"Hitting That Mark"

Although strongly related film and television have slightly different histories and therefore slightly different processes. This results in slightly different practices and therefore slightly different routines for the actor to adapt to as they move from one environment to the next. Hitting the mark is one of those areas in which subtle but significant differences can emerge.

Defining a 'Mark'
A mark is simply the agreed spot that actors should place themselves upon to guarantee that they are positioned in the correct relationship to other actors, that they are in the correct position to allow a well-composed frame and that they are in the correct position to keep within the focus range that has been set for the camera.

Marks can be provided in various forms. They can be -

Tape marks on the floor -

  • These may be a simple straight line of tape stuck to the studio or location floor
  • or tape is stuck to the floor in the shape of 'T' to indicate that a foot should be placed on either side of the central line (this provides a more accurate reference point for the actor.)

A physical object -

  • A sandbag or a shot bag against which the actor can feel their foot come to rest.
  • An object that already exists in the set or the location against which the actor can feel their body or foot come to rest. For example the actor may know that to be in the correct position their leg needs to be touching the chair or the table or the desk or the bed etc.
  • On location the mark might just be a stick or a stone or a scuff mark made in the dirt or the grass.

A sight line

  • Sometimes there might not be any visible mark but the actor needs to take a sight line from other objects in the area to accurately fix the place at which they should stop. (For example - keep walking across the room towards the centre of the cupboard until the trunk of the tree can be seen through the window.)
  • Or one actor has a mark and the other has to take their position in a particular physical relationship to the actor with the mark. This is done by using sight lines and a sense of space.
  • Sight lines are of particular use when driving a car into position.
  • On other occasions by keeping peripheral vision on the camera the actor can place themselves in a position that will achieve the desired cinematic result.

So marks are of particular importance in maintaining composition, relationship and camera focus within the frame.

There are many rules of composition with which the director, DOP and/or camera operator are working. It can be that an enthusiasm for this creative aspect of the production can turn the actors into 'warm props' or puppets, merely moving from one choreographed position to the next on someone else's whim.

However composition and framing are an inevitable part of the screen acting process and if the desired result can't be found by moving the camera, changing a lens or moving a prop the actor needs to find a comfortable way to accommodate the request.

Another element of composition is the issue of masking. If an actor masks himself or herself by moving behind the other actor, then the composition of the shot is generally unbalanced. How diligently these technical prerequisites are pursued on a production varies according to individual taste and house rules. Some people will insist its absolutely essential and others will be completely indifferent to these influences if the performances are good.

The other element of 'being masked' (besides the compositional one) is the simple fact that when this happens the audience can't see the actor. This can have an effect on the story telling. It's a very simple screen rule for the actor that if you can't see the camera, the camera can't see you. A way of preventing masking happening is to use a sight line to the camera. If you can see the camera, it can see you. This however has to be achieved by NEVER LOOKING DIRECTLY AT THE CAMERA for it is one of the most diligently observed rules of screen acting that an actor looking at the camera makes the audience aware of the camera's presence and destroys the illusion that this life being observed.

Relationship: The physical relationship of objects and people within the frame is considerably affected by the focal length of the lens viewing the action. This distortion of reality sometimes requires objects or people to be placed further apart or closer together than they would under ordinary circumstances. The actor is
often reassured under these circumstances to "Stop worrying about it. It looks real on the screen." What is often not considered under these circumstances is that although it 'looks real' in cinematic terms no one has taken into account that for the actor it is very difficult to be real if everything in the world around you is fake.

As such shifts in spatial relationships can change vocal responses, eye contact and comfort the actor needs to make any adjustments cautiously - these elements can significantly change the performance. Seek help from people around you if you are affected by these factors. Ask for assistance. Explain your difficulties.

Focus: The process by which focus is maintained is one area which varies a little between film productions and television productions.

Film practice has developed over a long time with the focus puller and the camera operator being separate and distinct jobs although they obviously work closely together with the operator being the senior person in the relationship. However film technology revolves significantly around 'marks' as it is those that the focus puller watches to enable the appropriate adjustments to be made to the lens. Therefore, as the first block-through of actor's moves occurs the camera assistants are rushing to throw down marks as a guide for the next rehearsal and as a step towards providing the information the focus puller needs to make the final calculations.

The danger here for the actor is that positions, which have been arrived at on a first stumble through of a scene, can often then be perceived to be 'set in concrete'. Actors feeling the burden of their responsibility to stay in focus and not be masked can often be entirely subverted from their real task of listening and responding. Staying on the mark can become a dramatic force in itself, when in fact it has nothing to do with the story or the drama.

In a television production the same forces are at work however as only one person, the camera operator, controls focus as well as camera movement there is less chance of confusion. Therefore a little more flexibility is apparent in the television studio. As the television camera operator has more than likely originally learnt their craft at live sporting events or shooting material for television news it is also possible that they are a little more conditioned to cope with the unexpected. Either way it greatly benefits the actor to understand what the camera can achieve, how they can assist it and where they should draw the line or ask for assistance. If they don't understand and manage these issues the outcome can be a performance which fulfills the technical requirements but in terms of performance and story ultimately satisfies no one.


The Rehearsal Room will explore other potential traps and solutions to problems created by the need to "Hit That Mark" on another occasion.

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