Sep 25, 2008

Matching Actions

Recently a Script Goddess reader e-mailed me with the following question:

After the first take, do you make the actors repeat all their actions and roll with what they've done to start, or let them do their thing and hope it's not TOO crazy. I worked on a short film last weekend where the actors would change a hand motion or something very slightly, but possibly slightly enough to be noticeable in the cut later. But the director (who seemed to have not worked with many SS before) wasn't entirely happy with my interjecting now and then with "Can you move this hand up to here when you say this?" I don't want to be directing them myself.

That's an awesome question! Along with discussing screen direction, match actions is another diplomatic skill for a script supervisor.

An actor's job is not only creative but also technical. An actor has to hit their mark, for camera and lighting....missing their mark may cause the shot to be "soft" and an actor to be out of their key light.

Along with meeting camera, lighting, and directorial needs, the actor also must also meet the editors' needs by matching their actions. Pick up the cup on the same word, cross the room on the same word, sit down at the same point in the dialogue. The same action each time, during the wide, medium and closeup....all the while keeping the performance fresh. (who said acting was easy?)

Really good experienced actors know continuity and the reason for it. They will modify their performance for the director while still managing their props and actions at the same time in their dialogue. Ohhhh I get chills when I see this happen! It makes everyone's job so easy!

Now, one must realize that actors are human and will from time to time change up their performance. Say in take four of the master shot, the actor did something quite different than say in take one through three. Takes five and six they revert back to the original action. When we move into coverage I need to ask the director what action I need to we match to 1-3 and 5-6 or should we match to take four. His choice ultimately.

In the case of young actors who are not as familiar with the restraints of film, typically I deliver a sharp blow to the back of their head with my book when the director's not looking and they tend fall into line quite nicely....OK, I'm kidding, you can delete your email to SAG.

Actually, what happens is I will talk to the director first and explain what I am noticing in mis-matched actions. If you have an experienced director they will immediately remind the actor to match action. If you have an inexperienced director and actor I will explain the cut editorially. Again experience helps here.... You need to know when to pick your battles. I'll run the cut in my mind several ways and if I'm still concerned I will firmly state my position. Even then, some directors just won't get it until the editor (while reviewing dailies) calls him up and says, hey, Cecil, I can't cut this crap together.

Now there is some fudge room, especially in the commercial world since every shot typically is on screen for a second or so. Is it a shot that has a high likelihood of ending up on the cutting room floor? Or is it a shot where the actor says the product name? This determines my level of concern. If it's something in a commercial that I feel probably won't make it in the cut, I'll still bring up the mis-match, the director can decide what they want to do, and we'll move on. If it's during a take where the actor says the product name, I know they'll use that, and I'll bring up my point more intensely.

Working with a newbie director really comes down to trust. If he trusts me he'll take my advice and say to the actor, do what she says. If he feels threatened he'll say "it doesn't matter" either way, as a scripty you have done your job. You have made your point. You write a notation in the script and move on. You pick your battles.

For example: Now, before I tell you this story, I have to say I loved this newbie director. He listened to me the whole show, but one night with the freedom of steadicam he decided to have a gang of actors enter into a store wild and random. He was looking to generate that crazy whip-pan "whoa what's happening" feel. He told the actors they could do something different each take. I agree that's a great look, but I tell him, "Eventually your going to cut into these steadicam shots and to a static shot over the shoulder of the cashier to the gang members right?" "Yes" he replies. " Well, your gang members need to end up in the same place during each take so it will match." He smiled and disagreed. He uttered the words a scripty hears too many times in their career "it doesn't matter" So, I said "Ok, go for it but don't call me at home when your scratching your head in the edit." Then I went back to my book and wrote "Don't Call Me At Home" next to my notes on this scene. (remember we had a good working relationship, I probably wouldn't have done this to any other director.)

After the film was completed he sent me a most wonderful note. It said and I quote: "You were right about the gang scene, it was a bitch to edit."

Big smile!

So, when you find yourself in that same situation in the future, consider if the continuity your trying to work on will affect the edit. If it will you have every right to bring it up to the director and actor. Knowing what to focus on comes with experience and a good editing background.

That was a really long answer, but hopefully you found what you were looking for somewhere in there. Thanks for the question! Any other scripty's care to comment?

Below is my favorite scene from Amadeus (an old classic) You will find a couple continuity errors in match action, but they are so slight. And in truth. An actor is a human being. From time to time they will switch their hand, or move a prop where it wasn't before. It then comes down to the editor to decide to go with continuity or performance. And I'm here to say, performance typically wins....I'd rather watch a great performance any day.


Maggie ~:) said...

Thank you for this post! I'm a new (teaching myself) scriptey and my director is a new director. This is something I've always wondered about and am currently getting the "don't worry about it." I learn new things about being a scriptey everyday and this clears up something that had been on my mind. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I watched the clip and found no continuity errors! Really shows I need more practice spotting them, I guess. A very enjoyable scene to watch.

A film lover

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer.
It sounds like you're SOL if the director doesn't believe you/is a newbie.

Through all the different roles I've played in production and post production I've come to realize that your job is a thousand times easier if everyone else knows THEIR job. If not, it's like running on a treadmill. You don't go anywhere, and you're pissed off that you paid $85/month for the fee into the gym.
And the harder you work does not equal the better the product. It generally means nothing when everyone around you is flailing.

I'm excited to see what it'd be like when everyone is spot on and cares.. because if they don't do something right they'll never have a job again.

Michael Taylor said...

What a great post! After all these years, I had a good idea of what a script supervisor does, but never to such a level of practical detail.

But I still say a Scripty should have a best boy...

Scripty said...

Thanks for the comments, I hope the post is helpful.

Anonymous: You are correct, when everybody knows their job... work is much easier.

And Michael, yeah, I'd love a best boy somedays!

KL said...

Well-written post about matching actions! I'm working on an internet series, doing a bit of scripty myself as well as editing. I had problems editing one actor's dialogue because he had so many wild gestures on EVERY take. I know it's probably something that he was unconscious about since he's probably a "gesture-y" guy in real life, but it certainly helps to ask an actor to tone it down and be aware of their actions on-set so the editor isn't tearing his or her eyeballs out trying to cut away before an actor's "hand starts talking again."

Aparna said...

I recently worked on a TV series starring a lot of young actors and realised about two hours into the first day that matching actions was going to be nightmare if I didn't do something about it right then.

Where I work, scripties are still not given the regard due to their position. People still think of us as clerks who just write stuff down; they don't know about the constant brain work that goes into looking at a shot - eyelines, screen directions, matching actions, etc.

So I decided to put my foot down and be really, really, really anal about matching actions. It worked. After the first print, I'd go to the actors in question and take them through all their gestures and when to perform them. Often, they'd look at me with a "Did I really do all that?" expression, but with my multicoloured, marked sides as supporting evidence, they couldn't really disagree. After a few days, they started to twig that the best way to not get a visit from me after the first print was to do less stuff with their hands. I take that away as a success story, and proof that actors can be trained. :)

Scripty said...

Nice work Aparna! Way to nip it right away...thus making your job and the editors much easier! Great comment!