like with any performance, I need to understand my audience. And when it comes to working on a film set, the camera is my audience. I need to perform for it – and to do that I need to understand what it sees. Let’s begin by talking about the standard way directors and DOPs cover a scene, and come to understand how this process affects our performance.
What is Coverage?
The word used to describe the process of filming a scene time after time to capture it from each desired angle is ‘coverage’. The filmmakers are literally ‘covering’ the scene with eyes and making sure they have every angle they could possibly want for the edit room. This process turns acting for the camera into a very unique task for the actor. The actor must be able to repeat their performance countless times whilst retaining both the blocking of the scene and the sense of newness and spontaneity within it. It’s no simple task.
A very simple and commonly used shot list for covering a scene with the camera is the following: Wide shot, medium shot, close ups and specials.
The Wide Shot
About the shot: Coverage of a scene will usually begin with a wide shot. This is how it works: a shot on a wide angle lens (usually 18-35mm) capturing the scene as a whole. The frame this shot produces will contain much of the setting of the scene and the actors in the scene. This shot can serve as a ‘master’ shot for the director and editor; it’s a shot to refer or cut back to in the editing room, one that captured all of the action.
How does the wide shot effect the actor? Two things are important to understand about wide shots and master shots. 1. There is room to move, and 2. Make sure you’re happy with your physical choices.
Firstly, it’s important to realise that there is room to move and be physical whilst acting on camera, particularly on a wide lens. One trap I’ve fallen into is ‘shrinking’ my performance moving when from stage to screen, because I assume any movement will be too extreme in the frame. Wrong. Once we get down the shot list into close ups and ECUs (extreme close ups) then yeah, sure, we’ll reign it in. But for now, allow as much freedom of movement and physical expression as you and the director feel is appropriate for your character. The camera does respond well to full gestures! The amount of times I’ve watched my work back in pain because of my half-baked physicality. I’d go to point at someone or something but only half the gesture would be there. I’d go to spread my arms wide out to the sides but I’d only lift them halfway for fear of being too big. Move past this limitation, Jack! The camera wants to see the full range and reach of your physicality, just like the audience does on stage! Ok pep talk over, sorry about that, folks. Writing these articles is good for my development as an actor, too. When the filmmakers are shooting on a wide lens, or from a distance, allow your physicality to be larger. If they need you to reign it back in, they’ll tell you.
However, what you need to understand is that since this shot serves as a master reference shot for the filmmakers, you need to make sure you’re happy with what you’ve done physically in the scene so you can stick to those choices for the rest of the coverage. Once your choices are made in the master wide, the person on continuity will be on you like a hawk if you start to make new choices later on down the shot list.
The Medium Shot
About the shot: A medium shot (Mid, or MCU) is where the filmmakers start to capture the individual performances of the actors. The shot is usually captured on a 35-50mm lens, so if you hear the DOP using those terms you can be pretty sure you’ll be in a mid-sized frame. Each character in the scene will get their own mid and close up in the coverage of the scene. This means the shot list can get pretty lengthy. If you’re doing a scene with 6 people sitting around a dinner table, you might be there for a while doing the scene a LOT of times! Get comfortable. Manage your energy. Depending on the lens used, the camera might be close to you or far away from you. What’s more important for you as the actor to understand is what the frame is. Professional actors will frequently be asking ‘what frame am I in?’ to understand the borders of what the camera is seeing in order to tailor their performances as such.
How does the mid-shot effect the actor? Get comfortable with asking the question, “what’s my frame?” A mid shot can vary a lot, and different filmmakers will have a different definition for a ‘mid’ – some wider, some closer. You, as the actor, have the responsibility of asking the right questions to determine how much playing space you have for your performance. A mid is tricky; you’re closer in than you were in a wide, but you’re not super close. This means you have a bit of playing space to be physical, but also are required to reign your physicality in a bit.
The Close Up
Ah, the close up. We actors place so much pressure on ourselves when our close up comes around. There’s nowhere left to hide; all that’s left is us and the camera, staring into our soul. It’s good fun, right?
About the shot: Functionally, a close up does what it says it’s going to do. It gets close to the subject, drawing the audience’s focus into them specifically. Filmmakers will use a lens longer than 50mm for shooting close ups. The frame of this shot will focus on the actors face and eyes, usually used to heighten the emotional and internal experience of the character at that point in the scene.
How does the close up effect the actor? Again, know your frame. The frame of a close up can vary in size, and the definition of what a close up/ECU (extreme close up) is between different directors may vary. Additionally, just because the shot is a close up does not necessarily mean the camera will be close to you. In fact, it’s more likely that the camera will be further away from you shooting on a long lens, giving a nice depth of focus to the shot. In this case, it’s extra important to know the size of your frame. The camera might be a few meters away from you, but the frame might just be on your face, forcing you to restrict your movement drastically.
A ‘special’ refers to any scene-specific shots the filmmakers wish to capture in coverage to make sure they have got all the story-telling elements of the scene covered. This could mean an ECU on a prop that you’re handling, or a cutaway to something else which is happening in the room whilst the scene takes place: a clock ticking, for instance. The need to capture these shots may have arisen whilst you were covering the earlier shots; a choice you make might’ve informed the directors need to capture that action specifically. All that you really need to know about these types of shots is that you may be directed quite prescriptively within them, and that’s ok. You don’t necessarily need to channel all your performance into these moments, just communicate clearly with the director to be able to give them the shot they wish to get.
This has been an oversimplified breakdown of a shot list. If you want to know more about which shots may arise when covering a scene, this page is pretty darn comprehensive: Ultimate Guide to Camera Shots
Finding your Frame
One of my favourite phrases from an acting teacher of mine was, ‘take care of the structure and the content will take care of itself’. This rule applies to us when we’re acting for the camera. The shot used, and the frame it creates for us, becomes our structure, and this structure dictates the content needed from us within it.
I was interested in writing this article because I wanted to make sure actors felt more freedom in their early on-set experiences than I did. Looking at my early on camera work, my close ups are often fine, I seem comfortable within them, probably because these are the shots which are most similar to a shot used to record a self tape. Wider shots, however, (anything from an extreme wide through to a medium shot) left me feeling and looking unsure of what I had ‘permission’ to do. How ‘big’ could my performance be?
I want to wrap up this conversation with a real-world example of what I think thriving in the frame looks like. This is a scene from Black Mirror, featuring Andrew Scott. Have a watch:
In this scene, Scott has perfectly tailored his performance to the demands of the frame. At the beginning of the scene, the frame is tighter, and we (the audience) are more closely drawn into the micro expressions on his face as he processes the information that his hostage is merely an intern. As this information drops for Scott’s character, however, the frame widens and allows for the full range of Scott’s physicality to emerge. Andrew Scott is a theatre based actor who thrives on film. He has complete confidence with giving a performance which would be big enough to go on stage in front of a 800 seat theatre whilst on camera. Scott understands how the camera sees him, and thrives in his understanding of the medium.
I hope this clip and this exploration today has given you freedom and permission, rather than fear and restriction. Acting on camera does not have to be small or restricted, it can actually be quite physically large and expressive. What is required from us actors is that we understand the medium to the best of our ability so that we can tailor our performances as such. Just like you’d need to ‘find your light’ on the stage, the same goes for ‘finding your frame’ on camera!