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Thursday, June 29, 2017

300 gigs, 300 lessons

For completeness, read  "200 gigs, 200 lessons" and "100 gigs, 100 lessons" first, click here.

This post is about what I have learnt in my recent 300 gigs. It is long but I believe it will be worthy of your time, as you may in the process avoid some mistakes I had made. I did say that there would be no post for  "300 gigs, 300 lessons" two years ago, but decided to write one anyway, as there is so much to share. So here it is.

Have I done three hundred of them in six years? Honestly, I have lost count, but at rate of roughly one gig a week, it averages out to be 300 in six years. Again a big "thank you" to all the 300 casting directors who have placed their faith on me. In the last year, I have been more selective of the gigs I accept, going for quality more than quantity. As someone once told me, "first go for the volume, then go for the value".

Since my previous post "200 gigs, 200 lessons", I have also gone more behind the camera, into screen writing, producing and directing. I have also been learning about film distribution and how the Internet is changing the game very quickly. For more, click here.

Meanwhile, "Certified Dead", the feature film that I played the lead character in, has gone places, namely:
  • The official screening at the 4th Hanoi International Film Festival (2016);
  • The official selection at the UK Screen One International Film Festival (21017);
  • The Best International Film at the 14th Royal Bali International Film Festival (2016);
  • An official nominee at the Best Feature Film award at the Utah Film Awards 2017; 
  • An official nominee at the Best Film Award at the ASEAN International Film Festival and Awards (AIFFA) 2017; and
  • An official selection at the Brazil International Film Festival 2017.
This includes the galas, the red carpet events, the cameras , screaming fans and their totting cameras,...etc. It is flattering to feel like a VIP. :)

Life behind the camera is laborious. The crew comes in first and leaves last. So the next time you are on set, be nice to them. Usually on set, I am pampered as an actor, but behind the camera, it was my turn to pamper the actors.  

This post is to share my experiences as they are - the good, the bad, the ugly, warts and all. Take what you agree, or believe in, and leave those that do not resonate with you. There is no compulsion. Some of you who are more experienced may already know much of what is written here, others may know it subconsciously, but were unable to put a finger on them and bring them to forth. 

Feedback, comments, criticisms and suggestions are most welcome. The objective is to learn and grow together. Some of the lessons are also universally applicable - such as those pertaining to the need for stillness and concentration to achieve our goals.

And thank you all those who have taught me so much, both in front and behind the camera.

1. Be The Good Actor You Want to Be

It is easier to have a reference. So pick two actors, one who is a local actor that you may have a chance to meet, chat with and learn from; and another who has an international exposure.  For the latter, watch his movies, read about him (or her) in magazines and books and find out about how he got to where he is today.

2.Getting into Character 

Stay in character in between takes, don't monkey around. There are actors who make monkey faces at their co-actor as a prank, when the camera is behind them, but pointing at his co-actor. That is naughty and  stressing out the co-actor unnecessarily. I heard in Hollywood, you will be fired if caught playing that prank.

Besides staying in character, it is important to help your co-actor get into character by staying in character yourself. Don't worry for the co-actor, as somehow, thoughts travel and they affects your co-actor's confidence.

In one such instance, my co-actor could not tear, and I was consciously doing a lot to make her cry on camera which stressed her out and made it even more difficult. This despite her tearing with no problems during rehearsals.

So in the end, we took a break, chilled and just told her to think of a sad incident and try again, and that if she really couldn't cry, it would still be alright. That worked! She cried on camera. So team work is important.

3.The Master

I have learnt a lot about scriptwriting, producing, directing and distribution through master classes conducted by very experienced film makers and actors at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). They are free and of such good value.

In the 27th SGIFF 2016, we had master classes conducted by: Darren Aronofsky, Tran Anh Hung, Naomi Kawase, Herman Yau, Anurag Kashyap and Fruit Chan.

If you are based in Singapore, the Singapore Film Society and the Singapore Screenwriters' Association are also good places to mingle and learn.


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As a rule of thumb in film, 'show, don't tell'. In other words, use visuals, and less voice-overs and dialogues. 

However, there is  no fixed rule. Generally, stage plays have longer dialogues as the capability for visuals is more limited. TV has less dialogues than stage plays, but more dialogues than feature films and short films. This is because TV viewers are more likely to be distracted and not have their eyes fixated on the screen, or that they may be doing something else like wandering off to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. So, while they are away, they can continue to keep track of the story by listening.

Also as a rule of thumb, dialogue lines should be as short as possible, but there are exceptions when portraying a very chatty or eccentric person (who talks a lot). When it is so, it is important to rehearse the lines together with the actors' movements on set, so that movements and speeches are synchronised to start and end without having to rush the lines.

Straight forward lines are boring, so add sarcasm, cynicism and subtexts to make them alive, such that the audience are compelled to stay engaged in the thought process as the story unfolds.


How much realism do you want? This is the question I asked myself a lot while directing the action film "Bloodline Blues". See section "Action" below.

Sometimes we achieve 'realism' by 'faking' it, so that it will look real on camera. The is because we are 'squeezing' a multi-dimensional world into a 2D or even 3D camera. Besides the visuals, there is this inexplicable emotional delivery that must turn out right. This constitutes the language of cinema.

This language will evolve with new technologies available and trends, like miniature cameras, 360 cameras, virtual reality viewing pods, change in audience culture and sophistication, ...etc.

In a multi-racial and multi-lingual country like Singapore, choosing the language for your film to suit your audience is complicated. While everyone is educated in English, the Chinese (which is 75% of the population) prefers Mandarin. English language films have a hard time getting screened at cinemas as theatre owners prejudged them that they won't sell. Audiences also instinctively compare them with big budget Hollywood movies to the detriment of local films. I beg to differ, as I think there is room for change here. That is changing the audiences' and distributors' perception with strong scripts that are very local and honest.

Boo Jun-Feng, a Singaporean film maker and director of the feature film "Apprentice", adopts a different tack. In "Apprentice", he first looked for actors that fits the story and have chemistry with each other, independent of the language. Then the language came as a consequence - and in this case, happens to be Malay.

Ultimately, the language used needs to be real to the story. For instance, it will be out of place to use  polished Queen's English to portray a commonly Singlish speaking Singaporean heartland.

6. The Script

I have directed and produced the first three scenes of my feature film script as a six-minute short film, called "The Next Plot". It is about a grieving old man struggling against religious stigma to have the right to be buried next to his late wife.  For more, click here.
I have learnt that it is difficult to make three scenes extracted from a longer script  to be a standalone short film. This is because generally a feature film tells a story with a relatively slower pace, while a short film is tighter, with a lot of details and depth.
In my view, "The Next Plot" fails to visually allow the viewers time to sink into the climax of the story. For this reason, I did not send it to festivals. It was hard work producing this 6 minute film, as it required three locations, with one of them requiring some set design.
I am currently in post-production with another short film, an action genre called "Bloodline Blues", which is also an extract from the same feature film script and blended with newly created scenes.
Making both films have made me a better script writer, more aware of the technical practicalities (like locations, budget, casting, ability to capture the visuals,...etc); and how I can leverage on actors to make scripts come to live.

For more about script writing, click here.

 If it is an action movie, I would rather be the actor than the director.

While directing  "Bloodline Blues", I often have to decide the level of fantasy I want to allow in the film. Remember real fights are never what you see in a  movie. Real  fights are ugly, gory, bloody and over in a few minutes. Very few people, if at all, would want to watch that. Real fighters won't be fighting from a few storeys up, fall down a few stories down smashing through floor boards and still literally hitting the ground running. Audience that buys a ticket to an action film, isn't going to the theatres to watch real life, they probably have enough 'real life' everyday, 24x7. They buy a ticket to watch fantasy. You provide them this fantasy, this escapism, to relieve themselves of the cut-and-thrust in their daily grinds.

Whereas, as an actor, it is fun to act in an action film. It is like a workout with lots of weapon props to play with, sets to smash through and lots of makeup to mock up the punch ups - the ultimate alpha-male escapism!

Action scenes takes a lot longer to shoot as you need a high coverage from many different perspectives. I think it takes three times as long to shoot. So, a one and a half minute action scene is estimated to take about a 10 hour day to shoot. 

Your fighters don't need to be martial art exponents or street fighters, but they definitely need to be fit. Most importantly, they need to be cinematic with their movements. If your actors can fight, then you may use longer takes of mid and wide shots. They look better. Do not interrupt these long shots with too many closeups and cut-offs.

8.Children and Animals

When shooting films with some content not suitable for children, the production must remember to keep all minors out of set during those scenes.

When foul language is used during scenes when the minor is present, remember to seek the parents agreement. Let them know early during audition, so that we won't waste anyone's time.


There are actors that have very bad sleep cycles. That can't be good for their performance and definitely not good for their health in the long run. Our bodies are tuned to sleep when the sunset, however this is upset with electricity lighting up our nights and providing us night life entertainment.

If you have the bad habit of sleeping past midnight, it is time to shift your sleep cycles. It is hard with late night shoots, but it is either making the necessary shift back to normal sleep hours or see yourself aging rapidly and losing your short term memory and your good looks. Consequently, faltering your lines on set.

10. Rehearsals

Rehearsals are absolutely necessary. Apart from getting the actors ready, it solves many practical issues on set. It is best if rehearsals can be executed in the actual locations, granted that having the accessibility to locations is often a problem.

I get some of my best acts because of the many rehearsals we had. "Hentak Kaki" dialogues were rehearsed many times, until they all turn out smooth - such that an audience told me that it could not possibly have been scripted. Unwittingly, that is a real compliment and music to my ears.

Likewise, stand-up comedians rehearse their lines over and over again, until they appear spontaneous.

Wrestlers too rehearse their fights until they appear real.

Some actors do not like rehearsals. I read that Anthony Hopkins, a Hollywood great, does not do rehearsals. However, he delivers great performances.

There is also such thing as an over-rehearsed act, such that all the spontaneity is gone.

11. Auditions

In the last 12 months, more and more productions are asking for self audition reels. This saves a lot of time for everyone and I foresee this to be an emerging trend. So get your own cameras and tripods ready.

Take advantage this by capturing your performance with a relevant background. For instance, if it is about food, shoot it in the kitchen; or if it is about basketball, shoot it in a basketball court. Make them as close to the real deal as possible. The director will love it as you are helping him to visualise many possible backgrounds. I have got a gig once because the client loves my kitchen (the subject was food).

12. Directors

To date, I have directed the following short films:
·         "Rene" (co-directed)
·         A forty second video that won a merit award  in a competition. Click here.
·         "The Next Plot", click here.
·         "Bloodline Blues".

It has been a steep learning curve, as I am very much a rookie.

The role of the director is to guide and coach the cast and crew to flesh out his visualisation and capture it on camera. So, he has to communicate well.

Directors who fail to stay in-charged lose control over the cast and crew. That's when some other persons on set start to think they know better. So directors must work hard to know their stuff very well.

But do allow creative input, albeit in an orderly way.

13. Cinematography

Cinematography contributes a lot to the storytelling and so cinematographers ought to consciously establish their own style guide. Such a guide is based on the seven fundamental elements of art, namely: line, shape, form, value, space, texture and colour. For more details, click here. 

These seven fundamentals manipulate the viewers' emotions subliminally, so that the result will turn out right.

For instance, the cinematographer may choose the colour red to represent danger, so he may have the frame in low colour saturation (apart for red) and have the red colour entering the frame and gradually dominating the frame before (say) an explosion happens.

He may also use shapes, like triangles to represent obstacles or breakdowns. While the adoption of art forms are arbitrary and subjective to the cinematographer, consistency of style is necessary.

Some more sophisticated practitioners will develop their own symbols, that are composites of fundamental art elements,  to express certain emotions.

In "The Next Plot", I developed a fictional religious symbol that appears in several places in the film. Click here.

14. The reason to perform

Why am I an actor? I question myself every now and then, to check if my reasons change over time.

I have enjoyed most of the 300 productions over the last 6 years. There were a few that I hated.

One had a director that was very rude to everyone, as he could not cope up with the pressure. He was even rude to a passing car and was at the brink of getting into a fight with the driver.

Yet another director was also not coping up well and was belittling his actors. He ought to know that hurting the actors hurts delivery and therefore the overall quality of the film. Any caustic words that do not contribute to enlightening the actor, should not be uttered. The director must try more effective ways to communicate. That is his job.

In one production, there was a bullying producer who did nothing but bark at the director persistently for responsibilities that rightfully belongs to him. He would lose his temper and publicly shame the director for cooked up reasons, in front of his team. Was he trying to make the team  members lose respect for the director so that he can take over? It was definitely uncomfortable and negative.

And yes, he wats trying to take over. He shutdown the production and tried to continue it behind the director's back,  by installing himself as the director. But the cast and crew remained loyal to the original director and continued their work with him and completed the production. It was shocking experience - probably one-in-a- million, and hopefully the only such unethical one I will ever have to face.

In yet another production, the director uses shots that are super short. Actors hate micro-shots, because they are too short to carry the emotions effectively and ensure smooth continuity. Directors of micro-shots usually have storyboards drawn like a comic strip and they shoot them one comic strip frame at a time. This drives the actors mad.

Thankfully these are but a small drop among the many gigs I have done. So all is good.

15. Opportunities

At some point, somebody is going to sell you some opportunities in return for something. Common sense dictates that you should weigh the cost vs benefits. Be careful not to trade many things precious to you for mere hot air.
Networking is important, but is often overrated. I wouldn't spend a disproportionate amount of time networking, as fundamentally, it is still about the craft. I believe that if you deliver good work, good producers will engage you. 
Social network is an effective way to extend our reach, but it can be a double edged sword. Bad stuff travels as fast as good stuff on the Internet. Personally, I do not subscribe to the saying that 'any publicity is good publicity'. So build and maintain a consistent online persona and brand that works for you.

16. Luck

Some people appear to be more lucky than others in progressing up the ladder of getting more gigs, better roles, better scripts, better directors to work with and smashing box-office successes.

But really luck is but opportunities meeting preparation. So prepare a lot. The Chinese saying goes, "One minute on stage is ten years of off-stage preparation (台上一分钟,下十年工).  This rings very true.

17. Fame
After some years, you may be recognised in the streets for the roles you have played on screen. This is fame in small ways. It is an invasion of privacy, but fame is also an actors' currency.

Fame implies that the production you will be in will sell better and so you will be accorded with bigger roles. When you reach a certain level of your craft, the rest of it is fame, reputation, who you know and what horses you trade.

So reach out for the stardom you seek, but remember to be in this world, but not of this world.

At some point, you will also learn that there will be gossips and rumours surrounding you. Do not be upset, as this is a natural progression. Do not let it affect your life. Most importantly, insulate your family from the rumour mills. Think of it on the upside, that is, if nobody knows of you, there would not be any gossips to start off with. I think as long as there are more good words about you than bad ones, then you are on the right track to fame, :)

In short...

We can accelerate our learning if we have mentors or models to follow. So pick two actors, one local and another international. Do question yourself every now and then, why you want to act. The reasons do change over time. It can be quite revealing. Maintain your beauty sleep - early to bed, early to rise. Doing otherwise will hurt your performance and your health in the long run. 

In the last 12 months, more and more productions are asking for audition reels done by yourself and sent to them, rather than asking the actors to cast in their premises.  I predict that this will happen more frequently. It is an emerging trend. Use it to your advantage.

As a rule of thumb in film making, 'show and don't tell', but the extent of it varies with the medium. Also, unless you are making dogmatic films, aesthetics is important - even when you are representing ugly stuff.
My experience behind the camera as a scriptwriter, producer and director have helped me to be a better actor, and vice-versa. Having a broader knowledge and experience of film making helps a lot.

Action genres take longer to shoot due to the need for intensive coverage. However if you have capable fighters, you can rely more on longer mid to wide shots, and less cuts.
Directors who fail to stay in-charged lose control over the cast and crew. That's when some other persons on set start to think they know better. So directors must work hard to know their stuff very well. But do allow creative input, albeit in an orderly way.

Cinematography contribute a lot to the storytelling and so it is important to consciously establish your own style guide.

Networking is important, but is often overrated.  Fundamentally, it is still about the craft that is the most important.

With fame, comes the rumour mills. Don't pay attention to them and shield your family from them. As long as there are more good words about you than bad ones, then you are on the right track to fame. :)


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