Characterization in film. It’s an artistic formula.
As an indie filmmaker it is more than likely that you are the writer, director, photographer, editor and promoter of your work. Balancing your focus and time can be very tricky, especially when you have very strong technical voices on the project who believe they have priority over the not so technical departments (who are just as important), but don’t have the larger voice-box or bigger pay requirements. An indie filmmaker is a producer, the boss of the set and the best “hat-spinners” tend to be the ones whose work we love and whose films we screen. More often than can be counted, what separates a good film from a great one isn’t technology but a clear hold of the importance of good characterization in film displayed by the director.
The gaps we and our judges notice are nearly always based on the filmmakers understanding of the artistic process.
Many filmmakers that we cross paths with have, more often than not, focused their time and skill building on the technical elements that surround the creative process – it’s not that they leave out the the importance of characterization in film, they simply don’t know about it.
This post delves into the psychological world of creating believable character. And how, by using a great mix of a writers, actors and directors preparation you will be able to forge human beings that live, and breath on the page and screen – whom your audience will either love, hate – the right kind of hate -, or simply become obsessed with on screen.
Both myself and the festivals other co-founder Ben Polhman trained for three, very intensive, years at The Oxford School of Drama. The full time, Monday to Friday, nine to five course took actors and stripped them of ego, selfish performance and attitude. A school hugely focused on the teachings of, Stanislavski, Hagen, and Jacques Lecoq – it was a place where neutrality was the ultimate zero, and vulnerability, emotional openness and generosity – the canvas where we were all encouraged to create. Aside from meeting some of the most brave and interesting people in the world, it was a place where characterization in film and relationship within drama was given the primary focal point. This training bleeds into our selection ethos at Lift-Off, and it is at the core where we get our expertise from in regards to story structure, direction, and the importance of creating artistic drama.
Sounds airy fairy? This is the acting process that artists such as Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Glen Close, Meryl Streep, Andy Serkis, Christian Bale, and Daniel Day-Lewis, use. If you, as a filmmaker, can learn even 50% of what I’m trying to explain in this post then when you audition, rehearse, and shoot – you find it very difficult not to implement these tools, because they are so effective!
As a direct result your actors preparations will be engaging, real, and their performances will be golden!!
1. Characterization in film. Animal studies.
Portrait of a transformational actor.
He will read the lines, the sub-text and actions of a character and using his voice and his body he will mould into a physical form which resembles the humans animal of the character on the page.
Andy Serkis, is the above example.
How to implement…
A great way to use this technique is during the casting process. Most actors are aware of this technique, they’ll be surprised, but they’ll be pleased that you are an experimental and “actor process friendly” director.
So, at the casting. You see someone who reads the part fairly well, but you feel that they are too short and slight for the role of biff, it isn’t just the physical appearance it’s the mannerisms, the stance, the actor keeps crossing their arms and sinking. You like them, but it’s difficult to see them bulky enough for the role, but like all good casting directors (you have your casting director hat on remember), you want to experiment.
You have an idea, you tell the actor to imagine that they are a gorilla in the rainforest, and they just heard something a few meters ahead of them that could be trouble for his group.
You direct throughout the transformation.
“Drop your centre of gravity.”
“Lead more with your chest.”
“Drop your frown.”
“Hands open and by your side.”
“Now say Biff’s line…”
The actor auditioning…
“I think you gentlemen better find yourselves another drinking establishment.”
2. Characterization in film. Biography and back story.
Your life’s story makes you, you. It could be why you walk with a limp. Why you are a good driver. Why you decided to become a filmmaker.
This is very much a rehearsal stage exercise, and it makes perfect sense to do this in a group, ideally your entire cast.
How to implement it…
Go through each character one by one and talk about the actors decisions about who they think the person is and why they tick the way that they do.
Remember, actors are artists, if you have cast correctly and if these actors care, then they would have come to rehearsals already with their own ideas and thoughts. Listen to these thoughts, allow the ideas to be present, discussed and worked.
Each character is to be drawn up. A history from birth, going right up to the time of the story. The story of the film, let the ideas flow but remember to keep them within the reality of the drama, sometimes ideas and brain storming can go a bit haywire, and you end up with a character 6000 miles away from your original idea, try not to allow this, but do allow some degree of flexibility.
Make sure that once decided on the biographies and back story’s, the actors write theirs out and send them all back to you. You will need this for quick reference and they might come in handy if you feel mid-shoot that a particular scene isn’t working. Just being able to say, remember when your characters dog died, could make all the difference.
3. Characterization in film. Transforming and entering the world of the character.
This is called “the method”, the Daniel Day-Lewis, and Dustin Hoffman esq approach.
Practise makes perfect. If you play golf all day, chances are you’re a better golfer at the end of the day than you were when you started.
Being in character is the exact same thing, the longer it’s sustained the more believable and better the performance. This is because the actor gets used to being in the suit, living and breathing as a different psychological and physical being.
Back at The Oxford School of Drama, we did a Chekov play in our second year, which was very character driven and which had lots of people on stage at the same time, a perfect play to practice stage craft, focus giving and, of course, characterization. The director, a very good and successful London theatre director, got us all to find a piece of the characters world, and bring it in with us to help dress the spaces which our characters lived in.
It really helped to keep us all in character. It really, really did.
I was playing a noble Baron, and at home I had a few ornaments that I had purchased, in another life, from Greece, one of which was a small bust of Alexander the Great, I thought that considering this noble baron was an ex army commander then perhaps, he would respect and be fairly knowledgable about someone like Alexander, so I brought it in – and it worked! It worked a treat.
Every-time I was on stage, and I turned to see the book case, the object was there, staring right back at me.
It was like an activation switch…
When I saw it I remembered to stand taller, chest out, military man (remember?), I did this and it was a performance I felt went really well.
At home outside of rehearsals I wrote letters to other characters, I researched the type of tea and alcohol they would have drank back then, I ordered it and drank it at home all in character, I swamped my self into the world of the Baron, I even dressed my bedroom as a 19th Century bedroom and it all helped to create that world around me, which then transferred into a rich performance from finding out new discoveries in rehearsals, on to the opening night of our play.
It was a really rewarding process, it kept everything open and I had a load of fun doing it.
How to implement it…
Give each actor a research topic that is linked to their character, get them to present that topic. If their character is a recreational drug user, inspired by the 1990’s rave culture in Manchester, get them to research the drug called Ecstasy. Give your cast tasks, home work that gears them into a direction directly into the inner workings of the world of the character – it is vital when you look at pure characterization in film that your actors are not left out of the world beyond the page. There is always a time and a setting so make sure that everyone is invested.
Take it a step further, and get them to improvise relationship elements from the film. If you have a husband and wife in the film, get them to improvise, in rehearsals only, their first kiss as a couple!
Get into the inner workings of the souls by setting up each rehearsal with exercises like the above which are designed to build depth into the characterization of your characters.
Characterization in film: in summary.
It is important to respect an actors process in how they generate their own characterization in film, whatever that may be, by giving them space and giving them time. By reading more into the art of an actor you’ll get to understand and appreciate this. But more importantly you’ll come to the rehearsals with your own methods and understanding which will ultimately help you to get the results you require on screen as well as giving you a more mailable and open resource with your talent.