What’s the one factor that usually separates the video novices from the burgeoning pros?
When you tackle the trials and tribulations of working with real live talent, you know you’ve become a pro.
For the sake of this article and for most videomakers’ purposes, we will define talent as any purposeful presence either on screen or off, of a person explaining, demonstrating, hosting, narrating or otherwise acting in your video.
Using talent is the logical next step to improving your video productions. Before you even consider coaching and directing these people-a subject worthy of volumes-you must first decide what type of talent you need for each specific project, and more importantly, how and where to find this talent.
Who’s On First
Determining the type of talent needed for your video project depends on four factors: the script, the target audience, the kind of talent you need and the budget.
Let’s say the Smalltown chamber of commerce hires you to produce a video to attract corporations to the new industrial park on the edge of town. The tape must celebrate the beauty, convenience and friendliness of Smalltown, convincing corporate viewers that this area would be a great place to locate their next manufacturing or warehousing facility.
After consulting with your clients, you’re ready to begin your search for the perfect Smalitown talent. The first step: the script.
The script tells you that you’ll need both on- and off- screen talent. On-screen talent is talent that appears in front of the camera; off-screen talent is heard rather than seen, as in the case of voice-over talent.
For your Smalltown tape, you’ll require several types of on-screen talent, the most important being the host. This person will lead the viewers on a walking tour of Smalltown, pointing out city highlights and hot spots along the way.
The script describes the walking tour in detail, naming several key stops on the tour. Each stop demands more talent.
For instance, about two minutes into the production, the host makes a stop at the city park, where several Smalltown families picnic and play in the sun.
These families frolicking in the background primarily provide atmosphere; such atmosphere players are known as extras.
You’ll also need extras for other segments: a stop at the high school, views of the lunch crowd in the downtown food court, some workout footage at a gym complex and several scenes inside a factory at the industrial park.
Upon closer examination of the scenes involving the high school and the factory, you discover that you must shoot interviews at both locations. At Smalltown High, the host discusses the local educational environment with teachers who grew up in the community, went away to college and then returned home to teach.
At the facotry, the company’s vice president tells the host why he likes conducting business in the area; the host also interviews a human resource manager and a scientist.
On-screen talent requirements noted, it’s time to go back to the script and determine your off-screen talent needs. The tape begins with a voice-over introducing the program. This same voice-over closes the tape, encouraging viewers to remember Smalltown when they decide to relocate. So you know you’ll need off-screen talent for these voice-overs.
Note: there are many ways to use voice-overs when putting together your video.
For example, try employing voice-over comments from local citizens about the various settings in the video-the park, gym, restaurant, theater to enliven segues between segments shot at these locations.
The Right Stuff
You know what you need, now you need to find the right talent.
For our Smalltown video example, we need at least four types of on- screen talent and two types of off screen talent. How professional that talent must be depends largely on the video’s target audience. In this case, the target audience is mostly sophisticated business people; the choice of talent must reflect this fact.
Most important will be the host of the show. The person should not only be physically attractive, but charming as well. He or she must look and sound good, but does not need to know much about Smalltown. Many such on-screen hosts are actors; their real talent lies in their ability to come across as sincere advocates of Smalltown-even if they just visited the town for the first time the day before.
When searching for a host for the video, our first question inevitably concerns gender. Again, your target market is the key here. Sexism aside, experience tells true that when the target audience will be primarily male, my best bet is a female host.
Men are more likely to pay attention to an attractive female host than they are a male one. While this gender rule may not hold true for every production, it will for most.
To be honest, I’m not sure whether the inverse is true-this is, hire a male for a female audience. If I’d have to venture a guess, I’d say no (but if you can find a Mel Gibson look alike to host a show for a female audience, go for it).
In addition to the host, the Smalltown video also requires other on-screen talking talent. Take the teacher segment, for example. While there are three teachers at Smalltown High that grew up in the area, you really only need one for the spot in the tape. This non-professional talent should nonetheless come across as enthusiastic and sincere. Appealing looks and verbal dexterity wouldn’t hurt either. After interviewing the trio, you find that all three are physically attractive, energetic and convincing; yet one possesses a smooth speech pattern that will make that teacher sound much better on tape than the others. Let this teacher speak for the group. The other two educators become your atmosphere players.
The final on-screen talking talent will appear in the interviews at the factory. Again, you’ll look for attractive physical appearance and a certain presence, but here you’ll also look for knowledge. In fact, what these people know about doing business in Smalltown is more important than how smoothly they deliver that info on camera.
The interview with the company’s vice president shouldn’t be a problem; most people in such a position present themselves in a professional manner and have some experience in public speaking.
Which vice president you choose for this interview may very well depend more on that individual’s power within the organization than anything else. It could definitely be an ego thing.
The same holds true for the human resource manager. Hiring and firing employees and dealing with people’s problems on a daily basis often makes these executives ideal interview candidates. They’ll serve not only as a competent spokespeople for the company, they’ll prove knowledgeable as well.
The scientist’s interview is where knowledge ultimately wins out over appearance. There may be several “white coats” in the factory willing and able to do the interviews, yet only one knows the detailed ins and outs of the operation. No Carl Sagan maybe, but thoroughly familiar with what makes the factory successful and how the Smalltown area contributes to that success.
The rule of thumb: when you need an expert opinion, try to find an expert.
The one pitfall associated with experts is the target audience’s inability to understand what they are talking about. If the expert interview proves too high-tech for your target audience, try using just a quick comment or two from the scientist, followed by a more layman-like approach to the subject, perhaps told by one of the laboratory aides.
Always keep the viewers’ main interests in mind when selecting talent-even when those interests seemingly conflict with the purposes of the script. Often times this means reworking the script, which may have been written without the target audience clearly in mind.
Now that you’ve defined the on-camera speaking talent you need, turn your attention to the atmosphere players. The Smalltown script requires stops at a park, luncheon area, school, gym and factory. You’ll want extras on each of these location shoots, to lend a busy, vibrant air to the city.
Most often, you’re just looking for bodies; personality and verbal skills are not prerequisites for extras. However, your extras must be able to act naturally in the shooting environment. At the gym, for example, have the extras dress in appropriate workout clothing, and use the equipment and facilities in the proper manner. When taping at the school and the factory, make sure the extras, students, employees and staff all carry out their duties in the usual way.
You don’t want extras who stand out; you want extras who blend in with the scene.
Voices in the Dark
Off-camera talent is as important as on-camera talent. The Smalltown script begins with a voice-over announcer welcoming viewers to the program and ends with a thank you to viewers for their time.
As producer of this video, you must choose how to approach this talent need:
1) The on-screen host can also serve as the “shapeless” voice that opens and closes the show; or
2) You can engage the services of a narrator or voice-over artist for the two quick pieces.
If you follow the latter route, you must consult the Smalltown chamber to find out what type of “feel” they’re looking for.
Do they want an ominous, deep “Shadow” type male voice, one that command attention and respect? Or do they prefer a more “folksy” tone, where the voice-over artist sounds more like a good friend than an announcer?
Sometimes the script calls for a “celebrity” voice-real or impersonated-to lead the video. It all depends on the script and the mood your clients want you to set.
The final talent requirements are the “comment voices” heard during the video only portion of the tape. For the Smalltown video, these people can and should be anyone from the community who can tell you why Smalltown is a good place to live. Not many requirements here, just an understandable voice and clarity of thought.
By now you should have a pretty good idea of how much talent you need and what that talent must do for you. Now, ask yourself if you can afford the talent you want.
This consideration will depend on your budget-or it might determine the budget.
For example: the Smalltown video has a $10,000 talent budget. Since the chamber will send it to prospective corporations looking to relocate and air it statewide on several VHF stations, you know immediately yon must hire broadcast-level talent for the host and voice-overs. This will ensure a professional look and sound for the finished product. If, however, the Smalltown chamber asks you to keep costs under five hnndred bucks, you’ll have to recruit a different level of talent for the video.
Finding the Bodies
You know what you need, now it’s time to find out how to get it.
The process of recruiting talent for a video production take many forms, but the easiest and most successful is the audition.
An open audition-or cattle call-allows anyone interested in obtaining a part in a project to come to a specified meeting to try out for the role. There are no appointments-first come, first auditioned. You’ve probably seen press photos of such events, with lines of prospective talent lined up (thus the cattle call lingo) for a shot at the big time.
There are many advantages to such a recruiting process. For one, you may choose your talent from among a dizzying number of applicants. You won’t feel as though you chose your lead from one or two candidates who happened to hear about the video and thought it might be a good time.
Usually hundreds of qualified people show up for such events. Note: there are a lot of aspiring actors out there, as you’ll soon find out if you use this method.
Another plus: while you may be screening only talent for your lead, often you’ll find many other actors perfect for secondary parts.
One last advantage to the open audition: you generate incredible exposure for your project. With the local talent community buzzing about your video, word will spread-with any luck, your project will soon the talk of the town.
To guarantee a good turnout. spend some money and time on promotion. A relatively inexpensive first step is to create a flyer advertising the video, the audition and the roles you’re looking to cast.
This flyer should give brief character descriptions of the parts needed, specifying particular traits and / or talents. In the Smalltown example, when searching for gym extras you might stress your interest in athletic types with experience working out in the facility.
Finish the flyer-complete withdate, time and location of the audition-and then hit the copy center and the post office. Mail flyers to all of the model and talent agencies in your area. These businesses
exist to place people in jobs like the one you’re advertising, so they are a natural first contact.
Next, target all the college and high school drama departments. Sure, most of these people won’t boast the professional edge of those from a talent agency, but in truth many college and school aged actors are actually pretty good-not to mention eager and cooperative.
Also contact the community theaters in your region. Again, these people may not have the polish of the professionals, but they too can surprise you with their talent. Post a generous amount of flyers around campuses, halls and theaters; this way, you can be certain that anyone with an interest in such a job hears about the opportunity.
Hang your flyers wherever people congregate or must stand in line-grocery stores, gas stations, bathrooms and movie theaters. The more people who know about the audition, the better.
Once you’ve milked this free advertising method for all it’s wonh, take out an ad or two in the classified section of your local entertainment weekly. List the date, time and location of the try-outs (remember you’re paying by the word); include a phone number for more info.
Send press releases to the entertainment editors of newspapers in the area; this may laud you a free editorial listing. The press release may also interest local TV news and talk programs broadcast.
At the very least, most cable networks have a community “bulletin board” that lists such happenings in the area. Be sure to place the audition info there.
A money-saving tip: many campuses offer audition rooms free of charge to local companies. They provide this service to facilitate their students’ entry into the professional world. Just call up the nearest campus and inquire. If the campuses can’t do it, possibly your own town has a meeting room that will suit your needs. Again, all it takes is a phone call. If you must, rent a conference room in a well-known motel or hotel central to your area.
Once the word is out and the day has come, there are several things you should do to keep the auditions running smoothly.
Clearly mark the site with directions to the audition room. You don’t want to spend your whole day fielding calls to direct people to the audition.
2) Have a greeter pass out scripts and registration forms to the applicants as they arrive. Be sure to have an ample amount of both on hand-running out mid-audition will not only cause a tremendous hassle, but it will also make you and the production appear totally unprofessional.
3) Consider videotaping the day’s auditions. A visual record of the proceedings comes in handy later if you find yourself choosing between two or more great candidates for a role.
Compensation is the one aspect of recruiting talent that everyone will want to know about-and they usually want to know about it before the audition. If you have a big budget and are therefore auditioning professionals, you all know the fees up front. But if you’re trying to save money, negotiate. If they really like the project or haven’t worked in a while, they might jump at your offer.
You may be able to convince nonprofessionals to work for a copy of the tape, the experience (better known as free labor), a piece of the action if the video is for profit or even just some good food at day’s end.
There are a hundred ways to structure talent compensation; it all depends on the project, the budget and how creative you are.
Don’t think of recruiting talent as grabbing Crazy Uncle Joe to play the lead in your next feature just because he’s free and available. There’s always someone better; all it takes is some time and effort to locate that someone.
Proper casting can mean the dif ference between a good video and a great video. So make that leap from amateur to pro by using the best talent in your own Smalltown.
Mark Bosko, a Videomaker contributing editor, is vice president of marketing for a commercial production business.