December 2014

Excellent book on Acting Technique for Film...

Patrick Tucker's Secrets of Screen Acting is out now in a revised third edition, and it is marvelous. I have been a fan of this book since he first wrote it in 1993 and have recommended it many times. What makes it special is his British perspective. You may have noticed that the Brits tend to win a disproportionate number of the acting Oscars, and the techniques described in Secrets of Screen Acting are part of the reason why. American actors like to work "truthfully", starting with emotional justification and working outward to the physical. The British actors, tracking back to Shakespeare rather than Stanislavsky, come at things the other way around, outside first, working inward to emotional justification. Both approaches ultimately wind up in basically the same place performance-wise, but the British really know how to better use the camera. They are clear-headed about where it is and what the picture will look like within the frame when the audience sees it. Patrick Tucker goes into all of that in this book, which has plenty of illustrations. He will describe positioning and blocking for a scene in a stage play and then re-block and stage it for camera, explaining step-by-step why there is a difference. And - special bonus - he has added time-codes to this revision. So when he mentions, say, a particular moment of craft (or lack of it) in a specific movie, you can go to the DVD, if you have it, and fast-foward to that moment in the film so you can see for yourself. There is also a chapter on how to direct actors for the camera, which is useful. Overall, this is an excellent, essential hands-on book for every actor and film director. Good stuff, highly recommended.

 

"It does not matter what’s the color of your skin, what language do you speak, what religion you believe in. It is that we should all consider each other as human beings and we should respect each other and we should all fight for our rights, for the rights of children, for the rights of women and for the rights of every human being."Malala Yousafzai, 17-year-old
Nobel Prize Laureate, 2014

Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule

February 9-13 Animex 2015, Teesside, England

April 10-12 Weekend with Animation Masters, London (in planning stage)

May 5-8 FMX, Stuttgart Germany

Craft Notes:
"Empathize with the
Villains?"

What it is about empathy that frightens so many people? Hilary Clinton gave a speech recently (December 3rd, at Georgetown University) during which she advocated for what she called governmental "smart power." That, she explained, includes "...showing respect, even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view, helping to define the problems and determine the solutions.” That sounds like sage advice to me, but social media lit up like she had come out in favor of stamping newborns with cattle brands. "You don't empathize with ISIS!", was a typical protest. "Evil is evil," said another one. Many comments indicated that this is precisely the reason why American citizens should be alarmed by Ms. Clinton's political ascension.

Oh my, oh my. Empathy is not something to be feared. On the contrary, it is an evolutionary adaptation that is essential to human survival, a function of the mirror neurons in our brains. Empathy is neither Democrat nor Republican. (See The Tell-Tale Brain, by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.) Empathy is a non-negotiable reference in Shakeseare's dictum that the actor should "hold the mirror up to nature". (Hamlet, act 3, scene 2). You can't hold the mirror up unless you can empathize with other people. Empathy by itself implies zero value judgements on the part of the empathizer. You can empathize with your enemy and still not agree with him. In fact, you can empathize with your enemy and still go to war with him if you judge that to be necessary. "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster", wrote Sun Tzu almost 3,000 years ago in The Art of War.

In my acting classes, we talk about heroes and villains in connection with empathy, and Lesson #1 is that every person is a hero in his or her own life, even the worst among us. A villain does not think he is a villain. Hitler did not get up every morning saying to himself, "I wonder how much evil I can do today?" We do ourselves no favor at all if we refuse to understand our enemies, and I find it encouraging that a politician would say this out loud in a public place.

Actors must compartmentalize themselves as citizens and artists. As a citizen, I will vote for whatever measures are necessary to prevent a repeat of 9-11. As an artist, if I am cast to play one of the hijackers that crashed into the World Trade Center that awful day, then I am on a mission from God. We learn nothing about survival by treating life as a zero-sum transaction: "us vs. them", "good-guy vs. bad-guy", "bring 'em back dead or alive". We are all exactly the same animal: We are all born the same way, die the same way, and we all act to survive. We all can express the same basic seven emotions: happy, sad, anger, disgust, surprise, contempt and fear. Emotion is defined as "an automatic value judgement", and each of us has our own individual and unique set of personal values. Empathy is how we "read" each other's constantly evolving values and negotiate our social interactions. Empathy is how we know it is a good time to make love.

Although it surprises me that a savvy politician like Hilary Clinton would open herself up to such personal attacks, her Georgetown University talk could wind up being one of the most useful things she has ever done -- if it leads to a public dialogue about empathy. Generally, politicians tell us how we are different from one another, how it is that God blesses one group of us and not the other. Generally, politicians lead us into wars precisely because they have this tendency to divide the world into "good" and "bad" people. The artist is obliged to explain how we are all the same, holding Shakespeare's mirror up to nature.

Comedian and HBO-TV talk show host Bill Maher has generated a lot of publicity and controversy these past few months by demonizing Islam unilaterally. Setting aside the fact that generalizations of any kind are generally risky, wouldn't it be fun to watch Maher and Hilary Clinton discuss the role of empathy in public discourse? I have a strong hunch that he would agree with her about it, which might lead him to a more nuanced view of Muslims.

I wish for you a fulfilling, meaningful and healthy 2015.

Until next year...
Be safe!

 

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