Acting for Camera – How is it different?
Acting for a camera, or screen acting, is very different from acting on a stage in front of a live audience.
The nature of performing a character, delivering dialogue and conveying the action is all very similar, but there are lots of specific technical skills required when acting for camera.
In film, or in TV or on video, the camera works as a medium between the actor and the audience and there is almost some ‘translation’ that needs to happen. Generally, acting for camera styles tend to be a lot ‘smaller’ than stage acting. Dramatic gestures that work well for stage appear far too pronounced for the screen. When acting for camera, it’s likely the performance will be much more focused on small details and naturalistic styles.
Many professional actors swap between stage acting and acting for camera with versatility, so there is nothing to stop an actor with stage skills learning to master acting for camera skills too.
Here, we look at some of the stage skills you might have learned in drama classes, or in theatre acting, and how you can apply them successfully to improve your acting for camera technique.
If you’ve studied drama or theatre before, and feel confident on a stage, here are some of the skills and knowledge you can easily transfer to screen acting to start you on your journey.
Your Knowledge of Blocking:
If you’ve ever appeared in a stage show, then you’ll know that the physical action is ‘blocked’ by the director, or choreographer, so each actor knows where they need to be on the stage at any point in the performance.
Stage actors will rehearse the blocking, until it becomes familiar and they can travel around the stage at the right times to be in the right places.
With acting for camera, this is amplified to exacting precision, so having a good awareness of blocking is incredibly helpful. As a screen actor, knowing when and how to “hit your mark” when acting for camera is a vital skill, as the set is likely to much smaller, or more condensed than a stage set. The cameras are trained in on specific locations, often in very tight ‘close up’ shots, which means that the actors have to arrive in exactly the right spot for the camera to capture the planned shot.
The cameras are framed up in advance during rehearsals, so when it comes to a take, it needs to happen just as it’s been rehearsed. If an actor is even a centimetre off the mark, or perhaps even less, and the shot might not live up to its perfectly framed ambition.
Similarly, how you choose to angle your body or your face in relation to the camera is also important. How you stand matters too. Are you standing tall and poised, or are you hunched over? Being able to land the exact physical position you need every single time will help the camera crew to shoot each shot perfectly and minimise the need for any retakes based on actors moving out of shot.
On the set, you’ll be given “marks” to guide you to the exact spot. These are markings on the floor to guide actors to the right spot. You can also use 3D marks, known as ‘sausages’ which might be easier to find without the need to look down.
Using Facial Expressions
In acting for camera work, how you use facial expressions is really important. Stage actors also train using facial expressions. In theatre, these are often performed in an exaggerated way, so that they can ‘travel’ between the stage right to the back of the audience.
When acting for camera, facial expressions need to a lot more subtle and lot more naturalistic, so knowledge of how to use your face to show emotion is a valuable techniques that you can transfer between the two.
Try looking into a mirror and showing different emotions with your face. Try anger, joy, surprise, fear, jealousy and confusion. How does your face respond? Which parts of your face are you using the most?
A good technique to practice is to record yourself showing these emotions to camera.
Start with the camera further away, so that it shows your whole body (a Wide Shot). Then repeat the same emotions again, but film them closer in, showing your waist upwards (a Mid Shot). Lastly, move the camera so you can perform the same emotions with the camera much closer (a Close Up Shot) and film yourself again. Watch them back and compare and contrast how your expressions look on camera. You’ll notice that any expression shot in Close Up is much more noticeable than when shot in a Wide.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you might want to show extreme emotion using your face – but knowing how to use your facial expressions in relation to the camera is a really great skill in screen acting.
On stage, the audience sees everything as a Wide Shot (or an Extreme Wide Shot even), but on screen, their view can be much, much closer and your performance needs to reflect that. Practising your acting for camera in a range of different shots is a really great way to grow familiar with how to use your facial expression best to your advantage.
Using your Voice
An actor’s voice is one of their most valuable tools, both on stage and on screen. Professionals will tell you how important it is to work on your voice and always to do a vocal warm up before rehearsing or performing.
For stage acting, the ability to project your voice is a key skill, so that the sound can travel around the auditorium for everyone to hear. Theatres are usually designed and built with reverberating acoustics in mind, so that the space can help the sound travel.
On a film set, it’s usually the opposite and you might find that there is sound proofing, or sound limiting equipment to keep sound contained within a small space and to limit reverberations.
Microphones are used to strategically capture ‘close up’ sound, so that it’s recorded in very high quality close to the source. The various sound channels from different microphones are then then mixed and edited later on.
So, just like stage actors, screen actors need to be very conscious of how they’re using their voice when acting for camera. Good technical knowledge of vocal delivery can really help with this, so experience of vocal warm ups, practising good diction and speech techniques, good breathing, using different tones and exploring your vocal range will always be useful to an actor. You might not be using the same dynamics when acting for camera as your would on stage, but we hear so much of the detail in all the rest of your vocal delivery, so good vocal technique and being able to perform well in a naturalistic speaking style is a real asset.
Knowledge of Rehearsal Techniques
One of the realities of acting for camera work is that you’ll need to perform the same action several times, either as a retake because something wasn’t quite right, or because there a multiple camera angles or multiple shots of the same action planned as sequence. You might end up repeating the same line many, many times and it can feel tedious sometimes.
Consider the patience needed when rehearsing theatre shows. You’ll likely rehearse the same scene several times over, possibly over a number of days, until its been refined and memorised, ready for opening night.
Theatre shows often rehearse for weeks (or months) before opening to an audience, but rehearsals on film sets are very limited and may be rehearsed setup by setup, just before each one is shot. Whilst it all happens in a much shorter timeframe, the process of rehearsing and then shooting is very similar to rehearsing a theatre scene over and over. Both require patience and focus to make sure the end result is as strong as it can be. Try to think of the long theatre rehearsal process whilst shooting take after take, it will help to keep your energy up and stop the process becoming tiresome.
Working with Scripts and Interpreting the Text
Just like on stage, screen actors work from a script. They learn their lines and build a character from the information on the page.
Having good knowledge and experience of working with scripts, memorising dialogue and interpreting the text are very valuable skills to a screen actor, so try to practise working with scripts at home.
Working with a new monologue every week or every month is a great way to build up these skills, so that you’re constantly refreshing and training your ability to identify and build character, as well as memorise lines etc quickly. This will all come in very handy when you’re acting for camera.
On a TV set especially, finalised scripts often arrive at the last minute and you might need to learn your lines scene by scene, just before they are shot, so being able to respond quickly to this demand is useful. On a film set, you might get the script earlier on, but it could be subject to last minute changes on the set. Being able to adapt, learn and change quickly is a great skill to have.
Also, when auditioning or screen testing for acting for camera roles, you might only get a very short time with the audition sides (the script). If you can interpret it quickly and bring your own unique sense of the character to your audition, casting directors will be impressed. They see and hear the same lines of dialogue over and over and over, so bringing a fresh and interesting portrayal will help to catch their attention.
There are lots of other specific skills that will help an actor to do their best whilst acting for camera, but these are some ones we recommend exploring first.
Try and practise them at home, adapting them for working with a camera.
Film yourself acting to camera and then watch it back to review what’s going well and what can be improved. This is a great way to develop these skills at home and will also help you to grow more confident with the camera too.
If you’d like to know more about acting for camera, there are some brilliant books that cover all the basics and some more advanced techniques too. Take a look here for details >>>
For advice on how to get into professional acting, take a look at our top tips in An Actor’s Life for Me? How to Become a Child Actor >>>