I HAD A FAMILIAR conversation recently with a student enrolling in my Acting for the Camera course. It’s one I’ve had before with other students, and it generally goes something like this.

“I’m excited for your class! But I’m nervous about it.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done it before. It seems so different from what I’m used to.”

It’s true that the process of creating a role for film or television differs wildly from that of putting on a play. With screen work, there’s often little or no rehearsal period. You are expected to show up on the first day with your lines memorized. And scenes are almost never shot in the sequential order in which they appear in the script. However, by understanding a few fundamental concepts about scaling the size of your performance vocally and physically, you can make the transition from stage to screen a lot less nerve-wracking.

The following principles apply not only to working on professional film sets but also to on-camera auditions and even student films and class projects.

SCALE VOCALLY

I’ll start by giving you the keys to the kingdom. If there’s one fundamental mistake nearly all beginning actors make when transitioning from stage to film, it’s that they talk too loud for the microphone, which comes across sounding forced and a little phony.

In one sense, it’s not their fault. Projecting is ingrained in most actors from an early age. It becomes second nature for stage performers, even seasoned professionals, to speak louder when they act. Most of the time, they aren’t even aware they do it. Think back to your earliest theatre experiences, maybe even grade school. How many times did you hear your director’s voice from the back of the house encouraging you to speak up?

When you’re onstage, your voice needs to travel to be heard by the audience members farthest away from you. In a black box theatre, that distance might be 10 to 20 feet. In a larger theatre or auditorium, that number is exponentially larger.

When acting on camera, the microphone is your audience. On a typical film set, dialogue is generally recorded with a boom microphone an operator holds just above your head or with a lapel microphone hidden under a shirt collar relatively close to your mouth. If you are wearing a lapel mic, your audience is literally inches from you. This can be a difficult concept for stage actors to wrap their heads around, but with on-camera acting, the audience is often between you and the other actor.

Does this mean you should whisper? Well, if there is another actor in the scene, they probably need to hear their cues. And if you aren’t genuinely communicating, the scene will not be very interesting.

A rule of thumb with boom and lapel mics is that, unless the scene requires you to shout, you should speak just loud enough for the other actor to hear you and not project beyond them. In fact, the more your scene partner has to listen and home in on what you are saying, the more compelling their performance is likely to be. Truly active listening is one of the most captivating things to watch a performer do onscreen.

If you audition for a project filming in your area, pay attention to where the microphone is. In many cases, the casting director uses the built-in microphone on the camera to record sound. If this is the case, make sure you are speaking loud enough to reach the camera, but try not to project beyond it.

When acting on camera, the microphone is your audience.
When acting on camera, the microphone is your audience.

SCALE PHYSICALLY

Onstage, you usually remain the same general distance from any given audience member over the course of a performance. Onscreen, your performance is made up of a series of shots in which the perceived distance between you and the audience can vary dramatically. One moment, we are watching a tiny figure scale a mountain from a great distance. Cut to the next shot, and we are now so close we can see the specks of ice forming on their eyebrows. We are so close, in fact, that we feel we can read their thoughts.

Framing refers to how much of your body is visible in a shot. A wide shot might include your entire body; a close-up might feature your chest up. In a tight close-up, we might see just your neck and face.

In general, the tighter the shot, the less movement you want to make. Watch television and film actors in close-up shots. In most cases, they remain relatively still from the neck up. As your head is magnified on screen, its movements are also magnified. What might feel like an ordinary jerk of your head can look as though you suddenly got beaned out of nowhere by an invisible kickball when viewed on a 50-foot-wide movie screen.

Knowing your framing means understanding which parts of you are visible onscreen and which aren’t. For example, you might be a person who gestures with your hands when you talk. If you are being shot in a medium close-up from the chest up and your hands are below and outside the frame, then the tips of your fingers might suddenly pop up in the bottom of the screen when you gesture, which is both distracting and a little creepy. The solution is either to keep your hands lower and out of the frame altogether or cheat them up so they are consistently in the frame. The second option might feel unnatural at first, but think of it as similar to “cheating out” your body toward the audience when you are onstage, which is equally unnatural but, let’s be honest, you probably got the hang of it relatively quickly.

How do you know the framing when you are on set and the camera crew is setting up a shot? Ask the cameraperson. Actors, especially those new to working on film sets, can feel intimidated and reluctant to ask questions, but it’s perfectly acceptable and demonstrates you understand the craft.

Knowing your framing means understanding which parts of your body are visible onscreen and which aren't.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, KEEP IT REAL

One of the more fun aspects of acting is playing characters very different from who you are. While transformational acting is generally the norm in theatre, it can be incredibly challenging to pull off effectively on camera, where audiences expect more realism. Even Meryl Streep, a 21-time Oscar nominee known for playing transformational roles, said, “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”

In general, it’s best to speak in your authentic voice onscreen. If the script doesn’t specify an accent or quirky vocal mannerism, don’t do one. The same applies to physical mannerisms, which can be distracting on camera unless they are subtle and lifelike.

If you are auditioning for a film, there might be hundreds of other actors in a similar age range competing for that one role. Young actors are always looking for ways to stand out. I would argue the truly unique things you bring to the table, if you allow yourself, are your personality and sensibility. Use them.

While stage acting often challenges you to go wider in roles that stretch you as an actor, film acting challenges you to go deeper by making choices that are more real and personal. If you allow yourself to be open and unguarded, the camera will illuminate your inner light, and you are sure to radiate onscreen.

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