On a recent shoot a discussion arose as to whether it was better to move an actor or to move the camera to maintain a composition. The actor kept settling into a position that obscured an over-the-shoulder angle, and there are some who would simply ask the actor to not do that.
That never works.
Every time I've asked an actor to do something slightly different--everything from holding their glass a little lower so it doesn't obscure their face in a dinner scene to shifting a sword a little bit to the right during a sword fight--it has never, ever worked. The bottom line is that actors act first and hit marks second.
What I've noticed is that most actors who miss their marks miss them consistently, by the same distance and direction every single time. It's almost as if they have a "mark offset" built in to their brains.
Actors will say that they will try their best to hit their marks whenever you ask them to, but during the take they'll be so busy "in the moment" that they'll just keep missing them. If you remind them then eventually their performance suffers because they're spending more time worrying about hitting their marks than they are acting.
The solution is twofold: move the mark, and/or move the camera.
Moving the mark almost never makes a difference to where the actor lands because they aren't watching it anyway. The mark becomes a reference for your assistant so they can better judge focus. Even though the actor's performance is "technically" flawed it will almost always be flawed in exactly the same way, so moving the camera is more expedient and reliable. The actor continues to do what they do best--act!--and you get your shot.
There are rare occasions when you do need to physically move an actor to get a critical shot, such as an over-the-shoulder shot. This usually happens after blocking but during rehearsal. In those cases always move the "lesser" actor. Never move the star.
I made this mistake on a TV series once. I was operating a shot looking over the star's shoulder at someone playing a lesser role, and to improve my frame I asked the star if he would mind if we moved his mark an inch to the left.
"You can move this!" he yelled at me, grabbing his crotch. "You don't move me, YOU MOVE HIM!"
Lesson learned. I ended up moving the other actor and moving my camera, leaving the star in place. I got the shot and the actor got to vent some testosterone. (He had quite a lot, so in a way I did him a favor.)
Sometimes actors will do things differently in rehearsal than they will during their performance, as they are saving their energy for the real thing. You might ask them to stand on their mark and lean in the way they will during the take, and they will, but where they end up in that moment bears no resemblance to what will happen when they start acting. In those moments I take a mental note of how far I need to move the camera and then I'll make that correction between takes. If there's more than one camera rolling, and you're the additional camera, you can try to adjust your shot while someone else in the scene is talking and your assigned subject is waiting to deliver their next line. Odds are the editor will use the other shot when your subject is listening, so that's the time to finesse.
The camera slider started as a way to adjust over-the-shoulder shots on the fly, and they work great for this kind of thing: if the actor lands in the wrong spot then the operator simply nudges the head over a couple of inches to the right spot. Another trick, if the camera is on a dolly, is to unlock the dolly wheels and leave them turned at right angles to the lens axis. The operator can then nudge the dolly left or right to fix the shot, preferably while someone else in the scene is talking.
When at all possible, let actors act and fix the technical problems by adjusting things that are in your control:
- If the actor hits their mark but the frame isn't quite right, either move the mark or move the camera.
If the actor can't hit their mark but they're trying to, adjust the camera and leave the mark alone. They'll almost always miss it by the same amount.
- If the actor can't hit their mark, and isn't really trying to, but they keep landing in roughly the same spot in relation to their mark, move the mark to where they land and move the camera to compensate. At least that way your camera assistant has a real reference instead of a fake one.
Above all, don't get into a pissing contest with an actor who can't hit their marks. They got hired because they are who they are, and you got hired to capture their performance. The actor will always win as it's a lot easier to replace a camera crew than an actor.
Art Adams | Director of Photography | 1/30/2013 | www.artadamsdp.com