Acting Across Mediums: Stage-Screen-Webcam
Personal experience of acting across different mediums — on stage, on a film set, and via webcam.
There are many successful actors who masterfully entertain us both on stage and on screen. However, beginner actors and those just making the transition from one medium to the other might face the initial struggle that the two distinct set-ups present. While there are many websites and blogs that outline the differences between acting across these two mediums, they list only the obvious distinctions and fail to communicate what the lived experience of being on stage and being on a film set is. So here’s my attempt at sharing what I have felt while working as an actor on stage, in front of the camera, and recently acting for the webcam.
For starters, there is the obvious difference between performing for a live audience on stage and having the luxury of multiple takes during shoots. An actor on stage does not get any second attempts, and thus (honest) mistakes and deviations from the plan are bound to happen. Things can go wrong even if the actor does his/her job accurately. If a stage light comes up incorrectly, or a sound cue does not come on time or a co-performer forgets their lines — it is mostly the actor on stage who firefights the glitch! Performing in front of a live audience also means that there is a constant two-way energy transfer between the viewers and the performers. A participatory audience that keenly watches, reacts and applauses can lift up the spirit of the performers, and the entire show. A dull audience and dull performers collectively dip the energy of the hall! In many cases actors deliberately break the fourth wall and interact with the audience, by talking to them or posing questions to them. Actors sometimes go into the audience as well, and depending on the stage design and architecture of the venue, they move within the audience or chat with the audience, take/give props from the audience too! Now let’s compare this to a film. When you see a single actor on screen, there are probably 20 other people in the same room while the shooting is happening, but there is (mostly) no audience! The director, the ADs, the DOP and his team, the lighting unit, sound team, spot-boys etc. are all present, but the actors cannot acknowledge their presence in anyway in their acting. They get multiple takes for even a single line. Even when the line/scene is delivered perfectly, the same dialogues and actions are repeated as they are re-shot at a different camera angle. The actor is in control on stage and is responsible for firefighting any issue that comes up during the live performance. Here, it is the director and the post-production team that gets to choose between multiple takes and mixes and matches shots during the editing process. Any wonder why they call theatre as an actor’s medium and film as a director’s medium?
The entire body of actors is visible on stage and hence they must act not just with their voice and faces but also with their torso, heads, shoulders, legs etc. Any sloppy movement in any part of the body is instantaneously visible to the audience. A character’s simple walk across the stage holds attention and carries weight.
This is not the case in camera-acting in all shots. The camera hardly ever shows the entire body on screen. It also means that there is more focus on the actors’ facial expressions and upper body in film. Close-ups and extreme close-ups put the entire attention on the actors’ face or even a specific part of the face.
Thus actors on screen have to be very careful as even a small twitch on their face or curve of an eyebrow can be observed and literally change the course of the film.
All the actors on stage are visible and visible together. An actor may not have a dialogue or line for long parts of the performance, but they must be present physically and mentally as long they are on stage. They cannot afford to let their minds wander off, as every person’s live performance affects their co-actors’ work too. When two actors are talking to each other on stage, they actually look at each other, touch and feel each other and their presence. Thus during a live stage performance all performers must work together at all times, since they act in most (if not all) scenes together in real time.
In films, the situation is completely different. The camera allows the director to focus the audience’s vision on a particular character or even part of a character’s body. At a film set, actors need not work together, unless they are all in the shot together during wide-shot scenes. When it comes to acting for the camera it is often the case that actors are asked to speak their dialogues (meant for another actor) by looking towards a specific point (sightlines are important!) or towards the camera itself. Individual shots such as close-ups and reaction shots are often taken only with one actor alone. The co-actors, which the audience feels are in the same space as the actor in focus, might not even be in the same city at the time of the shoot! I have been at shoots where I have seen my co-actors (not in the frame) eating in front of me while I shot my intense scenes. I have also shot in the middle of a fully functional corporate office where people 10 meters away from me (and obviously not in the frame) were going about their work. At outdoor shoots on the road, passersby routinely stop to watch the shooting process and occasionally keep entering the frame, leading to multiple re-takes! A film set can be a truly mad place with hundreds of people — cast, lights team, sound team, production crew, MUAs, multiple ADs, spot-boys etc. running around behind the scenes! There is more decorum and orderliness during a live stage show (back-stage might be a different reality :P)
The volume, pitch and speed at which actors deliver their lines on stage and screen is different. In most performing arts venues whether it be a proscenium stage, or a black box or theatre-in-the-round, the audience is seated at a distance. Hence, the actors must throw their voice in order to be heard. Theatre actors require special voice exercises to develop their vocal range and increase their volume. Stage actors also usually are asked to do louder actions in order to be visible to the last audience member. In films this is not the case. Both the microphone and the camera are quite nearby and if the mic is powerful even the minutest sound of breathing can be heard. Microphones are either attached to the actor’s body or a shotgun-boom pole and microphone set-up is just outside the camera frame, hidden from the audience’s vision but silently capturing all sounds. On the live stage whatever happens, happens. However, in films — ad films, web series, feature films etc. — foley is the norm as many sounds are added during post-production. Dubbing of dialogues too of course takes place after the video footage has been shot and edited. Many a times the dubbing artist is different from the actor who plays the part on screen
Theatre actors never step on the stage without multiple long and taxing rehearsals. By the time it’s show day the performers already have had multiple practice sessions. In film this is not the case. Depending on the director and the requirement of the scene, actors may or may not have rehearsal before the shoot day. For ad shoots and even web series content, it is quite common for the actors and directors to have never met each other before the shoot! Actors many a times get the script after they arrive on set, and thus hardly get any time to rehearse. A lot of film directors work with their actors for the first time on set, guiding them after each take.
Another point that might trouble theatre actors is the shooting calendar. Rehearsals of plays usually takes place in continuous sets of days or weeks. You regularly work towards the show day at the same rehearsal venue. In films, there are multiple variables — the set changes, location changes, time of the day changes. All of this depends on the requirement of the shot/scene. I spent two months this year in a snowy small town of Uttarakhand navigating through forests, mud and snow. The film that we were shooting is set in a non-descript town amidst wilderness. So the entire cast and crew lived away from the comfy city life for more than 50 days for the shoot. We needed lots of (natural) snow for one scene and thus we got up at 4am, trekked to the location (it wasn’t accessible by road) and set-up by 7am. All the snow melted by the time it was 11am and we were lucky enough to get a few shots. At another instance we rushed from Delhi to Uttarakhand at an hour’s notice because it suddenly snowed and it became feasible to shoot at a particular location where we really needed snow shots.
Shoots are almost always done in a non-linear fashion depending on the dates of the cast, the availability of locations and other constraints. This means that the scenes are not shot in the order they are mentioned in the script. In a recent feature film project where I acted, my death scene was shot in mid-January while the shooting of most of my major scenes was done in March. In January I also gave reaction shots and close-ups for scenes which were later fully shot in March, with actors I met for the first time in March! This can be unsettling for theatre actors. In a live performance the story is played from the start to the finish in the proper order of the script. Theatre actors often create a history of their characters and think about what their character was doing before and after being on stage. They often also do hot-seating and other activities to get into the skin (and life) of their character. Thus, this skewing of the timeline can hamper their rehearsal and training process! The discontinuous process of shooting (say 1 month of shooting then 15 days of break, followed by 20 days of shooting) can also disrupt the flow of the actor.
Acting for the webcam
Things have changed a lot with the coming of the Wuhan virus pandemic. Live shows have stopped, shoots are happening with multiple restrictions, if at all. People across professions have zoom-ed into video calling to keep the work going. Actors too.
Performers, directors, producers and writers are working from home as they now collaborate on the internet to create content. This has led to an interesting hybrid of recorded film and live performance. Theatre actors, dance practitioners and stand-up comedians etc. are now broadcasting their work live via their webcams. Live performers are thus “filming” themselves even while making a theatre production. This changes the dynamics for an actor.
The performance is live, as if it was a stage performance for an audience.
However, there is no audience in the same physical space… and there are no co-actors either! Actors perform from their own room s— there is no shared physical space, no eye-contact (more on this later), no touch, smell, stage lights, audience reaction, and backstage drama!
The stage is now restricted to whatever the webcam/phone camera captures and the entire body is no longer visible. The actor/performer now is probably sitting on a chair with the laptop placed on a table. This severely restricts movement and lowers the performer’s energy.
This arrangement means that the actor is no longer just an actor — he/she is also the lighting personnel, Director of Photography (DOP), production manager. It is now the actors themselves setting the frame by using their webcam. The actor-DOP may move the webcam, move in accordance to the webcam or even move along with the webcam during the live online show. The tools of storytelling have changed. For example, tilting the laptop screen (with the webcam attached at the top of the screen) allow the actors to have a top angle/bottom angle shot making them look less powererful/having higher status etc. Shaking the laptop/webcam/phone during the live performance can make it look as if the actor or the world surrounding the actor is moving. The actor can also pick-up the laptop/phone and move around with it, actually showing the change of space, or highlighting movement and taking the audience along. The performers may also play with depth — coming closer to the webcam for some scenes and moving away for others.
I recently performed two live theatre productions from the comfort of my bedroom via Zoom. I covered two almirahs in my room with a white bed sheet to make a backdrop. In some ways this backdrop behind me became the stage instead of stage-floor (read the tiles in my bedroom) that would be visible to the audience in a regular stage show. I kept my laptop (with webcam) on a few pillows perched on top of a table and settled in my chair. All the bulbs and tubelights of my bedroom, along with carefully placed LED panel lights, LED strip lights on walls and windows and a ring light became replacements for stage lights. I, as an actor, set these lights and controlled the lights myself during the live show. For one small dialogue I even played with the brightness settings on my laptop to increase/decrease the light falling on my face from the laptop screen!
Check the Instagram video below which I shot in my bedroom using homemade lights :P
Filters and virtual backgrounds available on video calling platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams also help. Just a simple image used as a virtual background can transport the audience (and the performers) to a different world. Options such as screen-share enable artists to project designs, patterns and virtually anything (pun-intended) on the audiences’ screens. In interactive performances artists talk to their audience via the chat box and even using polls and reaction features.
Of course, acting or doing any kind of a live show via a video calling platform comes with its own set of challenges. For starters, there are internet issues. I have tried four different broadband and mobile data services in the past one-and-a-half-year in search of a stable connection. There will always be audio-video issues and call-drops no matter what. Performing from home also means that the personal-professional space is now the same. I have had my parents walk into the room during live shows. Barking dogs and chirping birds too routinely disrupt zoom performances. An unmuted audience member on the video call can wreak havoc, before being muted or booted out from the show. The only solution, as would be during a live show on stage, is to improvise.
Acting via video-calling platforms is also different from acting on stage because it is not the audience members’ eyes but the webcam that captures your performance. There is a live audience, but they are not looking at the performance directly through their eyes. Neither are the actors making eye-contact with each other or the audience. Eye contact and beats shared in the same physical space make the performance more engaging during a live physical performance. Actors also rely on each other’s eye contact for cues, energy transfer and the feeling of togetherness!
Another issue that I have personally faced is where to look at during a virtual show. At film shoots a camera captures you and the director/DOP always tells you where to look while acting. Sightlines and camera angles are carefully set for every action and shot. This is not the case for a virtual show.
Also, actors do not have a screen in front of themselves while acting in a film! It is only the director and DOP who see the shot on screen while it is being filmed. Stage actors can obviously never see themselves while performing. In contrast to this, actors can always see themselves on their laptop screens in real-time while doing a virtual show. Their co-actors too are visible to them on their screens. The problem now is that should the actors look into the webcam on the top of their laptop screens while performing or look at the laptop screen where they can see themselves (which is super distracting) and their co-actors? This might seem trivial, but the distance between an actor’s body and the webcam is very less. Thus, a shift of gaze from the webcam on top of the screen to the laptop screen is easily visible to the audience. Making eye-contact with the audience during a virtual space might translate into looking directly into the webcam. But at the same time looking at the screen is important because that is where the co-actors are!
These were some of my personal experiences of acting for a virtual online show via a webcam. This is of course a new medium with new-found challenges and lots of exciting elements waiting to be explored. Do tell me what you felt about this piece comparing stage acting, camera acting and webcam acting. Share your experience of acting in different mediums in the comments section!