8 Biggest Differences Between Stage Acting and Film Acting
Which one is for you?
I will start by expressing that acting is acting, yet everything you do for stage, you must do just the contrary for film. On stage you can pretend something happens, but in front of the camera you should experience it happening. Instead of expressing outwardly for stage, you need to internalize for film and let your eyes and voice do the speaking. Rather than exaggerate, you need to simplify in order to be realistic. And rather than knowing every single line by heart and knowing exactly what you are going to say, you should know what you need to say then forget about it because in reality, people don't always know exactly what they are going to say. Sometimes they have to think or stumble for the right words to express. This subtlety goes a long way on screen in terms of adding believability and realism.
1. Voice and Diction
One distinction between acting in front of an audience and on camera has to do with distance. On camera, more often than not, your scene partner is there with you, within at least a couple feet, so you simply converse with them like nobody's listening. You're having a private discussion. It's only two individuals lounging around chatting. It is pillow talk.
Stage performers have only one opportunity to hit the nail on the head so it is vital to have a solid voice and know their lines. Small theaters and low budget productions may not utilize microphones so a solid voice and extraordinary diction are fundamental. You wouldn't want the audience leaving the show having no clue what you had just said for the past two hours.
For camera acting, there is no requirement for projecting your voice, over articulating or dictating perfectly. You have to talk casually as you ordinarily would. Keep it low and practical, conversational for the camera. On screen, characters have many chances to get a scene right. They can do several takes. On the off chance that they slur their words or11 stagger over a line, they can do another take. Boom mics, lapel mics and even microphones hidden about the set are used to pick up sound for film. If an actor messes up, the lines can always be fixed in post or, worst case scenario, an actor can always go back into the studio to re-record their lines or clean up sound issues. The most essential thing to remember for film acting is sounding realistic.
2. Body Language
In front of an audience, your physical decisions need to convey your intent to an audience that's seated from 30 to 100 feet away or more, if the production happens inside an arena or amphitheater. Contingent upon the size of the theater, the performers need to exaggerate their actions and facial expressions so that the people seated in the furthest most seats in the back can hear and see what is happening on stage. Performing artists can't express sorrow with only tears in their eyes because only those in the front row will see it. On the other hand, when acting for the camera, the actor must take care not to use grand body language as they would on stage because in a close-up or even medium shot, that would look as though they were attempting to get someone's attention over a bustling bar on a Saturday night. It would read as comedic to the audience rather than dramatic. It would simply be too much.
The greatest contrast between stage acting and screen acting is the position of the audience. In a theater where the stage is far from the house, actors should exaggerate. If the performance is done "in the round" where the audience is positioned in a tight circle around them, or in a setting such as an improv dinner theatre, their actions would be subtle and small because the audience is right there with them.
The key for both is basing your actions on the size of frame you are in. In a traditional theatre, the proscenium is considered the frame. In film, it is literally whatever is seen on camera at the time of shooting. A brilliant actor knowns to perform differently on a small stage or in the round than they would an arena or stadium. The same is done for the camera, according to whether it's a tight shot, close-up, medium close-up, wide shot, etc. The bigger the playing space, the bigger the actions.
In theater, performances happen in real time. Stage actors spend numerous practice hours building up their characters' identities and peculiarities, and spend much more hours remembering their lines. Regardless of this readiness, stage performers should be quick-witted and able to think on the spot, on the off chance that something unexpected happens. People forget their lines, miss their cues, lose props, set pieces fall apart, lighting cues are missed and sound malfunctions. Things always happen in live theatre. Actors must think quick to cover these malfunctions, seemingly as if they didn't happen at all. Stage performers always benefit by taking classes in improvisation. Improv will train you to think and act fast when these unforeseen mishaps take place during a live performance.
In film, performances do not happen in real time. In the event that an on-screen character drops a line, it's easy to cut, look at the script and film another take. Nonetheless, one test of film acting is that scenes are frequently shot out of order. An actor may have to cry their eyes out at a funeral in one scene immediately followed by being overly joyous about having just won the lottery. In film, there is very little time for an actor to regroup their emotions. They need to be able to zero in on these at the drop of a dime. Film actors often have to hurry and memorize new lines or pages of a scene that is written on the spot because the director decides to make last minute changes. Adapting to the new change is not hard if the actor knows the story rather than attempting to memorize the lines verbatim. If you know your character, know what happened in the past, then it is almost automatic to know how they would respond to these new circumstances, without much thought having to go into it.
Theatre directors direct actors. They spend many hours during many nights over the course of many weeks working with their actors. In most cases, it is the director who casts the actors for a stage production so they are familiar with what the actors are capable of and what they bring to the table and they work closely with them to build on that. Directors teach the actors their blocking. They break down the scenes and develop the characters with them, explaining what they should be feeling or doing in each scene to convey to the audience precisely what needs to be understood. They give feedback during and after each rehearsal and they polish the performance and perfect the show before opening night. It is through stage direction that many actors are truly taught how to act. They have had months of critiquing under a professional to ensure they execute their best performance possible. This is not the case in film.
Film directors direct the scene, not the actors. In many cases, casting agents cast the actors and the director meets them at a table read or on set the day of the shoot. The directors trust that the actors are professional and do not need coaching. Film shoots are pressed for time. Time is money. A location is rented for a set amount of hours on a particular day and a director has to get as much filming done as possible within that set amount of time. They cannot spend hours going over and over the scenes, correcting an actor's choice repeatedly if they fall short on their execution. They cannot keep cutting if an actor does not know the proper way to present their body toward a camera or if the actor keeps stepping out of frame. Luckily most movies are shot on video these days rather than actual film, which is quite costly. Some do still shoot on film, however, and film cannot be recorded over. If an actor needs on screen coaching throughout the scenes and the director has to keep cutting, that film is wasted—that money is wasted. A film director needs an actor who is fully capable of directing themselves, properly playing to the camera, staying within the frame boundaries, and not doing any unnecessary fidgeting or fumbling. Film directors direct the D.P., the gaffer and grips, the makeup personnel. The actor directs their self on set. Make sure you are trained to properly do so.
5. Eye-Lines and Other Characters
In the theatre, the actor interacts with other characters. They are face-to-face in the scene and play off of each other directly or indirectly. Even if the scene involves a telephone call, the voice of the other actor may be heard or the other actor may even be seen somewhere else on stage. Either way, the actors receive their stimulation and energy from their scene partner on the spot. They create magic together in real time, right before the audience's eyes.
This isn't always the case in film. It is not unheard of for an actor to film their part of a dialog completely alone. This happens for various reasons. Maybe you are working on a shoot that involves you talking to an animated character that cannot be physically in front of you. Maybe your scene partner is not available for filming that day so the production presses on to at least record your part of the conversation, picking up the other actor's close-ups and shots later. Maybe the scene takes place inside a two-seater sports car and the cameraman has to position himself in the seat next to yours in order to get your shots. When this happens, you have no one to play off of, no direct stimulation. Many times, I have seen inexperienced actors not know where to look or let their eyes fall when shooting solo dialogue. I have seen actors fall short of how they say their own lines because the person reading the lines of the missing character does not sound the same way they expect their scene partner to sound, thus causing the scene to fall short in energy and excitement. Truly skilled actors know to create their scene partner in their head and act toward that invisible person the same as they would if they were actually present. Truly skilled actors create their own stimulation and play off that.
You should not really have to fall off a cliff in order to show the fear and energy of falling off of that cliff. Think back to how excited you got as a child when the floor was lava and you were going to melt your feet off and die if you touched it. You didn't have to see flames there to know they were there. You didn't have to have that visual. You created it and you were genuinely excited about it. Solo dialogue is the same thing. Only-children play alone quite often, having full conversations with invisible people and they will become emotional during them. They will sometimes even have heated arguments with their imaginary friends and to them it is real. If you are listening from another room, you might even be convinced there is someone in the room with them and go to see whom they are speaking to. Likewise, you do not truly have to have a person in front of you to see a person in front of you. You know where their eyes would be. Look into them. You know what it looks like to give a hug and receive one. Do it. Even if your animated partner is drawn in later, you can still make your part convincible.
When the actor plays for the stage, he starts at the beginning of the story and ends at the end. They live throughout the entire life of the character during that particular story. Everything usually happens in a linear order. Rehearsals might take place in a random order, with the most difficult scenes being rehearsed first in order to allow more time to perfect them; but, overall, the production itself takes place from beginning to end.
In the film, things happen in whatever order the location and schedule of all actors permit. The scenes with the most people in them are generally filmed first in order to “shoot out" actors. This means that scenes with extras or a large group of actors who are not in every scene will be shot first, in order to get them off the schedule block and payroll, also freeing them up to work on other projects. The actors who have the most scenes will then continue to shoot. Because of this, films are never shot in a linear fashion. This often calls for the middle to be shot first, the ending to be shot in the middle, and the beginning to be shot at the end.
Because stage actors spend many weeks with each other going through the scenes and the story-lines, a natural chemistry develops between them. They get to know each other on stage and off. They have time to work together on building character relationships and back stories. They get to work through the scenes together and figure out what works and what needs to be changed in order to give the best performance overall. Stage actors have time to build a kinship that reads to the audience that these people have a history together. The audience will believe it because it is real.
Film actors, unless they have been lucky enough to have worked on a previous project together, meet for the first time on set, just an hour or two before shooting. They do not get the time to build a history, they have to forge it and still make it believable to the audience. Two actors who met merely 45-minutes ago are called upon to do a lovemaking scene. Actors who don't even know each other's names are expected to have believable life-long hatred for each other and act accordingly. For this reason, it is very important that an actor truly know their inner self and study the many people in their daily lives. Studying people you know and their relationships with others, how they respond to them and why will help you as an actor know exactly how to respond and act in a situation that is completely a new experience for you. You may not have ever had a life-long enemy or suffered through the untimely death of a loved one but if you know someone who has, you can quickly adopt the attitude and mannerisms of that person and project it on screen. Studying others will help you create chemistry on the spot.
8. Audience Feedback
Stage actors are lucky in that they get instant feedback from their audience from the moment they walk on stage. They can hear, see, and feel the energy coming from the house and get an idea of what the audience is thinking and feeling during the whole process. If they hear laughter, they know they are doing a good job. If they hear scoffing or crying, they know their emotional scenes are on point. If they hear nothing, that silence tells them they need to turn things up a notch and increase their own energy in order to project that into the house. Stage actors have about two hours each night to work on getting the audience's approval. If the audience doesn't like it tonight, things can be changed and they get to try again tomorrow night. The review in the paper on opening night might be a flop but by the end of the week, they have had several chances to earn rave reviews. They get the luxury of “word of mouth" selling tickets for them. If five people like the show tonight, that might lead to 25 new people buying tickets tomorrow night. They get many chances to win people over and create a fan base. And the good part is, many people won't know they won't like it until after they have bought a ticket and sat through it. Money still comes back to the production company.
Film actors get no feedback until the job is done, everything has been put into its final place and the finished product is released. They sit back with their fingers crossed and hope the critics love what they've done. They do not get the second, third, fourth and fifth chance to change things and perfect their performance the way stage actors do. Film actors get one shot and hope it gets accepted into film festivals. Maybe film festival judges will like it enough to accept it and show it to an audience and maybe they won't. If it's lucky enough to be shown at a festival, there are still critics to win over who dictate whether or not the movie will make it any further than that. If the critics and larger production companies like it, you stand a chance of having it picked up and released to the general public. If the critics and other professionals don't love it, however, nobody will pick up the production nor put it into distribution. There will be nobody buying tickets. Ever. They get one shot to make it or break it. All of the time and money spent to produce the film is ultimately for nothing because no money was made back from it.
In conclusion, acting is acting, whether for stage or camera. The requirements are the same but how you execute them is quite different. How you tell the story is quite different. Stage and film are like telling the same story in two totally different languages. The gist is there but it doesn't always translate exactly the same way in one language as it does the other. It is my advice to always start your acting career on stage. That is where you learn the most crucial lessons and techniques. That is where you are trained and critiqued by a mentor. That is where you learn what works and doesn't work for an audience and what you can do to win them over. That is where you learn professional jargon that is used in the industry and where you learn the proper way to audition and work professionally. That is where you learn to direct yourself and handle yourself on set. The knowledge you take from the stage will lead you to be a pleasure to work with on set. You will be professional and skilled and will help the filming process be a breeze to shoot. This is not to say film actors cannot transition onto stage. They absolutely can. I am saying that stage acting is more a technical training whereas film acting is more an artistic one. Stage actors will need to learn to tone things down and be subtle, to find simplicity in order to project realism on camera. Film actors will need to learn to be over-the-top, project their voice, be precise with their mannerisms and not fidget, as realism can be a distraction on stage. Stage will be the etiquette training that gives the film actor their polished shine. Film will be the real-world training that gives a stage actor their true believability. All actors should experience both in order to be the best working professional they can be.