Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Review: "Acting for the Camera" by Tony Barr

I will grant you that most of the topics we deal with here at JC relate to what happens either behind the camera or once the camera is turned off and everybody has gone home.

But when you are directing, do you not expect the actor to trim his or her movements and expressions in an extreme close-up? Do you expect them not to whip quickly all over the frame in a choker? Well, that's because either explicitly or implicitly, you want them to respect the challenges faced in the editing room with matching motion and physical pacing. There are dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny little things actors do that aren't necessarily related to the emotional truth of their performance or character, but rather are geared toward making the job of everyone else on the film easier. As a result, their performance is more effective.

Good, experienced actors do these things as a matter of second-nature. And at least on some level, they have an intuition or knowledge of how their work relates to what is happening on the other side of the camera.

Well, wouldn't it be nice if the same went for directors? Many, many times I have seen directors so focused on a checklist of shots and simply recording the dialogue on the page - to the point where the ability of the actor to prepare or even give a good performance is largely hindered. Just watch the latest low-budget horror being filmed in your neighborhood.

"Did she say line X?"
"Was she in frame?"
"Did the audio peak?
"Okay, moving on."

Acting for the Camera by Tony Barr is written for actors. It is not written for directors or editors, but it could be. In 300-some-odd pages, you should be able to glean a pretty good understanding of what a (professional) actor goes through, both in terms of preparation and research, as well as on "the day."

Quite frankly, I think this could be the most concise and efficient instructional piece I have come across regarding the method of acting. I came from an acting background myself and have studied the field full-time. I would not be exaggerating by saying that there are many acting schools and teachers out there whose curriculum is basically a chapter-by-chapter implementation of this book.

And that does not necessarily make for a bad program. This book is not the only place where you are going to find a good structure to the principles of solid acting. There are some universals in these pages that, should you so choose, you will find elsewhere if you look. But there is a reason that this book is generally considered one of the fundamental pieces of reading in the field.

The words themselves are not important; it is what makes the words happen that has significance.

Always choose to care about what is happening as much as you logically can within the context of the material.

The book is filled with memorable axioms (related to acting) that are not given as Morpheus-like faux-wisdom, but rather are presented as conclusions to fully completed instructions and arguments. They will sink in.

The covers are filled with praise from screen luminaries such as Karl Malden, Sharon Gless, Henry Winkler, David Paymer and Eva Marie Saint, all of whom have themselves produced some memorable work. "Heyyyyyyyyyyyyy..."

So anyway, whether you are a director (in which case I recommend this book) or an actor (in which case I highly recommend this book), you are likely to benefit from the wisdom within. If you are a director who focuses primarily on visuals or checklists but is not terribly attentive to emotional truth, knowing something about the other side of the camera may help you spot it when you see it, not settle for imitations, and even improve your casting decisions from the audition room.

A link to the book can be seen below, where you can take a look inside the covers if you wish.

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