Stealth Directing: Getting the Most out of Real People

It must have been Take 30, but we weren’t quite sure because we were no longer using a slate, nor did we stop tape in between takes, for fear of losing the little momentum we had gained. The talent was a beautiful young woman who had volunteered for the part. She was well-cast by the bank’s producer. Her considerable knowledge of the subject matter meant that she had her lines down, but her lack of experience in front of the camera made this training video laborious to capture. Even worse: The experience was completely humiliating for her, the performance was indeed embarrassing and she would very likely never again volunteer for a shoot. It can be difficult to coax an agreeable performance out of an amateur, but it can be done.

Be Realistic

Professionals know that to deliver a compelling performance, the talent must be comfortable not only with the script, but also with being the center of attention, where lights, microphones, camera and production crew all hang on every move. This alone is a tall order for most people: Remembering lines is one thing, but putting it all together with eye lines (where the talent should direct their gaze), blocking (where the they should stand and move) and interacting with other players and props in a well-timed and natural way reminds us all why the really good actors deserve the big bucks. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s not easy to deliver a believable performance.

Using real people is a calculated risk. The successful director manages an exercise in stealth, regardless of the size and scope of the production environment. Most of the management techniques that typically apply to pros can be tossed out from the beginning. From pre-production coaching to the first rehearsal, all the way to the last shot, the director of amateur talent is most successful when being downright sneaky.

Tread Lightly

Standard techniques, such as on-camera rehearsals or calling for "places, lights, camera, action," just don’t work. The pressure while waiting on the set is generally too much for amateur talent to bear, so much so that, while the shot is prepared technically, the stealthy director can best use the time to ready the talent off of the set, preferably in an environment which is both familiar and relaxing.

Aside from any artistic or technical prowess, the director is equal parts coach, baby-sitter, mentor, friend, psychologist, boss and dentist (as some "teeth" can be extracted more painlessly than others). The director is also much like a valve, constantly bleeding off pressure while developing an acceptable flow. Finally and always, the director is also a good writer (able to adapt scripts in a heartbeat), editor (able to adapt to new sequences as they occur), and actor. You, as the director, must invisibly manage your own pressures sufficiently to give every attention to the fragile talent. Normalizing the talent’s pressures is the your primary task, for, without an acceptable performance, all of the rest is but a drill.

It’s crucial that you be so well-organized that your manner is relaxed and friendly, stress-free and even playful. Much of this has to do with doing your homework and providing ample time for the scene to be captured. Advanced preparation really pays off here, and a flexible production timetable which is able to cope with surprises, delays and unanticipated bits of serendipity is a must.

For most people, being in front of a camera is an exciting experience, complete with ego attachments, unfounded expectations, vain fantasies and delusions of grandeur. Given a little extra time, a clever director can use all of that energy to great advantage.


Call Talent Last

It’s best if the set is fully prepared before the talent ever arrives. Stagger your call times, call the talent in as late as possible, and, by all means, do not over-rehearse your talent. Repeat your technical run-throughs separately until they are consistently on the mark. This is where the sneaky part starts: With the talent arriving fresh and full of anticipation, the director should focus all attention on the talent, perhaps assigning a production assistant specifically for the talent if possible. The whole crew should be welcoming and relaxed. This first impression cannot be over-estimated. Setting an inclusive stage makes every difference, so always provide the time for the talent to be fully introduced to the crew and the environment.

Prep Off the Set

Next, get the talent off the set. Applying makeup, tending to hair and wardrobe, or even wiring a concealed mike may make the talent feel important, but it also ups the pressure. These tasks are all best accomplished off-set. It’s also a great time for the director to distract the talent by casually discussing the shot and how the talent will deliver their part.

Show Time!

With the crew in position, the tape cued and everyone at the ready, escort the talent to the fully-lighted set. As the director leads the talent through their blocking, perhaps even giving an example of how lines are to be delivered, the crew is on full alert, keenly watching for the roll cue which may be as subtle as a silent nod or a flick of the hand. With the talent slowly and carefully massaged into place, the director should casually call for a rehearsal; that’s often the cue to roll tape too. No tally lights, no calls for "Action!", no extra pressure.

If all goes well, you may have your shot finished before the talent even knows you’ve started. Recording "rehearsals" sometimes yields the freshest, least self-conscious delivery. Of course, many performances improve with a little work and encouragement from you, but even when conducting interviews, you’ll find that the best performances come from talent that is fully prepared in advance of ever reaching the set and is then gently coaxed through short segments with as little hoopla as possible.

After all, real people are often very talented, attractive and capable, if only the director and producer take the time to conceal the pressures of the process and prepare for what may be the performance of a lifetime.

Sidebar: Craft-Services Prep Pays Off

A thoughtfully catered table can offer needed liquid refreshment and nourishment. Find out your talent’s preferences ahead of time and provide meals which are appropriate for the time and length of the production day. The talent may be a strict vegan or allergic to the almond torte you specially prepared. You want to fuel the performance, while calming the performer, so have choices. Snacks of fresh fruit are always crowd pleasers. Carefully regulate the use of sugar and caffeine, and save the champagne for when the shot’s in the can. Whatever you do, give the talent plenty of water, but don’t let them use ice, as it may constrict the vocal chords.

Sidebar: It’s in the Eyes

Interview subjects are usually experts in their fields, but most experts aren’t performers, so it’s up to you to give the talent every encouragement. Choose your questions carefully. Don’t put your expert on the spot, and, if an answer is difficult, move along and come back to a rephrased version of the question later on. Your body language is very important: Attentive, upright posture and focused eye-contact, coupled with an open, pleasant smile and nods of encouragement, will all help your talent to feel relaxed and conversational. Have them tell their stories to you in their own words, and have the stealth camera crew there, almost invisibly capturing every nuance.

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