Storytelling with Real People on Camera

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Focal Press/Routledge has just published my new book on a subject near and dear to me: working with non-actors on camera. As an impact filmmaker mainly for nonprofits, my work largely revolves around “real people” stories. When Focal approached me about writing the book, my first thought (other than how to fit it into my crazy producing and family life schedule) was what would be truly useful for working directors and producers? How could I frame the issues, the challenges, and the solutions in a handy, brief text? Here’s a little trailer I produced to give an inside look at what’s covered in this resource. I greatly appreciate your passing this along to anyone you know who tells video stories with non-professionals on camera!

To buy the book at a 20% discount, use code FLR40 at checkout here.

3 Ways to Minimize Budget Impact of Using Real People on Video

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AmyDirectsTalentSo-called “real people” can add power to a video story. For testimonials, someone who actually uses the product can be compelling. If the story focuses on a charity, someone who has lived the day-to-day impact can help raise funds more effectively than an on-camera professional host. A person who works in an organization might be the very best at explaining a new process or tool.

But here’s the catch.

Using real people as opposed to actors affects the bottom line costs of your video, in both production and post. Often executive producers focus on the cost-savings of not having to hire actors–no actor fees, no casting fees, no pension and welfare payments (for union actors). However, pro’s bring their ability to hit their marks every time, to become characters convincingly, and to deliver a particular line the same way in the wide shot, the closeup and the shot that gets done after a lunch break.

So if you are using real people, you need to focus on 3 areas to minimize the budget negatives:

  1. Casting. While you may use an informal process, you’ll still need to “cast” people to be sure they can work with you, they have an interesting story, and to build a relationship prior to the day of taping. While actors can step onto a set filled with strangers and go, most regular folks can’t. Always avoid using someone solely on the recommendation on another person. If you will be the day-of-production interviewer, producer or director, you’ll need to talk to them yourself to be sure you have a good rapport.
  2. Scheduling. Build extra time into your shoot schedule. Not just for each angle or shot, but also breaks for your “talent.” Unlike pro’s, who can muscle through a long day, most regular folks need some time out of the lights. Plus they will likely need to make calls, check on the kids being picked up from soccer, etc. I’m always surprised how often I’ve got someone telling me they’ve “blocked out” the whole day for our shoot, and then when we arrive, they’ve actually got several hours of phone calls, errands or other work scheduled. No one outside of production understands that what we do is a really focused, full day or more type of job.
  3. Post Workflow. Your post-production workflow will also need to be adjusted. If you are conducting interviews, be sure you get transcripts made (from mp3 or wav files of the interviews) so that you can make a preliminary set of selects and then choose from those for your final edits.  This will save massive amounts of time slogging through footage to find soundbites.  If you are creating a re-enactment or a direct-to-camera video, you’ll need excellent field notes via Adobe Live Logger, Google docs, Lumberjack, etc. that allows you to correct for the usual mistakes and changed dialogue or non-matching action that commonly occur when  using non-actors. Again, this will save massive amounts of time and frustration during editing.

I’ve built some handy templates and other prep, shoot and post resources into my new book The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera. Use code FLR40 at checkout for 20% off (not available on Amazon). Let me know any other tools you think I should add here on the website.

Video: Direct-to-Camera with “Real People”

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AmydirectsIt happens more often than we’d all like to admit that inexperienced speakers are selected to deliver important information directly to the camera. Whether they are the head of a department, the leader of an initiative, an enthusiastic volunteer, or the child of the executive producer, this person might not be all that comfortable with a teleprompter, or might not work with cameras and crews every day the way professionals do. That doesn’t mean you can’t direct a confident delivery.  But your approach will need to differ from how you’d work with an actor or an experienced on-camera speaker.

I Need to Direct My Boss on Camera, Now What?!

One strategy for encouraging a natural delivery from your speaker is to do a quick Q&A with them off-camera first. I often stand farther away than is truly necessary, and lean forward. This is to encourage a slightly louder speaking voice from the talent. It forces us both to connect on purpose, not simply by default.  It’s surprising how often this Q&A approach works quite nicely, and feels natural.

Another strategy is to suggest in advance of your shoot day that the “host” practices a bit by recording themselves with their phone. Even though I have spoken before rooms with hundreds of people, before I taped my first Lynda.com course, I did the same thing. Speaking to a lens is vastly different than talking to people who react in real time. The first thing that struck me about my pre-recording was I didn’t smile enough. Even thinking about smiling helps the delivery seem more natural and congenial.

What About a Teleprompter?

Most folks aren’t aware of how much skill goes into reading from a teleprompter. Some people also do better with bullet points, rather than full copy. If you intend to use a prompter, you will need to add 30 minutes to your recording time for several rehearsals, to let the person get used to reading the words naturally. Most people trip up on one major issue: that the prompter follows them, not the other way around. They will get progressively slower as they read, waiting for the prompter to “catch up” when the prompter is actually following their speed. You’ll also need to add some big gaps to force people to slow down their read.

How to Work with Kids for Direct-to-Camera Videos

Kids are naturals. Don’t over-coach them. Do give them examples in advance from kids’ shows they like to watch.   Remember that audition pre-interview? Ask a few questions about shows they like, so you can reference them just before and during the shoot. Encourage kids to practice with their i-things at home. But the best thing you can do with kids is be a supportive cheerleader.  Use the same tools for keeping parents out of sightlines that you use with other gatekeepers: give them their own monitor, preferably out of the room. But check in periodically to be sure they’re happy.  Because a happy parent will be a great ally for you as you create a positive experience with your production team

This blog post is excerpted from my new book The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera (Focal Press/Routledge). Purchase the book here Buy Real People on Camera. Or if you are coming to #NAB16 please stop by my Post|Production World session on getting the best with real people on camera – info Amy at NABShow on Real People.