When asked why and how they got drawn into the beautiful world of filmmaking, a lot of young filmmakers will attribute that to a particular film that changed their lives forever. Who could possibly forget the scene in the movie Scarface with the famous line, ‘Say hello to my little friend!’? That is iconic. The moment where King Kong fell off the empire state building to his death in the original ‘King Kong’, or when Sylvester Stallone runs up the 72 stone steps of the Museum of Art, in Philadelphia in the movie Rocky, or the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. These are iconic moments that have affected and influenced filmmakers for decades.
So when new filmmakers choose to recreate the shots in some of these scenes, or come up with shots of their own that they hope will someday become as iconic or a reference point for other filmmakers, one major element is easily ignored. The performance of the actor. This is a crucial part of story telling; the actors performance. Always bear one thing in mind, to make your scene effective, the camera movement and technicalities must be in synergy with the performance of the actor in the scene in order to deliver the right emotional content to the audience.
No matter how spectacular the shot and camera movements have been carefully orchestrated and designed, if the performance of the actor is weak and lackluster, the audience will not feel the effect intended by the director. The Rocky and Tony Montana scenes would not be as effective if the actors did not give spectacular performances. So as filmmakers, as we focus on the technicalities of camera choice, shots, blockings, choice of lenses and everything else in between, adequate time and effort should be put into ensuring that the actors deliver the right emotional content.
You will, at some point, come to a crossroad in post production where the shot would be perfectly executed by the Steadicam operator (or whatever shot you have designed), but the actor’s performance would not be as great as the take where the timing of the camera was not as accurate as planned. If you do not have the luxury of re-shooting the scene, what would be your decision? Do you pick the shot over the performance or the performance over the shot?
Stella Damasus once shared an experience she had on a movie she starred in. There was a sequence in the movie where her character had to run outside the house in tears, completely broken and disoriented. She recalled doing several takes, not because she wasn’t delivering the emotional content, but because the crew had a hard time getting the shot exactly how the director wanted it. Almost 20 takes later, they managed to nail the shot. At this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in, and her performance in take 1 would obviously never be the same as take 20 or 21, in a scene where she had to be in tears and totally disoriented. She felt it, knew it and had the conversation with the director about the final performance. For the team, the shot was good to go. When the movie was finally released, the choice made in the studio was to pick the shot over the performance, thus rendering all the effort of the actor practically useless and almost ineffective. This is not the effect a director wants to have on the talent/actor.
Stella Damasus in the movie BETWEEN (Not the movie she was referring to by the way. Haha)
Remember this though; Less than 20% of your audience understand technical details of filmmaking so they probably will feel the effect of your shot but can’t tell the difference if its just a ‘one-shot-scene’ or not. The actors make your story believable. Their characters are what the audience is following, falling in love with, hating or hoping to become. As much as the camera angles and shot compositions aid the story and help deliver it to the audience, what they (the audience) are crazy about, are the choices your actors will make and how they act or react to the events unfolding in your story.
With this additional piece of information, back to your choice in the editing room; would you pick the shot over the performance?