The Actor and The Camera

This week we are back to books.

Woman Reading a Diary
No, it’s not me…you don’t want to see me reading a book.

Just before the summer came around, a book I had pre-ordered arrived. I went out on a limb with this one, for reasons I’ll mention later, and I had no intention of reviewing it… but, after finishing it earlier this week, it’s one I feel compelled to review. Let’s just say it made a nice change from The Luminaries, which I am still plodding through, despite almost ditching it numerous times.

The Actor and the Camera was written by actor Denis Lawson (you’ve probably seen him around) and when I saw that he had written a book about acting for tv and film I hit the pre-order button on a popular “you can buy almost anything here” website. It was late at night and I was browsing for something else. If I remember rightly I’d just finished a spell at our local theatre producing a musical full of energetic children, was about to help out on a play (also full of energetic children), and had just attended a workshop on directing by a lovely lady from the SCDA. Let’s just say I was in the mood for such a book to fill the few hours when I wasn’t at the theatre or at work. I went out on a limb with this one because, although I’ve been a “supporting artist” (ok… extra) a couple of times (a very long time ago), it’s my lovely sister who is accomplished in this area. I know how filming works, I have friends who are acting students and know a few filmy types, but I am not an actor and it’s highly unlikely that I will ever work in the field of tv or film… unless you count the time when I did a film-making workshop or when I was at college and did an editing course…on film…before digital was even around.

When the book eventually arrived I excitedly opened the package and must admit that I was slightly disappointed when I saw the slim volume that fell from the cardboard. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting but, flicking through, the large(ish) type, big headings and black & white photos and illustrations seemed, to me, rather childish. I suppose I’m used to more “scholarly” types of layout for my non-fiction, but I did wonder how an “ultimate” guide could have so much crammed into such a thin book.

Fear not dear readers… this is one of those “don’t judge a book by its cover” moments… although the cover is a rather lovely picture of Denis and a camera.

The Actor and the Camera cover image
Image (c) Amanda Searle, by kind permission of Nick Hern Books

Once I sat down and started reading I became thoroughly engrossed in Lawson’s world. It also dawned on me that the layout and typography of the book is very likely designed in order to appeal to the younger readers… yes, I often forget that I’m an old fogey now. A drama student may well be put off by a book that looks like it is “heavy” to read (and long! After all who has the time these days?)… but the less formal layout here is not in any way threatening. For instance, the “chapters” do not always begin on a new page, the book just runs on through and a new section will start just after where the last one ends. No formality here.

And this lack of formality reflects Lawson’s writing style. I can honestly say that this is one book that I had trouble putting down. You could very easily read it in one sitting, but I’d recommend thoroughly digesting the information – don’t read it quickly, listen to what Denis has to say.  I like it when people write how they talk, and this book reads like a conversation with the author. It’s as if you are a drama student, have happened upon Mr Lawson as he is taking a leisurely lunch in the canteen at Media City and he has invited you to join him while he gives you some advice. It really is like a conversation, peppered with expletives, technical advice and anecdotes. Lawson’s conversation with Dirk Bogarde on page 106 was so funny I nearly spilled my coffee. There are lots of moments that will have you laughing out loud… Lawson has a wicked sense of humour.

But it’s all very well being entertained… does this book deliver as being an “ultimate insider’s guide” to acting for film and tv?

In a word – yes.

The very first thing that Lawson tells you is that this book is based on his experience. It’s all about what he has learned, how he works and how he deals with the different ways of acting required for working with the camera. He also tells you that you should take or leave his advice as you desire: what works for him after forty years may not always work for you… you must find your own way. And there are some instances throughout the book when I did think that there was no way a novice would have the guts to do what he did, however, as the young actor gains in confidence their working practices will naturally become easier.

This book takes you through the transition from theatre to film (two totally different ways of acting), through auditions (including a very handy section on self-taping your audition pieces) and into the world of production. Lawson explains the technical details, how to help your acting when you are used to stage-work, and how not to look like a total novice. He explains who everyone is and how everyone works, from the directors and producers right down to the catering crew. And this is one thing that comes through strongly in this book… Lawson has a healthy respect for everyone in the team. Film and tv production is all about teamwork, and he constantly emphasises this – get to know your team-mates, be professional and be kind. You’re all in this together!

If you want to know how a sitcom works…it’s here.

If you want to know how performance capture (think Andy Serkis) works… it’s here.

If you want to know what happens when filming a sex scene… it’s here.

If you want to know how best to look towards the camera, where to stand, how to do voice-overs, how you hit your marks when you can’t see the floor and what exactly a banana is… it’s all here.

I don’t think anyone, or anything, you will regularly come across in television or film production has been missed.

But this wouldn’t be a review without the negative aspects, even though they are few:

I didn’t like the fact that there was no index. Even a very brief index would make the book easier to use as a reference, especially as there is no contents list and the subjects just run on through the book. The headings are highlighted on the margin of the right-hand page, but not every heading is highlighted in this way, making it difficult to find a page you would like to go back to. I can image this book being one that has lots of post-it notes attached to the page edges.

A few of the photos could have been better… black and white is fine, but a couple could have been crisper. The line-drawings were a nice addition though and really helped illustrate what Denis was saying.

Finally, the lovely laminated cover soon gets shabby. I know… this is a very minor point, but the matt lamination is peeling away where I’ve been holding the book. I’m very tempted to peel it away. But it’s a working book so doesn’t need to look perfect as you fling it in your bag.

So overall, as you can probably see, I’m nitpicking to find negatives… although the lack of an index is a major point for me.

I seriously love this book, and I can see that I’ll go back to it again and again, even though I’m not in the business. If you are not an actor, or in the profession, this is a great book to help you see behind the scenes… you’ll probably never look at Eastenders in the same way again.

If you are a drama student, a young actor with no tv experience, someone wanting to work in the business, or even just thinking about it, I can see this book becoming your go-to reference.

Denis Lawson has produced something that is both entertaining and informative and I highly recommend it to you. Go buy it and see for yourself.

(and yes… I’ll be recommending it to my drama student friends).

Denis Lawson, The Actor and The Camera, is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased via their website, Amazon or ask for it at your lovely, local bookshop.

2 Comments on “The Actor and The Camera

  1. Looks like a good choice. Thank you for the comprehensive review. I think thus will be on the Christmas lists for my thespian young adult boys currently embarking on their film careers.

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