It’s not often that actors find their craft upended by movie technology.
After all, though styles have changed, actors have been a constant since the beginning of movies.
True, the film camera itself revolutionized acting, forcing thesps to shrink the big gestures (and at first, silence the big voices) of 19th-century legit. Then came sound, which brought voices back, but now amplified and more intimate than ever.
The most recent revolution in acting was the Method, which made film acting more naturalistic. That was more than 50 years ago, and it came from the stage, not from any shift in filmmaking tools.
But as helmers, including actor-directors such as Mel Gibson and Tony Bill, are switching to digital capture, the word is filtering back that actors and directors may finally be getting another revolution.
“My conversion to the church of digital is due to the nontechnical side of digital,” says Bill, who used the Panavision Genesis to shoot “Flyboys.” “I think the way digital changes and can permanently change the way actors act and directors direct is absolutely irreplaceable.
“For 100 years of acting on film, actors have had to cope with several technical limitations. First of all, they had to rehearse the scene before they shoot it. Then, once shooting begins, they have to act between reloads.
“Third, they have to act when the camera is running, not when it’s not running. They’re always aware there’s film running through the camera, which is a tremendous burden for an actor, whether they know it or not.
“Digital removes those constraints. There’s no such thing as rehearsal. You can shoot anything you want. You don’t have to say ‘cut.’ You don’t have to say ‘action.’
“This is going to change the way films are made, the way directors relate to actors, and the way actors relate to the camera. I think this will change acting as much as the Method changed acting.”
Gibson, who shot “Apocalypto” with a cast of inexperienced performers — some acting for the first time — says that being able to shoot nearly an hour at a time with the Panavision Genesis helped with the performances.
Gibson could jump out from behind the camera, get in among his actors and direct them with the camera rolling continuously. “You could rev them up until they hit the level you wanted,” he says.
“You have this continuity of energy. They’re sort of driving on through. It allows you to have a longer, harder crack at it.”
He adds: “It just gives you a little more room to experiment, to explore, to talk, and you’re not burning this precious stock that’s very expensive and runs out. It would have been a tragedy to burn all that film talking to them.”
Sifting for diamonds
For actors, that additional experimentation means an entirely new way of working, says thesp Marley Shelton.
Shelton appears in both parts of “Grindhouse”: Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” was shot digitally, while Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” was shot on film.
With film, says Shelton, “there’s a beginning, middle and an end between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ As an actor, one is trained to listen for cues such as ‘roll sound’ and slate, and you use that moment to prepare and go on a journey as your character for a few minutes or seconds. You use that time to suspend disbelief for yourself. In that 10 seconds, you’re sort of going into a zone.”
But, Shelton says, when shooting digital, the freedom to keep rolling means “you’re sort of sifting for diamonds. It’s great in that you can probe deeper in certain moments, but it’s less conducive to riding the impulses your character is having chronologically.”
Rodriguez would gather the cast and crew around the monitor, show them the playback and give notes.
Tarantino, by contrast, took a more old-school approach, watching with the naked eye and not even using playback.
“At that point,” Shelton says, “I was so used to Robert’s style that it was disconcerting to have (Tarantino) standing next to the camera.”Another difference, Shelton notes, is that digital “dailies” include much more of what goes on on the set than do film dailies, which only include what happens between “action” and “cut.”
“Whoever is watching the dailies can see the entire process, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Shelton says. “You really have to be able to let go of your ego in high-def.”
Not all of Shelton’s fellow thesps were comfortable with the informality of digital, and Shelton predicts casting and the chemistry between actor and director will become even more important.
“With some actors, directors are going to get a lot more by creating this loose, low-pressure environment, while with other actors, they’re going to get more by having a formality and a kind of a method to the madness.
“For myself, I don’t know where I fall — I guess I fall somewhere in between.
“Maybe that’s what I enjoyed, too: the sheer challenge of manipulating yourself to thrive in both. Because why not? It’s just a different skill set.”