Calling “Action” On Set – Should You Stop?

A few months ago I listened to a Director’s Cut Podcast with Clint Eastwood. During the conversation, he explains that he is not using any “action” at all!

In his eyes, the use of loud and abrupt commands can distract actors. For his films he prefers simple commands in a low voice.

I found it really interesting, so in the following essay video I examine all the reasons why “action” shouldn’t be a standard.

Do you know that there is a legend that explains why we call it “action”?

One day, director DW Griffith was pretty upset about how slowly things were moving from one setup to another. He had little time and in this frustration he cut short the regular exchange of confirmation sentences and just yelled, “Lights!” to get the electricians to put the lights on, followed by “Camera!” to get the cameraman to start, and finally followed by “Action!”

That makes a lot of sense. We couldn’t actually say “start” or “start” as it would be confusing as to what to begin or what to begin. Even the word “action” itself begins with a vowel that makes it easy to shout out loud.

Sam Fuller would sometimes fire a pistol into the air to give actors the much-needed cue. Very extreme, I know.

Insights from the filmmakers

If you’ve already seen the video above, you know I asked some of my friends (and definitely more savvy filmmakers) how they felt on this subject.

Do you call it “action”?

When, if ever, do you decide not to use this command?

What else are you doing to help the actors perform?

Filmmakers call action on the set

Here are a few examples from the interviews I conducted.

Jim Cummings (Writer / Director / Actor for Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hallow, The Beta Test)

It really depends on the actors you are working with. When it is a child you sometimes have to say “action” (…) and when you are working with someone who is really “in the moment” it is better to let them go on their own cue.

Stefanie Butler (Actor & Writer)

I love it when someone says “whenever you’re ready”. That feels very respectful and very cooperative to an actor because it doesn’t look like, “PS, you have to be prepared for my word.” It’s like, “Hey, I know this is a lot of work and I know you get there. You take the moment and when you’re ready to go we’ll be rolling.”

Justin Robinson (Writer & Director for My brother Jordan, Snowbird, guest of honor)

I think I’m trying to say “action” with the intent of the scene’s emotions. (…) Sometimes when it comes to stunts or a really emotional moment, the director can just say, “On your own.”

Sven Pape (Film editor & YouTube creator)

“Action!” can create formal stress with actors. Especially if you are really tall. It shocks them a little. During my student days, the director always asked me to say “action”. I would try to keep it very quiet because the actors get into the moment, so to speak, before they start performing.

Tail slate

What else can a director do to respect the actors’ emotional state?

Here is a written answer I received Udo Flohr, a German director.

I think tail slating is a great tool for difficult scenes, when actors are still too “in their heads”. I then ask them to improvise into the setting and it certainly helps not to interrupt the process by shouting “action”. Of course, the method requires that my crew be informed in advance. I generally like to go over things like the rear slate procedure with them before the first day of shooting.

Jim Cummings said to me:

My buddy Danny Madden doesn’t use clapboard when directing. You don’t have to have that break in front of an actor’s face.

I find this idea extremely illuminating.

Slating is not just a sound for an actor, but most of the time someone has to hold a slate in close proximity to the actor’s face. I imagine it can be very difficult to get into the zone under so much pressure.

Sidney Lumet on Tail Slating

Speaking to my more experienced industry colleagues, I came to the conclusion that this conversation is valuable. We cover “Action!” than something that is the default. And that’s fine as long as you understand that you can change it depending on the circumstances.

This makes a lot of sense for some scenes. But this is not the case for both physically demanding and emotionally intimate scenes. If you say something like, “Whenever you’re ready,” the actor can start on his own terms while the cameras roll and wait.

I just know that if one day I get to direct again, I want to take care of it. I want to respect my actors. I just want to let the crew know how I’m going to handle the set and do it in a way that will perform at the best possible level.

What do you think? Will this article and video have an impact on how you are going to use your set in the future?

Let us know in the comments. I’ll be here to read and interact.

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