One of the most difficult, important and rewarding things a director has to do is find, recruit and work with talent.
The people you use in your productions will greatly affect the production's success. We have all heard or read how important lighting, shooting and editing are to a production. Yet it is the talent in front of the camera or doing the voice over that the audience will react to most strongly. Why do you think we have "stars?" In this column we will discuss various ways to find and recruit talent and some of the pitfalls you should try to avoid.
The type of talent and where you get them will depend on the size of your project and budget; the type of talent you need; the demands you are going to place on your talent in terms of acting ability, memorization of lines and other artistic needs; and of course, your budget.
There are five major pools of talent from which you can choose. These include family and friends; members of the organization for which you are doing the project; professionals in the fields you are portraying; theatre and media students from the local high school or college and local theatre groups; and of course professional actors, and voice talent.
The cheapest and most convenient (but not necessarily the easiest group to work with) are your friends and relatives. There is a distinct glamour associated with working in front of the camera and "being on TV!" However, unless your friends or relatives are also very talented and can take direction, you should avoid this talent pool. After working for ten solid hours and seeing the glitz and glamour slide away as you roll through take after take, your friends and relatives will begin seeing you—not as the good guy or gal they all know and love, but the demanding director that insists on doing things right. If the project goes well, they will love you and support you and you will feel great. However, if things don't go well, and they are not performing to the level you need, it is harder to provide criticism that won't be taken personally and you will suddenly find yourself knocked off the director's chair and put soundly back in the friend or relative seat where you have little authority and very little say in what they do. It's hard to fire your Uncle Larry or Aunt Betty!
Hiring good voice talent for your narrations is just as important as hiring on-camera talent. Not only must your talent have a great voice, they must also be able to read, take direction and project the feel and tone of your project. The voices you use can make or break your production, so be very selective and don't choose Aunt Mary because she sounds nice and bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie.
Using members of the organization for which you are producing your project can actually be quite rewarding and successful. It is also very easy on the checkbook. If you are very careful with your talent selection and establish from the beginning that everyone is working towards the goal of creating a wonderful piece for the organization, this can work.
When working with the company CEO or organization's president as your on-air talent, try to establish from the beginning that you realize the importance of their position and the difficult task they are performing as spokesperson for your project. However, very carefully help them realize that you are the media expert and need to give them direction and occasionally criticism. Remember, working in front of the camera can be very intimidating even for the most powerful people you know. Make them comfortable and walk them through the process, giving encouragement and praise in small but sincere doses and keeping the critical comments as positive as possible.
If you need a group of people from the organization to work on camera, hold auditions. Make sure the people that choose to participate want to be there. If they are corralled into doing the work in front of the camera, it will come through in their body language and could create problems in production. Work with the volunteers to let them know exactly what you expect. Break up the work into little chunks that they can handle and provide ample praise, positive criticism and steady direction. Of course, it also helps to have a bit of food around as a bit of incentive.
There is a vast pool of willing and talented people just waiting for your call to act in your production. Community theatre groups, high school and college theatre and media students are all often willing to work on your project for little more than a piece of pizza or two, a copy of the finished product and gas money. Call your local school and community theatre groups and find out if they have a callboard where you can place your call sheet. Make sure the actors know the type of program or story you are casting, exactly the types of roles you are hoping to cast and the amount of time you will need them. Don't be afraid to be very specific in the types of roles you are casting. If you need an elderly woman in her 80s, list that. You will be surprised by the number of older women there are in community theatre and college theatre that would be willing to add a little make-up to become even older. It is a lot better than trying to create an 80- year-old woman with a 20-year-old.
When working with theatre students, be very aware that most of them are used to proscenium acting, where the audience can be quite far away and their voice and gestures must be bigger to enable all of the audience to see and hear them. They will find the closeness of the camera a bit intimidating and will greatly overact when they begin. Play back their performance and explain to them the intimacy of the video screen. They will quickly learn that less is more and you will get a fine performance.
A great place to find voice talent is at your local community or college radio station. Find a voice that fits the style of the production you are doing and ask them if they would be willing to do the voice over for credit or a small fee. Even if you are doing a very low budget piece, you'll be surprised by the number of quality people who are willing to help out.
By the very nature of their name, professional talent means they are paid for their work. In the United States there are two professional guilds or unions that actors, dancers, singers, stunt people and voice talent belong to: The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and The American Federation of Television and Radio Performers (AFTRA). If you have a large budget, you may want to or may have to hire professional talent. These guilds have very specific criteria that you must follow when hiring one of their members. Salary, benefits, working environment, time constraints and hiring requirements are just a few of the areas that you have to be aware of when working with professionals.
If you have a small budget or are a registered college student, you may be able to work with SAG members under their new Short Film Agreement, the new Ultra-Low Budget Agreement or the Modified Low Budget agreement. Consult their Web page at www.sagindie.com for more details.
Using SAG or AFTRA members usually means you are working with professionals who have great experience working in front of the camera. However, be choosy. There are even union members who have worked enough to earn their membership rights but don't even have as much experience as the local theatre members. Make sure you are getting what you paid for.
Casting can be a very tiring and difficult process. If you go in prepared with an idea of what you want, it will make life easier. Know when to compromise, when to cast against type and when to rely totally on typecasting. If you can get a good performance on tape, the process will be well worth it.
Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production at the university level.
This article was originally published in the August 2006 issue of Videomaker Magazine. For more info on video production, visit their site or return to the Video Toolbox.