by Amy Wrobel, Producer
When it comes to telling a compelling story, it typically requires a good storyteller. Sometimes we hire professional talent, on-camera or voice actors, to carry the message. In other situations, it’s better to use real people. Real people–that’s what we ‘in the biz’ call anyone who’s not professional, paid talent. Using non-professional talent provides challenges and opportunities. Over the years, I’ve worked with many wonderful people who fall in this category, and because of that I’ve developed some of my own best practices. Here’s a broad, non-inclusive guide to working with non-professional talent from a producer/director’s perspective:
1. Do your homework
I try to understand the people I’m working with. Many times, I’m constructing their story and I want to be able to have a smart conversation about it with them. I need to be interested and engaged in the topic. If I’m informed that’s much easier to do.
2. Make them feel ready
Most of the non-professionals I’ve interviewed or directed have not been on-camera or narrated a video in their lifetime. Even if they have, being on camera does not usually come easily to most people. To help them feel comfy, I always try to make them prepared. Sometimes that means I ‘pre-interview’ them on the phone. Other times, I send them a link to a similar video. I also explain the process and goals before we start, and then ask if they have questions.
3. But not too ready
In an interview setting, I discourage them to over prepare their answers ahead of time. Their responses almost always come across memorized or scripted, because they are.
4. Be patient and supportive
If I rush through the shoot, they’ll notice and feel pressure or worse…not important. That being said, I make sure to let them know they’re doing a good job. I remind them that we usually do many takes of the same thing, so the ‘being patient’ part goes both ways.
5. Have fun
Cliché, right? Well, it’s true. If I’m confident and enjoying myself, usually they are too. I try not to take anything too seriously, unless I need to. Just like in life, I think a shoot day without laughter is a shoot day wasted.
6. Bring candy (no peanuts!)
Okay, I usually just do this when working with kids. They start to like me sooner that way. Once I hired a babysitter on set. That was awesome. While we were resetting camera and lights, they were occupied (aka not bored and cranky).
7. Don’t talk over them
Once again, this tip refers to an interview setting. If I cut them off or talk over them, like we all tend to do in normal conversation, I won’t get a usable bite and our editors will not be happy with me. I’ll end up asking the editor to cut out my “uh hum” between THE BEST SOUND BITE EVER. The saying “fix it in post” is not always applicable. Trust me.
8. Make them look (and sound) good
Good lights, good audio and a good stylist. That usually does the trick. Oh and some nice lenses. I hear, “do you have your skinny lenses on that camera today?” all the time. Those don’t really exist, but good lighting, composition and make-up do. You may know the running joke, “we can always fix it in post,” but in reality that is not cost effective.
9. Ask real questions, too
Many times in an interview we have to ask some technical, practical and, alright I’ll say it, boring questions. After those are done, I always ask them if I missed anything. Usually those responses are my favorite. If it’s not an interview, I ask the person if they have a signature move or way of doing whatever it is we’re doing. Directing is good and necessary, but they know themselves better than me and can come up with great ideas on their own.
10. Keep the camera rolling
When I’m ‘done’ with the shoot I like to keep the camera rolling. People finally act themselves when they think the camera is off. It’s a very interesting phenomena. It happens all the time. And sometimes you get the best comment ever.