Specifically, cheating in front of the camera is good. They say the camera doesn’t lie. Well, they are wrong.
We use a camera to control everything the viewer sees. If we don’t like it, we change a lens to include or eliminate what we don’t like. If somebody is too short, we sit them on a phone book. Bogart wore 4 inch platforms when he shared shots with Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”. And on, and on…
Just about every shot in a film has some sort of cheat in it, something to make it look better from the camera’s point of view. (Unless you are making a documentary.) Most of the time it’s something subtle like turning to the camera a little more. It feels awkward in life but looks natural on screen.
Whenever I have directed lesser experienced actors, they usually feel a little uncomfortable standing as close to the other actors as I want them to. In life it feels unnatural to invade their space, but within the frame, the composition looks great. Did you ever notice on a TV sitcom how 4 people will sit around one half of a round table so that the audience can see them all? The camera is usually close enough that it looks perfectly normal, but if you tried that at dinner some time, you family would think you are nuts. Or else, you just enjoy being extremely cozy.
One of my favorite big cheats is when a two characters face the camera, one in a close up, and they talk to each other seemingly making eye contact. The front actor glances to the side and you can draw a straight line from his eyes to the others. In the two dimensional plane, it makes visual sense, yet on the soundstage, in 3D space, there is no eye contact.
Smaller cheats are all about playing to the camera. Like when an actor makes sure his or her face is presented at its best angle. Bruce Willis does this a lot. (Not in every shot, but in plenty). Watch how he will often make sure his face points directly to the camera, yet his eyes cut to the side to look at another actor.
Nobody does that in real life. When you talk to somebody, you turn your head and look at them, not angle your face away and glance sidelong at them. Oh, and this is another beauty: Denzel (one of my favorite actors) Washington doesn’t like to obscure his face with a phone receiver. I haven’t read this. It’s just an observation on my part. Whenever he talks on the phone, he holds the receiver down under his chin. When I try that the person on the other end can’t hear a word I’m saying!
I was watching an old Twilight Zone once with Lee Marvin, and I noticed that during an over the shoulder shot, we should have just been looking at the back of his head while he talked to the other guy. But no, he turned his head slightly, so we could make out his profile better. Not unlike this scene from “Casablanca”. Look at Sidney Greenstreet (on the right). He has turned his head ever so slightly to be off axis to look directly at Bogart, but we get a clear shot at his profile. Did the director tell him to? Probably not, he’s just a trained actor. (Actually a director would more than likely only have to instruct actors not to do this in certain shots so as not to upstage the main character.)
Now why am I talking about all this live action staging to a bunch of animators? Well, as actors with pencils, clay or sitting in front of CRTs, it’s easy to forget these things because you aren’t acting in front of a camera. And not many of us have been trained as a screen actor and to develop that intuition of “how do I look?”
My lesson is for you to think a little more like this for your characters. Turn a little more to the camera when it will look better, especially if your are the focus of the shot. Cheat a little baby. The audience will love you more for it.