It’s a Brave New (Media) World

Originally appeared in Backstage Jan. 9, 2014.

I recently finished my first experiences acting in “new media.” “New media” means shooting a project that usually airs on a computer—like a show for Hulu or Netflix. I’m not sure of the wisdom of calling it “new.” Even cave paintings were new once.

The new media agreement is a contract in which you get a very small amount of money on the front end with the promise of getting something big on the back end later. Show business has a long history of giving performers something big on the back end.

The question is: Is new media the new paradigm for the actor?

The short version: We shot a lot, an awfully lot, in a very short time. One day we shot over 25 pages. I was hallucinating on the drive home. One of the actors was laughing and saying it was like summer stock for movies. I saw the comparison. When I did summer stock I slept in a barn; I had to pee in the woods; and we put up “The Importance of Being Earnest” in five days.

I found working in new media an interesting study in how the tail wags the dog. The “tail” in this metaphor is that there is no money for production. Consequently, new media is shot on very affordable, high-definition cameras.

In the days of film, the length of a shot was limited to the size of the camera magazine—about eight minutes. The high cost of film and processing limited the number of takes you could shoot.

Not anymore.

Media for high-def cameras is cheap. You can shoot endless takes. You can shoot long takes. You can shoot long takes and keep the cameras running while the director and producers get a cup of tea and talk over what scene to shoot next.

As an unintentional consequence, the age of new media is bringing back an old discipline: theater training. Ten years ago, it was possible to run into successful actors who had never been in a play. In the world of new media, training matters. Actors have to be able to pull off long dialogue scenes. They have to understand how to improvise. They have to contribute to the breadth and tone of the entire piece. As onstage, the actor has more control of his final performance.

During the two projects I worked on, it was not uncommon for directors to say, “We may keep the cameras running when the scene is over—so have fun. Come up with something.” Long-form improvisation is not a gift. It is a skill. New media has become the arena where the actor can develop those skills in a performance environment.

Actors have always had to adapt to new technical requirements. Aeschylus required masks. George Lucas made acting with green screens part of the landscape. From the looks of it, new media’s reliance on theater skills could be the beginning of the new good-old days.

Leave a Comment