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Monday, February 4, 2013

100 gigs, 100 lessons

Until November, 2010, I had never dreamed that I would be an actor. Now, I have had lead roles in three short films that won awards, and have also won an individual award for Best Performance in the 3rd Singapore Short Film Awards (2012). I have done 100 gigs in two years, with the 100th gig just completed in in Guangzhou, China – my first overseas. I have also been in the main casts of three feature films. To date, I have been very lucky to have worked with many award winning directors, brilliant actors and even a cinematographer who shot a film that won an Oscar. I sometimes watch myself in disbelief and ask if I am in a dream. I have been lucky!

My life before acting included being a trained civil engineer and information security specialist, whose daily work grinds were far removed from the fantasies of the art world. I have no formal training as an actor. My foray into acting began by chance when I was called upon by a director to act in her film out of the blue. She had spotted my photograph online but not from an actors' database, since I wasn't one then.

I often tell friends that, at my age, I should be learning from the mistakes of OTHERS … not by making my own mistakes! However, in the world of infinite possibilities, mistakes are inevitable. I make this list below, as a reminder for myself and also for others, especially budding artistes so they might learn faster and less painfully. These ideas come from my experiences and my perspective as an actor. This list does not claim to know-it-all or know-it-best, but just a sharing of the good, the bad, the ugly, warts and all. I hope that readers find some value for themselves out of my mistakes and observations!
  1. Be The Good Actor You Want to Be
I am lucky to have worked with some brilliant and inspiring actors and have discovered that they are all easy-going, polite, humble and often very candid. Unsurprising, since most top players in their profession would need to get along with people and be part of a team. When an actor is honest and candid in his real life, it takes less effort for him to get into his script character. Logical isn't it? So I would rather be that candid personality that flows and go places, rather than the star-diva that is difficult and constipated. Wouldn't you?

  1. Getting into Character
Getting into character is key. Once in character, performance follows with ease to bring the script to life. Unfortunately, many producers want to make films fast and so getting into character becomes a hurried process. I think there is only so much we can hurry a character up.

In supporting casts, it is even tougher as there will be less script revealed and less time given to the actor to get into character. I have been in both main casts and supporting casts and it is a lot harder to get into character in the latter. Supporting actors are usually thrown into the deep end and expected to deliver quickly. They have to work harder to deliver a smaller and less impressionable role than the main actors, for shorter screen appearances and exposures! Life isn't fair on set. We know that! :)

As it is important to get into character, it is also just as important to get out of character. For one, the script character may not be a desirable one and also it is necessary to clear all previous script characters before going into the next script character, otherwise, the result will be a compounded confused character.

I had this problem when I couldn't perform a jubilant scene after acting in six depressed characters in a row, back-to-back. Having no breaks in between and being exhausted made it easier for the script characters to sink further into my subconscious.

In another production, “Hentak Kaki”, where I played the frustrated Warrant Officer who is downgraded from combat duties to a desk job due to a collapsed right knee, I managed to do it so realistically that I developed a right knee pain that lasted for two days after the shoot.

So remember to get out of character! Once aware of the old characters lurking inside, they can be mentally erased. Try meditation. It works!

  1. The Master
For something as subjective as acting, it is important to learn from a good master, to avoid having to unlearn all the mistakes later.

Check the credentials of the teacher. If he is an actor, watch his films and see if you like his work. If he is not an actor, then check his students out. Ask if you would like to be how the students are.

There are also many good videos on Youtube. Check them out and take your pick of what resonates with you best. It is said that when the student is ready, the master will appear. :)

  1. Dialogues
I have been told that if the lines don't sound right, don't utter them. But being a confused and stressed out newbie on set in the beginning, I spoke them out anyway! The lines turned out incongruent. So now, whenever I find lines that do not flow, I will check them out with the director and have them modified.

Some script writers are too academic when they craft dialogues. They forget that people don't speak the way books are written: in long sentences with many multi-syllable words. So now when I have time, I hang out at cafes and public places and listen to the way people talk. There is so much to learn from simple and even mundane conversations.

  1. Realism
In the world of movies, exaggerated facial expressions, overly excited body movements and unnatural dialogues look very ugly, especially when magnified on a large screen where the facial muscle movements can be critically examined. Good directors want realistic acting, but how real do we want to get?

I once experimented with getting myself drunk at home, and then capturing it on camera. I felt very relaxed during the intoxication, and words and ideas flowed uninhibited. I thought that was a good candid clip of what a drunk act should be. However, when I reviewed the video a few days later, it looked awful. It was no where near the cool and fun impression I had of myself. My speech slurred, movements were erratic and weird, and I was physically incapacitated. I don't think any director will want a drunk character to look like this on film, as it is just too ugly for the audience, even if it were only for a few seconds.

On a scale of 1-10, if an exaggerated (poor) act is '1' and real world behaviour being '10', we may only want to hit 8.5 most of the time. So how far do we want to slide on the realism scale is an artistic debate. How much blood? How much skin to bare? How much sex?

I was once asked by a director how far I would be willing to go with my act. What he meant was if I would be willing to bare my butts. Though a little shocked at the outset, I later thought it was quite a compliment to know that at my age, my butts is still worthy of attention. *lol* In the end, I think it will boil down to the trust between the director and the actor. Why does the director want the actor to bare his body? Is it art or is it for commerce or the box office?
As films are fantasies, it is fair chance are that there won't be real sex, real poison or real death.

  1. Choosing the Script
Directors tend to cast me as strong personalities with authority. After the success of “Hentak Kaki”, I got casted as gangster chiefs, draconian police sergeants, abusive fathers, corporate chairmen, or such like. Getting into such nasty characters got easier and better over time and practice. However, after a while, I would rather do something else.

So, I was delighted when I was casted in “In Sunrise”, as the widower of a famous pianist who falls in love with his late wife's nurse. Then, I had to take on a different persona: as one struggling to get out of depression upon encountering the young nurse up close.  It was hard to express myself as a man in love, as the bearded haggard look masked the subtle facial expressions. Also, after a preceding scene expressing sorrow over the wife's demise, it was hard to shift to an emotion of passion and hope. Expressing too little interest on the face looks as if the character is still depressed. Expressing too much of it and I look like a sex maniac. I realised that there was only a  narrow and precise window to hit. We tried many variations and finally got it By then, I was exhausted.

New roles and challenging scripts stretches one's abilities.  The broader the variety, the better. Of course not all roles come handsome and clean, as the haggard and unwieldy too have their stories. Breaking through one barrier of acting into another is an act of self-realisation.

Conversely, I have noticed that some actors have allowed themselves to be typecasted into the same kind of roles. This is usually due to the actor's fear of not getting enough paid work to make ends meet. Life can be hard as an actor and it takes great strength to choose to not make decisions out of fear.

Choose scripts that entertain and inspire. When the audience is inspired, he remembers the film and the actors. Choose roles that gives you the opportunity to impress the audience, even if they may make you look you ugly on the surface.

  7. Action

There is every need to keep fit as an actor, as we don't know what our next role will be. Action films are physically demanding, particularly so when the stunts are not well thought out and that there is no stunt director around to get it right in a few rounds. The result is a lot of trials and errors and possibly injuries, especially when warming up before the take was skipped.

8. Children and Animals

For lack of a better heading I have put 'children' and 'animals' together. It doesn't mean that we should treat them the same way or that they are any easier or more difficult to manage or work with.

Kids have to be comfortable with the adult co-actor if you want them to perform. So I always spend time with them prior to the act to break the ice. However for some kids, you cannot get too close with them either, otherwise they will develop a diva attitude very quickly and refuse to cooperate. So play it by ear, there are times to be lax with them and time to be firm, depending on the personality of the kid. A delicate balance is required.

Some kids are natural actors. They understand that they are playing out a character that is fictitious and have to make it real. Others can be challenging.

In one production, there was this kid who couldn't act sad, so I suggested to him to imagine that his favourite toy is lost.

No it didn't. I still have the teddy bear. It is at home,” he replied.
Yes, but just imagine that it is,” I suggested.
No, I didn't lose my teddy bear..., “ he repeated.

Evidently, he has no concept of hypothesis. Short of giving him a slap to make him sad, we couldn't get him to act sad. There was nothing else we could do. I think it was a mistake in the casting process.

Kids also have a short span of attention. When they tire out, they will go on strike. So give some time in the schedule when there are kids.

We once had a pig in a production without a professional animal handler and had a hard time handling it as it screamed and struggled when we brought him out from his cage. It probably thought that we were bringing him to the abattoir. It took us some time to appease it, but after that, it was just happy to lay down and idle, as if saying, “Just leave me alone!”

9. Sleep

As more assignments came, I got busier. Soon, I found myself doing eight to ten gigs a month, taking about fifteen to twenty days on set; and the remaining days of the month in auditions and rehearsals. I was exhausted. It is said that an actor is an athlete, so whether it is sleep deprivation, flu, fever, or what not, the show must go on. The actor must endure and perform till he crosses the finishing line.

Then, in one of my shoots in a feature film, my mind ground to a halt and I couldn't deliver my lines. I did all my homework right – deliberately learning my lines while doing mundane tasks to get them into my subconscious, internalising them and practising them over and over again. But no, the body had enough and went on strike. The moral of the story is that no matter how prepared the actor is, or how good he thinks he is, everything stops when the body goes on strike.

So now, I sleep early every night and I catch a wink whenever I can in between takes. On top of that, I go for my run, workout and meditation every morning. Meditation works wonders in clearing the mind of mental debris and clutter. It also prepares the mind to get into character easily, since it is frequently emptied.

If all else fails and I am trapped in a quagmire of fatigue then I will keep myself awake by running up and down the stairs, and then popping a small piece of chocolate before each take. It works, but only for a short while and as a stop-gap measure.

10. Rehearsals 

I would rehearse in environments as close as possible to the real situation. Lines perfected sitting down at home can meet with many surprises when bounced off with your co-actors and dealing with current emotions, actions and environmental conditions.

In one instance, as a taxi driver in “Fairytales”, I was required to start at the back of the taxi, close the booth, plug my head phones to my ears when the phone rings while walking to the front, open the door and timed it correctly to slam it close so that the slamming noise will not drown my dialogue, start the engine, buckle up, look at the back mirror while speaking to my passengers, switch on the 'On Hire' lights, down the hand brakes and move off making sure that I am not too stressed out by then to drive into a pole.

From that experience, I learned that it is important to integrate words with actions and emotions. Every little bit corrected during rehearsals helps to save a lot of time during production.

I have also learned from a director that I should practise my lines till I can hear myself saying it in my mind, like “hearing voices”. Try that, it works! ;)

Practise, practise and practise. I don't think it gets any easier.  Some actors/actresses are blessed with good looks, but in the end a nice pair of legs can only walk us this far, after that, we will have to deliver.

11. Auditions
I have learned not to go for more than two auditions within a day. For a push, may be three auditions max. And definitely I will not go for an audition after a production shoot, as I will be physically and emotionally drained. In the competitive world of acting, every ounce of energy counts.

I prefer auditions to be the first thing in the morning, as both the casting person and I will be fresh. When I cannot get a morning appointment, then I will choose the late afternoon just before the other part-time actors turn up after their day job. I would avoid mid-days to avoid the tropical heat. This is because when I go from the sweltering heat into an air-conditioned studio, my mind will automatically shutdown (extreme shifts in temperature stress the body) and I will have to struggle to remember my lines and act the part.

That is also why I turn up fifteen minutes earlier to give myself time to settle-in.

Sometimes, you do not have the luxury of having an actor to feed you lines with the appropriate emotions during the audition, so you will have to calibrate your response accordingly and make sure they are delivered with the correct emotions.

Actors get casted for a myriad of reasons. Some get casted for their good looks. I think that actors should look good and keep themselves so, but there are times when good looks are not what directors look for; especially when you look better than the lead actor. So for all you know, you may not have been casted because you look too good! :)

Jack Neo, a successful producer/director in Singapore said that he never choose actors merely out of good looks, but for their X-factor to draw audience. Evidently, some that he casted and subsequently groomed (whom many will agree are not high in the good looks department) are now stars in their own right.

Finally, there is nothing personal about not being selected and I wouldn't waste energy speculating the reasons. Energy spent doing so can be spent preparing for the next audition.

12. Directors
Directors are visual people. They see their scripts play in their mind's eye and then translate it to the cast and crew.  A director tell stories on film and is a conjuror of visuals. Properly done, it can even tell a good story with the sound switched off. 
Communicating it well to the actors is the tricky bit. As they are usually visually dominant, they can have problems articulating what they want in words. Then as if to compensate, some of them become too chatty. This takes time away for the actor to execute. Then, when all else fails, some directors, in frustration, act out the part and asks the actor to copy – something perhaps more prevalent among actor-turned-directors - transforming the actor from a vehicle to the script to a tool of the director. So sad.

The good directors are amazingly detailed. They pick up minute mistakes on set that many people overlook. Then they will fine tune the actor, coach him and relate the scene to the actor's life experience. It is like neurological linguistic programming (NLP). Splendid!

Another of my favourite type of director are those that want the actors to take their time to express their emotions. “Do not hurry”, they would say, “...for we can always edit the excessive parts out later.” Not surprisingly, this category of directors usually comes from a video editing background and grew up in digital videography. :)

Once, I had a confusing experience with assistant directors, who persistently gave me the wrong directions and contradicted the script and the director. So now when in doubt and confusion with the assistants, I will always consult the director proper.

The bond and trust between the director and the actor must be strong for the film to work. The actor cannot see himself in action and therefore relies on the director to shape his performance.

My pet peeve of directors is when they appeal to actors to perform by calling out, “Energy! Energy!”. I can't figure out what they mean by that exactly and I am not sure if they know either.

13. Cinematography
I am not a cinematographer, so what I learn about cinematography is from my observations and particularly from working with Mr Bobby Webster, the cinematographer for “God of Love” winner of the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011.

As I have observed, there are many films shot with hand-held cameras recently and it seems to be a trend. This in part from cinematographers who used to make home videos using consumer electronics cameras when they were still amateurs; and now when they want to deliver a dynamic and realistic feel. Sometimes, it is also faster and easier to shoot a whole scene in one-go with freestyle hand-held movements.

Hand-held camera footages mimics news reportage, where videos are captured on the fly by journalists in the field. This is ironical, as while more movies are made with hand-held cameras, the news agencies began to make more newsreels with more sophisticated equipment and tripod mounted cameras. In other words, movies are becoming more like news and news becoming more like movies.

But whichever way the cinematographer wants it, the reason for every camera angle and shot must be clear. It would be senseless to execute a camera angle or operate the camera in a certain manner just because it is trendy, or that it is the way that it has always been done.The same can be said of acting - that every movement must have a purpose within the scope of the script and not executed out of vanity.

It is said that an actor goes through a few stages with cameras. First, when he got started, he is camera conscious. Then, he will ignore the camera. Then finally, he can no longer ignore the camera totally, as he learns to favour the camera.

Once, I was working with a cinematographer who did most of the scenes holding the camera and moving around the actors. After the first take, he quietly came to me and asked me not to worry about where he is and whether I will run over him. On the second take, I ignored his presence and we managed to move around without crashing on each other.

14. The reason to perform 
As a performing artiste, sometimes I wonder why I am doing what I am doing. Is it just for vanity or self promotion? Does what we do make a difference to the society at all? Some of my friends think I am crazy for taking the plunge into acting. Sometimes even I think that I am crazy. So, when my musician friend Tze sent me his newsletter, suddenly the coin dropped. It says:

...that if an artist/musician chooses to sincerely tell the stories he knows through his art, not performing to show off/impress, not playing to win applause, then his creation is like a mirror, a reflection of not just himself, but of the world around him and of each person in the audience who's intently listening.”

So this is it. If we as artiste can be a mirror to help others reflect on themselves, society and the world around them, then it would be all worth it. Amid the world of commercialised movies, this is such a breath of fresh air.

15. Opportunities
There are many people out there who wants to act but are not taking action. Some would ask me for audition opportunities but when given to them, they would not respond. Yet others try but didn't get casted. The way to go is to keep trying. Nowadays, one can even broadcast themselves on Youtube. The advent of digital cameras, LED lights and the Internet and their affordable access have made collaboration with like-minded people who are passionate about making films together easily.

Nowadays, films can be made with phone cameras, still cameras with video functions and even spy cameras which have now decent video resolutions. The rough edges of such videography may show, but cleverly plotted, they can also give a geek feeling to your film. Who knows, you may even start a new trend.

Even fund raising has taken on new routes with the Internet with Crowdsourcing, such as kickstarter.com .

An example of a community interest group that gathers like minded people to make film is Reel Frenz.

Clearly, the barriers to entry to make films are coming down with each day. This heralds a new era in film making and demystifies what goes on in a production. Perhaps we will get to see more dogmatic scripts about everyday life from the eyes of the lay person in the community. Maybe some of them will even teach the mainstream productions a thing or two, as the latter get too commercialised and mired in big budget productions with camera cranes, helicopters and special effects.

I am an accidental actor. I got into professional acting by chance, without any prior training and went on to win awards, to be in the main casts of feature films and acting overseas, within two years.  I know I do work hard for it and that there are the many who had helped and supported me, but I think a good part of it is also luck.

If you ask a professional gambler, he will tell you that there is such a luck as a 'winning streak'. In a 'winning streak' the gambler will increase his stake. To the layperson, this winning streak is usually referred to as the 'flow'.

The opportunity to act came to me out of the blue and then, I find myself flowing with it. It is easier to swim with the 'flow', than against the 'flow'. The trick is to recognise the 'flow', and go along with it.

Similarly, I have learned to stick around with energetic people and avoid energy vampires. People who tells you that you are not going to make it are saying so because they couldn't make it themselves. There are also con-artists who would want you to part with your money first so that they can bring you from where you are now to become a Hollywood star in some feature films that never happen and never will. We just have to watch out for these people and run the opposite direction quickly.

Places also differ in energy levels. If you intuitively know of certain places that mysteriously energises you without your trying, then that place is for you. Frequent that place to charge up. And those energetic people and places need not necessarily be in the form of spiritual gurus, expensive life coaches, luxurious holiday resorts or grand churches. Sometimes, these humble saviors can appear as children, animals, a cozy corner in your house, or just your ordinary looking walkways by your neighbourhood.

The same goes for scripts, directors, co-actors, casting agents, managers and camera crews. Recognise that affinity, that empathy with the script and the trust with the director, then flow along with them and I believe there will be many a splendour thing waiting to happen.

Last but not least, I would like to thank the 100 casting directors that have put their faith in me and casted me for the 100 gigs. Thank you so much!

"Those who don't believe in Magic will never find it." - Roald Dahl.

UPDATE: I have since also written: 


  1. You are a brilliant writer. Thank you for a great read. Cheers Marrie

  2. Thanks for generously sharing your experience.

    It takes me awhile to read, it's going to take me much longer to digest, and to try to put it to work, it will probably take a long while.


  3. Thanks for reading the article.

    If it is any consolation, it took me a while to put the experiences together, structure them and decide on the format and style; then a few days for the tedium of writing it.

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