As an actor, I have taken absolute refuge in the weird and wonderful world of web series. I mean, not only do I get a consistent way to practice and expand my skills, but I also get to cast myself as WHATEVER I WANT. Whenever I want. All the time. Quoth the prophet Lizzie McGuire, this is what dreams are made of.
Once I realized that, of course, I got into gear and wrote REPRESENT, a socially-conscious comedy web series with the perfect lead role for me. The only problem, of course, is that, if we want to give ourselves an amazing role, we have to write an amazing role. And then we have to write a whole amazing script around it. And then we have to assemble a team, find a camera, work around our leading man’s stint on Law & Order, sweet-talk our way into locations, scour Goodwill for appropriate costumes, call in that favor with the guy who owns those lav mics, and pony up some day-job cash for mid-shoot pizza. In short, we have to do ALL THE THINGS. And when you have ALL THE THINGS in your brain, your acting technique likes to take a vacation. Suddenly, you’re on set, calling action for yourself, and you can’t seem to remember any of the lines that you wrote. For yourself .
So how do you turn out a good performance when you’re also the director (and the producer, and the art director, and the showrunner, and the assistant camera, and the production coordinator, and the PA who has to go grab lunch)?
1. Get someone else to direct.
I know, I know. You already hate me for this one. I know that every director has their own specific style, and you don’t want the quality of the series to suffer by handing it over to someone else. Trust me, I get it. But here’s the thing – the quality of the series will suffer even more if you don’t. You can’t be worried about if your scene partner is playing their backstory or whether your DP is a little soft on focus. That stuff shows in your acting! You need to be fully focused on your own performance – as much as you can be, anyway.
I know that Bradley Cooper and Angelina Jolie do it all the time, but guys – they have millions of dollars and hundreds of other people taking the other parts of the workload off them. You have yourself, three friends from college, and your brother’s roommate who smells like dog but you got stuck with because owns a DSLR.
Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you can’t direct your own projects. It just means you have to be smart about it. If you’re going to be on camera and you want to direct, first make your own shot list, and make it extremely detailed. Then, hand it off to a trusted AD – someone who has come to the shoots and the production meetings, who understands the series. Let them worry about the framing and the plane noise. With your detailed notes and their understanding of the big picture, you should be totally fine.
I know it sucks to delegate. But if you have a talented team who respects you, you can trust them. I promise.
2. Watch every take.
Okay, so this is assuming you ignored that first tip, because I know some of you will. It’s fine to be a control freak! I am right there with you! But if you’re really not going to hand over the reins, you’re going to need a lot more time.
Watch every take. Every single take. No “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.” No “We’ll fix it in post.” NO. If you’re the only director, and you really want to capture your specific vision, this is a necessity. Build enough time in your schedule so that you, personally, can watch everything to check the focus, the framing, and the performances.
This is going to add hours to your schedule, for sure. But if you don’t, I promise you, you will be cursing your DP come editing time, wondering why they didn’t pan slightly to the left or why they didn’t tell you your face looks weird. Not speaking from experience or anything (I’m totally speaking from experience). But if you’re gonna be a control freak, you have to go all the way.
3. Build time into your schedule.
Even if you’re delegating the on-set directing to someone else, building extra time into your schedule is crucial. Because otherwise, you end up moving from a hilarious improvisation scene to a deeply personal dramatic argument that you now have to perform at the drop of a hat, with no time to prepare.
If you know you have a particularly difficult scene coming up, allow ample time for a break beforehand, so that you can center yourself, take off your directing hat, and get into character. If you know you get nervous right before romantic scenes (ahem…slowly raises hand), you don’t want to be rushing into an on-screen kiss without connecting with your scene partner and making sure you’re both feeling comfortable.
Don’t put yourself in these positions! One benefit to doing ALL THE THINGS is that one of the things is scheduling. You’re the one who gets to decide how much time you need. Use it wisely!
My favorite acting teacher once said that everyone loves getting the part, and everyone loves opening night, but no one wants to do the rehearsing in between. And, lucky for us, with film, many times you don’t need to rehearse! You just get to do it and see what happens. Which is awesome.
But if you’re directing and writing and coordinating and producing and acting? Rehearsing might not be such a bad idea. Again, not to self-burn, but I’m terrible about this. I have finally finished running around checking on my actors, making sure crafty is stocked, helping with a mic issue, calling someone who is running late to set, setting up a soft box, and I finally sit down in front of the camera and – wait, what scene is this? Why can’t I remember that 2 page monologue that I wrote for myself? What sorcery took my acting brain away?
Busy-ness is the sorcery. It makes you scattered and forgetful – two things you super don’t want to be if you’re the person running the whole show on your set. So see if you can schedule a time, just you and your scene partner, to rehearse scenes a few times. Because the only way to combat that sorcery is muscle memory. If you do it over and over, even if your brain is a million other places, it’ll just flow out.
5. Make a character playlist.
Regardless of what you decide to do, whether you’re directing or not, whether you’ve rehearsed or not, you need some way of tapping into your character. And if you’re running sixty bajillion other jobs on set, it needs to be super quick.
You can take some time on your own to write a diary entry from the perspective of your character, and then read it over right before you start. You can create a collage of images that might be meaningful to your character and keep it on top of your script, so you can look at it when needed. But for me, the most effective method is the character playlist.
What music would your character listen to? What particular songs would be extremely resonant to them, if they heard them in the particular circumstances of the scene? Download a few songs that make sense for the person you’re being today and put them in your phone. Then right before your scene, pop some earphones in and just spend some time in your character’s brain.
You can make these playlists as long or as short as you want to. You can even make separate ones based on where your character is emotionally in each scene or episode. But if you’re not going to have a whole lot of time to prepare, I definitely recommend picking one that stands out above the rest – your character’s personal theme song. No matter how busy your set is, there are almost always 2 minutes while someone is adjusting lighting in which you can open up the part of yourself that is your character. It’s quick, it won’t cut into your other on-set responsibilities, and it can really do wonders for your performance. Trust me.
Emily Ann Scott is an actress, writer, and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She created and wrote the forthcoming comedy web series REPRESENT, a series about two actresses who, when faced with the misogyny of the film industry, decide to make their own movie. REPRESENT has been named a semi-finalist in the Los Angeles Cinefest and a selection at the Webisode Film Festival. Emily’s scripts have earned recognitions such as ScreenCraft Pilot Launch quarter-finalist, silver for Best Dialogue at the Queen Palm Film Festival, and nominations for Best Short Screenplay at both the Independent Horror Movie Awards and the Bloodstained Indie Film Festival. You can learn more about her work at www.emilyannscott.com and www.representwebseries.com.