FIrst Principals

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FIrst Principals

Post by meghpant »

this is an article from my research paper on fellowship at FTII. This article is called "First Principals" and it defines some of the philosophies of acting in the cinematic environment ..


These are things known to anyone associated with the medium, but still there is a need to drive it across again and again. These are guiding principals and common place wisdom by the gurus which I have read across many books and collected in the form of these 14 points , these are not mantras which if you learn by heart will make you better actors but are observation points for an actor to explore throughout and thoroughly during any shooting scenario in which he/she is actively involved, to understand the mechanics of the medium not only as performers trying to prove a point but as part of the whole (of the team you work with in the medium), to respect the other persons craft and to help him achieve excellence in their work, they in turn will help you excel in yours.
It is the philosophy of so called cine acting.

“It isn’t a question of who is right, but who is the director.” *
*Lee Strasberg (session 72, 6 march 1959)

Always said but never understood especially by actors, this is the first and the foremost principal commonly referred to in many books and by many teachers in different forums as
“Cinema is a director’s medium”.

Why do we keep saying this time and again, this is because we do not understand it and still many actors make desperate attempts to prove superiority by trying to carry it off on there own shoulders, but it seldom works. All this is because the director knows his film as a whole, he has worked more on his film than you have, and actors selfish creatures that they are only see it in part, as a slice of their own performance, counting lines and not understanding the scenario in which they are placed as in the script.. Trust is the name of the game; the only choice that an actor ever gets to make is choosing his/her director and script after that there is no way but total faith and commitment. Like the very famous lines by Alfred Hitchcock “My film is ready, I just need to shoot it”, it is the director who has seen the film before anyone else. He is the only audience you will get during the shoot, and you have to be on cue, exactly at the same place doing the same thing which the director has on his story board (let us assume for now that the director has a story board).
If you ever feel in the deepest of deep that a director is interfering in your work and not letting you act trust me at that very moment you are interfering more in his work than he is in yours.

EDITING CAN Create A PERFORMANCE that was never actually given *
*Essay on Acting, Lee Strasberg. Encyclopedia Britannica, vol- 1

Not all of you might have had the pleasure and honor of editing a film on a Steinbeck but those who have will surly understand the importance of montage in creating a performance, a few frames up or down can give such a superb timing to a moment creating magic on screen that was never actually there in the first place, the sad part being that the credit for such timing goes to the actor and not the editor. Montage is an important part of an actor’s performance what happens in a single shot and what happens after the cut is a collective of the team but the timing and choice of shift is an editor’s realm. An actor might insist on the use of some shot which according to him/her is brilliant (again making the mistake of looking it as a part), but sometimes the use of an NG shot can spell a brilliant touch to whole scene, for all those who beg to differ please try the Steinbeck or else take some rushes in which you feel you have done a brilliant job, edit it as per you satisfaction, now give the same to a pro editor and see the difference.


Scenario - 1
I am looking at your neck or your eyebrows from more than 20ft I cannot see a thing you have mastered bodily relaxation but your mind and ears are waiting for the cue, I cannot see it from 20 ft, NOW !! I am so close ( 70mm) the detailing is so clear I can see you wait, I can see you not listening, I can see that you are trying to relax, trying to hide your nervousness. Your neck is stiff you have been forbidden to move, suddenly you hear the call and in 10 seconds the shot is over.

Scenario – II
Call time is 6.30, you are on the sets at 5.45 traveling a long way fighting traffic, you reach the set and all you see is a art direction assistant trying to move the furniture. You wear you costume and get your make up done by 6.30 and you are ready and roaring, people are moving in slowly and everything is slow your energy level is high, you are going through your lines getting every details right and it so happens that by 9.30 every one is gearing up and your energy level is dropping. First shot at around 10.00, schedule change gets your scene at before lunch, delays push it to 4.00 in the evening, your costume starts to get dirty you take it off and plan to relax, have a hearty lunch and are sitting when the AD rushes in and tell you that they have to shoot inserts for some other scene and hands you over the script which has been changed and calls you on the set in 10 min, you are caught off guard with low energy.


Imagine being alone in a crowed place, doing things which you would do when you are generally alone. Imagine being in heat of a studio simulating cold with the hawk eye looking at you for an inch of behavioral deviation.
Before and after a shot there is chaos, with at least 10 people stomping over the sets, during the shot the silence is almost deafening. Concentration is not that of a specific focused kind but dynamic, being in the concentrating mode is to be in the mode of heightened sensitivity that the noise level and chaos level does not permit and to top that up being in a state of physical, physiological and emotional imagination.
To concentrate in this medium is to concentrate in a pool of distractions, there is no silence until before the take and when there is you can hear the buzzing in your ears.
To imagine circumstances that are very difficult, to imagine your lover, the judge, the criminal etc when all you see in front of you is a camera assistant with a thermo Cole in his hand and jarring lights all around, you have to create the space through imagination and concentration.


“I think there has been a general tendency, of many of you, to pretend to understand, when you don’t know what is going on. I don’t mind, you’re not understanding, but you are a fool if you don’t admit it. You see, you are putting you ego above your need to learn”
- Sanford Meisner, Master Class
The biggest danger training poses is a psychological one, the student fear being called bad and being a failure in class, in the shadow of that fear they always want to be right or better than some other student, who might be called the best based on some individual teachers point of view, the struggle for acceptance or to inch one in on the best is what the student starts to aim, in that he/she forgets that he/she is unique and that one possesses ones own strengths and weaknesses, the student looses his/her individuality and starts a copy book acting practice based on good and bad to get appreciation from the teacher. In this quest for power to be accepted self work and experimentation goes out of the window. The student in order to be right or to get that good remark start to imitate the good parts of the good and develops his/her set of cheat codes which are a sure out come of guilt and shame (Please read “introduction form a practical handbook for the actor”, David Mamet’s book “a whore’s profession”). .
Cheat codes are good in certain areas of acting(Mostly in what ever medium you do not get time to prepare or for directors who don’t care) . But using them gives certain staleness to the performance as the codes developed over years of struggle for acceptance are clearly visible to trained eyes. So training is not to develop cheat codes that most actors develope during training but to explore and experiment be wrong/ miss the mark and to keep trying to keep performances fresh and in real time, moment to moment.
“Acting can be good or bad, but never untruthful”(Naseeruddin Shah, Acting Master class FTII, 2005 )


Cheat codes are visible formulas, shortcuts that an actor develops to deal with the different imaginary situations on a constant basis as a substitution to a systematic and layered craft, these shortcuts develop through guilt and laziness on the part of the actor, shortcuts to instant results which takes the place of hard work and constant application. Cheat codes are also a form of craft on a very surface level mostly being on the verge of “stock company acting” surpassing the “pinch and the ouch”(DVD-1, Sanford Meisner Master Class) principal.
An actor develops these out of fear of being wrong, when you let your ego to overpower your need to learn and experiment(DVD-1, Sanford Meisner Master Class) , to be at a safe distance from the verge of failure forgetting that the most brilliant performances are the one’s that have been very close to that thin line of failure. Cheat codes are ok when used in the context of instant results but it dulls the actors ability to prepare when an actor has time to do so and it gives a feeling of false confidence to carry along with any scene or situation without hesitation.
Till the time you are afraid is the time you learn.


How much can an actor achieve in a single shot is not dependent on the actor’s ability to perform but on his/her ability to understand the scenario in which the director has placed the scene and then the shot. It is not important what all you achieve in a shot but the focus has to be how close to the bull’s eyes you are, focus area is precision and precision only comes from understanding of the script in totality and the directors POV. Pure class in the medium of cinema comes from achieving small objectives with precision.


Cinema is a medium of physiology and thought, 5 seconds of CU delivered with precision of the craft set in the correct behavioral perspective, supported by timed montage communicates more than a soliloquy.
The next question is how does an actor deliver a 5 Sec CU in the correct behavioral perspective, a simple technique is to think about a behaviorally equivalent situation from experience(essay “ Lee Strasberg’s paradox of the Actor” by Sharon Marie Carnicke) , all behavioral expressions have to spring from stimulating the subconscious through art, music etc which is the realm of preparation.
“On the stage you can give a performance, but on the camera you better have an experience”(Tony Barr ( 1997 : 7 ))


The binding thing about the medium of cinema is tolerances, that exact position, the exact look, the exact timing any deviation in any of the set tolerances and performance drops the mark. Everybody in the medium is bound to these tolerances, the minimum being the tolerance of a frame but lets not get into these details now, to make acting totally technical is impossible but to drive my point through we talk of the depth of field available in a 70mm lensing, the minimum required to have a perfect lip sync during ADR, to be placed as an object in a frame but still deliver as an actor, to handle emotional continuity all these have to be delivered with the precision of engineering and yet be in the realm of artistic expression as an actor.


Your work is not totally dependent on yours; an actor is seen and heard through someone else’s efforts so you need help from other departments. An actor in this medium is crippled without that help. The number of ways you can fail is the number of ways the shot can be an NG shot, and it is not always you who is responsible, but an actor you are, you will have to bear the brunt of repeating the shot with precision till it is ok’ for print .
What an actor looks is dependent on the camera department including lighting, what he does is dependent of the direction dept, his voice is cleaned and processed by the audiography dept, timing and rhythm is an editors job so what does a films actor do finally he just delivers and links, delivers a shot and links it emotionally to the other as being told, to find ones identity in this process as a precision actor who performs like an artist but helps other’s in there job too is a life long endeavor.


Reaching out can be disastrous in the cinematic environment, it is like the advice given to a wicket keeper in cricket don’t grab the ball as it travels to you let it come into your hands or as was said by Robert Bresson in his notes.
“The nearer they(“the actor”) approach on the screen with their expressions, the further away they go. Houses, trees come nearer, the actors go away.”


The average duration of a shot is around 30s to 90s, while the average waiting time for a shot can be around an hour or more, an actor will be expected to deliver in short bursts after a lot of waiting and that waiting is not just for the shot but also the shoot or the role that one is looking for(Getting the role, part – I and II by Simon Callow ) . The conditions that one is put through it becomes very difficult to apply craft or technique unless it is second nature, and unless you have sufficient experience craft cannot be second nature and so this becomes a vicious loop.


In other words no one in any department wants to have the axe falling on there head, or in some rare cases they want a good job done and the actor happens to be the only human centre of attraction (you cannot blame it on the mantle piece) so each department guy will sneak up to him and lay some special conditions, to cover up anything which will be caught in the rushes. The other way around is not permitted unless you are a star and it takes the distance of many light years to be a star till then all you will collide against are rocks floating in space.

*Stella Adler .

When Stella Adler Said the following in her acting class she was referring to creative choices with special reference of justification, but her words have a deeper meaning when contemplated in a much wider scope of application. “choices” are every where, one just needs to take the decision, it can be a craft decision or a career decision but in this medium and in this profession one cannot afford to be neutral one needs to have a Point of View about everything, one needs to have direction, putting it in another sense it can also be said that
“Your talent lies in your compromises”
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Paramvir Singh
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Re: FIrst Principals

Post by Paramvir Singh »

very well written Megh!


how true! it seems, on paper, we all know what to do to become what is typically classified as 'successful'. but it's interesting to note how a lot of us are not doing it out of lethargy, righteous attitude, bad attitude etc...
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