Phillip B. Conrad

April 20, 2009

The 48 Hour Film Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 11:47 pm

I’ve read that a great way to learn about writing characters is to take an acting class.  That was a little bit too serious for me, but when a co-worker approached me last year, offering me a role in his 48 Hour film, I had to see what it was all about.  I had a very small role last year and essentially just delivered a couple of lines that were not particularly interactive.  This year was different.  I had a role that was almost a lead.

The first thing you come to realize working on a small film is how little control you have, as an actor.  The screenplay may have obvious holes or points where it just makes no sense at all.  The director may have some some terrible, clumsy props he wants you to use.  The cinematographer will certainly have limitations to what is possible with his hardware.  Sometimes all these issues are bundled within a single person, other times they are actually spread out out over several folks.   On top of that, you may have serious differences with how the other actors are working.  No matter what though, your say is minimal.   It’s a very different world than the prose writer’s world of total control.  Thankfully, the insane deadlines keep the disagreements from festering too long.  There’s just no time to bicker, you need to get that film in the can.

This year I was in three big scenes that involved a lot of back and forth with two different characters, both far more skilled actors than myself.  I had to do physical comedy, work with props, blend action and dialogue as realistically as possible, and eat up a lot of screen time acting with only my face.  It’s a heck of a lot harder than it than it looks.

There’s a theory of writing, pioneered in the book Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.  It’s the theory of motivation and reaction.  Essentially, you build fiction entirely from action, then a reaction, then either a new action or a reaction to the reaction.  It reads like a over-simplification, perhaps a nice theory, but certainly not a law of the writing universe.  My recent acting experience leads me to believe that is is, in fact, a law of the fiction universe, as real as gravity is to physics.

Quite simply, acting with somebody else is the clearest illustration of how this works, I can imagine.  There you are, standing around in somebody’s living room watching intently for a cue, either verbal or acted, to do your part.  Actions don’t just come from out of the blue, except the first one in the scene.  Any doubts you might have had about applying this theory in your writing dissolve when faced with experiencing it as an actor.  If you have an action that gets no response, it’s painfully awkward. It’s equally uncomfortable to try and pull a reaction out of nowhere.  No matter what it says in the script, things have to happen for a reason.  Actors have to fill these holes with something, even in a situation of minimal direction.

Another unforeseen benefit of acting as a means to study character is that it really adds a reality check to what a character will or will not do.  This pops up in books a lot.  Some character does something with no apparent motivation that just seems way out of character.  It happens in movies too, but you can be pretty sure the actor was well aware of being forced into actions that make no sense.  Often times, there’s nothing an actor can do about it.  You have to pick your battles, and actors start in a position of weakness, unless they are super-stars.  Fighting with the director over why your character does something is probably not the best way to advance your career as an actor.  Nevertheless, they feel it when they’re forced to do or say something that just doesn’t make sense. Prose writers need to keep this in mind, as they are essentially tasking the reader with providing the acting for the story.

When The 48 Hour Film Project comes to your town, and really it goes everywhere, I strongly suggest you get involved.  No matter what role in a production you take, you’ll learn a lot about the movies, fiction and specifically character interaction.


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