I cut my teeth in directing by working in the local cable industry. In case you don’t know what that is… think of the worst possible commercial you’ve seen for your local Kia dealership… Yeah… I made those.
But one of the most useful skills I picked up in the local cable business is knowing how to pull a decent performance from virtually anyone. True, we’re not expecting Deniro to emerge from someone that has never been on camera before, but gentle coaching and patience can usually end with a good result. Even though the majority of time when you’re working with non-actors will be on industrials (commercials, sales videos, training videos, etc.), these tips can be applied to all directing situations.
1. Assess the Situation
The first thing you need to know before going into any project is what you want to accomplish. This seems like straight forward advice but it is something that can be easily lost when dealing with clients and their expectations.
If you’re producing a commercial, what is the goal of the commercial? (beyond just selling stuff) Are you looking to establish the brand in a certain way? Are you trying to convey the business’s personality? If you’re shooting an industrial or training video, what are the important points you want to get across?
Now take a good look at the non-actor you’re trying to direct. Most of the time, he or she is there because they have a relationship to the producer/client (an employee or child of the guy paying the bills) and they’re working for free. Regardless of the reason why they’ve been selected to be on camera, try to find the strengths and weaknesses and determine how best to showcase the strengths on camera and hide the weaknesses.
What are you looking for exactly? You’re looking for personality traits – how does this person move? Does he or she speak with a lot of hand gestures? Is he or she comfortable reading or better off the cuff? You’ll also want to look at physical traits – try to find the best “side” and adjust your lighting to bring out your subject’s best features.
Now the first time you meet the person may be on set, so you’ll have to quick to adapt your strategy.
2. To Teleprompter or Not to Teleprompter
Memorizing lines is every non-actor’s worst fear (even though accuracy of lines is often the least important thing to capture on camera). The actual act of reciting lines is so terrifying to some that it can actually freeze them up entirely.
But a teleprompter (or low tech equivalent: cue cards) isn’t always the answer. Some people are simply terrible readers as all emotion and inflection drain out of their voice when reading a passage.
If you are doing a long presentation with a lot of precisely worded scripting, you have very little choice but to use a teleprompter. But if you are working with an environment where the script is a little looser and on camera personality is key, it may be a good idea to take away the crutch of the teleprompter/cue card and let the person speak from their our memory (we’ll have more tips on precisely this in a bit).
3. Make the Talent Feel Comfortable and Safe
I’m going to start using the word “talent” now and not in a sarcastic way. It’s easy to look down at non-actors who can’t act as “talent-less” but that is how you end up going nowhere. Everybody is capable of acting in one way or another. You’re job is to coax that person to deliver the information you want (which you know inside and out because you assessed the situation in pointer 1) in a natural way.
And you do your job by first making the talent feel comfortable and safe. What does that mean exactly? This will be different for every individual. Sometimes this means getting the talent a bottle of water and giving them the “star treatment” (goodies from “craft services”).
Does the talent feel more comfortable sitting behind a desk? Or does he feel better with a coffee cup in his hand? Or does she like to use her hands to talk? Script permitting, you want to put your talent in the most comfortable setting.
If you can eliminate the slate clapper it can help take the pressure off the talent. Some actors use the standard “Roll Camera, Sound, Slate, and… Action!” as a way to get pepped up for a scene but to a non-actor, that pressure can get wound up into a ball and come out as a flubbed line.
Depending on the situation, I sometimes drop the word “action” and go with, “take it away” or “whenever you’re ready” and let the talent begin when he/she is most comfortable. Generally when working with non-actors, the beginning is always the hardest.
Sometimes getting the talent to feel comfortable is a matter of stripping the set of all non-essential personnel. Knowing that a dozen people are watching you is a lot more stressful to a non-actor than just the director and camera operator. Sometimes, a particular person’s presence will cause the stress.
There’s an infamous story that will follow me around for the rest of my career: I was shooting a cooking segment with two women. One of the woman’s mother was sitting in an adjacent room with the door open between us. In between takes, the mother would chime in with notes on every little thing, “Why are you calling it a spring salad?” “I think you should tell us how many ounces of nuts you put in that?”… it was getting frustrating and I could see the talent getting ruffled.
I got up from my camera and walked to the door and said, “There’s a lot of noise coming from this room” and closed the door on the mother like Michael Corleone did to Annie Hall at the end of Godfather.
Now you don’t need to act like a mob boss when running a set and not all scene kibitzers have the same overt stress effect on the talent. Some times you can ask the stress causing person to handle a different task (make busy work) or just be direct and tell them, “I think you’re making the talent nervous could you come back in a couple of hours.” Most people are understanding.
3. Never Never NEVER get Frustrated
Along the same lines of making sure the talent feels safe and comfortable, you as the director must be in a constant state of calm and support. You must never let your talent feel like you are not on their side – even if every filmmaking instinct and fiber in your core screams at you “this person stinks on ice” never let that show in how you interact with your talent.
Also never let any frustration with anything else get through as this will also make the talent nervous.
Instead, always focus on the positive aspects of the performance. What went right? Be constructive in your criticism. Instead of saying, “that wasn’t very good”, say, “let’s do it again, but this time I want you to do X, Y, Z”: Specific and direct criticism with actionable instructions.
Sometimes you can even lay blame on the technical people (but in jest) as a way to alleviate the pressure from the talent. You can say, “That was the cameraman’s fault, let’s do it again” – just be sure the cameraman is professional enough to handle it.
4. Fix it in Post
Yes these are the four most evil words that can ever be uttered on a set. But there is also the adage that “Editing makes good actors into great actors”. The trick is to making something “fixable” in post is providing sufficient material for your editor to make your talent’s performance something good.
The first and best tip is to break down long bits of monologue/dialog in workable chunks. Here’s where you’re homework comes into play. You need to know where the logical breaks are in the script – where does one thought end and another one begin?
Breaking down large sections into doable chunks is also great for talent who have trouble memorizing lines. You can coach a single part of the script by having the talent take a single piece of the script and repeating it in his or her own words. Sometimes you may need to have them parrot back a line in order to get started. For instance, if you have someone giving a presentation on Dental Implants, you could ask the talent to parrot back, “Dental Implants are advantageous because…” and let them finish the thought.
If you have access to two cameras can also help your editor fix things in post. If you have one camera on a medium shot and the second camera from the same angle on a tight closeup, you will have a lot of freedom to cut in between the two different shots easily stitching a performance out of multiple takes.
And remember to have plenty of Graphics and B-Roll to lay over the edited performance.
5. Have Fun
Filmmaking is the funnest of the performing arts. What other performing art field can you screw up and just do it again? (okay, maybe music production). If you’re working with a non-actor, that person should also feel the fun of being in a production. Sure, they may be nervous about remembering the lines or looking good on camera, but at the end of the day, you want the production to be an overall positive experience for your talent.
Who knows, maybe the acting bug will catch… and maybe the next time you work with that person, they’ll have some training and deliver an outstanding performance.