Should I play big for stage and small for camera in acting?

When I was young and preparing for my first lead in a feature, actor Lori Petty gave me some advice she learned from Robin Williams when she first started out. It was helpful and I never forgot it:  

“Adjust it for camera or you’ll look like you’ve been shot.”

I’m sure by now you’ve heard a similar thing–the rather famous tip:  Big on stage, small for camera.  And while there’s truth in that statement, it’s also a bit misleading and got me kind of stuck for a while.

If you’ve always done a lot of theatre, you’ve likely learned how to use your body and voice, sometimes in “big” ways.  And if you work or audition on camera you may be used to thinking “small” when it comes to including voice and body.

But is that all it comes down to?

I often meet actors so afraid to move in their audition tapes they actually look frozen and stiff.  There’s no life or freedom or spontaneity.  I’ve also seen stage performances with gigantic, random arm movements that have nothing to do with the inner life of the actor or the story.  

I don’t think “big vs small” alone is very helpful for any of us– it isn’t as simple as big on stage and small on camera.   

So how should you think about adjusting for the medium in which you are playing?

We dive super deep into this work in class but let me give you some things to think about as you work.

  • Discover and play actions you can embody
  • Adjust the dial of embodiment for the style of the piece 
  • Find the POPE and create specific relationships so you are never general  
  • If you’re working on camera, study the text and/or former episodes of already existing shows for clues 
  • Perhaps most importantly for the camera, find a prep that helps you let the camera in so you aren’t delivering your work (I love this part of the process so much and it’s crucial! I debated adding this to the list as it’s really experiential work for class but perhaps you can begin by experimenting with the thought and see where it takes you.)

Adjusting for camera doesn’t necessarily mean your performance will be or feel “small” — watch actors like Forest Whitaker, Laura Dern, Giovanni Ribisi, Willem Dafoe, Viola Davis, Kevin Kline, Molly Shannon, Eddie Murphy, Benicio del Toro, Meryl Streep (duh), Joaquin Phoenix, Jason Alexander, Octavia Spencer and so many more for some wonderful examples of “big” performances on screen.

How do you adjust for camera?  How do you prepare for a role on stage?

CLASS CLIP TRANSCRIPTION

Sarah: Actors often feel like, you know, stage big, film and tv small, and it’s just not true. Not really. I mean, yes, for some stuff, everything’s here, it’s here, it’s throw it away, leave it alone, whatever. And that’ll be fine for some stuff, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t, it doesn’t always mean that you can’t use your full range of expression in your body. And using those big strong impulses, those big strong, like after you’ve expanded it, right, keeping that impulse really powerful and alive in your body is exciting to me. You know, thinking about being able to play things from that place.