Creating a relaxing atmosphere for non-professional talents
Could you share some techniques you use to make a talent feel comfortable in front of the camera with a full crew?
What tips would you give to your crew, and what approach would you use as a director to make the talent feel at ease?
San Francisco - Bay Area
Certainly meet with the person some time before the actual shoot - maybe even rehearse the lines without a camera. Anyone who is new to the experience will be wowed by the lights and all the people/gear on the set. People need to know what to expect.
Assuming you are going into this cold, you might do a run-through without lights or cameras on, with room lights and fewer people in the room. People often freeze up when they are asked to do what they normally do but in a room full of people and camera equipment.
Then maybe try one with the camera rolling but fewer crew, and even offer to play it back for the talent.
I have been asked to stand in front of the camera and do a take myself.
As for the crew, they should know enough to not laugh or make comments about the performance if it is rough. You should also reserve a few self-deprecating comments should you need them - you can make someone feel less nervous if you break the tension by diverting attention from the talent.
Step one: turn off the tally lights. Simplest but best thing.
Step two: roll tape right away but don't say you have done it, pretend all is just a practice. Pretend to be puttering off to the side, fussing with something, and say"let's practice this a little bit until they are ready".
Here is a speech I often tell the talent, and I mean it, every time:
"Don't get intimidated about being seen by many people. TV is not really a mass-medium... one person being seen by thousands of people at once. It is more like, one person, being seen by one person, many times over. If you work on just talking to that one person, everything else works out fine. Make that one person someone you know already, someone that wants your help to learn this information that you already know. So if you reach that one person, you've reached everyone.
Second, don't worry that you are not an actor. This isn't acting. You are an expert on this topic; you know everything we want to know on the subject, and you can rely on the fact I'm getting paid to make people look GOOD, not bad. We're only going over material you know so well, you can do it in your sleep. All I'm going to help you with here is to smooth it and streamline it, give it a good pace and flow. We definitely will be editing this. I'm not going to try to trip you up with gotcha-type questions, this is not a test. We're going to throw all the bad takes away, and when you're done, and I'm done polishing your work, you are going to be very happy with how it turned out. Most of our work comes from happy repeat customers, and they wouldn't come back if we didn't make them look good, right?" (smile).
That's my canned speech to them and though it is canned, it comes from the heart. When they flub and start to fret that it is bad, I tell them: "I've seen the worst, and you are not it, you are no-where NEAR the worst. Worst ever was over a hundred takes and went thru three different directors, me being the lucky final one. And even then, I made it work, eventually. Trust me: I'm a good editor, I can fix it! How good? I worked on the Zapruder film, and now everyone thinks it was just that one guy..."
(I save the Zapruder joke for a select few folks)
I'll add to Mark's "canned speech".
I will typically start the interview, VO, scene etc. and then very quickly call cut, blaming it on something technical. This "false start" let's the talent know that it's OK to stop and start over. It's OK to try again. It's OK to mess up. The relaxation after this "restart" goes a long way towards making "non-professional talent" feel more comfortable with the process.
Good luck. (You'll need it!)
If it's something other than an interview, and the talent is not a trained actor, I would have them "do" something rather than "be" something.
Example: A while ago, I was doing a scene in a doctors' lounge in a hospital, and we were illustrating that residents were as welcome as doctors. So we had a group come in and begin interacting.
Rather than have everyone just walk in and sit down, I told a couple of them to walk through, over to a far corner, out of frame, count to thirty, and come back in, then sit down. They did it, and it worked well on camera.
Asking non-pros to do something instead of be something works well.
[Alan Lloyd] "...asking non-pros to do something instead of be something works well."
Yep that does work... giving talent "business" to do takes their mind off having to perform.
I call this "Law & Order" directing... you know, where the L&O detectives are interviewing someone, and the suspect or witness is all too happy to answer their questions... yet can't be bothered to stop washing dishes or walking the dog or building a birdhouse or unloading a truck for two minutes during the conversation.
"Hey, I know I might be going up the river for murder... but these boxes aren't going to unload themselves, ya know!"
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
I had some raw footage once and the non-talent was just having a heck of a time doing a pretty simple line. the director asked her to say a line that was laden with "F" bombs, which she did with a few chuckles. That seemed to truly calm her nerves and they got a few good takes right after that. I couldn't do it but it seemed to work.
They ended up hiring new talent to pull off the lines in the end, but it was interesting to see the result.
Tilt Media Inc.
Video Production and Post
The only thing I would add is that the worst enemy of professional or nonprofessional talent is self-consciousness and one of the best ways to get them back into "the moment" and away from the demon of self-monitoring and self-criticism is to ask them to listen; ask them to really listen to another person they are in dialogue with. Now if they're on their own maybe its as simple as turning the process into a conversation with you. Start with mundane stuff, such as a discussion of last night's football or basketball game or a recent episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" anything that gets them focused on another person and on listening. Waste some time and start rolling early before you get to the stuff you really need.
The more you can change the process into a conversation between two people the more engaged and real they are going to be. Sometimes I'm perplexed when people get into their "admin speak" mode where they sound detached and on autopilot - I sometimes have to remind them to "dumb it" down or give them some idea that we'll only need twenty or thirty second bites. Some academics can be tediously boring and wooden and they'll just do it their way no matter what you suggest.
Why is it some of my best interviews are with the simple salt of the earth folks who are not weighing every phrase and always measuring every syllable to be politically correct? From experience there are some people who are just incredibly dull on camera and lapse into a rigid parody of themselves on camera. Cut your losses and move on. If someone is getting worse after the tenth take they'll be even more worse on take 22.
Don't be afraid to interrupt if a person is going off in the wrong direction. I think showing them a replay of what is not working is not as good an idea as showing them a clip where they are good. Although, I'm not sure that showing them anything in the process is the best.
Heap loads of praise. If they are appallingly bad tell them that the camera loves them... their eyes are beautiful. What they said about "torque settings on PCI replaced router valves" was valuable, but what we need is more "cowbell." Make them laugh over a mistake somebody else made. Give them the impression they are doing a good job and somehow they'll start to get better. Let them assume they have more talent then you'd expected. Don't be blatantly disingenuous but find some aspect of their performance, their commentary or look that you can praise. Belittle yourself or blame the sound guy for flubs but make the talent feel good about themselves. (buy the sound guy a beer at the end of shoot and apologize)
The less they are aware that you are shooting sometimes the better it is. They should feel like they're conversing at a cocktail party with a drink enjoying themselves. Sometimes asking them to picture in their mind's eye this situation and the person they're talking to helps them get into the zone.
Another trick, I used recently and learned from Judith Weston is opposites. If the person is performing in the wrong direction emotionally have them exaggerate it even more to the point of absurdity. It resets them emotionally. Now, when you tell them to do it the "right way" they land closer to what is authentic for them and often closer to what you as a director want.
If the person is nervous and giving you a sourpuss face, you can try using the line "Try not to smile so much" followed by your own smile - that will either get a laugh 90% of the time, which naturally puts people at ease, or 10% of people will take you seriously and never smile!
Pretending that the camera isn't rolling is a good way to get people to rehearse. Also see if you can turn off the red light on top of the camera. Full size ENG cameras usually have a switch - smaller cameras may have a menu option to turn off the tally light.
If you have a monitor, make sure the talent cannot see this.
[jim brodie] "Why is it some of my best interviews are with the simple salt of the earth folks who are not weighing every phrase and always measuring every syllable to be politically correct?"
Had that happen with one of the very first interviews I shot as an independent. The producer/client was conducting "retail partner" interviews and the poor dude we were interviewing was absolutely terrified. At every question, he looked at his stack of index cards for something close to what was asked, then parroted it back in a halting, looking-down-at-the-floor manner. We got through it, somehow, and on the way down in the elevator, my client looked at us and said he didn't think there was anything he could use, but that it had nothing to do with us - it was that absolutely petrified interview subject. And he tried, very hard, to put the guy at ease.
Some people are just not meant to be on camera.
In fairness, having been on the other side of it only rarely, it feels like the least natural thing in the world to me. So I do sympathize.