by Amy Wrobel, Producer
Telling a compelling story typically requires a good storyteller. For some shoots, we’ll hire professional talent, on-camera, or voice actors to carry the message, but 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 comes with unique challenges but also presents an opportunity to create something truly special. Over the years, I’ve worked with many wonderful people who fall in this category, and as a result, 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 first try to ensure that I have a good understanding of the people that I’m working with. Many times, I’m constructing their story and I want to be able to have an engaged conversation about it with them. I need to be interested in and knowledgeable about the topic, which is much easier to do if I have a good foundation of their story.
2. Make Them Feel Ready — But Not Too Ready
Most of the non-professionals I’ve interviewed or directed have little to no experience in front of a camera or behind a microphone. Even those who have still feel some sense of anxiety as confidence on camera is something that is developed over time. To help ease some of that anxiety, I always try to prepare the talent to the best of my ability. Sometimes that means I ‘pre-interview’ them on the phone. Other times, I send them a link to a video that is similar to what we are shooting so they know what to expect. I also explain the goals of the project as well as what the process will look like so the talent can feel free to ask questions. The one thing I try to avoid with inexperienced talent is overpreparation when it comes to a video shoot. Memorized responses come across as robotic when what we really want is a more conversational tone.
3. Be Patient and Supportive
If I rush through the shoot, the talent might notice this tension and feel stressed or even as if they are unimportant. To prevent this, I make sure to let them know they’re doing a good job throughout the shoot. I also remind them that we usually do many takes of the same thing, so their patience with us is equally as important as our patience with them.
5. Have Fun
As cliché as it sounds, I often find that if I’m feeling confident and enjoying myself, our talent usually feeds off that energy. I try my best to remain as lighthearted as possible. Just like in day-to-day life, a shoot day without laughter is a shoot day wasted.
6. Bring Candy (no peanuts!)
When working with kids, bringing some candy can be a lifesaver (pun intended.) Producers with candy are way more appealing and less overbearing to young talent. Hiring a babysitter on set is also not a bad idea to keep kids occupied and having fun rather than being bored and cranky between shots.
7. Don’t Talk Over Them
In an interview setting, it’s tempting to reinforce what the talent is saying or add in some “uh hum’s” like we usually do in every conversation. However, it’s best to try to keep your mouth shut until the cameras are cut. 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 makeup do.
9. 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 phenomenon. It happens all the time. And sometimes the comments you get after the interview are the very best ones.