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!
Breaking into the one-minute barrier
Though a "micro short film" can be anything we want it to be, let's take a look at the one-minute micro short format. This is what we focus on in the Miniature Film Festival, of which I am the founder and festival director. It can be surprisingly challenging to put together a micro short film, and many people will struggle with the format until it becomes part of their filmmaking DNA. This is particularly true of one-minute films, as distinct from trailers and other fragments of larger work. But thankfully it is both a fun and rewarding challenge!
Why is it challenging? Well, one issue is time. We are talking about films here, and films have beginnings, endings, titles and credits. These consume time , though some ingenuity can let you blend story and titles. Your one-minute film can easily drop to 40 seconds of working story time, net of these beginning and ending components.
Another issue is the level of complexity that the one-minute form can comfortably contain. With around 40 seconds of working story time, there may be a practical limit on story components like number of characters the film can handle. You can set up a certain amount of back story and situation with a opening title slide or some succinct narration or a quick visual reveal of some action, for example a theft or a broken dog's leash with no dog present. But basically, you are looking at getting one idea across in a minute, including titles. Related to this is the challenge of story arc. Even "dog is lost, child is heartbroken, something special happens, dog comes back, child is happy" is still going to be a tight squeeze into a minute!
The one-minute form perhaps lends itself best to a one thought, one message type of theme. Messages or themes like "be nice" "first appearances can be deceiving" "life is sweet" "work sucks" "underdog wins" can all be good, fun, challenging fodder for a short story, lending themselves to a clever reveal or reversal near the end. Having seen and screened over 80 micro shorts from all over the world in the 2015 Miniature Film Festival, I can attest to the fact that we are limited only by our imaginations and our ingenuity! The festival audience agreed, going from laughter to tears in 60 seconds.
Here are some essential ingredients and tips for you:
The importance of visual stories and why we need to share them
I was at the International Mobil Film Festival in San Diego last week, presenting my micro short film "Mr. Sadheart's Small Day" and teaching a workshop session on micro short filmmaking. It was incredibly uplifting to be around a group of artists who are passionate about storytelling and equally passionate about encouraging others to make films and share their stories.
Susan Botello, the founder of the festival, and I had a great conversation about why people need to share stories. Susan made the interesting observation about how stories - and the need to relate them - actually came before language. So, before there was language, how did we explain that we meant to pick up some nuts and berries on the way home to the cave, but got chased away by a giant mastodon? I mean a huge mastodon! We drew a cave painting maybe, or danced around and illustrated the story with gestures. Early theatre. And what if a whole herd of huge mastodons was still chasing us? Let's just speculate that we probably didn't strive for perfection in the sharing of the story! The same can be said of many micro short films: the story is the big thing, the delivery device is secondary. The urgency is in the artistic impulse, and perfection can wait for another day and another story.
What about graffiti? The tag or piece of art that says "I passed by here, and had something to say." The moment mattered, the artist mattered and the impulse was creative. With many micro short films, the moment matters. "Mr. Sadheart's Small Day" was born from that kind of moment - a chance spotting in a train window of a finger-drawn sad face in the window dust, encased in a heart. Was it a modern day cave drawing? A piece of graffiti? Who was Mr. Sadheart, as I called him? I hadn't even seen him until the sun in the train window suddenly lit him up. I grabbed my phone and shot some footage. Forty seconds later he disappeared as we pulled into the station. The micro short film "Mr. Sadheart's Small Day" relates what it's like to be him. My puppetry instructor in New York, Kevin Augustine, taught me that everything is a puppet if we want it to be, and each puppet has a soul. My work as the artist was to channel Mr. Sadheart's soul and give it a voice. Micro short filmmaking can be - and perhaps should be - impulsive, creative, sudden, subconscious even, like graffiti.
Outsider art has similarly been noted for its unique qualities of being outside the mainstream system. I remember seeing an incredible exhibition of it in New York, and one piece of it continues to live in my memory, an entire wall covered from corner to corner in tiny, intricate drawings and patterns that quite likely only made sense to the artist. It was the magnificence of the obsession that moved me. Once confined mostly to mental institutions, outsider art is now revered and enjoyed by a much wider following, much like folk art before it. Micro short filmmaking can also have outsider art qualities - obsessive, childlike, pure, impulsive.
The importance of the mobile phone camera is huge, because suddenly everyone who either has or can borrow a phone can be a filmmaker. We all have stories we need to tell. Stories are all around us, and like Mr. Sadheart's story, they need us as artists to give them voice. Yes, that's you! You are an artist and you are a filmmaker. You are part cave painter, part graffiti artist and part outsider artist. Go tell your stories. Make a micro short film and share it with the world!
Harnessing the smartphone's ability to impart motion and dynamism to objects
I have coined a term, "swipescaping" to describe an experimental technique I have used in some of my micro short films. The technique makes use of the phone's extreme mobility, which in my experience gives the device a unique ability to impart motion and dynamism to inanimate objects. I used swipescaping in the film "Deathbed Regrets," an experimental film that has received several official festival selections as well as a nomination for Best Short Documentary.
Swipescaping is a blend of art installation and technology. Essentially, you arrange objects of interest, ones that contribute to the story, in a way that makes sense to your artistic instincts. This can involve placing them in certain groupings, and altering elements such as proximity of one object to another, lighting and other traditional aspects of cinematography. The objects chosen might be old photos, coins, other mementos, bits of clothing, food, maps - whatever supports the story in your artistic judgement.
Once arranged, you use the smartphone or similar miniature video device to take the viewer on a guided tour of the installation, as if they were viewing it from a tiny airplane. The power of this technique lies in timing the motion of the camera, which can move in and out, linger, circle back, speed up or slow down in ways that will visually support the narrative arc of the film. By leading the viewer on this tour, you can bring dynamism to a static display. A photo or other static object appears to move as the camera hovers over it like a hummingbird.
I recently used swipescaping in the film "Fragments of Paris," making use of the visual journey in both filming and post editing to support the narrative arc of the story. This is a bit of a departure from some of my other micro short films which have been driven to some extent by the video footage from filmable found situations, with the narrative being adapted to the visual. Swipescaping lends itself to the visual journey being driven from the narrative perhaps to a greater extent.
Here are a few thoughts to help you explore swipescaping as an experimental technique:
I hope you find this technique interesting and useful. Have fun with it!
What would that turnip say if it could speak?
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 and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.