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Working with Non-Actor Actors

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Sean KendallWorking with Non-Actor Actors
by on May 15, 2009 at 7:40:30 pm

I've been told many times that you should not read a line for talent, unless it's a child, because most actors and actresses resent this it. But what about "non-actors", such as an employee of the business for which you're making a marketing video or a volunteer, etc?

Have any of you run into this? Even though I have tried to refrain from line-reading even for the people I mentioned above, I have found that it helps if someone just isn't getting where to put some emphasis or how to make a line sound natural instead of read.

Just wanted to hear your thoughts.

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Mark SuszkoRe: Working with Non-Actor Actors
by on May 15, 2009 at 9:52:58 pm

For non-actors, heck yes, give line readings if they just can't seem to get it the way you need it to be. They are looking to you hard for direction and approval. Do it with confidence and also a lot of patience and warmth, like you are on their side. Defuse it like this:

"I don't really know how to communicate this very well, so I want to give a direct example with this one line of the inflection we need.... it goes UP like this because the message behind the words is we're incredulous, like, .... what the HECK!?!? Not so much like anger but like we're stumped by how stupid the other guy is. Does that make sense, what I'm asking for? Going up like that, instead of even toned. Can you try a couple different versions of it with that in mind, please?"

Non-pro actors tend to over-rehearse and memorize their delivery along with the lines, and they get into a sing-song or monotone rut; you have to break that up if you want it to seem realistic. Assuming the dialog was realistic in the first place, it isn't always. A little ad-lib here and there can help.

With real trained actors, yeah, it's very bad juju to give them line readings unless it's for something highly technical they have never seen before, maybe like the singsong jargon of an air traffic controller. I get very far just saying "can you play it a little bigger (or smaller)." "Can you give it some more air, a few more beats? We can stretch this moment out a bit and let you play with how fast the character starts to recognize the idea." Or "we can give you some more business to do with these props, what would you like to try?". I also may say something about just how much they can walk over each other's lines, more or less realistic.

For blocking, I tell them where the key starting and stopping points are in terms of their camera, but the rest I tend to leave up to them, how they get there. When they do something I like, I immediately feed back that I like that, and they then keep that consistent.

Or alternately, I don't give the line reading but I give a phrase that conveys the emotional subtext of the script. Like if the line is like a paragraph long, I may say to them: "this paragraph for me boils down to: "you SHMUCK! I KNOW you're the guilty one!" even if there is nothing like that line in the script And I let them take it from there and put their own spin on it. (Sometimes when I write scripts I put stuff like that in parens, in italics, to help convey the flavor if it might be in doubt)

The stuff about pro actors reminds me that budgeting for real actors SAVES money. Saves time in lost takes and bad quality that has to be edited-around or replaced later. When the gear costs a lot and you're paying by the hour, a pro can get it done in fewer takes with better quality, they pay for themselves in time saved.

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Sean KendallRe: Working with Non-Actor Actors
by on May 19, 2009 at 12:36:49 pm

Thanks for the advice, Mark. I'll try to utilize some of those tips on our next shoot.

Thanks Again,

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John MorleyRe: Working with Non-Actor Actors
by on May 22, 2009 at 6:44:39 pm

Dear Shaun,

Although Mark has already provided good advice on how to do this, my advice is that, if you need them to play a role they do not do in real life, don't do it at all, which is pretty much what Mark is getting at in his concluding paragraph: it's false economy to not hire professionals.

The only effective way to use amateurs is to have them do what they normally do the way they normally do it, then work with what you get. Asking them to read a script virtually ensures a wooden performance and many retakes. For example, real salespeople who may be able to model good selling skills would probably not be able to exchange scripted banter between each other.

Another problem with using real people is that, although they may be good at what they do, they may not necessarily do it exactly the way management would now like new employees to learn. So you’re backed into asking non-professional talent to break old habits and learn new tricks, while under the pressure of being in front of a camera. It’s usually easier to just have professional talent read the approved words exactly as management wants it done.

Using dramatizations does not preclude incorporating real people into the show, thereby improving credibility. Interviews with real people could be intercut with dramatizations using professional talent. Or segments of real salespeople going through role-plays could be intercut with dramatizations to demonstrate variations on specific sales techniques.

Group discussion segments could show salespeople discussing their opinions. Every major conclusion they reach could then become a setup for a dramatization. Or the dramatizations could be intercut with segments in which the real salespeople comment on the sales technique just demonstrated, specifically commenting on the credibility of the dramatization the audience has just seen.

John Morley

Author of Scriptwriting for High-Impact Videos

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Kai CheongRe: Working with Non-Actor Actors
by on May 30, 2009 at 5:04:20 pm

In many cases, when the client really doesn't have any budget for casting & talents, we have to use their own staff for re-enactments and dramatization. I'd say it's something fairly common that we deal with.

In such situations, I find that the biggest skill the director needs is the ability to make these non-actors feel comfortable and able to trust you. It starts even before the camera rolls. Some light banter, accommodating the actor with your lights/camera instead of the other way round etc. You will need to be more specific about what you want out of the non-actor, sometimes breaking down a shot or emotion.

If it's not critical that the script is followed down to the last line, we usually keep reminding the talent to feel free to use their own words while retaining they key phrases/idea. Depending on the non-actor, we may or may not line-read for them - for there's always the risk that they would end up trying to mimic your reading - which will turn out unnatural as well.

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