June 30, 2016
Acting for Stills: A reflection on Adland Shoot
By Jennie Fox
“A photoshoot? Right… So that’s kind of… posing? …isn’t it? Like modelling. That’s not really ‘acting’ is it?”
This is the response I got whilst trying to explain to a non-industry friend about my recent photo shoot for the incredible Photographer/Artist David Stewart and his team for a personal project ridiculing the modern Ad industry: Adland.
Some actors wear various hats depending on their skill-base (actor-presenters, actor-musicians, actor-stage combat experts, actor-models), but I would class myself simply as an actor. Definitely not a model. I’ve never had the ambition to ‘strike a pose and vogue’ as Madonna put it, although I did (as I’m sure most teenage girls did) occasionally wonder if a model-scout would spot me wandering around Topshop and sign me up as the new Kate Moss. An idea implanted as overly kind relatives repeatedly declared throughout my youth “oooh ain’t you a skinny minnie, you could be a model!!”. Yet for all of this I grew to realise my figure was too healthy and my features, while interesting and attractive, not quite the ‘beautiful’ for high end fashion.
Well for this photo-project, on discussing wardrobe with the fabulous costume designer, I was told “So your character has got to be funky and hard, but actually clothes don’t matter as much as your face really, because we chose you because we love your face, I love your hair!”. They like my face! Not quite ‘the next Kate Moss’, but I’ll take it.
So, I’m quite an old fashioned type of girl so you can imagine my delight when I realised David Stewart was going to be using an old fashioned camera – you know, the ones with a cloth over the top and a big flash that goes ‘pufff’ – crash, bang, wallop what a picture!
It was beautiful and very special to me to be captured on FILM, the old school way which required real Director of Photography skill. I know the advent of modern cameras that has in effect ruined the art of photography and put a lot of classical artistic photographers out of business. So what a real privilege and also a responsibility to get it right, when only a few shots were going to be taken rather than hundreds!
Now I don’t know anything about the modelling world but think it must be harder than it looks. Models must have more than just looks to successfully take direction to make their body and face capture a moment, sell the brand or object and make the most interesting shot. That takes talent. From those I’ve met in the past, I hear they have gruelling hours, lots of time in make-up, and are often freezing or uncomfortable, being put in ridiculously unfit out-fits for ludicrous settings and environments. Let’s take a moment to feel for models.
Well, models are generally so called, to model / demonstrate / sell / show off a brand. They are part of the powerful industry that rules a lot of our lives and on this occasion, was, as I said, the subject of David Stewart’s latest photographic project: Advertising. While there are cross-overs in performance, I think here-in lies the difference between a model and an actor. A model’s role is always to sell things. While an actor mainly deals in ideas and feelings, selling nothing but themselves, the character (although of course, once ‘famous’, their face/name can be used to endorse a product or show), and then there are commercials and the type of ‘acting’ required for those.
Sometimes in small parts, like in adverts, actors can feel almost like human-furniture, in order to sell a ‘product or service’, not given a chance to be a fully rounded character with a history, a future, an opinion. I have always, however small my part, made sure I believe in my place in that moment, on that set, or on that stage. I mean, surely, that’s what a trained actor does? It’s ingrained into us. It sets us apart from ‘extras’ or ‘models’ doesn’t it?
These days in commercials, it does seem that roles are now occasionally being filled by un-trained extras. If they ‘look’ the part, then sometimes that is enough. I was cast for the ‘Adland’ project on my face alone without an audition. I like to think they also looked at my CV and knew I could deliver the ‘art’ they required for this personal photographic art project that was really a critique of the Ad industry so required a level of intellectual comprehension, sarcasm, humour and knowing. When the costume designer called to get my clothes sizes and see what I already owned that could suit the character, she had a vision from my picture and my voice did not match her idea for how she wanted to use my ‘look’ in a ‘madmen’ style scene. “I can tell from your voice you are soft and nice, and she needs to be condescending, funky, and cool”. Good job they chose an actor then. Put me in the right costume, give me a scenario and watch me go! The clothes we chose in the end were non-descript, and indeed, my face was more important, but there was a sleek hardness to them, and the way we kept my hair straight and sleek helped me to find my razor sharp character quickly. I think it was in ‘Building A Character’ by Stanislavski that he spoke of finding character from outside in – from a costume, a walk, a gesture. It can really help on these fast job occasions.
Illustrating a feeling or idea in a couple of seconds and getting that across to an audience, can actually be harder in some ways than doing a whole speech or fully developed play. I find photoshoots – the art of acting without talking, for a short moment, very similar to short burst characterisations required for a commercial audition. Being able to deliver a feeling, an intent, a comical reaction in a moment is an interesting thing for an actor. As we like to ‘prepare’. We also like to act through stories. Acting in short bursts is a strange concept, to me anyway. Being asked for alteration of emotion or response, quick fire, without preparation time is quite a skill in itself. Especially as you get into the ‘fun’ of it, you must allow yourself to be enthusiastic but not so enthusiastic as to fall into over the top ‘stage acting’ as your grimace looks 10 times more frightening when you are ‘on screen’. Remember the slightly rude parody video on youtube “Fiery Hawk, Cardinal Burns” that was going around a few years ago? Yes. Worth another look for the giggles if you have ever done a commercial audition. If you haven’t, it really is basically just-like-that! Photoshoots are not quite so intense and disturbing, (I rarely leave a commercial audition without a slight feeling of ‘what just happened in there?’) but you do need to have that level of adaptability and the brief isn’t always that obvious and clear.
So, in order to prepare for such vague and brief outlines of story and characterisation which is to be encapsulated in a short moment? Here are my top tips:
Photoshoots, stills for films, adverts in magazines or billboards, Getty stock images, advertising for your latest fringe theatre show. You may think they are just a photo, but they are all acting. Some actors love them, some hate them. Perhaps it fulfils that 14year old girl wanting to be discovered as a model in me, but I love doing them. You have to have patience, like when on a film set. Takes a while for everything to be set up, but once they are all ready for you and you take to the set, you go to work, doing what you love best, being a character and telling the story of that moment. It is art. It certainly requires acting and emoting, not just posing.