Stop telling yourself you don't know them
Over the past year I have been mulling over the roadblocks that prevent actors from having an easier time learning lines. What got me thinking about this was realizing that we can often remember entire song lyrics from ages ago without ever having set out to memorize them. So why does learning lines present such a challenge to many actors? I have come to the conclusion that the greatest roadblock comes from the tendency to tell ourselves we don’t know the lines. We do this both consciously and subconsciously, at the beginning of the learning task, throughout the learning process, and before we step out on stage or in front of the camera.
Our instructors at the Stella Adler Studio in New York used to tell us that if we’ve done the work, then we need to trust that the lines will be there when we need them. For most of us, that would be like falling backwards and hoping the universe will catch us. Um, I don’t think so. I’d rather some more certainty than that. So most of us will study, fret, use all kinds of gimmicks, apps and techniques to keep cramming the lines into our heads, bodies and wherever else we think they might fit.
And then it hit me. The thing that is common to all of these activities is that we believe we don’t know the lines. When a script lands on our desk, our first thought is often along the lines of “Oh, crap. I don’t know this stuff, and I need to.” Not knowing the material becomes the dominant narrative of how we approach the task. Every time we make a mistake, we chide ourselves with “Crap, I don’t know this!” This makes us more nervous, more self-doubting and more likely to make mistakes.
I decided to experiment with doing the opposite. Rather than decide I didn’t know the material, I decided to assume that the material was going in just fine, was finding a home inside me, and would be there when I needed it. When a complicated new script arrived, I audio recorded it as I usually do, and just lived with the material for a while. I had it playing in the background as I was falling asleep, as I surfed Facebook, as I went about doing other things. The script that had seemed so complicated eventually became familiar, and even predictable.
What I didn’t do was do a ton of detailed line learning, cursing every time I got something wrong or telling myself I didn’t know the material. I chose to believe I knew it. Though it was terrifying, I went to the first rehearsal and left my script in my bag, going totally crutch-free. To my surprise and amazement, the lines actually were there! I mean to a 75% or 80% level, without having caused myself undue stress and self-doubt in the learning process. I found it a lot easier from that point onward to focus my attention on the softer parts, tightening up the ones that needed tightening.
So my experiment was a success, and will form the basis for how I approach learning lines in the future. If you are looking for some different ideas around learning your lines here are some ideas to experiment with:
Embedding micro short films into a larger narrative whole
Once you have made a micro short film or two, you start to develop a way of seeing and a way of doing that lets you perceive an opportunity to address a particular theme in a quick, easy to shoot manner. The attitudes and practices I cover in my book, Micro Short Filmmaking: A guided learning journey and in my training workshops enable you to spot a filmable situation, marry it to a particular passion theme and narrative of yours, and bundle it up into a completed film in a few days.
When you become practiced at pulling together micro shorts, it is only a matter of time until you start to consider stringing a bunch of them together into a larger work. This isn’t a new idea, but it is a great one. So-called “framed tales,” for example, have been done in literature for ages. An example is Dubliners, by James Joyce, where several stories in a collection share elements of place, character and themes. The same can be done with micro shorts, particularly if you start with the intention of embedding them into a larger work.
If you write to include embedded micro shorts in your storytelling, it gives you an instant increase of control over the ultimate outcome of your project. If, for example, half of your larger film can be told by embedding micro short films into it, and you already know how to shoot a micro film yourself, you know right away you will be able to film half the film yourself. This a lot stronger position to be in than needing to wait for other talent, gear or money to come your way. The frame of the overall film just becomes a series of segments that you can start grabbing today.
To do this, you will want to have a really clear layout of the entire narrative, from beginning to end. One of the best ways to do this is to start building your timeline in your editing software as soon as you have the script finished to your satisfaction. Start with the obvious, the beginning and end titles, and block out an appropriate space between the two for the rest of the film. By this point, you should at least also have a clear sense of the first and last shots of the film, and ideally most everything in between. Figure out what parts of the film can be told with an embedded micro short. You may want to try using my swipescaping technique for some segments.
If you are using voiceover narrative for some of your embedded micro short segments, you can actually start recording those now, and find the appropriate video imagery later. This lets you populate your timeline with proper length audio clips, in the right order, and also tells you how much video footage you need to acquire to marry with the audio portion of each segment. The end result of starting this process is that you end up with a clearly thought-out shopping list in your mind for what footage you need. For example, if you need 85 seconds of a street scene, you can be wandering around with your smartphone or other camera, ready to grab that footage when you see it.
To experiment with this technique, why not try a short film, say 6 minutes, half of which could be made up from standalone one-minute micro shorts? Or some variation of that formula? Give it a try, and start gathering your imagery today. Grab a copy of my book if you would like some encouragement and guidance in making micro shorts, or take a class with me. Don’t forget to bring your camera, and have fun!
Mobility, powerful features and the fact they are always with you
This summer, we shot a feature film that was made using 2 different camera platforms, a bigger more traditionally cinematic camera, and an iPhone 5. In general, my experience up till then had been along the lines of “bigger cameras for bigger films and smaller cameras for smaller films.” In pairing up big and small cameras on the shoot of “It’s About Love” I was eager to move both camera sizes into parity on a bigger, more complex film.
There is a ton that I love about working with small cameras, and the next 3 films I am in pre-production on will be shot with an iPhone 6S+ as the main camera. It’s true that the 6S+ takes a big jump in terms of its videography abilities (like 4K resolution capture), but mostly I find that pocketable cinema cameras have some undeniably fun and powerful capabilities that lend themselves to making films of any size and scale. Here are a few things I love about working with little cameras:
Can we define our own set of standards and raise the bar on professionalism?
Most of the independent filmmakers, producers and directors I’ve met are delightful, professional people who are working hard and working well to make films with really limited resources. Like most people, I had a learning experience or two early in my career that helped me refine what I consider to be ethical behavior. But let’s face it, it is a stressful and imperfect line of work, and I am sure most us have cut corners or slipped up at some point.
But moving forward, how can we – as an unregulated collection of practitioners – work together to raise the bar on what we consider professional behavior? I touch on this in my book about micro short filmmaking, where I look at some of attributes of successful, collaborative, professional filmmakers. What I propose here is to toss down a few suggested codes of ethical behavior for us to react to, modify or add to going forward.
Rather than playing the role of an authority, I would prefer that we all ponder these ideas, adapt them to what we can individually work with, and try together to raise the bar on our own professionalism. Ideally, it would be great if everyone who comes into contact with an independent filmmaker leaves the experience feeling well and fairly treated, feeling that promises made to them were honored, and feeling that they would be happy to repeat the experience. We all know from experience what the opposite of that feels like. So here are a few ideas:
As independent filmmakers, producers and directors:
Perhaps not what you think!
For some of us, the image that comes to mind of an actor is not an entirely pleasant one. You might picture a self-absorbed, overly expressive narcissist who doesn’t just enter a room but swamps it with their physical, verbal and emotional self. Those people do exist in the world of acting, but in my experience, they are relatively few and far between, and they tend to drift away quite early in the journey toward becoming a good actor. Acting takes a lot of hard, quiet work, with little or no recognition, and narcissists can generally get their fuel more easily elsewhere.
So that leaves the rest of us. Happily in my experience, the most dedicated and best actors I have known are kind, humble, hardworking and thoughtful people. They can be shy, introverted and quiet. There are actors that work more from emotions, and others who work from a more intellectual approach. In short, actors come in all types, and it’s hard to pin down a specific personality type that suits the work. This means that being an actor is really for everybody who wants to give it a try. There is a place for all of us in this wonderful craft, and by giving it a go, you will naturally gravitate toward the side of the work that makes you the most happy and best reflects your abilities.
There are some qualities that do tend to show up repeatedly among the actors I have known, and here are a few of them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and for every truth there are several exceptions, but here goes. No doubt you will see yourself in one or more of these!
Every actor is a unique and complex mix of qualities, including some of the ones above and many others. There are as many different kinds of actors as there are non-actors, and you should feel very comfortable finding your own place in this wonderful mix of humanity. In fact, we are all actors already! Some of the roles we play are family member, the self we show at work, the self we show to good friends, the self we show to our parents, and so forth. A professional actor just learns how to grab control of the levers of the craft of acting and use them in a way that creates entertainment and tells a story.
I had fun building this partial list of actor attributes. What would you add to it?
If everything is free and nobody makes money, what is an artist to do?
In our film “Monetized” a hassled, battle-weary filmmaker (Vivian Davidson) comedically turns the tables on her stay-at-home mom friend (Lauren Donnelly) by asking “What’s the point of having babies if you can’t make money off them?” Sure, it’s a joke, but it’s also that one thing nobody really wants to talk about. What if we artists actually CAN'T monetize our work anymore? What if there is just too much free product chasing too few disposable dollars? What if the success stories of the past - like making it big, selling that script, getting discovered by Hollywood, inking a huge distribution deal for our indie film - are just that, in the past?
It’s true that the filmmaking community is wonderfully supportive of its practitioners, and I’m sure we all do what we can to support our peers, renting their latest short off their VOD channel, kicking in a few bucks to their crowdfunding campaigns and so on. But in the end, it’s a pretty small community, and we are, in effect, just passing the same ten dollars back and forth, rather than creating new economic value. As we look around and see fewer and fewer mainstream people with full time jobs, or benefit plans, or even enough work hours to make ends meet, things don’t look great for filmmakers and other artists either.
It can become a cycle of defeat to keep expecting to make money directly from our art. We can feel like failures when we fail to earn money for our craft. That can leave us too discouraged to start new projects. And let’s face it: needing and not having money is the best excuse ever for not starting. So what to do? Well, we can sit around and wait for the good old days to come back, or we can make some positive changes that let us take our power back and stop putting too much economic pressure on ourselves. Here are some ideas for us, and I encourage you to contribute your own ideas to this list!
I would love it if we could anticipate tons of funding for new projects, but assuming that may not happen, we can still be very supportive of each other. A “like” or a share goes a long way in helping out a colleague. Pitching in to help out with a project can make the difference in its success. By using some of the ideas above, we can be making films for less money that still please audiences, which is the name of the game!
Taking the long road to relating to the words will serve you best
At the Stella Adler Studio in New York, where I did a lot of my acting training, words were given a position of huge importance. By the way, did you know that the word huge also means limitless? Stella Adler alumni will get this inside joke, since we were commanded to bring a dictionary to class with us every day. When working with text, we would often get challenged on the meaning of words, and it was amazing how often our understanding of a particular word was wrong, or at least off-base. We also got to learn more about the history of a word, how it evolved over time, and what it meant at the time the text was written. This process of verifying our understanding of text led to some positive enduring habits that still serve us today.
In script interpretation class, we were trained to not just consider the words of a script or play, but also the whole social, political and historical context of the work. We also worked line by line through the text, to check our understanding of each of the characters and what was going on in a scene. This was amazing, because when you begin to develop that level of relationship with the words, you can suddenly see a vastness and richness that can be built upon as a performer, in service of the audience. Unfortunately, the work of modern film and TV can make us a bit sloppy as actors, a bit content to do the minimum and just memorize lines. It's not entirely our fault, because we often only get "sides" rather than context, and frequently have little time to do more than memorize. But memorization is only entry-level performing. If all you have done is focus on your own lines, then you are likely to be too worried about getting your lines right and waiting to hear cues from your partner. That's not really being there, for your partner or for the audience.
One of my favorite exercises, that I have adapted for use in my own teaching, is one that Stella Adler herself used. Fellow Stella Adler alumni will recognize this as the "Gibran exercise." This work involves developing a deep understanding of a piece of text, and then freeing yourself up from its constraints. The text in question is the book "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran. This is a beautiful collection of essays that considers the important aspects of life, deep topics such as love, marriage, reason and passion, crime and punishment, joy and sorrow, and so on. The ideas in "The Prophet" are timeless and universal, even to a non-religious type like me. I've done this exercise several times myself over the years. Here's how it works, and how it can make you a better actor.
It's the mark of a professional and you owe your cast and crew the credits
Whenever there are two actors having a chat, you can be certain that the subject of IMDb credits will come up. The most frequent complaint I hear from people who worked on indie or student films is that they never got the IMDb credits they were promised. In fact, the films themselves never even ended up on IMDb. Why is this? Why don't producers get IMDb title pages for their projects, when it only requires a half-hour or so of focused effort, some tenacity and some patience? Having an IMDb title page for your film is the gold standard of recognition and legitimacy around the world. By getting a title page, people everywhere can find out about your film, who worked on it, and all kinds of other helpful information that helps market the film, even while you sleep. More importantly, it lets you bestow well-deserved IMDb credits on the people who helped you as cast and crew. If you want to be a professional, you need to understand how the IMDb title page process works, and how to use it effectively. You don't have to spend a penny if you don't want to. Here's how:
Tips to maximize your chances for festival success
Getting your films into their first festivals is a major career milestone that is a real cause for celebration. To get into festivals, you need to be resilient, persistent and organized. Here are some tips to maximize your chances.
1. Submit often, and expect to get rejected. Rejections are a good thing; the more the merrier. It means you are submitting at the right volume to eventually get accepted. Despite what it looks like on social media, NOT getting accepted to festivals is overwhelmingly the norm. The ratio of around 25-50 submissions to 1 official selection seems to hold true for everyone. Keep getting rejected, and don't give up!
2. Build your film roster. Having more "product" to submit works in your favor. As you make more films, give some thought to having different lengths and genres to submit. Add a one-minute micro short or a short documentary to your palette of films; add some comedy or drama; broaden your themes. Shorter films in general are easier to fit into a program and have a better chance.
3. Target appropriately. Getting your first short film into Sundance is a great fantasy, but it is largely a fantasy. There are a lot of terrific festivals out there that are smaller and will give you good exposure and a nice feather in your cap for you and your cast and crew. Look on FilmFreeway or another similar site to find festivals, and aim your film at a festival that will appreciate it. Spend your time and money wisely.
4. Have your materials ready. Don't get caught by surprise when a festival asks for a high-quality download of your film, a poster, a synopsis, some production stills and a director's statement. Make it part of your DNA to prepare these things right away without being told, and have these items organized for easy access and sharing.
5. Be a good friend to festivals. Help promote festivals you have applied to, connect up with them on social media and share their news. When you get an official selection, make some noise about it! Stay in touch with festivals from year-to-year. Most festivals are delighted to hear about their "alumni" and their future successes.
When you are organized and focused, managing your festival submissions just becomes another routine producer task, usually requiring less than an hour or so per day. Be prepared, methodical, thorough, and diligent in your follow-through and success will surely follow. Good luck!
Grab an instrument and bash out a message
Born of a time of growing divide between the rich and the poor, the upwardly and downwardly mobile, and fueled by hopelessness and rage, punk rock gave music back to everybody. Also known as D.I.Y. for "do it yourself," punk was less of an organized movement and more of a coincidence of individual free spirits rebelling against the status quo. By picking up the nearest instrument and bashing away at it, whether it was tuned or not, whether you could even play it or not and shouting messages over the roar, punk music provided the perfect antidote to disco and corporate rock. All of a sudden, anyone could and should be in a band, and a new and accessible sense of artistic freedom was launched.
Of course, there was nothing totally new about this phenomenon. We could look at many other times when the old wave was disrupted by a new one throughout history. Gustave Courbet and the avant-garde school of realism in painting, Dada, surrealism, and many other art and social movements were reactions to times of social change and upheaval.
So are micro short filmmakers the new punks? Let's consider the similarities.
In this and other blog posts, we have considered things like punk, animism, outsider art, folk art, graffiti, swipescaping and other possible inputs to a micro short filmmaking aesthetic. In the end, it is for each micro short filmmaker to determine their own original definition and practice of the art form. We live in artistically fluid times for filmmaking, and that is a beautiful thing. You don't need to go to film school (not that there's anything wrong with that) or copy from the old masters. Originate, follow your own instincts and have fun defining your own micro short filmmaking style!
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions Ltd. and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.