The central place of narrative means that in most films, actors adjust the quality and energy of their gestures, voices, and actions to communicate their characters' shifting desires and dynamic relationships with other characters. At each moment of the film, actors' performances are keyed to the narrative, which provides the (musical) score for the film's rising and falling action. The scale and quality of actors' physical and vocal expressions are also keyed to the film's style or genre. For example, there is a discernable difference in the energy underlying the performances in a 1930s screwball comedy and a 1990s action-adventure film. The material details of actors' performances are also keyed to the function of their characters. Performances by the extras are typically less expressive than performances by the actors portraying the central characters.

The quality and energy of actors' movements and vocal expressions are equally important in experimental cinema, for actors' performances contribute to the mood or feeling conveyed by the piece as a whole. The actors' impassive performances in the surrealist classic Un chien andalou ( An Andalusian Dog , 1929) by Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) are integral to the film's dreamlike quality. Similarly, in Dead Man (1995), directed by American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (b. 1953), the energy of the actors' disquieting performances, which jumps from stillness to sudden movement and shifts unexpectedly from animated to collapsed, plays a crucial role in creating the disturbing tone of the film's absurd world.

In mainstream and experimental cinema, performance details will serve to create and sustain a director's overall vision. Based on discussions with the director, an actor might use bound or tightly controlled movements to portray a character that is continually on guard, while another works in counterpoint, using light and free-floating movements to portray a character that is open to experience. Through rehearsal and individual script analysis, actors find the quality and the energy their intonations and inflections must have to convey their characters' changing experiences. Sharp, sudden, staccato bursts of words might be used to show that a character is alarmed, while a smooth, sustained, legato vocal rhythm will be used to show that the character is at ease.

In mainstream and experimental cinema, dramatic and comedic narratives, a film's presentation of performance will also reflect the director's stylistic vision. Films present performances in different ways because directors make different uses of actors' expressivity, that is, the degree to which actors do or do not project characters' subjective experiences. Presentation of performance also differs from film to film because directors make different uses of cinematic expressivity, or the degree to which other cinematic elements enhance, truncate, or somehow mediate and modify access to actors' performances. Working in different periods, aesthetic movements, and production regimes, directors have presented performances in markedly different ways.

At one end of the spectrum, directors use performance elements as pieces of the film's audiovisual design. In these films, actors often suppress expression of emotion, and the film's nonperformance elements become especially important. This approach to presenting performances is found in many modernist films, which frequently use framing, editing, and sound design to obstruct identification with characters. Films by the French director Robert Bresson (1901–1999) and the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912) exemplify presentation of performance at this end of the spectrum, for actors' use of their physical and vocal expressivity is so delimited by the directors that glimpses of their characters' inner experiences often are more clearly conveyed by the directors' framing, editing, sound, and production design choices.

At the other end of the spectrum, actors' movements and interactions are the basis for a film's visual and aural design. Here, nonperformance elements are orchestrated to amplify the thoughts and emotions that actors convey to the audience through the details of their physical and vocal expressions. Films at this end of the spectrum use lighting, setting, costuming, camera movement, framing, editing, music, and sound effects to give audiences privileged views of the characters' inner experiences. This approach to the presentation of performance focuses audience attention on the connotative qualities of actors' movements and vocal expressions. The first structural analysis of acting, a study of Charlie Chaplin's performance in City Lights (1931) by Jan Mukarovský of the Prague Linguistic Circle (1926–1948), examines this type of film, wherein performance elements have priority over other cinematic elements.

While there are exceptions, films produced in different eras and production regimes tend to incorporate performance elements in dissimilar ways. In the Hollywood studio era, for example, the collaboration between director William Wyler (1902–1981) and cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948) on The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) features deep-focus cinematography and a long-take aesthetic. In this approach, camera movements, frame compositions, editing patterns, and sound design are organized around actors' performances. By comparison, in the postmodern, televisual era, Baz Luhrmann's (b. 1962) collaboration with production designer Catherine Martin (b. 1965) on Romeo + Juliet (1996) resulted in a film in which actors' physical signs of heightened emotion are shown in tight framings as pieces of a larger collage that is cluttered with striking costumes, frenetic camera movements, and dizzying editing patterns.

As is the case with other postmodern films from around the world, the performances in Romeo + Juliet , which make extensive use of sampling and intertextual quotation, are sometimes extremely truncated and minimalist, and at other times highly exaggerated and excessively dramatic. In addition, like a number of films designed for consumption in today's media marketplace, Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet seems to model its presentation of performance on viewing experiences in our media-saturated environment. As if echoing current televisual and new media experiences, the film's framing, editing, and sound design sometimes obstruct access to characters' experiences; at other times the film's nonperformance elements enhance identification with characters by amplifying the intensity of their subjective experiences.

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