Acting for the Best

June 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

This article originally appeared in the May edition of OnFilm magazine:

As I write this I’m sitting, waiting on the set of a low budget film. Self-funded as far as I can tell. It’s an incredibly brave thing to do to max out your credit cards, borrow money off friends and relatives or even re-mortgage your house, to follow a dream. And without any guarantee that you’ll make that cash back. Taking your big movie dream and cramming it down into something that fits a publicly funded budget is almost as brave. But it is this risk-taking and dream-pursuing that is the backbone of film in New Zealand – almost nothing would get made without it.

Many actors are happy to help support the dreams of filmmakers by working for very little, if anything at all. It suits actors for many reasons. For some, film is work and paying any amount of money for a role is better than nothing. For others it’s seen as vital experience and for others it’s simply fun.

But for whatever reason a performer chooses to work on a low budget production, you can depend on the fact that they have dreams of their own. Anyone who tries to carve out a living or even part of a living as an actor has more than a touch of the dreamer about them. So, if you are a filmmaker pursuing your dream with a low budget or no budget feature film, don’t forget that everyone working alongside you has dreams of their own.

Actors understand that filmmakers need them to help fulfil their dreams. And the great thing about being self-employed is that you can choose to help others or not. But filmmakers have to remember that actors can be supported in turn with a little forethought, and at little to no expense to the production. It can be easy to forget all those folk who have volunteered their time to help your project. However, a few little touches can really scratch the backs of those people scratching yours.

Some of the points discussed here may seem like obvious things, but you’d be surprised. In the pressure of a fast turnaround shoot it’s often the little things that get missed. So what we’d like to look at here are some of the things that can put a smile on the faces of your cast and make the final product that little bit better.

To start with, pay is good. Paying actors always puts a smile on our faces, especially when we know the budget isn’t that large. When you’re poring over the budget for your project, factor some pay in for actors as an integral part right up there with the camera you are hiring and the DoP – after all, filmmaking is a collaborative art form.

What’s appropriate? There are plenty of places to turn and ask this question. There are the two professional organisations for actors – NZ Actors’ Equity (www.actorsequity.org.nz) and the NZ Actors’ Guild (nzactorsguild.wordpress.com). Actors’ agents and casting directors are a great source of advice as they’ve seen it all before, and don’t forget actors themselves.

Paying something is always better than nothing, even if it’s only paying your actors their expenses as a flat fee.

Credits are a very valuable thing for actors. Having lots of roles on your CV can be a really good thing. It shows that you are working and that you’ve spent time in front of the camera. But if all your credits read “Angry Woman” or “Soldier 3”, that’s not so impressive. Named roles look better on the resume. No matter how small, when you’ve been cast in a named role it brings a smile to your face.

If you are taking a couple of minutes to write some dialogue, take another couple of seconds to name the role. Then “Angry Woman” becomes “Beryl Thomas”, which looks a heck of a lot better on paper. For those actors seeking a better CV this can be gold, and it takes nothing out of your overstretched budget.

Productions that have realistic scheduling are also a great thing for actors. To take part in a film, chances are they are missing out on something else. It might be a real paid day job, it might be family, it might be working on projects of their own, but few actors can afford to sit around doing nothing. If the budget is close to zero we understand if you can’t pay much, but a production that at least gets you back to the real world as quickly as possible is a production you’ll be happy to turn up to work on.

The film I was working on wrapped me ahead of schedule both days – this makes for a happy family and therefore a happy me! A big thank you to those productions that are honest and upfront about how long it’s going to take, and how much waiting around everyone is really going to have to do. If actors know they are signing up to lots of long days and plenty of night shoots, and then whinge about it, they have only themselves to blame.

For many actors, especially those who are just starting out, having a record of your performance to show friends and family, or include as part of your showreel, is a great thing. And it is a nice touch to get a copy of the film on DVD at some stage. It doesn’t have to be immediate and it can be a nice surprise to be told that your agent has a copy sitting at their office to pick up.

But I have been on sets for low or no budget projects where extras have asked for a DVD copy and have been flatly told that they can’t. It doesn’t have to be immediate. It doesn’t have to be flashily presented and it doesn’t have to be until after release date – but these sorts of things are nice touches. It does cost money, but certainly not the cost of paying market rates for your cast, and it helps nurture an actor’s dream – figure it into the budget beforehand.

Another option is placing the final work or a rough edit on a site like Vimeo, where access is password controlled. That way people can be sent an address and a password and no outlay is involved.

And how about letting them take some pictures? Is it really going to destroy your production to have a few pictures of folk in costume up on Facebook? Might not a couple of shots actually help create a bit of a buzz? It’s always worth remembering that your show, despite its importance to you, is not a Hollywood blockbuster and so rampant secrecy probably isn’t the order of the day.

People are getting much better with the idea of running cast and crew screenings but these are generally affairs that you can’t bring your grandparents to, and you certainly don’t walk away with things to put on your showreel.

The reality of low budget filmmaking is that your cast isn’t always generally super-experienced or knowledgeable. There’s often quite a bit of enthusiasm but not a lot of experience from about four or five down on the cast list. So filmmakers – try and take a moment or two to help those with less experience to learn a bit about the industry, on set etiquette, or what tasks some of the crew are doing. All this sort of stuff can take a moment or two but it can really make a less experienced performer feel part of the whole deal. It can help the actor’s performance in your film. And it has the positive spin for you of educating them a little bit more and helping the flow of things on set.

“Thanks” is also a great thing to hear. It takes only a few seconds but being thanked by those folks driving the production makes a performer feel like they were valued. Often actors can slink away from set, sometimes even unsure if they are wrapped, whether they need to sign anything, or even how to get back to their cars! So a thank you from someone, a handshake, or even a round of applause is always welcome.

Think of that spirit of collaboration that exists in a 48 Hours film – it’s contagious and keeps people coming back year after year. The same spirit exists in the best low-budget productions and means everyone feels they are getting something out of the work. Done right, everybody wins and there’s a fantastic product at the end.

Written by Greg Ellis

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§ One Response to Acting for the Best

  • Francis Biggs says:

    A very true and precise summary of the Kiwi actors (creators) life style on and off the camera/stage . . . I recommend this article to any new and seasoned performer/creator.

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