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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.

When we watch cSigning a Checkharacters on the screen, why do they make us laugh or cry? And why does one story make us want to support a charity or social cause? It turns out compelling human stories trigger a chemical response in our brains. Neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak has been studying the neurochemical oxytocin for years, and learned that humans have a chemical response similar to animals when we find another human trust-worthy: a spike in our oxytocin makes us feel connected to another human being. Even when watching the human on a screen, this response is triggered—what Dr. Zak calls the golden rule response: “if you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.”

Most recently, Dr. Zak conducted a study with several short films from St. Jude’s Hospital. When viewers connected with the characters in a short film about a father whose young son is dying of cancer, they had an increase in cortisol and oxytocin. That chemical boost ran parallel to feelings of empathy with the characters, which was increased when there was a strong “narrative arc”—a powerful dramatic rise and climax to the real people story line.

This doesn’t come as a big surprise to those of us working in nonprofit direct response and impact story-telling. We know that to get donors to give and communities to care, we have to tell powerful stories. We know that viewers must connect emotionally with our characters, just as they would with characters in a fiction film. We do this through not just their words and images, but through lighting techniques, music scoring and the pacing of our edits. But building empathy isn’t enough. We have to create a dramatic arc that builds to a climax. We have to create suspense around some kind of obstacle that the characters must overcome, whether it is in their past or present. And our viewers have to relate to that obstacle, even if it is not precisely the same for them.

This is why pre-interviewing potential characters is so essential for documentary-style stories based on real people. Before they go on camera, we need to understand what will be compelling, what will not be relatable, and what will build suspense for our viewers.  And now it turns out that what we’re also doing is triggering those chemical responses in the brain that will make our subjects and their story connect to the brains of our viewers.  In the case of nonprofit storytelling, we need those chemical responses to be strong, because we are usually looking for a response that extends to well after the video ends: we want a viewer to get involved in a cause, donate money, write to their elected officials, or change some previous behavior (stop smoking, lose weight, etc). So it turns out that all these years I thought I was an English major-turned-filmmaker, it turns out that I’m in the neuroscience business: triggering a brain response that helps people act on the golden rule, and do great things for others and the world.

Amy DeLouise is a director and producer who tells real people stories to help viewers connect with causes and take action.