Film and Stage Acting

by Ruth Kulerman

Drama and comedy acting masks

Film and stage acting can be quite different. Use these tips to master both.


"What are the differences between stage acting and camera acting?"

Right about here I start to squirm because it is so easy to misinterpret "acting" words and phrases. I've seen tragic consequences of misunderstood language or instructions which can take years to correct. I have seen promising talent destroyed by bad instruction.

If you can act, you can surely act on film, given a few valuable tips.

Train for stage and then carry that training over into film with some adjustments. But be careful. The words that try to describe the necessary adjustments from stage to screen can cause irreparable damage. Or even if you opt for no stage training, film acting instruction is fraught with danger. It is a minefield of misused language.

PULLED BACK: I really don't like this phrase too often used to distinguish stage and film acting: PULLED BACK. Bah humbug! Run as fast as you can from that phrase. Why? Because it creates monotonous, lifeless, boring, turtle performances.

Recently I saw a theatre production where one actress particularly stood out because she was acting (badly) for camera, not stage. Most of her lines were so internalized that even sitting on the front row (with A+ ears) I couldn't hear her.

Added to the internalized delivery was careless enunciation. BAD COMBINATION. Her face, in this rather clever satire, was dead. As were her eyes. Bad training. My guess is that some film teacher hammered home the notion that camera work is "pulled back" and this particular notion, like a virus, took over her entire acting life, both stage and film.

Hence, my personal distaste and FEAR of the direction "pull back" when discussing acting for the camera. The inner life, the eyes, the voice, the heart of the artist dies when you "pull back." News headline: Actor Becomes a Turtle.

So with caution let's state this: CAMERA ACTING IS BEING NORMAL. STAGE ACTING IS NOT. BUT neither one of them is actory or pulled back or dead or monotonous or turtle-like.

Some obvious differences between film and stage acting need very little elaboration.

  1. Volume: The mike is either clipped to you or is hanging over your head. You don't have to be heard in the last row of an auditorium. All acting is vocal. But acting on film is vocally normal. (Unless you are in "CSI Miami.") Acting on stage is not! No one in real life ever talked that loudly to someone sitting three feet away.
  2. Movement: If you meander around, you'll walk right off camera. "Hit your mark" and stay there unless told otherwise.
  3. Size: Your face can be 50 feet high on screen. Every twitch, even a hint of a twitch, is seen. So film acting isn't "pulled back." It's the closest to "normal" that acting ever gets.
STILLNESS. A word vital for all acting, but especially for film. "Stillness" is safer than "pulled back," because stillness refers to specific body movement. In real life, most people do not wave their arms around like semaphores. That is, until they start "acting."  Especially on film, keep those arms, hands, head STILL. And forget in-the-face finger wagging!

I was told in London to restrict my gestures to one per act, which meant that the ONE GESTURE had to be very meaningful. It was great advice. Gesturing on camera is distracting. Have you ever noticed how the TV camera has to cut off close to the shoulders because the actor is gesturing (semaphore acting) too much?

Like, hey I can get up there and do that too. I can be a movie star! I can be on Broadway! Yeah? The most difficult acting task is BEING/SOUNDING NORMAL in front of an audience or a camera. And being STILL goes a long way to being and sounding normal. Stop flailing.

Another acceptable phrase for film acting: DON'T ACT. "Not acting" is very difficult. It requires absolute concentration to not act. Remember, the camera does a lot of the acting for you.

Being natural on stage or camera, in Restoration Comedy or on Third Watch is the goal we all must aim for. Natural ("normal") is what film acting insists on.

Woody Allen, somewhere, told about interviewing actors. He would really like them and then they'd pick up the script and start ACTING. His reaction? "STOP ACTING."

I auditioned for an agent a few years ago, using a fascinating monologue about an older woman looking back at her first affair when she was in college. I finished and the agent said, (I swear this is the truth) "That's not acting. That's just you being you." Years after I finished my internal huffing and puffing, it occurred to me that was the best compliment I'd ever receive. Even if the agent didn't intend it to be!

So the next time someone tells you you're not acting, thank them profusely. It is the most difficult of all acting. To have control, to know what you are doing, to make exciting choices, to use your imagination and intuition and intelligence, to be fascinating, and all the time look normal, natural, not actory--"That's not acting?" Congratulations. You just learned to act. On camera. And stage.
Ruth Kulerman is an actress and coach, known for "The Off Season," "A Walk in the Dark," and "Satan Hates You." Her series of articles for "Actor Tips" is copyright by Chad Gracia and ActorTips.com, Inc. All rights reserved. For more articles on acting, as well as free monologues and acting supplies, visit www.actortips.com.
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Reader Comments

Very simply illustrated. Thank for the tips. This will definitely make a vital impact on a beginner.

Posted by Shashi Ranjan (2017-05-03) 12820

Dear Ruth,

Great article! I'm a Norwegian actress and I've done a lot of film and tv acting. Soon I'm going to a film school here in Norway to lecture about film acting and I found your article and you said exactly what i wanted to say, but didn't find the right words for: it's not about acting smaller on film (never thought that sounded right), it's about NOT being theatrical! Like you say: It's about being normal. Simple as that. Thanks. Have you written anything else on this? Would love to hear more of your thoughts. (my lecture is 8 pages already, and in English. You can read it when I'm finished if you want.

Kind Regards,
Yngvild

Posted by yng, norway (2011-03-16) 2962

Your write up and the article are so informative and inspire. God bless you av tutelage me well. Thanks for the pedagogy.

Posted by Femi Johnson, Afolabi (2010-05-20) 2547

Hi ,its realy good meeting you people. Please i need your help to make myself a good actor. Please do reply when you gets this.

Posted by EGWU GODWIN O. (2009-10-20) 2148

I just read the query asking why it is called acting if non acting is the goal?
Answer: The phrase is me playing with language to get your attention and to drive home a lesson. Non-acting acting takes years to perfect (if we ever do!) and is our constant goal.

Posted by Ruth Kulerman (2009-07-19) 1798

Thank you so much for the great article, but regarding the end I have a doubt (because it is not the first time I've read or hear it), if it's not acting, why is it called acting?? Thank you.

Posted by JP (2009-03-18) 1154

Thank you fo helping me with my acting essay

Posted by Kirenn (2008-05-27) 94

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