Chapter 17 of 28 from Helen Mirren

Film Acting Technique, Part 1

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For Helen, mastering on-camera technique allowed her to find freedom in her roles and to have moments of pure, out-of-control inspiration. She shares how she found inspiration in this vein from a surprising source: an abstract painter.

Topics include: Stage and Film: Different Technique, Same Essence • Francis Bacon on the Necessity of Technique, Part 1 • Francis Bacon on the Necessity of Technique, Part 2 • Find Freedom Within the Technique

For Helen, mastering on-camera technique allowed her to find freedom in her roles and to have moments of pure, out-of-control inspiration. She shares how she found inspiration in this vein from a surprising source: an abstract painter.

Topics include: Stage and Film: Different Technique, Same Essence • Francis Bacon on the Necessity of Technique, Part 1 • Francis Bacon on the Necessity of Technique, Part 2 • Find Freedom Within the Technique

Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren Teaches Acting

In 28 lessons, the Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony, and Emmy winner teaches her process for acting on the stage and screen.

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Find freedom in your roles

Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Tony winner Helen Mirren is one of the greatest actresses of our time. In her first online class, she discusses the dualism that is core to her method: the necessity for mastering technique (craft) and then letting go so that your imagination can take over (art). Learn how to break down a script, research characters, and master techniques so you can transcend them to find freedom in every role.

Helen brings you behind the scenes to show you the secrets of her acting technique.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Helen will also critique select student work.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Helen, I am truly blessed and honored to have had the access to such knowledge and reflection of your craft. Thank you, A. Tyler

Amazing! Such valuable, usable information! Will be using this gold on set tomorrow! Thank you Helen Mirren for sharing your gift and paying it forward

A wonderfully personal exploration of the processes and pieces of the acting experience. Such an insight.

Helen make me understand so many things and now I can see the theater and the films from a different point of view, which is obviously a better than it was

Comments

Carolyn S.

This was a fabulous lesson. But it also made me want to know more specifics about the techniques and how they are employed. Actual examples, demonstrated for us.

Kim B.

Although I am not a theater actor, I totally understand everything Helen Mirren is teaching. I'm appreciative to have this opportunity to learn from her experience.

CLAU

IS TRUE AND I GET THIS FROM DIRECTORS ALL THE TIME THEY ALWAYS WANT ME TO HAVE A LOT OF ENERGY WHEN I SAY MY LINES SO HELEN MIRREN WAS RIGHT ABOUT THAT IN THIS VIDEO

Kalia D.

So at this point it's at least five layers of awareness: the empty space inside, the story you fill it with, the real surroundings like location of camera, distractions, lighting etc., your own skilled body-awareness, and the spectators view of the scene. If your acting involves an aspect of entertainment, there is a sixth layer: the reaction of and interaction with your audience. So it's definitely not trivial. Another aspect particular to film acting is these endless retakes I suppose. On stage, the actor can trip and the audience will kindly overlook it. I wonder whether she favours a particular school of technique? I gather there are many different traditions around the world and throughout history....

Mia S.

"I could see a reason for learning technique: that eventually you will be able to let it go. But you can't let it go until you have it - you can't say, as a 19, 20-year-old actor - 'I'm going to be an actor without technique It's all just going to be improvised and absolutely brilliant.' Well, it won't be. It'll just be a mess, actually. If you're a young actor and you get a the chance to do a long-form series or something, somewhere where you're going to be on the set every day, watching, working with different directors, cinematographers, camera people, dolly pushers - just working on a film set with all those incredible expertise technicians that you are privileged to work with - that's very valuable. I work with actors who have had that experience, and how extraordinarily adroit and free they are, therefore, on a film set. I learned if a siren's going off, it's going to spoil the take and you're going to have to do that take again. I learned how to give off-camera lines to actors in such a way that it keeps their energy going, that gives them something. I learned when to shout, when not to shout. I learned all those technical requirements of film. On top of it being second nature to them, they are utterly free within it - we actors, we love Al Pacino, because there is this body, this platform of incredible technical knowledge... but on that platform, he dances like a free spirit. Never betraying the technique, but utterly free within it. That is what we all aspire to."

Mia S.

"Then he talks about the moment where your technique is so deep within you, now you can start letting go of it because it's second nature to you. 'I simply didn't know in the end what I was doing. And suddenly this thing clicked and became exactly like this image I was trying to record - but not out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with painting. What has never been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration' - and here we could be talking about acting perfectly. That moment of inspired reality as opposed to beautifully performing reality. 'I suppose, because it has a life completely of its own, it lives on its own. Like the image one's trying to trap, it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly so that the artist may be able to open up. Rather, I should say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.' What a perfect description of a brilliant, inspired take is that? When, as they say, inspiration strikes you and you're out of control, and yet you are totally in control because if you've got technique, then you can afford those out of control moments, because you're in focus because you're on your mark, or your eyeline is right. In terms of painting, he's talking about the inspired accident and how you can't tell - because there are bad accidents and there are good accidents, as in acting. Moments when you do something that's not planned, but actually, it's not very good either; then other moments when you do something that's not planned but it's fantastic. He says the whole point of learning technique is to be able to recognize what is a good accident and what is a bad accident."

Mia S.

"The back is a very important thing for actors. There is an absolute world of difference between the two techniques. Both are highly technical, and you have to learn the technique for both formats. As I say, in the absolute essence of what you are doing, it's the same thing. Interviews with Francis Bacon. he talks about the necessity to learn technique; and he talks about it in terms of painting. He says all five, six-year-old kids are brilliant painters, they're brilliant because they're painting purely out of instinct, and they're not concerned with technique at all. They're just making marks.But if you're still painting like a five-year-old when you're 15, you're actually kind of mentally disturbed. To carry on as a painter, you have got to learn technique. You've got to. Then you go through this very painful period that is probably about 10 years long, it's a long time of learning technique. Whether that's learning the technique of film acting, learning how to look at a piece of tape on the side of a camera and completely believe that it's your dying husband, learning how to deal with a mic above your head, people over there having a little chitchat, whatever it is you're dealing with, and maintain your concentration; learning how to hit marks, about lighting, learning about how to work in a frame that's this big, as opposed to a frame that's this big, as opposed to a big wide. Learning all those things - and that takes time. On the stage, it's mostly vocal learning, learning how much energy you're going to need, learning how to be realistic and yet theatrical, because they've got to be able to hear you at the back of the theater. So a long, painful journey of learning technique."

Mia S.

"There is such a huge difference between acting on stage and acting on film. Yet, ironically, it's actually the same process that you go through: the process of imaginatively putting yourself into a situation that you a manifestly not in. On stage, you're in ancient Greece - but I'm not in ancient Greece, I'm on the stage at the National Theater and in front of me is an audience. But we are all engaging in this wonderful, miraculous active imagination together that is going to take us on this journey - the journey of telling a story, that we all want to go on. Likewise, when you're on a film set; I'm Morgana the enchantress, but I'm not. I've just struggled into my costume and my makeup is falling off me, my hair is uncomfortable. There's noise on the set, and many many people. The central essence of what you are doing is the same. You are engaging in the act of imagination, profoundly, in order to tell a story. Having said that, there is a world of difference between acting on stage and acting in front of a camera. The wonderful advantage that you have on camera is you have the closeup. You can tell - you don't need a three page speech, if you have a close-up. What happens in film in television is that you're edited. Your performance is created for you by the editor, by the director, by all the other elements that come in in post-production. On stage, you are editing yourself. You are in control of the editing. You can bring the attention to yourself if you want to, or you give it to the other actor when the moment is right. You can choose when to be still; you can choose when to be fast; you can choose when to do this and not look at the camera at all."

Julian S.

Technique is a necessity in all forms of art and acting is no exception. Perhaps there is a difference is how that technique can be acquired. But ultimately, there is no substitute for hard work. And sometimes that can be boring, if not stressful. But one must tell themselves that it pays off. Because it always does. I have practiced acting for about three years now, and some things that I found very difficult to perform such as projecting and improvising, have become almost second nature. I just know what I have to say and how I can say it. And on the talk of improvisation, I recently auditioned for a role where the dialogue was entirely up to the actor. There was a situation that I had to act on, and I found it very simple and very enjoyable at the same time. Happy accidents.

Kacey

Couldn’t agree more. There is no life without systems. Think respiratory system. Think circulatory system. Think skeletal system. Think ecosystem. Technique matters, and finding freedom within – and enabled by - the system (aka technique) is what we strive for.

Transcript

There is such a huge difference between acting on stage and acting on film. And yet, ironically, it's actually the same process that you go through. You're going through the process of imaginatively putting yourself into a situation that you are manifestly not in. On stage, you know, you're playing-- I don't know, I played Phaedre, for example, on stage. A Greek queen who is in love with her stepson, and you're in ancient Greece. But I'm not in ancient Greece, I'm on the stage at the National Theater and in front of me is an audience. But we are all engaging in this wonderful, miraculous active imagination together that is going to take us on this journey, the journey of telling a story, that we all want to go on. Likewise, when you're on a film set. Here you are, I don't know, Excalibur. I'm Morgana the enchantress. But I'm not. I've just struggled into my costume and my makeup is hot, it's falling off me, and my hair is uncomfortable. And there's noise on the set, and many, many people. You're manifestly not where-- so anyway what I'm saying is the central essence of what you are doing is the same. You are engaging in an act of imagination, profoundly, in order to tell a story. Having said that, there is a world of difference between acting on stage and acting on in front of a camera. The wonderful advantage that you have on camera is you have the closeup. And you can tell-- you don't need a three page speech if you have a close up. You can do it all here if you are allowed or if that's required. What happens in film and television is that you're edited. Your performance is created for you by the editor, by the director, by all the other elements that come in in post-production. On stage, you are editing yourself. You are in control of the editing. You can bring the attention to yourself if you want to. Or you give it to the other actor when the moment is right. You can choose when to be still. You can choose when to be fast. You can choose when to do this and not look at the camera at all. Or the audience. The back is a very important thing for actors, I think. So there is an absolute world of difference between the two techniques. And both are highly technical and you have to learn the technique for both formats. But as I say, in the absolute essence of what you are doing, which is going on this imaginative story, its the same thing. This is a book called Interviews With Francis Bacon. I can't find-- I can't find the bit that I will tell you about. It's a wonderful piece. He talks about-- he talks about the necessity to learn technique. And it is something that I have come to understand. And he talks about it in terms of painting. He says all five-year-old, six-year-old kids are brilliant painters. They're brilliant because they're painting purely out of instinct and they're not concer...