This article is designed to teach you how to watch films as an actor. As artists, it’s vital for your continued creative growth that you experience as much art as possible: music, television, visual arts, books, plays etc. For something as ubiquitous as cinema, it can be tricky to engage critically with something you usually consume for enjoyment. How can you wake yourself up to this incredible medium? What should you be watching? And where can you find it? Perhaps the most important question of all is this: what should you be looking out for in the films you watch?
As an actor, you should watch films that extend your knowledge and challenge your sensibilities. Seek out films that you can learn from—as an actor, and a human being—and analyse them to learn how they have been crafted. This will help you eke out techniques and ideas to use in—and enrich—your own work, because you become aware of how such films are created and how they function.
Please know that this article won’t be speaking to matters of taste: this isn’t some “Best Of” list that will boil down to whether or not you’ve seen Citizen Kane. Instead, learning how to watch films as an actor will allow you to engage with any film critically: be it The Bicycle Thieves or Battlefield Earth. It means that no cinema-going experience will ever be a waste to you: at the very least, you’ll learn exactly what not to do in your own work, and why that might be the case!
Why Watch Films As An Actor?
That might sound like a silly question, so let’s reframe it: “Why, as an actor, is it important for you to watch films?”
In more ways than one: it’s your business. It’s your job to know the history of cinema, where it came from, how it evolved and how it continues to evolve. Because if you want to survive in this industry, you need to know what other creatives are talking about and stay up to date with the conversation. How many times have you worked with a director who said something like: “This shot is our [insert director] homage. You remember, that last close-up in [insert film] when [insert actor] looks out to sea?” Learn to speak their language. They can lay it on thick, sometimes … but they’re in charge. And they likely got there by sitting home and watching every film that [insert director] ever made. Watching and learning.
Learning is another reason you should watch more films. Study your own craft: acting. Film acting has evolved and complexified like any other aspect of the medium. But this is not to say you can’t pick up new ideas for performance or character work by going back and watching something from the 1930s, or even the silent era! And this is to say nothing of the countless, brilliant screen actors who you might very well study every day for the rest of your life and still discover something new. Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Song Kang-Ho, Denzel Washington, Peter O’Toole, Sidney Poitier, Ingrid Bergman, Philip Seymour Hoffman … all of these masters (and more) continue to teach us—some from decades past, some from beyond the grave.
Where To Find Films To Watch
So, you’ve decided to start watching more films as an actor. Huzzah! The next question is: where can you find films to watch—especially new or challenging choices that you might not normally encounter? Living in a post-DVD/post-Blockbuster age, the wealth of film choices at our fingertips can be almost overwhelming. Here’s a couple of great places to start if you’re looking to go deeper than the AFI Top 100, or the IMDB 250. (I mean, they’re great lists … but do you really need somebody telling you to watch The Godfather?)
Let’s get this one out of the way. Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBOMax all have incredible selections of films on their rosters. And while these are some of the more top-tier services for original content and television, don’t discredit newer, less established services such as Paramount+, whose back catalogue of movies is formidable.
Beyond the bigger names, there are more selective streaming services that offer more interesting choices. The Criterion Channel, from prestige publisher Criterion, have an incredible selection of classic films from all over the world. Mubi is a curated streaming service, offering a top-notch international selection each month. On the education front, Kanopy provides free, streamed films for public libraries, colleges and universities. Speaking of libraries…
Never underestimate the film selection at your local library. They’ll often have more interesting, arthouse choices—a great chance for you to watch and appreciate some underrated gems. If you study at a drama school with a library, chances are it will be stocked with an excellent selection of films. It may even have the screenplays as well, in case you care to do a little compare/contrast of the written/filmed material!
For a quick fix, try joining a film group on social media. Obviously, you’ll still need to source the actual films (although some groups will say where copies can be found) but you can get some great recommendations from like-minded people on what you might enjoy.
Platforms such as Letterboxd are custom-built social media sites for film lovers. You can make lists of recommendations, review and keep track of the films you watch. The advantage of a site like Letterboxd is it is often a far more respectful space than some other social media sites can be; there is a greater deal of respect and understanding and everybody’s tastes are welcomed!
If you’re looking to get more personal, consider asking your friends and peers for recommendations! Grill ten interesting people you know about their favourite films and make that your viewing list for the month. Ask your acting teachers or industry mentors for their favourites. You can even look up recommendations of your favourite actors to see what they watch or keep returning to.
How To Analyse A Film
There are more than a few guides like this one floating around—designed to get you thinking analytically about how you watch a film. While this one isn’t as comprehensive as what you might pick up over three years of film school, it’s a solid starter: a list of things to consider the next time you settle in to watch something.
- Cinematography. What’s the camera doing? How has each shot been framed? Is it close or far away from the action? Is the angle of the shot high or low? Does the camera move at all? If so, why? And do any shots stand out as different?
- Lighting. Is the film well-lit? Dim? Is it meant to look realistic, or stylised? What does the lighting do for the colour palette?
- Editing. Are there many cuts? Not many? Are you aware of the editing and, if so, are you meant to be? Are shots long or short? Do two shots, shown side-by-side, suggest something that wasn’t actually shown?
- Design. What does the filmmaker want to suggest about the story from how its world is physically composed? Do the sets and costumes want to be believable? Whimsical? Fantastic? Related to this: colour palette. Does the film use bright, subdued colours
- Grading. How has the colour of the footage been manipulated in post-production? Are colours bright, and vivid? Or washed out and bleak?
- Subjectivity. Are you supposed to be aware of the camera? Does it exist within the world of the film? Is it showing a person/object’s point of view?
- Dialogue. What’s being said? How is it being said? Is it in another language? Is there a lot of dialogue, or a little? How does that affect the telling of the story? While we’re at it:
- Voice-over. What is the function of the voice-over? Who is speaking? What can you glean about this character? Are they a reliable narrator? If some characters have voice-over and others do not, what sets those characters apart?
- Sound effects. Are they realistic? Symbolic? Can you see what’s causing the sound? Has one sound been used to stand in for another?
- Music. Before there was dialogue in movies, there was music. What does it ask us to feel? Is it original, or pre-existing? Does the music fit the era of the story? Does the music ‘fit’ with a given scene, or is it intended to juxtapose the visuals?
- Shot context. What is the story of this particular image/shot/sequence? What does it mean? Where does it it in with the rest of the film?
- Story. What’s the overall story like? Is the plot clear or convoluted? Are you meant to be entertained, challenged or provoked? Is the plot even important in this film?
- Themes. What kind of themes/ideas are being explored? Does the film support or attack them? How are they being explore
- Genre. What is the genre of the film? How does it engage with the familiarity of that genre? At the same time: how does it subvert and challenge audience expectations?
- Style. What style does the film adhere to? Is it naturalistic or fantastic? Is it evocative of other films, or a genre, or a time period? Does it pay homage to another text?
- Creatives. Who directed it? Which actors star in it? Who wrote it, and shot it, and lit it and wrote the music? Can you connect these people to their other films? Can you trace the trajectories of their careers to this particular project?
- Post-modernism. Does the film wish to make you aware of itself? Could it be labelled post-modern?
- The Web. More on this one later…
Some of these concepts might come easy to you; others may take more practice noticing or understanding. Don’t sweat this: a lot of film technique is about making things totally subconscious for the viewer—meaning if they’re done well, you’re not supposed to notice them. With that in mind, look for meaning in everything you can. Even if it wasn’t intended by the filmmaker/s, it’s fair game if you can tie it back to something you’ve seen on the screen or heard on the soundtrack.
What To Watch For As An Actor
Once you start flexing your film analysis skills, you can start to focus on the actors and acting in particular. While some of these concepts might operate independently of any film techniques, it’s worth thinking about how aspects like sound design or framing might fit in.
- Character. How has the actor created this character? Do they use props, costume or interact with a certain location? Can you see a certain physicality—perhaps a mannerism or a posturing—that they have employed? How do they use their voice? If performing a voice-over, what does this tell you about them?
- Technique. Can you see evidence of the actor’s training? If it’s an older film, how has training or acting style changed in the time since? Are they employing a stylised technique or training? How is it similar or different to your own?
- Choices. How does the actor navigate a scene? How clear is their objective? What kind of actions are they playing? Are their choices simple, complex or unexpected? As always, ask yourself what you might do differently (a great question when watching a film for context when you’re prepping a scene for an audition/demo reel.)
- Career. If you can, contextualise the performance within the actor’s larger career. Where does this film sit in their journey? Does it mark the start or end of an exciting chapter in their careers, or the time they first worked with a new director, or opposite a soon-to-be collaborator? What do you think these relationships or films did to shape them as actors?
- Acting For Screen. Think about the actor’s relationship with the camera, the soundtrack, the language of cinema. Does their performance gain strength because of a low-angled close-up? Or is it the subtle use of sound design under their monologue that builds tension and dread…
How To Make The Time To Watch More Films
If you have the resolve to educate (and entertain) yourself, and you have the skills to study and learn from the films you plan to watch, finding the time to watch them is really the only obstacle. Sadly, there’s no hack for this. However, we will give you this piece of advice: set time aside in your week to watch films. Treat it like homework, give it the respect of some space in your week. It doesn’t have to be every second night: pick one night a week, or an afternoon on the weekend. Switch off the Netflix, put your phone down and let yourself be taken on a journey.
When you learn how to watch films as an actor, something amazing happens: you can find yourself more aligned, delighted and challenged by films than ever before. Perhaps, most importantly, you’ll find yourself inspired to add to your knowledge of the acting and filmmaking craft. You might even want to make your own short film, or step into the director’s chair!
To understand and appreciate cinema is to engage with one of humanity’s greatest, most influential artistic mediums. Don’t forget that it’s barely a century old … think about all the things that might come next! And, as an actor, how you can be ready to be a part of it all.