Right now I’m in pre-production on a new short film that I’ll be directing for The Memphis Film Prize. Hangry is a comedy about one elderly man’s attempt to right a lunchtime wrong. The shoot is scheduled for May 4-5 in Collierville, TN. In addition to an actor to play the main role of The Reverend, I will need extras to portray staff and residents of the nursing home location. If you would like to participate, please use the sign up link below or send an email to email@example.com.
In my video production career I have predominantly worked with non-actors and the challenge is always the same: how can you capture natural, believable footage from people who aren't trained to perform in front of a camera?
If you've been hired to shoot a commercial for a local restaurant or a sales video for a niche product manufacturer, you will at some point be directing the people who actually work at these businesses. So, here are some things that have helped me get the most out of my non-professional on-camera talent.
- Spend a few minutes with them before bringing them to set. Introduce yourself. Find out something about them. Talk about things unrelated to the shoot. Get them talking about themselves. Smile. Laugh. Be personable. Build trust. The more comfortable they are with you, the more willing they'll be to take direction when the cameras roll.
- Be very clear about what you are trying to accomplish. Believe it or not, sometimes the business rep who shows up for the shoot has been "volun-told" by a superior to be involved in the production and he/she may not even know what the video is really about. Don't assume he/she knows what's going on. Spell out explicitly what the scene is about and what you will be asking him/her to do. Answer any questions that may come up. Remember, the more comfortable the talent is, the better the footage.
- You are setting up scenarios, not staging scripted scenes. If you come to set and start giving a long list of specific, scripted directions to your talent ("Now, at THIS point you will cross to THIS side of the room and stand HERE, turning 3/4 to camera BEFORE delivering your line...") they will immediately tense up and deliver a performance that feels too rigid and unnatural. Why? Because they aren't accustomed to taking direction, hitting marks and nailing the timing that comes from years of actor training. Instead of specific, scripted direction, focus on setting up a scenario; something they do every day while doing their job. Keep the direction loose, start rolling, and capture the scene much like you would if it were a documentary. Remember, your job is to capture an authentic moment.
- Be willing to pivot. Sometimes your talent might tell you, "I wouldn't necessarily do it this way." Okay. Great. Tell them to perform the action the way they normally would in their day-to-day jobs. They'll be more confident and comfortable and your footage will look more natural.
- Remind them not to look at the camera. Don't scold them. Don't yell "Cut!" as soon as you see them look over to the lens. Let the scene play out, then walk over to make adjustments, using that moment as a gentle reminder. It is so hard for people not to look at the camera.
- Tell them what you're doing on set as you're doing it. Non-professional actors don't know what coverage is. They might not understand why you keep moving the camera around and why they have to repeat the same action over and over. Remember, your job is to make them comfortable. Constantly explain what you're doing ("Okay, now I'm going to zoom in for a tighter shot so I can get that same action in close-up.") so they feel reassured that they aren't doing anything wrong.
These are the techniques that have worked for me over the years and the more you practice them, the easier it will be to draw out the best from your on-camera talent.
What methods have worked for you? Leave your suggestions in the Comments.
With each short film I make, I learn important lessons about the process of filmmaking. Over the years I have tried to become more and more purposeful with the way I block my actors and my camera. When I was a teenager, first shooting with my dad's VHS camcorder, I simply set up the camera and then had my actors perform in front of it. The result was that it looked like you were watching a stage play... a very, very, very bad stage play.
From those experiences I learned about coverage and so I started moving the camera into the scene for medium shots and close-ups. But those shots were very conventional and boring. I just pointed the camera at the actor who was speaking and then cut back and forth. And the actors always just stood still. There was no blocking involved.
But that was about 25 years ago. Since that time I've learned about all the endless ways a director can cover a scene and how each shot selection should have a purpose and should convey something about character and story. I've also become more observant when I watch other films, noticing how the placement and movement of the camera balances with the blocking of the actors to create a more dynamic composition. Video essays like this one from Nerdwriter are extremely helpful if you want to learn more about how blocking can communicate so much about characters, their relationships to each other, and story.
A lot of the time when I'm watching other films, I ask myself "Why?" When I see a character enter through a doorway and the camera is directly overhead, looking down on the actor, I ask, "Why did the director choose to shoot it this way?" From that basic "Why?" question I can start to think more critically about what I'm seeing on the screen and, therefore, discern more about the character, the situation, or the themes within the film. It's a good exercise.
If you watch enough movies and start to think more critically about what you're seeing, you will also start to notice how conventional some of these films are captured. For example, you might be watching a dialogue scene between two characters and notice how the two actors are just sitting still throughout the entire scene, and how the camera just cuts back and forth between medium shots to show who's talking. Walter Murch, in his book In the Blink of an Eye called this "Dragnet Editing," after the editing style of the 1960's TV series.
I faced this challenge in the short film I directed last year, Final Hit. The last scene runs approximately six minutes, half of the entire film's running time. And it consists solely of two men sitting in one room, talking to each other.
Going into production, I knew the scene had to build suspense and tension throughout, leading ultimately to a dramatic revelation. So I had to storyboard the scene meticulously and think strategically about the blocking, both for the camera and the actors. Each movement of the actors had to have a reason and a purpose behind it. Otherwise, I knew that the whole thing would devolve into a mundane scene between two guys who are just sitting in chairs talking back and forth.
Consider this essay from Every Frame a Painting, about how Japanese director Akira Kurosawa uses movement in his films.
So as you prepare for your own film projects, think purposefully about how you can combine the movement of both your actors and your camera to convey more about the story and the characters, which will ultimately lead to a more satisfying viewing experience for your audience.
Before relocating to Memphis from Birmingham, I was in the process of working on my next short film project, a comedy entitled Brock in the Background. Of course, everything had to be put on hold because of the move. Now that my transition is almost complete, I am refocusing my efforts to produce the film, and I am looking for help from Memphis actors and filmmakers.
Here's the pitch: Brock in the Background is a mock-u-mentary comedic short about Chuck, a Hollywood casting manager who wrangles inflatable extras for large crowd scenes. When his best "actor," Brock, goes missing from the film set, Chuck has to find his "star" and uncover the truth behind his disappearance, all before the director shoots the climactic basketball championship scene.
My goal is to shoot on weekends only - in late June through early July. I'm currently looking for cast and crew willing to donate their time to the project.
Here's a rundown of the cast:
- CHUCK (30s-50s) – Military type. Precise. In control. Regimented
- KRISSY (20s-30s) – Chuck’s assistant. Organized. Dependable. Producer-like.
- PRODUCER (20s-40s) – Male or Female. Producer for a camera crew. Reporter-like. Business-like. Eager. Professional
- CAMERAMAN (20s-30s)
- AUDIO TECH (20s-30s) – Male. Needs to be a little person. Gruff.
- CLOWN (20s-40s) – Typical clown you might see at a child’s birthday party.
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (teens-20s) – Male or Female
I'll also need extras who can play in the following scenes:
- Interior of a high school locker room, following the team's big win
- Exterior - miniature golf course
- Film set crew member
I also need crew members to help me with the logistics of production; most importantly - locations. Since I am new to the Memphis area, I will definitely need some help in finding/securing the right locations for the shoot.
Send me an email if you are interested in getting involved. Or feel free to leave a comment here if you have any thoughts, suggestions, etc. that you think will help.