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What’s the Most Important Thing?
There is one question that I get fairly often and it is probably the most powerful question you can ask. It is this: “What is the most important thing you can do if you want to be a working actor?” Think you know what it is?
For the past couple of months I focused these blogs and the techniques and tools of being an actor. I mentioned at the beginning there were 10 tools that I thought were essential to acting. We’ve covered seven of those in the past seven weeks. I still have three more to discuss, and I will, but I’m going to change the format of these blogs and get a little more personal.
In my office I have a framed poster of Robert Duvall. On it is one of my favorite quotes regarding acting. Duvall is quoted, “The truth is that acting is all about talking and listening. It’s as simple as that.” I completely agree with that statement. And, to be very honest with you it’s probably taken me nearly 20 years to grasp the meaning of it.
Every now and then I will get in a conversation with someone and they will inevitably say, “I just don’t know how you actors do it. How do you memorize all those lines?” Even my manger said it to me the other day. I don’t know about you but I struggle with memorization. I never know exactly how to answer that question. Usually, I mumble something back like, “I have no idea. With a lot of work, I guess.”
It’s been good for me to review the vital acting tools in these blogs. One of the reasons I love blogging, speaking and teaching so much is because it reminds me what I need to focus on as an actor. I’m in the trenches with you and if I talk about the essentials of acting I’d better be practicing them in my own work. Like a professional athlete I need to be “in shape” all the time. I need to practice in order to stay on top of my game. I need to make sure my own set of acting tools, the ones I talk about, are honed and readily available. I’ve said it before, the best actors in the world are right here in L.A. and they are my competition (and yours). The top masters of technique are sitting right there in the same room with me, waiting to audition for the same role.
It always makes me chuckle when I hear someone say, “Acting is the easiest job in the world. Anyone can do it.” Obviously, they have no idea what they’re talking about. They haven’t been through the many years of training and endless hours of rehearsal and performance to understand how wrong they are. There are so many different talents an actor needs to master in order to become skilled. Over the past few blogs we’ve discussed several of those talents including script breakdown, emotional control and physical control. Next, I like to discuss the voice.
Over the past few blogs we’ve been discussing the various tools that belong in every actor’s toolbox. But, just the other day someone asked me, “Does that include Headshots?” I suddenly realized I had intended these to be the tools we need from a technique standpoint, not a marketing standpoint, so I decided I should clarify things. To avoid further confusion I have decided to call these the Tools We Need In Our Actor’s Technique Toolbox. That’s a lot of verbiage but you know what I mean. So far we’ve explored the intellectual skill of knowing how to break down a script and the visceral skill of mastering your emotions in order to make you characters real and attached. This time I want to focus on the physical aspect of acting.
After having labored through the intellectual subject matter of “Script Breakdown” in my last blog I am ready to get messy, have a little fun and talk about us crazy actors and our emotions. Yes, it is invaluable that you know your script inside and out and intellectually dissect every thought your character has in order to play the role adequately, but it is just as important to understand and bring to life the emotional side of your character.
Many an acting teacher has tried to break down the art of acting into a series of usable skills. The intent is to first identify the various tools necessary in order to learn them and thus become a highly skilled actor. The idea is to have a set of tools we can keep in our “actor’s toolbox” that we may use whenever needed. Of course, it makes sense. We all want to be highly skilled and most of us have at least one tool we’ve mastered, but most of us still have more to learn. The easiest way to teach an art, like acting, is to break it down into its basic components and then one by one teach how to master those components until finally you have a mastery of them all.
Every year at about this time there is a significant number of new actors coming to Los Angeles to try their hand at a career in acting. Somehow, just about everyone across the country has heard at one time or another that January is the beginning of pilot season (although that is not necessarily true, things generally don’t really pick up until after Sundance at the end of January). For that reason, I felt it appropriate to make a few lists and talk about the things that I think an actor 1) absolutely must have, 2) probably should have and 3) it would be nice to have if they hope to make it in LA.
Happy New Year, everone!
As we discussed last time, headshots are a very important tool for the actor. In fact, unless you are a star or well known within the industry they are probably THE most important marketing tool. That said, let’s take a look at some of the more important technical aspects of getting a great headshot.
I mentioned it before, but let me emphasize it again, headhots are all about casting. That means your shots need to address these three questions: 1) what’s your look, 2) what’s your personality and 3) can you act? If your shots are done right we see all that in your eyes. Your eyes are the windows to your sole. They tell us all about you, which is after all what casting is all about. For more of an explanation of what that means and how to get all that in your headshot see my previous blog.
It goes to reason that if a great shot is all about your eyes then clearly your eyes need to be the focus of the shots. Everything has to help draw the viewers focus to your eyes. That means your clothes, your jewelry, the lighting, the background, the focus of the camera lens, etc. Let’s explore these thoughts.
What should you wear? Most photographers like to shoot a basic package of three “looks” (or wardrobe changes), and for good reason. Agents usually define looks by using these three basic catgories: 1) Professional, 2) Casual and 3) Casual Nice.
Professional is usually a nice suit or professional looking button down shirt (whichever is more appropriate for you) or something of that ilk. Pick an outfit that makes you look successful. Casual is just that, casual. It is anything from a tee-shirt to a hoodie to a jeans jacket to an old leather jacket to a casual layered look, to a polo, etc. Again, think what most expresses “you” in that category. Casual Nice is best described as every Olive Garden commercial you've seen in the past few years. It is not overdressed or underdressed, but what you'd wear if you went out with friends or family to a decent, but not fancy, restaurant. It could be a nice layered look, a sweater, a button down over a nice tee or camisole, etc. If you do decide to shoot a fourth look, it should be something that is uniquely you. If you are athletic that might be a sports outfit or something that shows off your body. If you are a comedian it would be something that shows your comedic side. You get the idea.
Bring to your session a couple of options for each of the looks. Hopefully your photographer will go through your clothes when you first arrive and work with you to choose something that works well on film but also expresses who you are in each of those looks. It should also be outfits that you are comfortable in. Don’t bring an outfit if you wouldn’t wear it to an audition. When you shoot the plan is to get both theatrical and commercial shots for each of those three looks, as well as all of your types in each.
Stick with simple clothing. No big patterns or stripes or florescent colors. And avoid whites if you can (although a white button-down under a suit, cardigan, etc. is fine). Remember, you want all the attention to go to your eyes, not to the logo on your shirt, the brightness of your clothes, etc. The same is true for jewelry. Little and subtle is fine but anything distracting will ruin it for you. Now that online casting is the norm and casting directors look mostly at thumbnails (1 1/4” tall) to cast from, the standard shot is chest up. Clothing is not nearly as important as it used to be for that reason. The neckline is what is most important.
Pick a color that brings out your eyes. How do you do that? A wonderful little secret is to look at the iris in your eyeball. Whatever color is on the outside ring of your iris is almost always the best color for your eyes. Once you try this little trick you’ll use it forever.
Jewel tones are always best on camera (and almost always matches the outside ring of most people's iris). A jewel tone is the rich color of jewels (emerald, jade, garnet, sapphire, etc.). Basically it is the darker shades of red, blue, green, purple, brown and even black. Pick the ones that work best with your eyes, skin and hair.
Next, a few words on make up. Most guys don't need it (unless you have bad acne or are oily all the time). Most women do. Because natural light or natural studio light is very popular right now your on-camera makeup should look like it does in person, everyday. It is okay to go slightly heavier but for the most part I recommends doing it as you would if you were going out on an audition. Remember, Rule #1 in headshots is you have to look the same way you do in your shots as you do in person. If you have any concern about doing your own makeup for camera, please get a professional makeup artist. Unless you are brilliant at doing your own makeup, it is worth the investment.
If you choose to do your own makeup, the only real concern is mineral makeups. Mineral makeup lines generally DON'T look good on digital cameras. They are fine in person but digital cameras are sensitive to highlights so they enhance your flaws thanks to the shiny minerals they contain. So avoid makeup lines like Bare Essentials, L'Oreal Bare Naturale, Colore Science, Glo Minerals, La Bella Donna, etc. If you must use a mineral line (or if you are a guy who is shiny all the time) I recommend getting a decent "blot powder” of some kind to bring the shine down. Mac makes a very nice, camera friendly, affordable line of blot powders. Just go to any Mac counter and ask for one that matches your skin color (you too, oily guys!). Or if you want to upscale it, Bobbi Brown makes fantastic powders.
Make sure your eyes are alive in the shots. Avoid drinking the night before (the dehydration is definitely noticeable through the lens, believe me!). Make sure you get plenty of rest and come prepared to have FUN!! Nothing sells a headshot better than a person who is relaxed and having a blast!!! It makes you “likable!"
And now a few important notes on post profuction. One of the biggest mistakes many beginning photographers make when they process digital shots is they lack good contrast. When casting directors look at a page of headshot thumbnails on a casting website like Breakdown (Actors Access) or LA Casting they are looking at multiple rows of five to eight thumbnails, roughly 1 1/4” tall. Your shot needs to catch their attention in a good way in order to get called in for an audition. If your shot lacks contrast and is muted in color and/or tone it will fade to the background and never get noiticed. Trust me on this. Make sure your photographer knows what they’re doing and add contrast to your shots. The image a digital sensor produces is generally flat by nature (for good reason that is well beyond the purpose of this blog). And, good photographers know that they need to manipulate the shots in order to get the optimum look for a computer screen. Have a discussion about this beforehand with your photographer. If they give you attitude or tell you the shots coming out of the camera are fine then it might be time to find another photographer. The one exception is if they are brilliant at lighting then the shots right out of the camera might actually be fine. Either way, pay attention to the final shots. Look at their book. Do their shots have good contrast? If not, and you love them or your agent really wants you to shoot with them then ask your lab to add a little contrast later for you.
Once you get your final shots from your photographer and you’ve had some time picking the ones you like, resize them on your computer screen to 1 14” tall. This is generally the size of headhots that most casting directors are looking at when they cast. Pick the final shots based on which ones look best at that size. Pay special attention to your eyes. Do they grab you in thumbnail size? If so, you got a winner.
Finally, as a word of caution, don’t let your friends or family pick your shots unless they are an agent, a casting director or someone in the business who knows how to pick a great headshot. Friends and family can’t be objective enough and will always tell you what they think you want to hear, what they want to see or something they want to say based on silly dysfunctional family stuff. Get professional and objective help from someone you can trust, someone who can look at your shots from a pure business standpoint. Enough said.
I hope these tips will help you get that great shot that works! Since headshots are almost always your most important marketing tool, it is worth the effort to get the best shots you can. Take these points to heart, spend what you need to spend and get shots that grab our attention in a good way, tell the casting world who you are, show us how you cast and give us an idea of how incredibly likable you are. You’ll be glad you did!
Mark Atteberry is an award winning actor, teacher and photographer. As an actor his work includes films like Miranda July’s "The Future” and Ang Lee’s "The Hulk” and his recent TV work includes "House M.D.," "The Closer," “The Mentalist,” “Big Love,” "Dexter." "24," "Nip/Tuck," “Criminal Minds,” and “Justified.” Mark is internationally known for his advertising, documentary and headshot photography. His clients include NBC, CBS, A&E, Bravo, CAA, ICM, WME, and Big Lots. Mark regularly teaches and lectures on the topics of "Branding, Marketing and Type" and "How to Succeed in the Entertainment Industry." He has authored or co-authored several books on the subject including the best selling, "Working Actor's Guide to LA." For more of Mark’s acting credits see: www.imdb.com/name/nm0040992. For Mark’s headshot photography see: www.idyllicphotography.com. And, for Mark’s classes see: www.beaworkingactor.com
With the coming of a new year, actors will no doubt find themselves in need or want of new headshots and a good acting class. Let’s face it, we all want to start the new year “armed and ready.” Since I recently addressed acting classes in a previous blog, I thought it appropriate to discuss headshots in this one. This topic will be a two-parter. First we’ll discuss the essence and focus of a good shot, next time we’ll look at wardrobe, makeup and the technical aspects of getting a good shot.
I'm often asked, “who do you think the best acting teacher is in Los Angeles?” My answer is always the same, “It depends.” But, let’s be honest, that’s not a very satisfactory answer and certainly not one you’d want to hear if you asked the question. So, let’s get right to the heart of the question. What we should be asking is what do the best acting teachers teach?
So, what are the three steps of acting?
If you’ve been in the acting business for any length of time you’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “If there’s anything else you can do, other than acting, then do it.” Do I believe that sentiment? Absolutely, I do. The odds are against us, we’re faced with rejection just about every day, we start over with every project we do and the pressure to be “endlessly entertaining” is incredibly difficult at best. Only a handful of people actually make a life long career of acting. It’s ridiculously tough. So, why do I do it? Partly because when I finally get the chance to act, I love it. I love every second of it. It’s always worth the wait and the struggle. Besides, it beats following in my father’s footsteps, repairing broken down cars every day of my life.