Working with Actors on Camera

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Working with professional actors is one of the highlights of being a director. Actors bring a range of talents to a script, even when that script is nonfiction (the kind I direct). On a recent shoot with actors, I was reminded of some of the reasons I like working with pro talent. And also some of the distinctions it is easy to forget when working with nonprofessionals in front of the camera.

Nomenclature
One of the first differences between working with pro talent and non-actors is the words we use to communicate on set. If I’m working with actors, I can say “back to one” for going back to your first mark for action, or “let’s do a pickup” for repeating a line or phrase that had a hiccup. With non-professionals, we spend more time explaining actions we need, and often why we need them because we can’t use this short-hand. A great example would be explaining how we need both wide and tight angle coverage of the same action, which is why we shoot it multiple times. An actor knows this and will ask which lens or framing we’re on so they know what we’re looking at in our monitors.


Expectations
Good actors come to the set prepared to deliver their lines. If you are directing a scenario, they’ve already studied the setup and considered actions they might use to make the scene believable. If an actor is reading from a teleprompter, they will still usually request the script in advance so they are ready to read it without any stumbles. One of the problems I see so often with internal communications teams expecting a CEO or other executive to be able to read off a teleprompter easily is that this is a learned skill. Even if an executive does it multiple times a year for the quarterly report video, they don’t do it weekly or daily like a professional does. So they may need some coaching.

Selecting wardrobe is something pro talent expects to do on a shoot–it often comes as a surprise to non-actors.

Varying the timing or delivery of lines is something pro talent can do easily.

Consistency
Even when an actor is playing “background” and doesn’t have primary lines, they will be consistent in their actions. Maybe they pick up a coffee mug and take a sip during the scene. They will pick it up at the same point in the action every time, which ensures that we have matching action across multiple takes and camera angles for ease of editing. When you work with nonprofessionals and expect them to re-enact a scenario, even if it’s something they do every day for their job, they won’t be able to deliver this consistency. So plan accordingly and schedule additional time (at least 20% more time) for your shooting and editing.

Actors are an important part of our team as storytelling professionals. They can add depth, drama and professionalism to your next video. And if you need pointers for working with non-actors on camera, check out my book Real People on Camera from Routledge Press. It includes tips and strategies I’ve used over the years to get great “performances” from non-professionals in front of the lens.

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