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Refining Story and Performances in Pre-Production

Maybe you’ve tried to hold on to as much creative control as you possibly can throughout the process. Well, if you’ve ever met any actors you know those days will be long gone once they sign on to the project. And to be fair, you need your actors to interpret the characters and story, as long as they don’t create a new character for an entirely different story. Pre-Production is the time for discussion and rehearsals with the cast so that everyone is literally working off the same script.

Photo: Public Domain - Source: Acting a Handbook of the Stanislavski Method by Toby Cole

Working with Actors in Pre-Production

The art of acting dates back thousands of years, so there’s a lot of different ideas and theories about it. However, you and/or your director will need to prep the actors for their roles, so you at least need to talk the talk. Don’t worry if you can’t tell the difference between the Stanislavski or Strasberg methods. Instead, concentrate on what you should be familiar with – the characters and their, well, characteristics. In fact, you can think of this as finding common ground with the actors. They should be just as interested as you are! And let them ask questions. If a character is supposed to be angry in a scene, be sure to explain why. “Because” works about as well as it did when your parents used it, except you have way less authority and control in this situation. Not to mention the fact that it makes you look like you don’t know, which will cause them to lose whatever respect they had for you on their way to leading the entire cast and crew in an on set mutiny. Of course, because you don’t want any of that stuff to happen, you’ll either admit you don’t know or discuss what’s driving that character’s anger while patiently suppressing any of your own.

Ok, if you must know Strasberg here’s an awesome video…

…and since you now know of Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, you might as well learn about Michael Chekov.

Further Reading:

Rehearsals and Locking the Script

Table reads are extremely useful, especially for spotting minor flaws in the script (though hopefully not in the story). If a line doesn’t sound good after a couple of readings, revise it. Does an actor bring a different motivation to a scene than what’s on the page? Discuss it, and be open to the (admittedly slim) possibility that the actor knows more than the writer and director. This is the time to lay out your overall creative vision to the cast, so be prepared to explain everything. Most importantly, this is the opportunity to set the mood for the entire production. Ask a lot of questions. Try out different versions of a line or emotion to see which works best. Would you rather work in an open environment where individuals discuss ideas in a spirit of collaboration, or an ironclad regime where differing opinions are squashed like insects and then subjected to further ridicule?

Further Reading:

Tweaking Dialogue to Fit Your Actors

Believe it or not, acting is kind of hard. That’s why not everyone does it, and why even fewer people do it well. On lower budget productions, you may also be working with actors who have very limited experience, if any. Don’t be afraid to revise your script to fit a certain actor’s strengths. For example, if your performer can’t convincingly cry on cue, maybe there’s a better way for the character to express sadness, like eating ice cream or setting the apartment on fire. Now, you don’t want to rewrite entire characters – for starters, you won’t have time, but also, that probably means rewriting a good chunk of story too. And if you think changing a certain line takes too much away from a scene, or simply is too good to be cut, then you can try to push the actor to nail it. But any small revisions here and there will make life easier for your cast, which will eventually make life easier for the entire production crew.

Start Your Editorial Process NOW

Believe it or not, you’ve already begun editing during pre-production. First of all, you already hired that post-production supervisor, right? Good. You made your storyboards and shot lists, but as you go through rehearsals and table reads cut out anything that doesn’t work. If something isn’t working in rehearsal, don’t assume it will work on set and don’t cry when your editor tells you it really doesn’t work in the final cut. Most shoots go over schedule, so any time you can save on Pre-Production will give more opportunity to get everything else right on set. And hey, if by some chance you finish early, then you can always try a few takes of those “deleted” scenes.

Further Reading:

Administrative Considerations

Yes, we are talking about practice. Maybe you feel good just winging it most of the time, but do you trust your cast to do the same? Think of rehearsals as the next stage in the evolution of the characters in the story. And if you do consider yourself an avant-garde experimenter, this is also a good chance to test out different versions before the production is really on the clock.

Scheduling Rehearsals

The more rehearsals you schedule, the better your understanding of the cast and characters. Of course, you don’t want to treat your actors like circus monkeys, even if that’s secretly how you view their role on this project. Scheduling rehearsals may also change depending on whether you film from a script or try a more improvisational model. No matter what, rehearsals are realistically the last chance to fix any major problems. If something in the script isn’t working, get together with the writer to fix it…or do it with the cast if the writer has moved on and is no longer on speaking terms with you. And it’s also the time to spot the rotten fruit in the cast. Because if actors aren’t good in rehearsals, it’s really unlikely they’ll get better on set. And once you start to film, you’re pretty much committed, especially in the low-budget world. Even though there is a lot of scheduling and coordinating going on, make a legitimate effort to have a few rehearsals before you show up on set. And if you have the ability, you can even try rehearsing on set before the production actually starts.

It Looks Different in Rehearsal

Believe it or not, live theater is different from filmed entertainment. If you have your equipment available, let the camera crew record the rehearsals. If not, have some of your friends come by and record on their phones. This will give you a much better sense of how these performances will actually feel, and also may make it easier to spot issues from a more objective distance. Filming rehearsals can also set the tone for the actors, letting them know this is serious and forcing them into game mode. Certain actors may also perform differently when there are more people around, so you want to make sure you don’t have the types who ham it up for a bigger crowd. Unless that’s also what the character is supposed to do, in which case you’ve found the perfect method actor.

For More on Pre-Production Planning:

For More on Establishing Vision in Pre-Production:

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