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This is what Differentiates Film Acting from Theater Acting

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Acting on stage is not the same as acting in front of the camera. In fact, there are many differences between film acting and theater acting. Both forms offer fantastic opportunities to touch and engage an audience, but as an actor it's important to keep the medium in mind when taking on a role, and to be able to adapt depending on if you're on stage or in front of the camera.

Actors at a class in Acting for the Camera at Elin Hilläng Studios (Sweden) Summer 2023. One actor holds a microphone. A film camera outside. The blog post is about what differentiates film acting from theatre acting.
Actors at the Acting for the Camera (Step 1) - Class Summer 2023.

Your Preparation as an Actor before a Film Shoot


When Acting for the Camera You have Technical Rehearsals instead of long Rehearsal Periods

Unlike theatre, where you often have regular rehearsals over a longer period of time, film actors usually have no or limited rehearsal time. On most film shoots, you only have one so-called "technical rehearsal" on the day of the shoot. The technical rehearsal is really more for the sake of the film crew than for the actors. Among other things, they want to make sure that the camera and lighting are set correctly before filming. As an actor, you have the opportunity to get a feel for how you’ll move in front of the camera - but not much more than that.


Great Personal Responsibility in Film Acting

This means that you, as an actor, must take a great deal of personal responsibility to prepare yourself before shooting. You need to analyze the script, make strong acting choices, learn your lines, engage in character work (such as dialects and movements), and create an inner world to be able to act believably. Sometimes you may need to learn a special skill. For example, I needed to learn how to roller skate for a role I was playing.


On Set, the Director might Change what You have Prepared

Sometimes, you might be able to discuss your acting choices with the director and/or scene partner before the shoot, but most of the time you don't have that luxury. This means that you must prepare by yourself or with the help of someone you know before you show up on set and be aware that the director may want something completely different from what you have prepared, BUT thanks to your preparation, it is easier for you to take direction. It's easier to adjust things in your preparation than to start from scratch. So, your own preparation (I can't stress this enough) is super important!


When Acting for the Camera, Images are more Important than Words

Theater acting differs from film acting in that the focus is often on words. In a play, context and information are usually conveyed through the lines because there may be content in the play that you cannot show visually. The scenography is often simple to make changes between scenes easier and to give the actors space to move around the stage.


In film acting, on the other hand, the visual elements are crucial. The camera captures not only the actor's performance but also details of the environment, lighting and image composition. A rule of thumb in film is to tell as much as you can with pictures, and cut back on the lines. Some of the absolute strongest moments in a movie can be completely non-verbal. As an actor, it is therefore important to have a sensitive instrument, good listening (=reacting to your scene partner and things around you) and a rich inner life even without lines. You also need to be aware of how you position yourself in frame and how big the frame is because it affects your acting. In addition to this, you need to be patient if technical adjustments need to be made behind the camera.


Relaxation, Feelings and Energy when Film Acting

Theater actors need a lot of stage presence, but you have the opportunity to harness energy and interaction from both your co-stars and the audience. When you play theater, even the audience at the last row needs to be able to see and hear you. This means that your acting often isn’t as natural as if you had lived out the same scenario in real life. Instead, the play becomes an elevated and more energetic version of the situations that unfold.


While acting for the camera on the other hand, it is important to be relaxed. The camera is closer to you and captures subtle acting nuances. Being present and authentic without exaggerating is a key skill. You can imagine that the camera lens is a magnet and that you open up to it - don't push a feeling or make yourself bigger, instead relax and make the circumstances even clearer to yourself. It is important to be able to keep your concentration on your acting and your scene partner regardless of what the surroundings look like. There might be multiple cameras shooting and a large crew watching you while you act.


How You as an Actor use Your Voice in Front of the Camera

Although today it happens that theaters use microphones, it is not traditionally the custom. When performing theater without a microphone, the voice must be projected to reach the entire audience in the hall. Theater actors adjust their voice volume according to the size of the theatre hall and use stomach support to speak loudly and clearly. The voice is also used to convey emotions that audiences in large theaters aren’t able to detect in facial expressions.


When making a film, the voice does not need to be projected by the actor. Usually, speaking in his/her normal volume is enough to make it sound authentic. Microphones help capture every nuance of the voice and instead of volume film actors use different voice variations – high/low pitch, emphasis, “on breath”, tempo, over-articulation, non-verbal sounds or cadence. Usually, you want to lower the volume when the camera gets closer because that usually means that the microphone is closer.


There are different approaches to your voice work: Either you can let the voice be affected by the situation and feeling of the scene without thinking too much about it, or you can actively prepare how you’ll use your voice in the scene. Regardless, it’s a good exercise for your instrument to practice different voice qualities in a chosen text. The different voice qualities will be stored in your body memory and are later able to arise naturally in contact with your scene partner.


Sometimes, film scenes are re-synced. This happens for example if there was too much background noise on set. Then you’ll record the lines again separately, in a studio. When doing this it is important that the actor can recreate the tone and feeling from the filmset.


As a Film Actor, You Need to be Truthful

When performing theater, you use larger movements and gestures to be able to reach the audience. The movement size is adjusted to how large the stage is. The bigger the stage - the larger the movements. Therefore, the acting can feel a bit "over the top" compared to if you are acting in a movie. It can also be easier to "get away" with not being completely truthful when you’re on stage because the audience is sitting further away.


In film, the camera picks up every nuance, facial expression and movement. For actors, truthfulness is therefore essential. Most movies aim to mimic realistic snapshots from real-life situations, wanting the audience to immerse themselves in the story to the point where they forget they're watching a movie. The closer the camera gets, the more we want to see of the actor's inner emotional life. Relax, make all circumstances and inner images super clear to yourself.


Movies are Shot Out of Order

Unlike theatre, where all scenes are played in the order in which they appear in the script, it is unusual for all scenes in a film to be shot in the same order as the script. This is mainly due to logistical factors such as availability of locations, actors, seasons or weather. This means that the actors must know where in the dramaturgy of the script the scene to be filmed is. What has happened before? What will happen afterwards? What is your relationship to your scene partner in this part of the script? What feeling do you come in with? How does that feeling change during the course of the scene? If you fail at doing this, the film is often perceived as flat when it is edited together. We won’t see any emotional development in the actors.


As a Film Actor, Continuity is very Important

Since a theater performance is played here and now, in the order of the script and not edited together, the actors have more freedom to end up in slightly different places on the stage or put the props in slightly different places during different performances.


As a film actor, it is important that you keep track of when you use props, where you place the props during the course of the scene, what clothes you wear and where you position yourself in the various shots. If you lift an object on different lines in different shots, the shots cannot be cut together. The same applies if you wear different clothes on different shooting days of the same scene. When it comes to your own placement, the film crew often tapes a "mark" showing where you´re supposed to stand. It is important that you end up exactly where they have intended - partly for reasons of continuity and partly because you can actually end up completely out of frame if it’s a tight shot and you’re not placed where they have framed the camera. If the floor is visible in the shot, they’ll remove the tape and expect you to know where to end up. If the floor isn't visible, they might leave it, but for that sake, you can't look down at the floor on your way to the mark - it looks weird in the picture.


On larger filmsets, there are people who only work with keeping track of continuity. It is super important!


When You Act in front of the Camera, You don't have an Audience in the Room

If you play theater, you have an audience in the room. You’ll hear how they react to what's happening on stage, and you’ll get energy from them. You usually don't have that when you're acting in front of the camera. However, you have a film crew standing around you. Here, as an actor, it is important to keep your focus!


As a Film Actor, You Need to be able to Handle Pickup Shots

If you play theater, what happens on stage happens here and now. If someone forgets a line, the other actors have to help saving the situation. People usually talk about the "art of the moment". No show is exactly the same. Each show is unique.


As a film actor, you have the opportunity to do pickup shots. Doing pickup shots can also be challenging for the actor. When doing a pickup shot, you need to use your acting technique to tap into the same emotional moment in a small part of the scene, that you previously had a larger build-up to.

 

As you can see, there are many differences between film acting and performing in the theater. While the core is acting technique, there are many things to keep in mind in order to adapt to the right medium. Some actors are BRILLIANT on stage, but don't have the level of authenticity to move us in front of the camera. Other actors are BRILLIANT in front of the camera, but do not have the vocal technique and are not used to using their bodies in order to reach the audience in front of a live theater audience. And then there are actors who can handle both acting in film and on stage, who can adjust their acting and adapt to the different medias.


Are you interested in learning to act for the camera? At Elin Hilläng Studios we offer Acting for the Camera (Step 1) and Acting for the Camera (Step 2). Click below to read more and book at kurser.se! The classes are taught in Swedish.







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