by Gina Sestak
The theme of the month is scary things. Polls consistently show the one thing that scares most people more than ghosts or vampires or even death itself is having to speak in public.
Luckily, I've never had much of a problem with that. I chalk that up to having absolutely no self-esteem. When you expect to screw up and look like a total nincompoop, there's no risk of letting yourself down. Besides, I've developed a practice of imagining the worst case scenario: what is the worst thing that can possibly happen if I forget this speech midway and start to giggle? The worst thing is that some terrorist or other hostile person will choose that moment to blow up the building. Compared to that, whatever comes to pass is much, much better. See? No reason to be afraid of looking like an idiot if you are still standing up and in one piece.
This way of thinking about speaking in public has gotten me through standard speeches and acting on stage. It has held up for courtroom appearances and even appellate argument. Now, though, it has started to break down because I'm doing a different kind of public speaking. A scary kind.
I'm taking a class on Acting for the Camera. Every week, students are expected to prepare a short script and perform it while being filmed. That is horrifying. Not so much the act of speaking the script itself. No. The scary part is seeing the playback.
Most of you who know me know that I don't look all that great in person. I look 100% better in person, though, than I do on videotape. Yikes! This is what I usually look like:
On videotape, I look about a gazillion years old, with bad skin and hair, and a truly bizarre-looking nose. Luckily, I don't have an example to attach here.
It's some consolation that the younger people in my class, most of whom are very attractive, look pretty awful on screen, too. I'm blaming the lighting. In class, we are lit by a single bounce light coming from the right. It makes our teeth look big and bright and our noses seem atrocious. This is not how most people are lit on screen.
Look at someone in real life. You will notice that their nose leaves a noticeable shadow on their face. In movies and on tv, there are no such shadows. Even in scenes set outdoors in bright sunlight, or in the middle of the night beneath a glowing moon, you will almost never see a strong shadow. This is because shadows help bring out every flaw in a person's face. And noses look weird enough already without obscuring a part of them. [Have you ever actually looked at anybody's nose for any length of time? They are ALL STRANGE LOOKING.]
Most scenes are lit by more than one light source to get rid of shadows. One standard set-up puts a strong light - the key light - on one side of the actor's face, with a weaker fill light on the other, and a back light behind the head. This set-up gives enough weak shadow to keep the actor looking three-dimensional, without creating defined dark areas on the face - a shadow of a pimple makes it look as if it's much, much bigger than it really is, sort of like a mountain on the surface of the moon.
As horrifying as the appearance part of the video is, that is not the worst part. Ever harder to watch is the camera's way of picking up every flaw in the performance. A millisecond pause to think of the next line is glaringly obvious. A split second glance at the instructor ["Am I doing this right?'] completely breaks the illusion that you're talking to the audience. Every pause seems minutes long. Watching this is really, really scary and is causing me to develop a profound respect for on-air new readers. It is harder than it looks.
What about you? Does public speaking scare you? Have you ever watched yourself perform on video?