Approaches to Acting in the Long Take

As we head in to the second and third exercises of Understanding Cinema we will be asking some of our participants to act.
Acting is an extraordinary thing.
You pretend to be someone else, when it’s in fact clear that you are you and not that other person.
You have to invite the audience to believe that you are the other person.
This invitation has to be done sincerely, or else your audience will not believe you and not want to go with you on the journey that you’re inviting them to take.

Acting within the Long Take is a challenge akin to acting on stage.
In film the process of acting is most often broken by directors calling ‘Cut!’ on a regular basis.
What we see on the screen is usually the product of lots of short takes all put together to give the final sequence.
With the Long Take there is no stopping until all is done.  Unless something goes wrong, of course.

The unbroken nature of the Long Take therefore imposes specific tasks on the actor, as it happens in real time, just like theatre.  An actor has to be able to see their way through the Long Take to know where they are going, what the start, middle and end of the scene is.  They need to know their through line of action for the scene.  This is the same of all actors in all scenes, but a scene filmed using the Long Take is significantly longer than that of a standard scene.  Therefore the demands on the actor are more significant than in standard cinema.

It seems to me that young people tend to have a more ready facility for play and creation than older people.

If you ask a young person to act something out, they will, if they are that way inclined, give you a real, live, fleshed out performance full of life and imagination in an incredibly short amount of time.

Ask them to improvise around aspects of that character’s life and they’ll generate all sorts of random, wonderful material for you.

This is brilliant, and exciting for both the participant and the person steering their performance.

Although there can at times be a problem with this kind of response to acting with young people.

They are definitely “in the moment” – responding to that which is most vital an important in that second.  But how do you get them to apply all that they’ve generated in to working with the character?

This can be tricky.  There are a number of techniques that you can use in the pursuit of more rounded character acting, which will help them as they work on Long Take scenes.
Here follows a simple approach, which can yield sound results.

Every character has a want, or a need.  What the character does in pursuit of their want or need, and how this batters in to the wants and needs of other characters are what help to define drama.

An actor should use this to build their performance.

The three cornerstone questions that you should always ask when acting are:

What does my character say?

What does my character do?

What do other characters say about my character?

With these three simple questions you start to open up a wonderful world.  If your character says that they’re going to do something and then wilfully does something else you’re into very interesting territory.


Why have they done that?

What function did it serve their aim to say they’ll do something and then do the opposite?

What other characters say about a character is a gift to the actor.  You can build up so much character work around what other people say of them.  This may refer to things from before the start of the piece we’re seeing, or from things unseen during the course of the piece, or alternatively – and more interestingly – actions that others have interpreted according to their own interests and aims.

When writing I always come back to the first moments of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Act 1 scene 2 of Macbeth gives us a report of a battle and those that fought in it.
We’ve not yet met the central character of Macbeth, but the way that he is described by those on stage gives us a very clear picture of the kind of man he is.  The actor playing Macbeth can use those lines to help build his portrayal of the man.
What’s brilliant about this scene is that the great and noble man we see set up before our eyes is totally different to the ambition ruined wreck that we come to know at the end of the play.  The tragedy is there from the first lines – the character is set up and then knocked down.  Perfect drama.

There are many approaches to acting to be explored in the pursuit of film.

Film acting is, most often, more subtle than that of being on stage.

When acting on stage you aim to be heard and seen by the audience at the back of the room.

You want your actions to be large enough and clear enough to be understood by those in the cheap seats, miles away.

The process of filming brings the audience’s eye closer to the actor, and therefore, for a performance to read as real and sincere it should be scaled down accordingly.  Tiny movements, breaths and reactions read with great clarity in film.  You can communicate your intention with great impact through working with film.

Michael Caine has a fascinating piece on acting for film, in which he places one of the cardinal rules as ‘Relax’.  If you relax in to acting a piece you will have greater control over it and be able to explore your range with greater ease, allowing clearer communication with your audience.

Therefore are so many approaches to acting, all of which will be right for one person and wrong for another.

To my mind what you’re searching for is sincerity of performance, and truth in the conveying of the character’s intentions.

One of the best ways to pursue this is to have your character do things.  Doing is interesting.  If your character is doing something we will start to interpret it and apply the character from their action and the nuances of how they are doing the action.

Please use the comments below to disagree with me on this topic, advance the discussion in which ever way you wish, and if you’d like to, please have a think about sharing some of the exercises and approaches you use when working with actors.


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