5 Quick Tips for Directing People Who Have Never Been on Camera
Updated: Oct 13
So you've made it day one of your shoot! Everyone shows up time, picture's up, and you are ready to roll. Talent steps in front of camera, and then... wait, something is off. Two seconds ago they were in hair & make-up, chatting and laughing, and now they are like a deer in headlights, sweating, and can't say words like "the" and "me".
Look, we've all been there. I, for one, am not good at remembering lines, I shake if I'm holding anything, and I blink as if a strobe light is in my eyes. But what do we do when time is money and you can't afford to lose an hour on set? Here are some quick tips to help you support talent that may be inexperienced, or having a rough time when you say action:
This might seem really obvious to some, but for most people I've been working with, it's not. Whether they are actors, business leaders, or your drunk best friend, people can overestimate their ability to speak to the camera. They soon realize that the crew is not their normal audience and will not be moved by their words. Instead the crew is focusing on all the things that the speaker has never thought about: annunciation, speaking-volume, facial expressions, wardrobe fitting, hair, hand gestures, body movement, and so on. And with high definition cameras, the details are even more recognizable.
Whether it's scripted content to be memorized or a whole presentation on a teleprompter, preparation will always be your best companion. When possible, make sure to:
1. Run Rehearsals
Rehearse on set if you can. Getting talent on location ahead of time will help them visualize the way the film shoot will go and help you foresee any possible issues. If you can't get them on set, try to replicate the setting as best as possible somewhere else, send photos of the actual location, and run prompter if you have one.
2. Explain the Process Ahead of Time
Are they going first, last, or somewhere in the middle? Will the final video be edited or will it be one long take where talent can not mess up? Will they have time to rehearse when they get there? Will they be going to Hair and Make-up or should they do their own beforehand? What should they wear? AND will there be food or just water and coffee? These are some of the most important questions talent will need to know to prepare to bring their A game.
3. Give Them (Important) Details
Your details are usually put in the call sheet, but as you will soon find out, PEOPLE DON'T READ THE CALL SHEET (Lol... well, some do, but only to find their call time. Shout out to everyone who actually reads them! THANK YOU! I spent a lot of my life here). Look, some people don't like to read in this industry, and others are super busy, so sometimes you will have to give talent details in multiple ways so that they hear you. Find time to talk to them about specifics. And then send them a follow up text. Annnnnd put it in the call sheet. Shoot for over-communication but only for details that are relevant to the individual for prep for that day. Remember, they need to concentrate on being in the spotlight in front of your entire crew.
4. Send out the Call Sheet
The Call Sheet is your back up here for the important details above. Anything about timing, phone numbers, scene order, food, parking, wardrobe, etc. will be put here. If you don't have a call sheet, you can make one for free in Google Sheets or you can download a free call sheet from Simple Call Sheet (no affiliation, just find it to be aptly named as it is the most simple call sheet I've ever seen)
(5. Only Text/Call in the case of Emergency/Serious Changes)
Know that any text you send to talent before they arrive is going to throw them off. It's understandable to text that the location changed or you have to cancel the shoot for the day, but if set is running slow, you still want them to show up on time. You shouldn't be putting too much responsibility on talent either as it will diversify their attention. Avoid asking them to pick up something on the way or to bring an extra shirt if you can. Let them focus on remembering the content in the script.
2. REVISE THE SCRIPT or ADD A TELEPROMPTER
Another reason why rehearsals are so important is to see which words sound good, bad, repetitive, or are just plain wrong. Running lines with your talent before the shoot will help you hear where the script may not make sense. Change the words that talent may have trouble pronouncing or annunciating to make it easier for them and save time (and embarrassment) on set.
If this is a long presentation, using a teleprompter can be another cost-preventative and convenient option to delivering lines. Taking the responsibility of memorizing sentences off of talent allows them to free their mind from delivering content, and concentrate on emotion, facial expressions, movement/marks, hand gestures, and so forth. Though this option will add to the budget, this is a great solution for the busy business leader who only has an hour to spare and didn't have time to read the draft the marketing team sent over. The advancements in teleprompter equipment are amazingly effective and viewers don't notice that the talent is reading.
If you are shooting in the San Francisco Bay Area and you are looking for glass (teleprompter lingo) check out Insight Prompting, who I've worked with on over 30 shoots. Mention my name!
(Me on right directing representatives from Alliance For Girls, using a teleprompter)
3. CONTROL THE SET
Chances are, your talent was selected to be on camera to represent your story, your organization, your company, or your brand. For this shoot, you are their leader in this joint mission. Their success means your success.
Part of your process is controlling the set. Make parking easy and have a PA meet and greet them if you can't. Check in to see if they need water or coffee and have some healthy snacks (that they are not allergic to) available. All this is really to be welcoming and to let them settle in.
If necessary, have someone else stand in for talent that is about their height for lights and camera while they transition from commuting to running lines.
No one should really be talking to talent except you, the AD (for time), Hair & MU (while they get ready), and finally the Sound Mixer (to mic them and get their levels). Should another crew need something from talent, they should communicate their needs to the you or the AD.
And make sure to face monitors away from where talent will be speaking or standing. Yes, there are some exceptions, but you will regret it. Once people realize how they look on camera their demeanor completely changes and the nerves may start to kick in. Or worse, if talent happens to be your boss during the work week, they may start to make changes and you may lose control of the set.
4. SET THE PACE
So the AD has called out "Quiet on set", camera and sound are speeding (aka recording), and you want to yell "Action!" like they do in the movies. Don't. Even if you're actually making a movie, don't. This is talent's time to take a breath. This is your time to take a breath. Say it... No really, say it out loud. Speak to your talent from the monitor and remind them to take a breath (it's kind of funny because every crew member will do so with you as well). Put your own spin on it and say some encouraging words if needed. Once you can see that they are settled, call action so that the room can hear you (no need to yell it since everyone is already quiet).
This may need to be done several times. Keeping a rhythm with talent keeps their energy up and gives them less time to form judgement on their own performance. As the director, you want to do at least two takes of everything for safety. Even if the AD is pressuring you for time (which is their job), getting the shot right is your goal. Set the pace you want, while also trying to stick to the schedule.
If you didn't have time to prep, this is when it will show. Unfortunately it's a little late in the game, but if absolutely necessary, you can utilize a some seconds between takes to fix words, grammar, or marks on the floor.
(Me, center, assistant directing for All Kinds of Love - 2021)
5. ALWAYS USE DISCRETE AND ENCOURAGING FEEDBACK
So if everything is going well, but you're still not getting the performance you want out of talent, you have several options on how to use the time between takes. The thing you don't want to do is yell out critiques from behind the camera like "You screwed up that last line" or "Can I get more energy from you please?". If your talent is super nervous, this isn't going to help you get the results you want.
First, approach talent so that you are close enough to talk to them in a discrete tone. Focus on the positives of their performance and if necessary, remind them of the process you talked about ("This is all gonna be edited" or "You nailed the last two takes so I just want this one for safety" or "We are just going to try this one more time with more hand gestures. I like it when you do that").
Keeping them on set is ideal, but you may prefer to walk away with them to a more private area. Do a check in as well. Do they need water? Maybe a break? Make sure a PA is standing by to do a run. In the end, you can only do so much to calm another person's nerves. But when you focus on the task at hand, you're bound to get some good takes.
Directing people who have never been on camera before can be a challenge, but preparation, making them feel welcome, controlling the set, and using positive feedback for the shoot will certainly support them when they are at their most vulnerable. Remember your goals and remember... to breath...
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