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Working with Actors: Action Verbs

By Greg Pak

The most important job of a director is to get good performances. To put it another way:

Nothing matters but your actors.

Audiences will forgive almost any technical inadequacies as long as the performances are strong and true (just one example: “The Celebration”). Yes, great directors have a total command over the language of film and labor long and hard to nail the perfect camera angles, camera movement, mise en scene, and lighting. But great directors also understand that the most glorious beauty shots mean nothing if the performances suck.

My methods of working with actors come from years of doing improv comedy, from hands on experience working with actors for film projects, and from excellent Directing Actors classes I took at NYU from people like Sam Schacht and Ted Hannen.

Here’s the chief principle I’ve learned:

Direct with action verbs rather than adjectives.

The same broad concept drives dramatic writing — the goal is to tell a story dramatically rather than didactically, which means characters do things rather than explain things.

Bad directors tell actors: “Be more happy” or “Be more sad.” This kind of direction encourages actors to make faces, demonstrating rather than experiencing the emotions at hand. It looks false because it is false, and audiences sneer when they see it.

The challenge for directors is to stop talking about results and start talking about process.

Directors who talk about results speak in adjectives — “Now be real angry at Bob.” When you direct like this, you make your actors think about trying to achieve these results, which means that instead of inhabiting their characters, they’re forced to remain in their own heads, fretting about whether they’re achieving the results you’re expecting.

In contrast, directors who talk about process use action verbs and direct objects — “Make Bob stop laughing at you.” With direction like this, the actor no longer has to think, “Now I’m supposed to be getting mad.” Instead, she can concentrate completely on her life as her character, pursue her objective, and actually get mad.
Adjectives lead to general, false behavior — making faces.
Action verbs lead to specific action through which actors discover and experience emotions — resulting in dramatically compelling performances.

People like to make fun of actors for asking “What’s my motivation?” But that’s the essential question and directors must help actors find answers or risk having lame, one-dimensional performances sink the project.

A Director Prepares

As should become apparent, directing with action verbs requires much more thought and preparation from the director, which is perfectly appropriate.

The simple truth is that most problems between actors and directors are caused by directors who simply don’t know what they want.

As the director, you must know what the point of the scene is. You must know the essential moment this scene describes in the emotional lives of your characters; you must know what your characters want, what they get, and how these experiences set them up for the next scene.

I’ve seen directors who have no idea of the point of the scene working with excellent actors who grew more and more agitated as the rehearsals wore on. Good actors are hungry to be directed; they long for action verbs and direct objects they can sink their teeth into — and nothing is more frustrating to them than treading water doing meandering, pointless improvisations and exercises for directors who simply haven’t figured out the point of the scene.

In short, in order to direct your actors, you must be clear in your own head about what your story is and what this scene is doing in the telling of your story.

Uta Hagen has a list of questions actors must ask in order to prepare for a scene. Here’s my spin:

Six questions a director must be able to answer for each actor in a scene:

Who am I?
Where am I coming from?
Where am I?
Whom am I with and how do I feel about him/her?
What do I want from this person?
What am I doing to get what I want?

If you can give your actor answers to the first four questions, you’ve provided her with the necessary background to the scene. If you can answer the last two questions, you’ve found the point of the scene and the key action verb and direct object.

A little advice on dealing with character background (the first four questions): You can go into as much detail as you want with these questions — some actors will want a great deal of information about their characters’ histories. And some directors love to talk for hours about characters’ pasts.

But remember that everything you discuss should be geared toward giving the actor the necessary information to tackle the scenes at hand. Choose the material you discuss accordingly — you usually have a limited amout of time and thus should concentrate on what information is essential for the actor to experience the emotional moment of the scene you’re rehearsing.

The above just scratches the surface of working with actors.

Put Your Logo at the Head of Your Film

By Greg Pak
In several of my shorts, important images and sounds jump off the screen the instant the film starts. Many, many times I’ve seen these first few seconds spoiled during screenings because of bad focus or slow sound adjustments by sleepy projectionists.
So now I always put five to ten seconds of logo at the very head of my films. This is what business school geeks call “basic branding,” and is nice for promotional reasons. But more importantly, it gives the projectionist a few seconds to correct the film’s focus before the film itself actually begins.
I suppose the next step would be to put a trill of music behind that logo so sound levels could be checked as well, but I haven’t yet put my composers to work on my personal theme song just yet.
Maybe next week…

Equipment Specifics

By Greg Pak

I’ve recently received a number of emails asking for specific production and post-production equipment advice. What follows is a list of different equipment I’ve used to shoot each of my films with links to additional pages detailing the pros and cons of each piece of equipment. Hope it helps.

The Penny Marshall Project
Format: MiniDV
Camera: Sony TRV-700
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series with ME64 capsule, plugged directly into the camera
Lighting: All available light
Editing system: Final Cut Pro

The Informed Consent Zone
Format: MiniDV
Camera: Sony VX-1000
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series with ME64 & ME66 capsules, plugged directly into the camera
Lighting: Omni light kit, Japanese lanterns with Photofloods
Editing system: Final Cut Pro

Asian Pride Porn
Format: MiniDV
Camera: Sony VX-1000 and Sony TRV-700
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series with ME64 & ME66 capsules, plugged directly into the camera
Lighting: Cheap lamps and Photofloods
Editing system: Final Cut Pro

Po Mo Knock Knock
Format: 16mm
Camera: Eclair ACL
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120 and Switar 16mm prime
Sound: Sennheiser K-6 series, recorded on a non-timecode DAT recorder
Lighting: Omni Light Kit
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog)

Fighting Grandpa
Format: 16mm
Camera: ArriSR for the main shoot, Eclair ACL for pickups
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120
Sound: Sennheiser ME and K-6 series recorded on Nagra 4 tape recorder
Lighting: Cheap lamps and Photofloods
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog), AVID

Format: 16mm
Camera: ArriSR for the main shoot, Eclair ACL for pickups
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120 and Schneider prime lenses for the main shoot, Switar 16mm prime for pickups
Sound: Sennheiser ME series recorded on Nagra 4 tape recorder
Lighting: Babies, inkies, Japanese lanterns with Photofloods, one HMI, color balanced practicals
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog)

Mr. Lee
Format: 16mm
Camera: ArriSR
Lenses: Angeniuex 12-120
Sound: Sennheiser ME series recorded on Nagra 4 tape recorder
Lighting: Babies, Inkies
Editing system: 6 plate Steenbeck (analog)


Why I Plug Film School

By Greg Pak
People often ask me whether film school is worthwhile for aspiring young filmmakers. My simple answer: Yes.
    I went to New York University’s much-lauded graduate film program. Like any film student, I had gripes about my school from time to time. But for several reasons, I’m greatly indebted to my film school experiences.

A place for real criticism

First, film school was the first place I got rigorous criticism of my work. Before film school, I made several films which friends and family told me they enjoyed. But no one ever told me this shot is too long; this scene is too didactic; this sequence doesn’t work.
    In contrast, my professors and classmates in film school clearly and coldly told me what they thought about my work. It was seldom pleasant. But without clear analysis of my work’s strengths and weaknesses, it would have been much more difficult for me to grow and improve as a filmmaker.

A place to aquire specific skills

Second, film school gave me solid tools for directing actors. I had worked with actors for years as a director of various improv comedy groups. But directing for the screen is a unique undertaking which my professors at NYU helped me understand. Similarly, film school gave me a strong grounding in other essential crafts such as editing, cinematography, and most importantly, dramatic writing.

A place for contacts and professional advancement

Third, film school provided me with contacts and venues for professional advancement. I’m still in touch with many of my classmates — we help each other out from time to time, tossing each other info about jobs, lending each other equipment, working on each others’ films.
    Professional benefits have come from the festival venues available only to students. I got several big boosts from student festivals and awards, including the Student Academy Awards and the NYU First Run Film Festival.
People often argue against film school by pointing out that a person can make a micro-budgeted feature instead of spending $60,000 on film school. True enough, particularly now that MiniDV and Final Cut Pro have made the costs of making features on video much, much cheaper.
    But it’s also true that most of these micro-budgeted first features disappear, never to be seen by anyone except the cast, crew, and the filmmaker’s immediate families.
    Before I went to film school, I made a sixty minute superhero spoof on Beta SP called “Random Man.” I have no regrets about making the film — I learned a huge amount from the experience. But the film didn’t really work, despite having a great first ten minutes. It played in only one film festival.
    If I had skipped film school and put the money right into making more films, I suspect I would have made several more interesting but ultimately amateurish feature length films which nobody would have seen.
    Instead, going to film school gave me the training and rigor to make each of my projects as good as they can be.
    In short, film school helped me live up to my potential.
    I know that film school is not for everyone — in particular, it’s not affordable to everyone. But even if you can’t afford film school, I’d recommend trying to create a network wherein you can get some of the benefits of film school. Specifically, I’d recommend joining or creating a community or workshop of filmmakers who can provide you the rigorous criticism and advice you need to grow.
    One example of such a group is the Workshop, or the Asian American Filmmakers Collaborative.


The DIY Shockmount

By Greg Pak
As I was leaving my apartment on a recent trip to Alaska for my documentary “Brother Killer Wolf,” I left my boom pole and shock mount in my entry way. When I returned for it (after realizing in the Holland Tunnel that we’d left without it), it was, of course, gone.
I grabbed a microphone clamp on my way out the door and mulled over my options as we flew to Alaska.
Circumstances prevented me from getting a replacement shock mount — we were heading into the bush pretty much as soon as we got to Alaska. But I was able to borrow a little collapsible monopod from the Anchorage outfit from which we rented camera equipment. The monopod, which extended about four and a half feet, was designed for 35mm still cameras. But the small screw on its head fit the screw at the bottom of the microphone clamp I’d brought from home. Incredibly, it looked like I’d found my solution.
But of course without a shock mount, the mic picked up every bump and jostle I gave to the boom.
Luckily, I had a shock mount holder I’d made for use with my microphone clamp. As you can see from the photo, it’s just a short piece of wooden broom handle with a hole drilled in it for a bolt. The piece of broom handle fits into the mic clamp; the shock mount then screws onto the bolt.
My challenge was to make a shock mount which could screw onto that bolt.
After experimenting with a cut-up plastic water bottle, I ended up using a wire hanger. With a few twists and kinks made with my Leatherman pocket tool and a couple of big rubber bands, I rigged the nifty li’l dude you see in the adjoining picture.


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Incredible Hercules

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A Marvel Comics series written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente with pencils by Khoi Pham

The planet’s most irresponsible god and incorrigible teen genius wreak havoc in the wake of “World War Hulk.” Featuring Hercules, Amadeus Cho, and a number of extremely annoyed Avengers. on “Incredible Hercules” #113:

… this second issue of Hercules’ story is even stronger than the first, and it’s rapidly on its way to becoming one of the best comics Marvel is publishing.

Comixtreme on Herc in “Incredible Hulk” #109:

Hercules once again gets some really great screentime. …this arc has once again shown us why Hercules is such a great character. He’s complex, and honor-driven, and he’s a pleasure to read about, especially under Pak’s pen.

Marvel Nemesis: The Imperfects

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Marvel Nemesis: The Imperfects

A five issue Marvel Comics miniseries
Written by Greg Pak, interior art by Renato Arlem, covers by Jae Lee

Buy the trade paperback from

“The mysterious six-page prologue immediately pulls you into the story so that by the time Ben Grimm appears on page seven you’ve begun to wonder if this is going to be a superhero book or not, but you don’t care if it isn’t. It also features something we actually don’t get much of anymore: a nice introspective sequence with Ben in which we discover that even teenagers hold him in some amount of disregard, and we’re reminded that there’s a very human heart underneath that rocky exterior. Then the real fun begins. While Pak does an excellent job with Ben, his real triumph is Elektra – this is the Elektra that Jennifer Garner should have played, not that humorless woman with the pouty lips we ended up with.”
— Tony Whitt,

Amadeus Cho

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Amadeus Cho, aka Mastermind Excello

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“Amadeus Cho is probably the strongest character in Marvel’s stable of properties today…”

A Marvel Comics character created by Greg Pak for a special anthology issue of “Amazing Fantasy” #15, Amadeus Cho was featured in “Incredible Hulk” #100 and #106 to #111 and is now the co-star of “Incredible Hercules.”

Newsarama on Amadeus Cho in “World War Hulk”:

How great is Amadeus Cho? Greg Pak has handled every aspect of Planet Hulk and World War Hulk brilliantly, but his elevation of Amadeus Cho has been a great bonus. on Cho in “Incredible Hulk” #110:

Mastermind Excello is a wonderful character. Not only is he defined by his intellect, but he’s a youthful rebel. … [Greg] Pak’s script not only paints him as a genius, but as something of an innocent whose perspective manages to cut through politics and shades of grey. If Marvel doesn’t direct Pak to do more with this wonderful character, and soon, it’s wasting some great potential. on “Amazing Fantasy” #15:

The shining star of this issue is Greg Pak’s “Mastermind Excello,” featuring a genius teen’s efforts to live life on the lam, out of the hands of those who would try to control him and put his brain to nefarious use. Pak cleverly compares this being of pure brains to a being of pure brawn, but despite being at opposite ends of the power spectrum, they have a lot in common. Miyazawa’s art is a great choice for the property, as the artist captures the main character’s youth and almost mischievous nature quite well. More importantly, he also manages to turn his wholly non-visual powers into a dazzling display (no doubt thanks to some direction from the writer). on “Amazing Fantasy” #15:

… the story and art place this in that rare category, a genuine middle ground between US comics and manga. Good work from Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa, and one I’d like to see again.

Incredible Hulk

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Incredible Hulk

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Named the Best Ongoing Series of 2007 by Wizard Magazine

Greg Pak’s work with the iconic Marvel Comics character began with the “Planet Hulk” epic (“Incredible Hulk” #92 to #105). Pak then wrote the summer blockbuster, “World War Hulk” (“Incredible Hulk” #106 to #111 and “World War Hulk” #1 to #5). The third part of Pak’s Hulk trilogy begins in early 2008 with “Skaar: Son of Hulk.” Hulk fans also won’t want to miss the “Warbound” miniseries, which follows the Hulk’s alien gladiator companions from “Planet Hulk” here on planet Earth.


Wizard Magazine on “Incredible Hulk”:

“Planet Hulk” turned the big green behemoth from a raging monster into a deeply complex and psychologically driven character. And with “World War Hulk,” Pak proved his ability to deliver complex, heartfelt storytelling and intense scenes of action on the grand stage of company-wide crossovers. on “World War Hulk”:

While the action is great and would make a tremendous popcorn flick if ever put on screen, the reason this series and the finale in particular resonate so much with readers is thanks to writer Greg Pak, who’s created character-driven battles, not mindless slugfests. Whether with a punch or a word, there is raw emotion and angst on display here.

San Jose Mercury News on “Planet Hulk”:

How do you reinvigorate the Incredible Hulk saga? Send him into orbit and make him the new “messiah” for a bloodthirsty planet populated by aliens struggling to overcome a caste system. Pak, who also makes movies, has pulled off one of the most exciting story lines Marvel has produced. Must-read: Marvel’s “Planet Hulk” will set you back $39.99, but it’s worth every penny, turning out to be one of my best reading experiences this year.