Harnessing the range and power of the face is a challenging task for the actor. When we consciously think of these expressions, we are likely to produce false images. It’s very hard to make the face behave upon command. However, there are ways to trick the brain and create believable expressions.
Los Angeles based acting coach John Sudol, says, “Most people have the ability to read the language that the face speaks. They can pick up the subtle facial signals when a friend is worried, sad or irritated. But reading it and speaking it is what defines the working on-camera actor”. Based on Psychologist Paul Ekman’s research in emotions as well as his Facial Action Coding System (FACS), John has developed a progressive system, he calls the Language of the Face. He trains actors to have true awareness of their facial expressions and to bring their facial expressions into alignment with their internal emotional state.
For the actor, an exploration into this area is vital to becoming a consummate actor. For through an awareness of the possibilities, the actor can make strong choices, which create visual characters that have depth, purpose and credibility. We might think of the face as the brain’s theatre, for it is on this stage that our inner thoughts and emotions are displayed for the entire world to see, or disguised or withheld, as the situation dictates.
The subject of facial expressions conjures up a number of problems for the actor. The biggest question is whose behavior are we seeing? Is it that of the actor confronting the scene? Is it the actor interpreting the character? Or is it the will, intentions, and emotions of the character surfacing through the actor?
The eyes are our most prominent features of the human face. And when we add a nose, a mouth, a chin, the face tells more about us than any other part of the body. It sends out a multitude of signals that convey our inner messages. The face is our identity, and the means by which we recognize others. Each pattern of facial features is truly individual. Yet despite this uniqueness, there is a universality to emotional expressions, one that unites us all in a fundamental, non-verbal way. Changes on the forehead, brows, eyelids, nose, lips, and chin, even our skin, convey vital information about our attitude, personality, character, intentions, and feelings. Certain expressions, such as anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise have a common language regardless of culture. This implies that certain facial expressions of emotions are inborn and not learned.
The face is a compelling image because of its remarkable range and power of expressions. For the actor, especially in film and television, the face is the focal point around which most dramatic scenes evolve. How the actor uses the eyes, brow, nose, and mouth dictates the direction of scene and its actions.
Psychologist Paul Ekman studied actors skilled in remembering and portraying emotions and schooled in the physically of becoming the characters they portray. These actors, when asked to create certain facial expressions, reported feeling the emotion that accompanies the expression. Their heart rate, breathing, and skin temperature also showed a physical change. There is obviously a connection between instigating the expression and producing the feeling, and visa versa. The feeling serves as a catalyst for the expression.
The same could also be said of the actor’s intentions. What the character wants will likely be revealed via facial expressions, provided the intention is the primary focus.
Another study, this one by psychologist Robert B. Zajonc, supports a link between facial expressions and a chain of biological reactions that alter the brain’s blood flow, temperature, and chemical environment. He states that our cerebral blood chemistry may be adjusting to match the situations we are in and that the muscle action of our facial expressions facilitates this change. Certain veins are momentarily restricted or enlarged. The muscles used in laughter, for instance, increase the blood flow, the supply of oxygen to the brain, causing a feeling of exuberance. In contrast, with sadness, many muscles contract limiting blood flow, producing less oxygen for tissues, and lessening the vital processes.
As you can see, facial expressions may create and sustain feelings as well as communicate them. It is thus possible for certain expressions to perpetuate a feeling as it is for feelings to promote the expression.And by obstructing or denying one, the other looses its power.
There are two means by which emotions and intentions can be expressed, either with deliberate intent, or spontaneously.These two means are controlled by two different sets of nerves going from the brain to the face. The voluntary nerve pathway leads from the cerebral cortex; the spontaneous pathway comes from a more primitive part of the brain called the limbic system and located just below the cortex. At birth, the spontaneous pathway is in charge. Wants and feelings are uncluttered by consequences. However, as we grow older, we learn to control the muscles in our faces and to express, or repress, as we see fit.
Voluntary expressions could be something like making faces, punching up, or repressing an existing emotion or intention. It is also possible to feel an emotion and to use facial expressions to enhance the portrayal.
In order to portray the character with conviction and clarity, a good part of the actor’s energies must be centered on feeling, thinking, and moving as the character. Through this process, facial expressions will emerge which not only suit the story, but also have a spontaneous nature to them. This is because, in part, they are spontaneous. And in part, they are also voluntary. This is the major key to realistic facial expressions. They must be firmly grounded in the same wants and feelings as found in real people.
In his on-camera class, John Sudol, teaches his students about the specific muscles, triggers, sensations and impulses that are distinct to the seven universal emotions. He proposes, “If you know what they are and how to stimulate them, you will have the ability to make the emotional reveal or reaction bigger or smaller, without losing the intensity of the emotion.” Such is the potential of The Language of the Face.
Practicing expressions is a difficult proposition, as we cannot see the results. When you practice and experience expressions, have them assessed either by an instructor or by a video camera. Only then can you correct the ambiguities. Practice these expressions for short duration and then come back to them on subsequent days. In this way, they will evolve out of the feel, think, and act process rather than through mechanical indications. With continued short reinforcement, these techniques and expressive manners will become an instinctive part of your acting repertoire.
One can also make improvements via life studies, that of watching the expressions of others in real life situations. Focus your attention on what draws you into the action, how sequence and juxtaposition come into play. Note how the expressive dimensions are used such as target, dynamics, speed, duration, definition, variations, integrity, and destination.
Another avenue for improvement is to view movies, television, and videos concentrating on this specific aspect of acting. By viewing the scene with the sound off, or replaying it several times, you will come to appreciate the techniques outlined in this article, especially when analyzing award-winning performances. Likewise, try duplicating these performances for this too will improve you facial discipline and inner focus. There is a great adversity to mimicking others, but I have found it, as it is in art, music, and dance, a great way to develop technical awareness and discipline in one’s craft.
Practicing acting in such a detailed focused manner is not to the liking of many actors. They assume it limits the instinctive creative qualities or that it stifles their “being comfortable”, their “go with it” instincts, or the “feel good” therapeutic aspects. Others cannot face the demands of the discipline, time, and commitment to one’s craft. There is also that group who avoids talking about the process, the disciplines, saying it takes away the magic and glamour. For many student actors, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance and wing it in hopes that the appropriate expressions will emerge in some serendipitous way; that it will somehow surface through some inner magic. Seldom does this occur and most continue to stumble along, lacking focus and direction.
By practicing the disciplines presented here, the actor cannot only develop a wide range of facial expressions, he can also nurture the skills to utilize and control them under the most adverse conditions of theatre, film, and television. Likewise, he will develop the awareness, confidence, and dexterity to create unique and purposeful expressions that suit the character, the story situations, and the genre, expressions that resonate with the audience.