How to direct actors as a photographer: tips from Hollywood acting coach Miranda Harcourt

“You’ve got to create an illusion of intimacy [between actors] and to do that, you’ve got to be comfortable in the space between them.”

– Miranda Harcourt
Actress and acting coach Miranda Harcourt has joined not one, but two Stills Soirées at the Unit Stills Directory community to share her wisdom on how to direct actors on set. Miranda has worked with directors including Jane Campion, Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi. She has coached actors such as Juliette Binoche, Dev Patel, Brooklyn Prince, Sunny Pawar, Timothy Spall, and Nicole Kidman.

Unit stills photographers capture eye-catching images on set that get used to market films or TV series. Think posters, articles, streaming platform images, behind-the-scenes, and, increasingly, social media content. 

A film set is often a chaotic and fast paced on-set environment. As the photographer, you must find the right approach to take images of actors before, during and, on occasion, after the take. In either case, you’ve got an extremely short time window to form a relationship with the actor.

During the conversation, Miranda discusses some techniques she uses to get the desired performance out of an actor and shares tips on gaining actors’ trust.

Still from Reunion (credit: Camila Mata Lara)

How to form a good relationship with actors

The best still images are the ones that capture the soul of the film, which always involves the actors. Forming working relationships fast is an essential part of being a good unit stills photographer in order to get great images. It doesn’t mean being best friends, but it does require that an actor trust the photographer to be around. 

Find the right time to introduce yourself if you haven’t met before, in a way that does not seem like an interruption or an intrusion into their space. Never distract an actor if they are talking to the director. Keeping an introduction brief is always a good idea – film conversations are always cut short, so bear that in mind when striking up a conversation.

how to direct actors
Still from The Last Warrior – A Messenger of Darkness (credit: Sasha Ostrov)

Work on your relationship with yourself to build better relationships with others

You’ve got to create an illusion of the intimacy that actors form between themselves. To do that, you’ve got to be comfortable and confident in your ability and the importance of your work on set. If you are at ease with your own sense of self, and have a relaxing and confident aura around you, it will be easy for the people you photograph to respond to you and what you are asking of them.

Still from Reunion (credit: Rebecca McMillan)

Directing actors

Re-invoking a performance after the scene has been shot

It’s preferable to capture the most authentic images of a performance when the cameras are rolling, during a ‘take’. Not only is it the best use of time on set, it will give you the best images when actors are giving their 100%. However, if you absolutely need a reset, ask for one respectfully and be quick about taking the images you need. 

“You want the actor that you’re photographing to still be engaged with the life of the scene around them,” says Miranda. “I know from Nicola [Dove] that one of the challenges that confronts you, is that often you are asking somebody to regain a sense of living in frame, living in the scene, living in relationship with the other actor after the fact. So the director has called ‘cut’ and then the stills photographer comes in and you’re asking the actors, having been on an emotional journey, to quickly recreate some element of that journey so you can get your image.”

You’re technically distracting people from the filmmaking process in order to do your job, so you must use the right approach, good timing, and be clear about what you are after. 

POV: stills photographer vs actor

Above: Film still from Una (credit: Nicola Dove)
Below: Ruby Stokes on the set of Una (credit: Nicola Dove)

Capturing the energy between actors

In order for us to understand what techniques the actors use to create a sense of connection between themselves, Miranda talked us through her three anchors: Connection (the relationship with the other actor), Internal Landscape (relationship with the actors own thoughts, memories and images) and Vista (the relationship with the environment around you). She discussed how these anchors can ground the actor and help to drop back into the action and emotion of the scene. Miranda calls that a sense of unselfconsciousness. “This is what you’re hunting for as a photographer – an electric possibility between the actors.”

Film still from The Souvenir (credit: Diana Patient)

Unlock more practical tips

The monthly Stills Soirees are part of the Unit Stills Directory  – an online search platform that specialises in showcasing set photographers’ work. Each month an expert from the film industry is invited as a guest speaker, with previous guests like Kirsty Griffin, Hopper Stone, Scott Garfield and Kevin Loader.

For filmmakers, it’s a great place to discover new talent and find unit stills photographers based in various locations around the world. For unit photographers it’s a fantastic way to expose your work to a wider audience, become part of a supportive community, and hear from some of the best people in the industry. 

In Miranda’s Soiree’s she shared some great phrases to use, techniques to employ and things to look out for when working with actors. If you are a unit stills photographer and would like to watch her workshops you can join the Unit Stills Directory with either a monthly or annual membership. 

To listen to more of Miranda’s work you can visit her excellent substack, which has over 35 articles available for writers, directors and actors. She also has a new Podcast: Miranda’s Tools and for Actors and Directors. You can find the first 5 podcasts free on her Substack or you can find it on Apple and Spotify.

Bonus: For New and Early-Career Stills Photographers

If you are interested in finding out more about becoming a unit stills photographer, visit the Film Stills Academy. After working as a film stills photographer for 20+ years, Nicola Dove founded the academy, which was born out of her passion to train the next generation of stills photographers and provide them a window into the industry. Since launching in 2020, many graduates are already working on productions after having never set foot on a film set before. 

Be sure to follow Miranda and Nicola on Instagram.

Featured image credit: Federico Imperiale (still from LouLou)