Film, TV, & Commercial Actors: What’s the difference?

 

There are three major platforms for actors: theater, film, and television. Decades ago, it was relatively rare for actors to successfully crossover between these mediums. Instead, most actors would establish themselves in one area and largely stay in their lanes for the rest of their careers. However, those days are long gone, and many actors move freely between mediums, enjoying the unique artistic experiences each one provides. That said, every actor needs to begin somewhere, so here is a quick overview to help newer actors understand the major differences between working in theater, film, and TV and which medium, or mediums, might appeal to them most. In the U.S., New York and Los Angeles are still two of the top acting meccas; however, there are markets outside of these two cities that all have a foot in the game; Atlanta, Chicago, Knoxville, Toronto, Boston, Vancouver, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Mobile, Charlotte, and Albuquerque, for example. The weather, culture, transportation systems, and professional opportunities in each city are different, and actors should consider which location fits their personality and career aspirations before relocating. However, each actor is different and may enjoy different acting platforms.

 

Theater: The Big Apple is the unrivaled king of stage, with more than 40 theaters on Broadway alone. While there are plenty of stage opportunities around the country, NY’s storied theater scene is unmatched. Theater actors play in front of a live audience, which greatly impacts their performance. Patrons in the back row cannot hear quietly recited lines or see subtle expressions or gestures, meaning an actor must put on a performance large enough to fill the space (often larger than life) while still staying grounded. Audiences also give live feedback, which actors can feed off of, both for the good and for the bad. Theater actors usually go through substantial rehearsal periods and once the play goes live, they get the chance to perform their role multiple times, growing with each performance. Because of theater’s repetitive nature, theater actors get extremely familiar with their characters and the script as a whole. The most successful plays and musicals require acting companies to put on hundreds of performances each year, and audiences can become attached to certain portions of the dialogue, meaning that mistakes aren’t easy to hide. Some actors love this familiarity, while others may become bored with it after a while. For musical theater, the actor must also be exceptionally skilled at singing and dancing as all three of these performing arts are incorporated into one play.

Film: Although plenty of films are still made in Hollywood, it ranked # 3 among Atlanta (ranking # 1), then Vancouver, Chicago, NYC, Albuquerque, Boston, Toronto, New Orleans, and Miami. Cinemas have massive screens and top-notch sound systems, which means the slightest facial expressions and softest whispers can be seen and heard by film audiences. As a result, film offers a platform for very nuanced performances. The smallest bit of overacting is challenging to overlook when amplified by cameras, microphones, lighting (not to mention the score and digital effects). Unlike theater, actors have to wait months or years, to see an audience’s reaction, which can look much different than expected due to editing and other post-production additions. Although dependent on budget, schedule, and the director, most film actors may get a lot of solo preparation time, but little or no dedicated rehearsal time with their cast mates. They also work notoriously long hours that can start at odd times and be filled with a lot of downtime. Some productions require actors to go on location for weeks to months, which can be exciting but can also cause lifestyle disruptions. In general, film allows actors much more creative freedom than theater. A film role could demand that an actor stick to the script or improvise huge parts of it. However, there will be limited changes to a script once production begins.

Television: Similarly to film, many television shows are now filming outside of L.A. All over the U.S., in Canada and British Colombia, cities like NYC, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago, Atlanta, even Knoxville (to name a few), & they all have a stronghold in tv production. Recently, tv has become much more like film in terms of its acting requirements. Movie-quality production values paired with big screen tvs mean that many tv projects need the same “less-is-more” approach to acting that film requires. Unless a show is filmed before a live audience, tv actors also typically wait months to experience an audience’s reaction to their work, which can feel isolating. Actors tend to work at a much quicker pace than film actors do, with several pages of the script going before cameras each day. They also generally work more regular hours. Sitcoms are known for having comfortable shooting schedules that allow actors more personal time. Unlike film, tv actors get to spend several episodes, and sometimes several seasons (years), exploring their characters. While the director is king in film, tv is a writer’s medium. An actor’s ability to influence the direction of his/her character varies greatly depending on the personality of the showrunner (often the head writer). Scripts also tend to be written close to filming dates, so it’s common for actors to be presented with line changes on the day a scene is shot. 

The only way to truly know what you like, and understand where your greatest talents lie, is to embrace new opportunities and give every medium a try!

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