5 Techniques for Directing Actors - Filmmaking Tips

Filmmaking tips directing actors

A film director has many endless job roles on set but the most significant is directing actors and making sure that the best possible performances are given on screen. 

There is not a lot of advice out there about how to go about directing actors for film so I have made a list based on my own experiences (from directing my own films and from watching directors direct).

I have also read the book by Judith Weston Directing Actors, I do recommend it and it is probably the only book out there on how to direct actors. 

1. Write a detailed background for each character

Before you start to audition actors write a detailed character background for all of your main roles. You may have done this during the screenwriting stage. A detailed character background with information on the characters past, upbringing and personality will really help the actors understand the character you have created. I have been directing before and had my actors ask me all sorts of questions about the characters lifestyle, where they are from originally, whom they live with. Know your character inside out so you are never caught out with questions.

2. Remember the scene previous

Film sets can be confusing, they hardly ever shoot in chronological order. In the morning you could be filming a chase scene and in the afternoon an emotional piece. It’s easy to forget where you are up too. As a director you need to remember where your characters are emotionally within the script.

Read through the previous and current scene you are about to film before you start filming. Make notes on the characters emotions. Remember to keep the emotions consistent.

3. Have some time alone with the actors

As a director the actors performance will not be the only thing on your mind during the shoot (On an Indie production you might be doing more than one job role). Everyone on set will want to talk to you before filming begins. It will be loud and busy, so you need to find the time alone with the actors.

Talk about where the characters are emotionally within the scene you are shooting (mention what happened in the scene previous), talk about what the character is trying to achieve in this scene and what is on their mind.

4. Block all of the action before shooting

Blocking A Scene On A Film Set Is The Process Of Rehearsing The Action Within The Location You Are Going To Shoot Within. Before Costumes Are On, Before Lighting Is Set, The Actors Will Rehearse The Scene A Few Times Within The Location So That The Crew Can See The Physical Performance.

By Doing This The DOP Will Be Able To See How To Set Up The Lights, The Art Director Will Know How The Location Needs To Be Dressed, The 1st AD Will Be Able To Direct Any Extras Efficiently Etc.

5. Stay focused

When that camera starts rolling focus on the actor's performance first. Leave the lighting, costume, hair and makeup, to the rest of your crew.  Whilst you are watching the actors perform think about whether they are acting emotionally right for the scene and think about whether their performance is believable.

I like to write notes on the side of my script i.e – John should be sad since his dog has died a few scenes previous, when I look back at the take - I might think IS John acting like someone would whose dog has died- maybe he is too sad.

It’s not always possible to just ‘direct’ as a director – especially if you are an independent one – but you must make sure that you give the time needed for directing the actors – after all if the performances are not believable on screen, then that is your responsibility.

Directing just like anything will get better with practice. How many films must a director make to achieve 10,000 hours. I am not a professional director by any length just someone who gets the chance to direct once or twice a year. 

25 Tips for directing actorsBooks on directing actors.