FILM ACTING

By D. Balaji

(dhanrajbalaji@yahoo.com)


-- Paper presented in an international seminar on mass communication-cinema, conducted by Puducherry Communicators Forum in July 2008. This article was subsequently published in the book released by the forum.

 

The histrionic tradition of the western world originated in Greece during the

sixth century BC. The first significant step toward dramatic impersonation of mimetic dance recitation and song component elements of acting existed in most early civilizations. In ancient Greece, the basis for the development of both tragic drama and acting lay in the ecstatic dithyrambs, ritual choral dances honouring Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. Thesis the first actor, introduced impersonation. From this innovation in icaria some time in the first half of sixth century BC emerged both drama and acting (Cole and Chinoy, 1970, actors on acting).

Even before the Greek history, when the evolution of human race started, acting was the order of the day. Even the word acting seems to be a euphemism. It was the tool of communication when oral language was not evolved. Anger, despair and fear were all expressed through body language and gestures to the fellow human beings.

When cinema overtook the performing theatres it adopted most of the techniques used on stage to narrate a story. The terminology "Mise-en-Scene" used in cinema is taken from the French theatre, meaning "Setting the stage for an action". All the elements placed in front of the camera to be photographed: The settings and props, lighting costumes and make-up and figure behavior (Bordwell and Kristin, film art, an introduction, 1990). Though figure behavior comes at last in the list, it is the first and foremost Technique used to convey a story. When the concept is converted into visual the figure behavior or the performer occupies the centre stage. Pages and pages of descriptive words are given life with flesh and blood (characterization) by the actor.

 

What a script writer, as the author, and the director, as the visualiser, have thought about the character in their minds is brought alive by the actor.

Charles Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Antony Quinn, AI Pacino, Jack Nickelson, Antony Hopkins, Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dilip Kumar, Sharuk Khan, Amir Khan, Subartomitra, Mamooty, Mohanlal, Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Hasan all share a common platform -actors par excellence.

Film acting is usually quite small and subtle. There is a greatness to it that is magnified by the camera. The smallest thought, or change in expression of the eyes is captured. The actor is often confined to an uncomfortable space during a shot and a particular scene might be filmed dozens of times in different angles and takes, with the actor repeating essentially the same things over and over again. Often, there is little space in which the actor can move. Each time he must appear fresh and real. Theatrical gestures and many choices that one can use on the stage will not do under these circumstances. A smaller gesture, with its origins organically stemming from the actor is required for this environment. "Actors are professional feelers". The trick is to learn how to feel many complex things and to remain relaxed. This is true for all kinds of acting, but it is particularly true of film acting, where the camera reads every thing and the actor is often confined to little or no movement (Acting for Film by Cathy Haase").

 

Even though the stage and screen acting share the basic qualities they are actually two sides of the coin, and tougher is the screen performance. Conservative people from the profession always prefer drama over cinema. Even I agree that cinema came from drama. But screen performance is eventually different from stage. On stage the actors are supposed to occupy a position where it is marked for them and start delivering the dialogues, but the same has been divided into shots in films. And always these shots are not shot in continuity. To avoid changing of lights and camera positions with every shot, which consume time, the scene itself is shot in complete out of continuity. Shot order will be jumbled. And it is here most of the actors will feel the pinch of it. The actor should always keep in mind the emotion, expression and action continuity. Continuous flow of action on stage will make an actor immerse onto the character easily. But during film production there can be minimum half-an-hour gap between each shot. Most of the time it can disorient a person from a given task. The actor can lose, his concentration. But he should not. Film acting is very intimate: it is public theatre.

The most difficult part is the close-up shots. Up against the actor's face, close, the camera will be standing and watching, He has to perform imagining the camera as the character standing in front of him. Easily said, but doing it is a Herculean task. Why? Because here again the shots are shot out-of-continuity. The most difficult part is not the action but the reaction. The actor has to imagine how the other character standing opposite to him will react to his action and thus plan his reaction and vice-versa.

Take for an example, this scene from the movie 'Mahanadhi (starring Kamal Hasan, Sukanya, and Direction: Santhana Barathi). The protagonist was arrested for misappropriation of public funds. He is in jail. And now his mother-in-law, daughter and son visit him. At that point of time the mother-in-law says that his daughter has come of age (attained puberty). The protagonist once was rich man and very closely attached to his motherless daughter. Now he is in a hapless position, unable to do anything what a dutiful father will normally do at that point of time. The shot is in tight close up. His eyes in tears, voice choking, unable to speak, nervous lips, shaking cheeks! What a marvelous performance was that from the actor. To divert the attention from this helpless situation the mother-in-law tries to talk about his son, dog and other petty things. He listens, shakes his head then nod his head, literally the whole cinema hall was in tears. Now when you realize: that the whole scene is shot out of continuity you can judge the veracity of the performer and his performance. Fascinating!

Even more disgusting for the actor during close up shots is the thermo cools which is kept below for reflection of light on to their face. With absolutely no space; to move in a tight close up, camera few inches away from his face, thermo cools below it, rest of the cast and the crew watching, you can feel the plight of an actor. With these kinds of intrusions, memorizing the dialogues, delivering it in a right modulation with facial expression and emotion all put together in right perspective. Is really a tough job to accomplish? On stage, an actor can get away with a lot, because the audience is distanced from him. The camera on the other hand, is a very intimate thing. The actor cannot lie to it. Dishonesty in performance shrieks at the audience.

Sydney Pollack, one of the best actors and directors in the business, said in an interview, "I tell actors to watch candid camera, and then flick the channel to something else, and then turn back; you will see how phony the acting looks because real reaction so often means doing nothing. It is always simple. On the stage, you can give a performance. In front of a camera, you would better have an experience! Sir Alec Guinness, upon receiving a special Oscar in 1980, said that when he started in films he realized he should do nothing, and he's been doing it for twenty five years; being simple! The most prolific and money earning area of the film industry is the most under studied one. If you want to become a director, cameraman, editor) art director etc., at least you will have to work as an assistant for quite some time to learn the nuances of the trade. But for acting you cannot work as an assistant to somebody nor are there good books to self learn. When I raised these questions with the concerned people from the profession, the reply was even more revealing. They said acting does not need any formal training. Actors are born not made. What a blissful ignorance it was. According to their theory all great actors are only born actors. They are not made into one. I would like to add here, that the all time great actors of Hollywood, Marlon Brando and Alpacino are from 'method acting' school. The gross misconception everybody has in their minds regarding acting is, it is an easy job, the actors just have to stand in front of the camera and do what the Director instructs them to do, as simple as this. No! It is not. They are badly mistaken. It is as tough as any other field of film production, in fact toughest one of them all.

 

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