The Art of the Nuance (Part 1)

A big part of working on camera is developing your own sense of what the camera and the filmmakers look for when they are telling their stories.

The filmmaker is looking for the tiniest details in your performances to tell their stories. 

When I’m teaching acting on camera, I ask the students to watch the monitor intensely in order to develop their own critical eye of performance. This begins the practice of ‘seeing what the camera sees’.

Nuance: a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.

The first thing that actors notice when watching each other work on camera is the power of the nuance. “Wow,” they say, “I can really see the person thinking in that moment”, or “I can feel the submerged emotions that are brimming at the surface!”

This is nuance that they are watching.

Audiences love to read between the lines and interpret everything. Audiences love to watch the moments between the moments. Audiences love to see the emotional private journey of the character that appears in between the words. Audiences love to figure out the meaning of each moment. Audiences love watching the EMOTIONAL DETAILS of your characters.

Develop your eye to see the art of nuance in actors working on camera in order to strengthen your own work as an actor/director/writer.

It’s amazing to me how many actors don’t actually watch tons of films or TV in order to develop their aesthetic sense of how the camera captures performance. I know we are all so busy, but the only way to truly learn it is by doing and watching others work. And it’s fun homework!




Study nuanced performances in films and TV.

Watch movies and television that use nuanced acting as an important storytelling device – not just fast edits or cool special effects in big blockbuster films. Study how films explore the emotional life of characters in a visual way instead of just in dialogue.

Seek films that…

  • rely on the actor’s character nuances to set a tone and unfold a story
    (Ang Lee films – Brokeback Mountain, Ben Mendelsohn’s work in Netflix’s Bloodline series.)
  • tell stories mostly visually instead of with heavy dialogue
    (Todd Haynes’ films – Carol, Cast Away, The Revenant)
  • use the visuals of expression of the face or physical gesture details
    (The Danish Girl, any Daniel Day Lewis film)

These types of films will give you the greatest insight to the art of nuance on screen.



I just saw a brilliant film that is a masterful exploration of nuance to recommend!

fireworks wednesday

FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY by Asghar Farhadi.  Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker who won an Oscar for A Separation, has become one of my favorite film directors and continually blows me away (and deeply moves me) with his attention to emotional detail. His stories completely rely on the internal nuances of his actors to reveal the human condition so powerfully. To watch his film is a lesson in the art of creating nuance (as actor and director).

Pull back layer after layer of a character’s complexity in each moment.

Farhadi is brilliant at revealing what is buried beneath the surface in his characters. He peels it all back layer after layer, bit by bit, moment by moment, scene by scene. Every film of his tears me up and twists my insides with the pains of the characters. I marvel at how he achieves this with so little dialogue and very precisely staged moments. 

He will show a character alone in a room and we will know the pain or confusion that person is feeling. Or he will edit a dialogue scene so that we watch the listener instead of the speaker – and our hearts break with the information that the listener is receiving as we watch her face crumble.

His actors must have a really strong emotional and very specific life to help Farhadi tell the stories in his nuanced style. There is no moment that can not be fully explored by an actor.

So, my TIP OF THE DAY, for your acting growth, is to start to study how filmmakers rely on the emotional nuances of actors to fully tell a story. 

Watch films with an eye to the silent telling of a story… 

  • note how a character tells an emotional story visually, instead of in words
  • turn the sound off and watch the faces only
  • watch foreign films and see how they tell a story without you understanding the language
  • notice how the editors design a flow of a scene – do they cut to the person talking, or listening? Which moments do they select for the audience to pay attention to?

Think like a visual filmmaker. Then, you will be a visual filmmaker. Actors are visual filmmakers. Yes, you are! Your face tells us sooooo much…




Here is a quick list of films you might want to check out to study nuance:

Blue Valentine
A Separation
Central Station


Please add more films that feature nuanced performances in the comments section below!




    • Heidi Marshall says

      I was crazy about Sicario. Loved it. And also the soundtrack was so nuanced – that was a study in the nuance of music composition!

  1. Polly says

    Thank you Heidi. It’s a bit more exaggerated than some of your examples but Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards season 4.

  2. Cassie says

    Recently watched Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. There is hardly any dialogue in the first 30 minutes of the film. It is completely set up by beautiful shots, music & the actors nuances.

  3. Jaclyn Sokol says

    Great Post Heidi! I think about this often.

    I agree with noting Saoirse Ronan’s incredibly nuanced, rich in depth and detail, yet understated moments throughout the film Brooklyn.

  4. Laura says

    Totally thought of “Carol” when I saw this post, and of course, you referenced it! Care Blanchett is one of my favorite actors to watch precisely because of this nuance.

    Thanks, Heidi!

  5. John Wiggins says

    There is a scene in “Stray Dogs” directed by Tsai Ming-Liang (on Netflix) that is one of the most subtle, nuanced scenes I’ve ever experienced. If you aren’t familiar with his films, be forewarned: Tsai’s films are known for their slow pace and long takes, and the demands placed upon the actors can seem daunting. If you don’t want to watch the whole film, fast forward to 1:52:00. The scene between an estranged husband and wife, is a single, 14-minute 2-shot with no dialogue. The nuanced emotional life is breathtaking.

  6. Kevin says

    Heidi, thank you for a wonderful post that is the essence of why some stories and storytellers remain with us all our lives and others don’t. Every nuance of feeling must be shared by us allowing it to live inside our bodies, our minds.
    Asghar Farhadi. is a MUST for all of us. He is brilliant and arguably one of the three best Directors in the World. I want to work with him!

  7. Sylvia says

    I was amazed how little spoken dialogue is in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”- whole scenes with just a word or two spoken, yet so much meaning conveyed.

  8. Chris Costa says

    The Handmaid’s Tale is full of nuance, love it (especially Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski). Also, Robin Wright in House of Cards is a master class of nuance.

  9. Jamie Morrow says

    “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the first film that comes to mind. A beautiful story told through the silent moments shared.

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