"Talent" is anyone who appears on camera or whose voice is heard in your video. This includes the unseen narrator, the star, the supporting actors, the bit players with minor roles, and the extras or "atmosphere" – people strolling, sitting, dancing, eating, or rioting in the background of your shot. Hiring skilled, appealing talent is one of the fundamentals of a good production.

In feature films, a large group of professionals takes on the challenge of locating, auditioning, hiring, dressing, feeding, transporting, assisting, protecting, and paying the actors. And in feature films, they have the money for it. But, when low- or no-budget producers need to attract filet mignon talent to perform in a video with a spam budget, how can they duplicate the process? With planning, good humor, creativity, and the occasional coercion, theyre doing it every day.


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The Breakdown

The first step in lining up talent is a complete breakdown(script breakdown, that is, not nervous.) The breakdown lists all elements necessary for each scene, including requirements for special effects, vehicles, stunts, music, foley (sound effects,) special hair and make-up, wrangler or livestock requirements, and all talent. Most videomakers dont have elaborate requirements, but the breakdown will help determine how many bodies you need as well as other details that lend credibility. Breakdown forms and software are available commercially, but you can create your own.

Heres how. Use one sheet of paper for each scene in your video. Write the scene number and date youll shoot the scene at the top. List the following elements for each scene:

  • Cast MembersEach person who has one or more lines to speak.

  • Bits/Extras – Each person without lines who has some physical blocking or stage business to perform.

  • Atmosphere – People in the background to help create the required atmosphere.

  • Wardrobe – Any special clothing requirements for cast, bits, or atmosphere.

  • Props/Set Dressing – any item needed to lend credibility or further the action

For example, in scene 1, Brian is having a job interview in the busy cafeteria of a high-tech corporation. A cafeteria worker clears the trays from the table. The interviewer, John, is interrupted twice by employees who stop to say hello. Brian sits politely as John and his friends chat, but we can see his tension and depression mounting as he scans the room noticing all the people who, unlike him, are working.

In breaking this scene down, list the names of the characters and analyze what characteristics and skills will be required of each one.

The actors portraying Brian and John must be able to deliver lines convincingly, with good diction, pitch, and tonality. They should be believable in age and appearance for their roles. The actor portraying Brian must also be able to emote – when he looks around the room, his acting should be strong enough that his expression can reveal his inner thoughts to the viewers.

The scene also requires three bit players (the employees and the cafeteria worker) and a number of people for atmosphere. The bit players dont need to have much acting ability or experience, but should be able to perform their parts in a natural way. The actors hired for atmosphere need only behave believably, in this case eating at tables in the background. They shouldnt exaggerate or expand their roles with overly zealous motions or hugely animated "pretend conversation." Above all, they must avoid looking at the cameras and lead actors.

What is the demographic you wish to represent in your video? Your actors should reflect it in ethnic background, age, gender, dress, and image. Now is the time to make notes on whats required to realistically portray the diversity of the real world while avoiding clichés and stereotypes.Youve also identified props and wardrobe in your breakdown. Ideally, the talent can provide their own appropriate wardrobes and maybe even some simple props for the production. In this scene, it would be great if the talent could bring their own briefcases, cel phones, and notebook computers so you dont have to rent, beg, borrow, or steal them on production day.

Which leads to your next challenge: Where do you find these co-operative, talented people with time on their hands and (hopefully) props in their homes?

Looking for Mr./Ms. Goodstar

Professional casting is usually well worth it, but its a luxury for most low-budget productions. Fortunately, there are many other excellent options.

Real People. When I needed a nurse for a recent production, I hired a nurse. Not only was she photogenic and cooperative, she knew how to correctly take a pulse and support a patient, provided her own wardrobe and stethoscope, and gave me valuable advice on how the actor portraying a worker with a back injury should sit, move, and react.

Community Theater Actors. These dedicated actors are usually glad for on-camera experience, credit, and a copy of the tape for their portfolios. They often have amazing memorization skills and a terrific, team-oriented attitude. Public Speakers. Toastmasters or other speaking organizations are good sources for confident, enthusiastic talent. Many have superb diction and verbal skills and are good candidates for voice work. Pastors, professors, politicians, and other careers that involve lecturing also fall into this category.

Adult Education/College Drama Students. This is one of the best sources of inexpensive or free talent, since students are looking for experience.

Public Access Television. Post a notice on the bulletin board of your local public access television station. Many of these people work in public access for the fun of it and are happy to put their experience to work for you as on-camera narrators, anchors, or actors.

College Athletic Programs. If your video includes sports metaphors, enactments of sporting events, or you just need buff bodies, talk to the coach and offer to tape a game or practice session in compensation.

Open Audition Ad in Local Newspaper. Run an ad requesting actors. Even if the payment is only experience and a piece of tape, you should get a considerable turn out.

Clubs and Organizations. Look for clubs or organizations that tie in to your videos subject matter. What better place to find hot rodders than a car club? The Society for Creative Anachronisms does realistic enactments of medieval battles and tournaments. Historical societies can direct you to authentic Civil War re-enactments. Most of these avid hobbyists love to be on tape. Keep a file of these potential sources, and again, offer to tape an event in exchange for talent.

Family and Friends. Family and friends are often willing victims, strollers, and diners in the background of their producer-relatives video. But dont just think in terms of your own family and friends. In a recent video, I cast my lead actors wife and new baby as extras. He was delighted to have his family on the set and they all had a great time. Scan the credits of any major motion picture and I guarantee youll see bit parts played by people with the same last names as producers, directors, or stars.

Business Associates. In a legal video I co-produced, the woman who coordinated the use of the court house had to remain on the set. She was happy to play the role of the judge. Offering a business associate a role in a video can be a flattering gesture and may even lead to additional work.

Your Clients Contacts. If you are producing a video for a client, its good PR to use people he or she needs to shmooze whenever possible. Work together filling in names of extras and atmosphere when you do the breakdowns.

These are only some of the possibilities. People like seeing themselves on video and the potential talent pool is vast. You may come up with enough names simply be making a few phone calls. If not, once youve identified your best fishing spots, start advertising and prepare for an open audition or "cattle call."

Wrangling a Successful Cattle Call

A cattle call should take place a minimum of three weeks prior to production. Include your phone number in your ads so you have a general idea of how many people will show up. Space the appointments if possible and plan to have twice as many forms on hand than you think you need. Arrange to have a "green room" to serve as a holding area/waiting room and a quiet room nearby for the auditions. Youll need at least one assistant to help you register, audition, and interview all applicants.

As people arrive, have them fill out a registration form with their names, addresses, day and evening phone numbers, and information on any scheduling limitations.

Interview the potential talent and make notes on appearance, voice, spirit of cooperation, attitude, and ability to take direction. Give the talent a few minutes to study the script, then have them read for the roles you think might fit. Use your breakdown sheets to make sure all roles are covered.

Videotape your auditions whenever possible. This creates a good data base for future talent searches.

Look for people with pleasant voices and delivery, good eye contact, a strong presence, and a lack of self-consciousness. Glamour isnt necessary for most roles. Beware the arrogant actor with an attitude. Itll be worse on production day.

Give each applicant information on what the role will entail, the anticipated hours, wardrobe and props theyll need to provide, and compensation. Be very frank about the compensation in your advertising and again, at the audition. Many people are willing to work for a small fee, experience, a copy of the finished tape, or a percentage of profit, but its vital they commit to it at the audition. You dont want to be replacing talent at the last minute.

Try to end every audition on an "up" note. Thank each person and let them know the date by which they should expect to hear from you.

Selection of the Fittest

Using your breakdown sheets, identify which actor will fill each role. Phone to confirm availability on the production dates. One week before the production, each actor should receive a "call sheet" containing the following information:

  • Actors name, address, phone number.

  • Role.

  • Date(s) required.

  • Call time. (Allow time for make-up and lighting)Location. (Include a map)

  • Approximate number of hours needed. (Make sure talent knows this is approximate and production may go over.)Compensation.

  • What to wear: (Specify recommended dress. Include a separate talent briefing on camera-friendly colors and make-up if necessary. Tell talent to bring at least one change of clothes.)

  • What to bring: (List any props necessary as discussed at the audition.)

  • Producers phone number: (Include best way to reach producer on the morning of production in case of emergency.)Advise your talent that production can be long and tedious and its a good idea to bring something to read or do between takes.

The biggest single problem youll face in dealing with free or inexpensive talent is a lack of commitment. Many will choose a better gig if one comes up. To avoid being left in the lurch, have an assistant call each player the day before production to confirm, remind them of their wardrobe requirements, and make sure they have transportation to the location. Have a back-up plan in case of no-shows.

Youll need to stay focused on the production, so arrange for your assistant to field any problems or questions that arise from the talent on production day.

Plan ahead for your actors comfort. Have food, non-alcoholic beverages, and magazines available. Expect that someone may show with the wrong clothes or props, and have extra stuff on hand. For more information on working with non-professional talent, refer to "Cue the, uh, Talent" in the April 1995 edition of Videomaker.

To avoid hassles, take care of the paperwork for compensation on production day. If your actors will receive money, have invoices on hand for them to fill out and submit. If they are being compensated with tapes, have them fill out a mailing label. Be sure to get a signed talent release (with a statement of compensation) from every person appearing in your video. Media Law for Producers (Phillip Miller, Knowledge Industry Publications) and The Complete Film Production Handbook (Eve Light Honthaner, Lone Eagle Publishing Company) have sample release forms.

Does it work to snag inexpensive talent in a non-traditional way? You better believe it. I found Ramone waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant and one week later, he was doing on-camera narrations for one of the foremost high-tech companies in the world. I hired my college acting teacher and a community access talk show host to star in two low-budget special interest videos that went on to win major awards. If you were at NAB, you saw video of my three kids shopping in a virtual mall and visiting virtual museums.Its a fun challenge, its cost effective, and it works – if you have the talent for it.


Professional casting through an agency is a wonderful option when the budget allows. Most agencies are helpful and friendly and they take a huge burden off a producers shoulders.

Union rates for extras are currently $69.00 per day. Union day players get a daily rate of $364.00, plus 40% for the payroll service and talent agency commission. You can hire non-union performers through agencies, but the savings is only about 18%.

Many factors affect rates including the intended distribution and broadcast of the video. If the video is to be offered for sale, for example, the rate is session fee plus 200% of scale for each day worked.

The Brooks Rate Book provides a massive listing of union rates for cast and crew. Be aware that there are varying fees for actors with five lines or less, actors without lines who are spoken to by another actor, fees for changes of clothes, and every other contingency imaginable. Rates, rules, and regulations are very complex.

Contact S.A.G (Screen Actors Guild) or A.F.T.R.A. (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) for information specific to your production.


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