Monday, February 12, 2007

WHAT IS GOOD ACTING?



My intention in this article is to contrast what I consider flawed acting with a sample of the genuine article. The flawed acting is contained in the student film above, a two minute 3D animated film called "Interview." This film is far better than a lot of student work I've seen and I have to say I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that I'm about to rip it. My apology to the talented, deliberately anonymous filmmaker who I hope never reads this. OK, watch the clip then come back and we'll talk about it....

Well, what did you think? My problem with it is that the character is simply giving us a graphic description of what the words say. The visual doesn't add anything. In other words, they're's not acting. Good acting isn't just mouthing the words. Good acting is performance. Good acting is just like tight-rope walking or juggling or ballet dancing. You have to pull off something difficult and entertaining that an audience would be willing to pay for; something they'll imitate and talk about the next day.

A good actor creates a memorable character. He's not content to settle for acting that's simply "convincing." Convincing behavior is all around me, right outside my window and it's free. I don't need to pay an actor for it. What I am willing to pay for is hyper-reality: clever, beautiful, fun artifice that I'm willing to accept as real but isn't. Watch the Peter Lorre clip below and you'll see all these factors operating. Lorre could have played the role as a straight-forward psycho thug. Instead he creates a character who's a sickly, spacey, oddly-appealing troll. See what you think!

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! That's like a whole movie within itself!

Gabriel said...

i know shit about acting, but i read a book by david mamet and his idea seem to be complete opposite of yours and John K's, Eddie. He thinks the actor should do just the physical actions needed to move the plot forward, and not rely on facial expressions to communicate. He says the greatest crowd pleasers are not necessarily the best actors. I'm probably simplifying it a lot here and maybe i even got it all wrong, but I don't know what to make of this, really. Is it a matter of taste?

Kris said...

I love the Peter Lorre clip. He's really the star of any scene he's in.

The Jerk said...

hmm. the problem I see with the example here is that they seem to be relying on the voice to give the character personality; the animation doesn't add enough to the scene to make me want to watch it; i could listen and get all the essential information out of the scene. A good actor communicates with his whole body, not just his face and hands, and this character doesn't even do THAT well.

For a human actor to bring a character to compelling life, as Peter Lorre does here, he has to "let the character breathe"; that is, he has to do more than read lines, he has to think as the character, and then let the lines come naturally as the result of what the character is thinking or feeling. Lines are secondary- internalizing the character's personality and motives is primary, and will result naturally in a more believable, compelling character.
There will be quiet moments when there are no lines, and you can see the thoughts going through the character's head, just by the actor's body language, his face, and especially his eyes.

I suppose relating this to animation, the prescriptive suggestion i would have is that the character needs to have moments where he is not talking, but just "living"- thinking- little, subtle things, like a twitch of a corner of the mouth, or a shift of posture, maybe he has some object he is holding, looking at, fidgeting with, as he considers some thought.
If acting was just lines, there would be no such thing as a Pantomime. Maybe animators should study more silent movies, or Marcel Marceau or Red Skelton, like they used to do, instead of studying other cartoons.

Anonymous said...

Eddie, who would you consider a good contemporary actor?

Jennifer said...

I agree with the poster that calls himself "the jerk".

The voice acting in that short was excellent. When I listened to it without looking at the animation, I thought it was great. I felt the interviewee's pain with auditions. However, when I saw the animation with the voice, it looked odd. The "acting" didn't go with the emotion in the "voice". If someone is really nervous about an audition, there is going to be a lot of nervous gestures, like feet shuffling, foot tapping, jittering, eye shifting, and other nervous tics. If he was trying for a comic effect (which I think he was trying to do), those gestures are going to be exaggerated (think Don Knotts).

Peter Lorre got it right with the total package. His characters are typically the creepy villians that are supposed to scare the $h1t out of you. He knew how to use both gestures and his voice to accomplish that.

Kali Fontecchio said...

OH! Peter Lorre!!!!!! Those teeth!!!!


That 3d thing sucked. They should study Peter Lorre, maybe that'd help.

Gabriel said...

OT: i have to share this!

JohnK said...

I don't know if you can see it in the clip, but Peter Lorre has great facial muscle control and even in his forehead - like the babies you posted.

He can tug his eyes up (or one eye)pull his scalp back slightly and do all kinds of really subtle things, each one telling you exactly what sick or pitiful feelings he's experiencing at every moment.When someone else is talking, Lorre still steals the attention with his subtle reactions.

This tells you a lot more than any dialogue could, BUT I notice he almost always has great dialogue in every movie-even in the bad ones.

I always wondered if he ad -libbed or rewrote a lot of scripted dialogue to fit the Peter Lorre persona.

"5 pounds of raw hamburger please" You don't even see him on screen when you hear that and your skin crawls!

Lorre is a true genius.

drunk crazy said...

watching Peter Lorre is a treat. there do seem to be times when he does nothing, hesitates, sometimes followed by a sudden jerky movement. this would not be the intuitive thing to do in an animation. camera angles in the film clip are extremely important too. I thought the 3d thing had a good start, but was too soft. the movements needed to be sharper when he was angry, more exagerated maybe stretched a little more at points. maybe some different camera angles.

Mitch K said...

WOW when he realizes that the woman was lying to him you can feel all of his emotions and thoughts before he even says anything, from his face and even from the way he's moving his whole body. I have to be honest: I didn't expect your point to be made so clearly.

Anonymous said...

gabriel, I read that book you're talking about.

What I got from it was that actors should focus on accomplishing the subtext. The emotions associated with that subtext will come about naturally if the actor commits himself to that goal.

So if the goal is to pick up a heavy object, the strain in the face, body and voice would come about naturally, not by faking it. But Mamet depends a lot on casting and using real props. Animators have to fake a lot of it, so maybe Mamet is not wholy applicable to animation.

I don't think the character in this clip would have worked with anyone but Lorre. His persona in M was somewhat similar. I don't know what he was like in real life, but maybe he was typecast a lot. I didn't get the feeling that this was a different person from his characters in Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. This performance seemed a lot like a different side of the same coin. Is that then acting or just performing?

In any case, I enjoyed watching this clip a lot more and Lorre is captivating. I suppose that is all that matters.

Gabriel said...

anonymous, thanks for the clarification, that makes a lot of sense. I was thinking along the same lines as to how all that applies to animation. A lot of stuff actors do without thinking about must be observed and consciously used by animators. That only makes me even more baffled when i watch cartoons in which the acting is so good (such as the Piggy Bank Robbery and others).

Max Ward said...

Wow!! Lorre's performance alone made that worth watching! What movie is that? I want to see that, even if the clip ruins the whole movie for me.

Soos said...

Fantastic Lorre clip! It's so sad that he was in so many bad horror movies paired with ditsy actresses.

LeoBro said...

Yes! I learned about "specific acting" when I studied video puppetry under Muppet performers about 15 years ago.

One of my teachers was Kathryn Mullen, who was a regular puppeteer on the original Muppet
Show with Jim Henson, but had a theater background. Making your performance specific was the thing she drilled into our heads more than anything else.

Exactly the same things Eddie and John talk about. It's not interesting to watch a puppet floating in the frame with its mouth flapping and its head wobbling. What makes the performance interesting is to see the puppet character make specific choices, think a specific thought at a specific time, react in a specific way. The character should really be looking at something, then really look at something else. It shouldn't just point its head sort of in one direction and look halfway inbetween things.

You can show that a character is "excited about going to a party" by having the character talk fast and bounce around a lot. But that's generic and not interesting. Being specific would be like: "Oh, boy, Tilly's going to be there. Maybe I can talk to her! Oh! What will I say? What if I make an idiot of myself? I know! I'll compliment her dress. Oh my god, what should I wear?" Where each of those beats, no matter how quick, requires a full commitment to that moment. Even if the character doesn't say any of that out loud, the actor can be thinking all those things in rapid succession, and if each beat is clear, the performance will be entertaining. And convincing.

Improvisational actors also play tricks to make their performances more specific, and therefore more entertaining. For example, if you're playing a Dad coming home from work to his family, you might secretly hold the idea that your pants are full of sand. No one, certainly not the audience, knows about the sand, but it adds a layer of something going on -- something specific and not generic.

drunk crazy said...

I remember dancing in the nutcracker - there is a party scene and everyone has to mime mingling and dancing a waltz. the entire company hates that part because it is so boring; one year we decided to trade whispered insults at each opportunity; one year someone passed off a handfull of peanut butter to every dancer he encountered. disgusting, but we had to keep up the party acting. the audiences always said those were the most convincing scenes! maybe it's that added dimension that livens up the acting. or just adds intensity. could that translate to animation?

Lester Hunt said...

Great post, Eddie, with terrific examples. It really made me think.

I think that the position Eddie was taking was a little more radical than that taken by some people who thought they were agreeing with him. His idea was that a good actor is really a creative artist, and that what they create is a new character. The character Lorre creates is not identical to the character in the script. He is a different person altogether. Different and greater. Of course, his character does not conflict with the one in the script. It includes that other character, as a subset of itself. This Lorre brings about, as John K. said here, with "genius."

As such, I do have a qualm with what Eddie is saying. Eddie, isn't the difference you are finding between good acting and not-good acting really the difference between great acting and (merely) good acting?

I know this sounds like quibbling, but consider that to bring off what Lorre does here, to create a whole new character, and to do so in a way that does not mess up the work as scripted but actually makes it better, is indeed an act of artistic genius. Do we really want to say that you have to be Peter Lorre to be a "good" actor?

(Probably none of what I am saying applies to animation "acting," which could well be a different matter.)

Shawn said...

Peter Lorre was a genius.

I read somewhere that he wanted to act in all kinds of different roles, especially kind characters, but he was always typecasted as a villain since his amazing acting in M. I think he was disapointed by that.

Jenny said...

OK, I've only made it through a minute of the Lorre scene, but I think he's a hell of a sexy, sly, funny and mysterious man...catnip to women. He thought so, too--and so did his wives, like Kaaren Verne:
The second Mrs. Lorre, of four.
Young & beautiful, see?
But for the most part staggeringly dumb Hollywood pegged him as a "monster" type because he was short, had large eyes, and an oddly sibilant voice. And yeah, because of that onetime genius film "M", which shouldn't have typecast him. But he in fact DID play "all kinds" of roles, you just have to seek them out. Even his Motos are really MUCH more than the sum of their parts, thanks to him. And his period films with Greenstreet, and "The Mask Of Dimitrios" which might be one of his greatest--and he's the hero. Also "Passage to Marseilles", though it's a supporting role.

And btw Johnnie, your intuition is right: Lorre most certainly did have a hand in many of his films, particularly the "B" ones; in the recent bio of him, several directors describe how he'd pretend to be flippant about a part(particularly in a not-so-great film)initially, or reading through the script in an office, but then on set he'd clearly have very carefully, not to say brilliantly thought out exactly what to do--which he'd often run by the director in a fashion that would make it seem like the gentlest of suggestions, the merest touch of an idea. Most of the directors if they worth a damn would be happy to let him rewrite a line or invent a bit of business. And yes, that forehead! In some instances he can virtually take off a hat with it!

I swear to god, there's no film I can think of that he's in where HE isn't worth seeing and drinking in. Many actors said they learned huge amounts from him, either by his direct help, or just watching him.

Catnip, I say!

Shawn said...

Hey, Jenny. How could I have forgotten Mr. Moto? Fantastic stuff. I've never seen "The Mask Of Dimitrios", but I'll seek it out. Thanks!

Ollie said...

Great clip! Did John base Ren's voice on Peter Lorre?

Jenny said...

Shawn(and Eddie), I also highly recommend "The Verdict", a starrer for both Greenstreet and Lorre, who of course play off each other beautifully as always. They loved each other as actors and it shows. It's a terrific, nicely shot period mystery.

MoreMenthol said...

If you go to YouTube and do a search on Peter Lorre, you'll find scenes from many rarely shown films of his. It's been said he never gave the same film performance twice, and the range of his roles available on YouTube bears this out.
He was truly an amazingly talented actor.

Sean Worsham said...

I should watch more Peter Lorre movies. I only remember the way Mel Blanc imitated him and the scenes of his model "zombie" charicature in "Mad Monster Party!"

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Gabriel, Anonymous: I love Mamet but his style of acting is intended to fit the unique kind of stories he tells. I still like my way of doing things.

Thanks for reminding me of Mamet's book. It sounds great! I'll try to read it!

Brian: A good contemporary actor? I like Jim Carey's best scenes. Woody Allen was good in his "Annie Hall" days. There's obviously more good actors than that but these two fit my theories nicely so I boost them up to the top of the list.

John, Jennifer, Jenny et al: Lorre's great alright! I'll have to take another look at his facial muscles. The name of the movie is "Stranger on the Third Floor." In my opinion he gives an even better performance here than he does in "M." The Moto I saw didn't impress me that much but maybe I didn't see the right one.

Leo, Drunk: Wow! Thanks for the great acting theories! I'm going to write them down!

Jenny said...

The Moto I saw didn't impress me that much but maybe I didn't see the right one.

Well, the Mr. Motos aren't his absolute greatest work but they're a hell of a lot of fun--and of the 4 I've seen,(or was it six?), two were definitely lesser. I'd say the first one, "Think Fast, Mr. Moto" was the best, along with (I think) "Thank you, Mr. Moto"--one that has him in Shanghai, with an especially touching dath scene(not his). Maybe one has to be in just the right mood, I don't know--but man, I thought those two were crackerjack! And the way Lorre played Stanford-educated Moto was just....unexpected and sublime!

But definitely look for "The Verdict". : )

Anonymous said...

I'm lovin' all the comments about Peter Lorre! He's been my favorite actor for more than 30 years. You might enjoy reading his authorized biography -- "The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre" by Stephen Youngkin. Official website -- http://www.PeterLorreBook.com

Hammerson said...

Ah, "Stranger on the Third Floor"... great movie! Lorre is awesome, and there's a lengthy bizarre dream sequence that has almost cartoony quality. It certainly wouldn't be out of place in a Bob Clampett cartoon, or John K. psychodrama.
I will look up for "The Verdict", and another Peter Lorre film that I'm extremely curious about is "Crime and Punishment" (1935, directed by Josef Von Sternberg). Peter Lorre plays Raskolnikov, and that was his first Hollywood movie. Has anybody seen it? It seems to be very hard to find, and it received quite mixed reviews. Some hailed it as a near masterpiece and one of Lorre's best films, while others dismissed it as a total failure. It would be really interesting to see.

David Germain said...

Hey, is Warner Bros. considering releasing a Peter Lorre DVD collection much like they've done for Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and James Cagney? If not, they really really should.

They could even include cartoon extras like Birth of a Notion and Racketeer Rabbit and any other that has a Peter Lorre caricature in it.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Wow, I have to own this movie!!!
What a great sequence!
Whenever anyone talkes about Lorre, they always forget how nuanced he could be. The guy could do anything. He's great in "The Maltese Falcon", he's great in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". 2 completely different kinds of roles. Versatile!

mike f. said...

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) - a classic, NOT available on DVD, of course. Thanks, video industry.

Jenny mentions THE VERDICT (1946) with Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet - another classic, also not available on DVD.

(But you can get DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR and I EAT YOUR SKIN on DVD. The mind boggles.)

Leonard Maltin used the term "cultural amnesia" in his recent tribute to Frankie Laine - to describe what happened to entertainment journalism in recent years. Sad, huh?

http://www.leonardmaltin.com/

pappy d said...

Great post, Eddie! That Lorre scene was a good choice, too. It serves your point & also Mamet's. In his book, he talks about the "uninflected" performance & uses an example from an early experiment by one of those Soviet filmmakers where a shot of a man looking at the camera is cut with scenes of a turkey, a beautiful girl, etc. Each time the audience interpreted him as being hungry, lustful, & so forth, based on the editing.

If Lorre had played him as a slavering, twitching lunatic, it would have been far less affecting. In this clip, he's kind to animals, sympathetic, even timid. He seems so ordinary (except, maybe for the flamboyant scarf)that when he blandly lets it drop, by way of small-talk that he's killed someone, you're shocked. You realise that you pass shabby little guys like him every day, but you avoid eye contact & especially conversation with them. The character seems genuinely pleased to have had a conversation with another human being & when he realises that he has to kill her he seems disappointed & even disillusioned.

It seems to me that the biggest trick to acting is to get inside the character's skin, then just be real in the moment of the scene. It's harder in animation since there's no such thing as spontaneity. You have to feel it spontaneously, then drape the emotions over a matrix of 24 frms./sec., analyse what you were feeling & key it out.

NateBear said...

Well i think the voice acting in the student piece is flawed too. But that's part of the acting as a whole. By just listening i can tell it isn't genuine. It's an imitation of genres of emotional states. Pure stereo types streaming at us. Moreover, it seemed rushed. There were no pauses where one would expect them. No space for these supposed emotions to develop.

In contrast the Peter Lorre scene is full of silences. Silences where the actors faces and gestures tell the other half of the story. The emotions of the characters of course aren't even totally identifiable. That makes Lorre's character seem so unstable. You can't exactly tell where his feeling are going until actually starts attacking. Even then it seems he might even swing back to the gentle soul that feeds the dog. Now that's compelling! You become curious about what these murky emotions actually are, what they will be. The student piece is so categorizable and cliché that it holds no interest.

This reminds me of this video i was watching today that reminds me of John K's acting theories. I think I'll make my own post on that at nizzbear.blogspot.com

NateBear said...

One thing i have to say about Mamet is that he is writer. As a writer it is logical to assume that he would want his own words to take primacy over the acting. I'm not saying that he is in favor of dull, inferior acting, but if I labored over every detail of script I'd want to make sure all of the words get heard.

Counterpoint: Kurt Kobain doesn't care if you hear every word he sings. He only wants you feel how he sings it. At least on first impression. In fact, that reminds me of an interview with Maynard J Keenan of the bands Tool and A perfect CIrcle in which he stated that very sentiment.

In effect, cartooning is like grunge music. Good writing and words help a whole lot but mostly people care about how well the acting is animated. Sorta.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

"...another Peter Lorre film that I'm extremely curious about is "Crime and Punishment" (1935, directed by Josef Von Sternberg). Peter Lorre plays Raskolnikov, and that was his first Hollywood movie. Has anybody seen it? It seems to be very hard to find, and it received quite mixed reviews."

I saw Crime and Punishment at a revival screening at the Egyptian theater in LA. It definitely deserves its reputation of mixed reviews. It's one of those Hollywood movies that doesn't do justice to its source material. It looks real nice, though.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

pappy: An interesting analysis!

Anonymous: "Lost One"'s the newest Lorre book isn't it? If so I thumbed through it but didn't find much acting theory in it. The author gave short shrift to "Stranger on the Third Floor"

ladylove72 said...

Wow! I'm very honored that folks enjoyed my YouTube clip! I've been trying to capture some of my favorite Lorre moments for others to appreciate. I believe that the reason most people know Lorre only as a sinister person is that most of Lorre's best work hasn't been released to video. Please check out one of my other clips from "I Was an Adventuress". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn1Tk6-dU-k He plays a sweet-natured individual who can't control his kleptomaniacal urges. :D Lorre himself was said to be a very kind, compassionate individual who cared greatly for people. ~Jen (ladylove72)

Anonymous said...

Peter Lorre was considered one of the most gifted actors of his day and I think his acting technique dates very well. There's a lot of naturalistic observation in his characterizations. You can tell a lot about the character he's playing just by how he holds his cigarette.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Lady: Thanks a million for posting that Stranger excerpt. If it's convenient, maybe sometime you'd consider putting up an excerpt from Lorre's final speech from M. That's a great speech but I prefer his performance in Stranger. It would be fun to compare the two.

Hammerson said...

>> STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) - a classic, NOT available on DVD, of course. Thanks, video industry.

Jenny mentions THE VERDICT (1946) with Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet - another classic, also not available on DVD. <<

We also don't have Betty Boop, Terrytoons and the complete Tex Avery on DVD, because their respective owners think they wouldn't sell. And what we have instead? A DVD box set of "Wait 'Till Your Father Gets Home"!!! Now, that's a true classic and a landmark in animation history :(

Warner could really put a fine DVD collection of Peter Lorre movies. They own "The Verdict" and "Stranger...", and several other Lorre pictures. Somebody should propose this idea on the upcoming chat with Warner Home Video executives at the Home Theater Forum.

Hammerson said...

>> I saw Crime and Punishment at a revival screening at the Egyptian theater in LA. It definitely deserves its reputation of mixed reviews. It's one of those Hollywood movies that doesn't do justice to its source material. It looks real nice, though. <<

Thanks J.J. that's very close to what I expected from this movie. I agree, with Von Sternberg behind the camera, it must look nice. He was one of the greatest visual stylists of that era (and possibly one of my favorite directors) and it's a shame that his career started to disintegrate after the mid-'30s. What do you think of Lorre's interpretation in this movie?

Anonymous said...

Eddie Fitzgerald: Yes, "The Lost One" is the authorized biography of Peter Lorre, published in 2005.

Lorre's acting theories are discussed throughout the book. The easiest way to locate all references is to turn to page 597 in the Index and use the listing under "Lorre, Peter: Stage and Screen Career". One entry, for example, is "Acting, duality of".

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Bell said...

hi im 13 and i want to be an actress im ok but not that great i was wondering if you people had any tips or anything because you seem to know alot about acting, if you do that would be really good coz i cant really find anywhere that helps :)

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Bell: I answered your comment on the mid-July 2011 post about Gustave Dore.