How to Direct Actors in your Movie

indie filmmaking Blog Podcast explores the best ways for you to produce direct and get your film seen by the biggest possible audience

Directing Actors is a very undervalued skill.  There are many films made by emerging film makers where the director is too shy or lacking in confidence to talk to actors about their performances.  This comes from lack of experience with actors.  Over time Directors will gain confidence and know exactly how to get the best from the actors. 

Let’s break Screen Acting and the Director’s role down into 4 Areas.

Area one – Casting

As a Director, the Casing is crucial.  You get a chance to pick the best talent available to you in the marketplace.  If you pick very poor actors, the film is dead in the water before you have shot a frame.

On my last two feature films, the casting in both cases lasted two months.  Over that time, we saw 100s of potential actors and chose the very best actors from the overall casting.  This makes life very comfortable if you have chosen talented screen actors for your film. 

Should you have a casting for your short film.  Absolutely!  You need to learn how to cast and you can do this on a high calibre film course.

Area two – Rehearsal 

How many emerging film makers skip this process to their detriment.  Many times, this happens in lower calibre TV Dramas and results in stilted performances with actors seemingly not inhabiting the role.  The mortal sin of Screen Acting is committed. Namely, the Actor looks like an Actor acting.

Once an actor is seen acting, they have blown their cover.  It is like a magician who reveals how their tricks are done. 
In most cases, the audience wants to be taken away with a great story and not see the actor’s performance. They want to believe that this person really is the person they are portraying.

Rehearsals help with the following:

  1. Actors blocking (the movement of the actors on set).
  2. Working on the dialogue in the script.  Many times, the actors and directors will change dialogue to take out the poor dialogue from the original script.
  3.  Actors Chemistry – This is a chance to get the actors together and work with each other.  I generally go out for a quick social after the rehearsal, so the actors get to know each other well in advance of the shoot.  You would be surprised at how often the actors only meet each other for the first time on Day One of the shoot.  Sometimes they must kiss each other or do a very dramatic scene as some First AD has poorly scheduled the first scene of the movie.
  4. Performance.  This is a chance to work on performance and how the actors play the scene.  The Director needs to know how to break a scene down into actions, objectives, and subtext.  The Director needs to know actor communication and how to express the performance parameters.  When you learn to make films, you will gain the experience to do this. 

On the day of the shoot, there is very little time.  Everyone is asking the director questions about their area.  Makeup, Art Department, the DOP and the Sound Recordist are all wanting direction.  You want to have completed most of the work with the actors in rehearsal in advance of the shoot.

The Film is made or destroyed in the edit. On set, it is important to push your actors for their very best performance.  As a good director, you will maximise your coverage.  This is different shots from different angles with different equipment.  You may get track shots, slider shots or crane shots or just a basic static shot.  You will also change your prime lenses to get different perspectives.

In most cases, a good director will get 30 times more material than ends up in the completed scene.  This is called shooting ratio which was very important in the old days when we shot film.  Shooting ratio is the ratio between the footage shot and what ends up in the completed film.  30:1 means you shot 30 times as much as actually ends up in the fine cut of the film.

The shooting ratio very much effects the actor performance.  As a director, you watch all of the takes, shot on shoot day via Video split at Video Village.  You have headphones on and can hear the actor’s dialogue.  You watch your actor’s performance in detail on your video screen.

As a director, you watch and direct what the actor is doing.  This is a skill that is learned via experience.  You work with, and push, the actors to perform their very best.  You do your best to create the best environment for the actor to give their best.  You can accelerate the learning curve in this area by actually taking a filmmaking Course 

The beauty of film is that when anyone makes a mistake, one just shoots another take till you have a Print Take. (Usable take)

After the shoot, the Director will collaborate with the editor or in some cases edit themselves.  It is very important these days to Watch Everything. 

Watch all the footage. Watch every take that has the correct blocking and seek out the very best performance moments.  You can mark them and try them in the cut.  As you will throw out most of the material and only have about 3% of what you shot on set in the finished edit, it is very important to be patient.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in editing is a rushed edit.  This happens these days because of a feeling that editing must be fast and quick.  Many people are in a hurry with their edits.  This is where edits go wrong.

It is your duty as the Film Director to pick the very best performance from the takes and coverage and mesh them into the very best scene in the finished film.  This, in turn, maximises the quality of the screen performance.

I love editing and I am the actual editor on most of my films.  The average scene will take me about 2 – 3 hours to edit.  I spend about 60 – 90 minutes watching the footage and picking the best parts.  Then I have a ten-minute rest.  
Then I edit intuitively the scene using the best moments and create the best scene. 

Good Editing only comes from experience and many hours of practice.  Most Directors hire experienced editors.  Make sure you watch all your footage and mark out the good material with your editor.  Then let the editor go for it.  On big films, many Directors will attend the Dailies or Rushes with their editor after shooting and point out the best parts to the editor. On Micro budget films it is important to learn to edit your own films and you can learn online with and editing course 

In conclusion, it is very important to have a well-trained Director who is a film magician and who is capable of making a film that helps the screen actor find the very best screen performance via great casting, effective rehearsal, a film shoot that maximises the coverage and an edit that enhances the film with an awesome, professionally mixed soundtrack. 

Then the Screen Actor can bring the award-winning performance to the screen.

Colm O’Murchu is an active film maker who loves filmmaking and teaching it.
His 4 Month filmmaking courses takes place in Sydney and


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Colm O'Murchu - Host

Colm O’Murchu is a passionate Indie Filmmaker and owner of the production company, International Film Base. He has directed and produced three successfully released feature films worldwide and one documentary.  

His most recent film Tabernacle 101 has been released in 2019 in the US and will be released in Australia in late 2020 premiering at the Sci Fi Film Festival. He is currently in development on his next feature film Absolute Freedom, an action adventure film set in the outback.

He has spoken at Indie Film Seminars all over the world and created online and offline film courses 

 He lives in the Blue Mountains NSW Australia and loves the outdoors and the mountains.

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