5 important on-set lessons

I have just completed the main bulk of filming on a low budget short film called “The Long Autumn Months”. With just over a week on set, and a sufficient amount of drama I learnt A LOT, but my top 5 tips are:

1. Always bring a dressing gown

On set hours are long and uncomfortable, obviously this probably doesn’t apply if you are Jennifer Lawrence, but be prepared to be cold and wet, with little space to change, warm up and get comfortable! A dressing gown can be used to change under, to keep you warm or to replace clothes that are wet from filming (I spent a lot of time wet on this film). As film shoots can be very long hours and very intense it is vitally important to keep yourself psychologically and physically healthy. My top tips are to keep up some kind of exercise regime, practice yoga or alexander technique, practice vocal exercises, bring healthy snacks and most importantly REST, REST, REST whenever possible. Also try to get outside and explore your location (see point number 3).

2. Please and thank you goes a long way

Shane and Michael, taken by Becky Sage
Director and co-star, resting together with a cup of tea.

During our shoot we had a change of the lead man. This was largely due to a very self-involved, impolite young actor, who, quite frankly, was not good or well known enough to take, take, take and give nothing in return. Misdemeanours included: having to be constantly told by the director to turn off his phone or put it down when on set; taking overlong breaks and then complaining if things weren’t finished on time; complaining about temperature, catering and everything else almost relentlessly; and most importantly, for me, general impoliteness. He ignored me when I introduced myself on the first day (when arriving 30mins late), more interested in finding out the wifi code. He would play games on his phone and when asked to engage with me (his co-star) to practice, or help develop characters he would completely ignore me. His excuse “I’m not here to make friends”. The atmosphere on set was tense and very difficult, not particularly nurturing for I am pleased to say that his replacement was a far more giving scene partner who genuinely cared about being there and creating a good film.

Rant over!

On the flip side it is so important to form a team in low budget films – if you care about the project and support each other then you will get the best possible outcome. Make tea for people if you have some spare time, during breaks try to get to know people and find out their motivations for being involved and be ready to give your all on set. Appreciate the fact that everyone is working intensively and will sometimes need some extra support. As an actor be aware of your own continuity, costume, make up; on low budget films you are unlikely to have a large enough team to include a continuity person, multiple ADs or hair and make up, of course it is the directors job, but they only have one pair of eyes/hands/ears etc, so help out where possible. The more YOU put in, the more YOU will get out.

3. Explore time and space

Winchester Abbey
Winchester Abbey

Every film you make gives you an opportunity to see the world through new eyes. This film is set in modern times but I play a ghost who lived and died in the 1970s, therefore her character is influenced by the era. In order to develop my character I did some 1970s research, it was fascinating to recall how much life has changed in the last 40 years and learn about the decade before I was born! It was also fun to wear genuine 1970s clothes in a pallet of yellows and browns (the opposite to my wardrobe of pinks and blues), and the different style helped to inform the old fashioned nature and knowledge of the character.

Exploring Winchester
Exploring Winchester

I also took the time to explore the town where we filmed, Winchester. It is a small city which brings together quaint, pretty, middle England with the arts and some of the most fashionable young people I have seen (I think due to the art college), I wish I had got some street style shots!

So my tip is to immerse yourself in the opportunity that you have to explore new places and times.

4. Bouncing lights

Most of the time setting up our shots was spent trying to remove big shadows and create the right lighting states. Just by sitting and watching I learnt a lot about lighting and sound and other technical aspects. I am not interested in the technical aspects of film, per-se, however it is useful as an actor to understand the mood that the lights are creating and how they are capturing you.

Setting up a shot

Filmakers are also fonts of information when it comes to referring to other films as source of reference. You can learn all sorts about film by spending time with them.

5. Playing

The real reason that we are on set is because we love to act. I decided to use this film to practice different acting techniques. I am still in the early part of my career and still figuring out how to deliver my best performances. I decided to play with 3 techniques and combine that with the directors guidance on the film:

a) The psychological gesture – I created a psychological gesture for my character based on early reads of the script. This was very useful for me, particularly for keeping continuity in my character from day 1 until I wrapped. Initially the director would physically move me into positions that I felt were against my psychological gesture – so I questioned whether I had slightly misinterpreted the character, after a short discussion with the director I saw his view and it helped me to create a more in-depth character, combining my initial observations and instincts with the girl that he wanted to see on screen. I was lucky that this director allowed me some time to talk about this.

b) Objectives – my character has some very clear objectives and actions in this screenplay so I used them to drive me through each scene and inform the psychological gesture.

c) Instinct – our most important tool, as Lupita Nyongo said in a recent interview – “There is something about acting that’s mysterious and magical because there is only so much I can do to prepare and then I have to just let go and breathe and believe that it will come through.”

In some cases my techniques were at odds to the direction that I received once on set, I experimented both with my own methods and tried to incorporate the desires of the director. Sometimes on set I feel like directors have such a strong aesthetic vision that they miss the subtleties of the character and their emotional state. As an actor it is my job to deliver the directors view without compromising the character work.

It will be a little while before “The Long Autumn Months” is through post production, I look forward to seeing how it comes out and if my methods worked.

Watch this space……..


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