Acting makes a significant contribution to the storytelling in narrative film. While we often remember performances like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, most of the time actors contribute to narratives with a subtle gesture or a nuanced mannerism. Through a simple glance or gesture actors can convey a great deal about the inner lives of their characters.According to film theorist Bob Foss, the most convincing actors are those who have “mastered the language of the body, a subtle combination of outward appearance and underacting. What we should aim for is economy of expression, the greatest possible effect with the least possible effort. A glance can express much more than a violent gesture.”
THINKING ABOUT ACTING
• Watching a scene without audio can often draw your attention to how acting contributes to the narrative.
• Consider how the facial expression, eye movement and gestures of an actor contribute to the narrative.
• How an actor delivers a line is important. The words may have one meaning, their delivery another.
• Acting is often used in conjunction with other production elements. Close-ups are often used by directors to emphasise the expression on an actor’s face.
• Always remember that actors have been directed, their performances is as deliberate and purposeful as the lighting or camera movement in a scene.
WRITING ABOUT ACTING
Because it is often so subtle, acting is often one of the most difficult production elements to write about. When writing about the contribution that acting makes to a narrative, remember the following:
• Do not write about characters as if they are real people. Using the name of the actor, rather than the character, can help you achieve this.
• When mentioning a character’s name for the first time, always give the name of the actor in brackets, e.g. ‘Acting makes a significant contribution to the narrative when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is preparing to leave Phoenix.’
• Refer to the actor when describing their performance, e.g. “Michael Cain’s performance as Alfred reveals both affection and deep concern for his charge. Before he delivers the line, ‘Know your limits, Master Wayne’, his eyes flicker and he clearly looks upset by the risks that Bruce is taking. At this moment, director Christopher Nolan cuts between a close-up of Alfred and a point-of-view shot of the scars on Bruce’s back. This moment of acting, in conjunction with the editing and point of view shots, contribute establish the concern that Alfred has for Bruce Wayne.”
• Make reference to specific instances of acting, such as a gesture or a facial expression, rather than generalising.
• Don’t praise the actor for their performance—you’re writing a narrative analysis, not recommending them for an Academy Award!
At the beginning of the film X2, director Bryan Singer establishes that Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has telepathic and telekinetic abilities. This is achieved using camera movement, sound, editing and acting. Jean turns around and she begins to hear a series of voices: whispers at first that begin to increase in volume and intensity. She looks around, confused and clearly a little disoriented. Editor John Ottman cuts between a series of point of view shots and an extreme close-up of her eyes. As her disorientation increases, these cuts become faster and the camera movement more erratic. Ottman cuts away to television screens that start flickering, then back to Jean who’s clearly unsettled by the onslaught of voices. This clearly demonstrates how a range of production elements, notably acting, can contribute to character development in narratives.
When Marion (Janet Leigh) arrives at the Bates Motel, Norman’s inexperience with women is accentuated through the use of visual composition and acting. Marion takes a step back, motioning towards the open door of her room. Norman hesitantly takes a step forward, then stops, moving back to his original position. Hitchcock uses a mid shot to focus audience attention on his embarrassed expression. The acting and visual composition of this moment conveys to the audience that, although Norman is attracted to Marion, he feels nervous and self-conscious in her presence. He stutters for a moment before suggesting that they eat supper in the office: “It – it might be uh, nicer – and warmer – in the office.” As he hesitantly retreats towards the office door, Hitchcock cuts to mid-shot of Marion who looks slightly bemused.
In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan establish that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) doesn’t want to be Batman forever and wants to rekindle his relationship with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). This is achieved through the use of dialogue, acting and camera techniques when Harvey Dent says, “Whoever Batman is, he doesn’t want to do this for the rest of his life.” As he says this line, director Christopher Nolan lingers on a close up of Bruce Wayne who looks towards Rachel, he swallows, subtly showing that he agrees with Dent. Nolan cuts to a close up of Rachel who returns Bruce Wayne’s glance. This use of dialogue, camera techniques and editing establishes the idea that Bruce Wayne doesn’t want to continue as Batman.