Acting out the brain-muscle connection

It was a lively post-dinner gupshup. Known for his frank opinions, the host remarked that he finds Sanjeev Kumar lacking expressions. I did not see this coming about a star who is widely acclaimed for his acting prowess. Amitabh Bachchan was much better at expressions, he continued. Imagining Amitabh’s sagging cheeks in scenes where he was full of guilt, I kind of agreed. He said Sanjeev Kumar made up for the lack of facial expression by his impeccable voice modulation. I added that Sanjeev Kumar had a great sense of timing too. He concurred.

Facial expressions matter a lot in acting. More so these days when close-ups are used frequently. The wiring of muscle movements of facial features to various parts of our brain is as complicated as the features themselves. A majority of expressions requires the muscles of our lips, cheeks, forehead and, most importantly, eyes to operate as per the emotion. Synchronously. That is the magic of human brain.

But for an actor to create those muscle movements just to depict the emotions on screen is not an easy task by any means. They must first know how the facial features change with different types of emotions. They must then learn to direct muscles to bring about those facial features at the right time. Synchronicity is a big issue though. The fact that some muscle directives are innate makes it more complicated. Voluntary movements of our lip muscles for instance allow us to manufacture a (fake) smile for selfie. But how do we show the smile in our eyes to make it look real? That type of muscle control by our brain is innate and not acquired. And that must happen exactly at the same time as the lip movement. It demands one to experience the emotion. That’s why method acting has become so popular with actors and directors.

Essentially method acting requires an actor to find a temporary justification for the action he/she is about to perform. Every act in real life, even a heinous murder, is performed because the person is internally satisfied that he/she is doing the right thing. Once you justify the act, you integrate your motive with your consciousness which then takes care of all the muscle movements which are reflected externally as expression. In reality you are not ‘acting’ anymore. You are just ‘being’ there, albeit temporarily.

Now imagine having to do twitching of lips and some other facial features to act as a person with disability of certain brain functions. Not once but in almost every shot. That’s insanely hard. Every muscle is held at its place or moved as per the directions of the part of the brain that represents a “conscious” body. Emotions run at a deeper level and invoke brain functions that override these “conscious” muscle forces. Between emotions, the normal ‘self’ works as a conscious body unaware of internal muscle movements while performing day-to-day tasks. That ‘self’ is no longer normal when a part of the nervous system is impaired leading to loss of voluntary muscle control. To mimic such ‘normal’ self is extremely difficult. That’s why exceptional actors like Eddie Redmayne win the highest awards for acting as Stephen Hawking.




Writer, scientist, filmmaker, executive… basically a creative explorer; contact abhijit AT abhijitdeonath DOT com

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Abhijit Deonath

Abhijit Deonath

Writer, scientist, filmmaker, executive… basically a creative explorer; contact abhijit AT abhijitdeonath DOT com

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