Finding Talent for Videos

As you increase the production level of your videos, you will arrive at a brand-new challenge - acquiring talent. How do you identify potential personnel for your videos and how do you evaluate those people to ensure they are the correct choices for your projects?

For the purpose of this article, let's group talent into two general groups: models and actors. We'll define a model, not as a person with the potential to appear on the cover of Vogue, but as someone who will appear in your video. An actor, on the other hand, will probably have a limited acting requirement and will appear to either deliver dialogue or at least convey some type of emotion.

Securing a model merely involves finding someone who has the appropriate look for your piece and is willing to be shot. Many times, the best way to cast a "young mom" model, for example, is to just go find a genuine young mother and convince her to appear in your project. Locating and evaluating an actor who will actually need to deliver lines and convey some emotion is a little trickier.

The Project
Let's suppose that you, as the member of your local service organization who owns a Mini DV camcorder and a computer-based editing system, have been asked to create a video that publicizes your upcoming club-sponsored Kids Day. The purpose of the video is to highlight what will take place on Kids Day and to encourage local businesses to get involved. You need to script this project and then secure a host or hostess to be the on-camera talent and to lead the interviews. Then, find a couple of older folks, a young couple, a high-school student and a few kids to enact short scenarios depicting what will happen during Kids Day. These scenarios will be loosely scripted, but you'll probably let the actors create some of their own dialogue to try to keep it sounding more authentic and less scripted.

Finding the Talent
Talent can be uncovered in a variety of different locations. A local community theater is an obvious choice, but local choirs, churches, community organizations, service clubs, high schools and community colleges also can provide potential thespians. You can also post a message on an appropriate bulletin board, but actually contacting someone with some authority and explaining what your project involves is a better approach. Perhaps that person could solicit volunteers or, better yet, allow you to visit the group and create some enthusiasm for the project to actually get some people to commit to an audition.

The local newspaper may also be a good resource: perhaps a columnist will put a mention in the paper that you have a project and are looking for talent. Many schools have video classes and clubs, and you may also be able to locate a few videographers-in-training to help you as crewmembers for your shoot. Of course the classifieds are a very direct way to get the word out. Announce your auditions about two weeks before the actual audition date and either have everyone arrive at a given time, (a cattle-call audition) or provide a phone number and have the individuals call and then assign each of them an audition slot. I prefer the latter approach.

Organizing the Audition
I was once asked by Hal Prince, the well-known Broadway director, how I held my auditions, and I told him that I executed a very formal, "Go stand on the white mark and await instructions" audition. After the talent approached the mark, a stage manager would tell them to begin. Two minutes later, unless I indicated otherwise, the stage manager would say, "Thank you very much," and off they went.

"Why do you audition that way?" Mr. Prince asked. "Well, because that's how I've always been auditioned," I answered. He went on to explain that he didn't agree with establishing an even more terrifying environment than was already created by the act of having to audition. He explained that when folks auditioned for him, it was in a room where he greeted and spoke with the people, putting them at ease before they ever read. This strategy gives you a better chance of seeing what they might actually bring to your project, he explained. I have held informal auditions ever since, and I think it has much more effectively allowed me to gauge how well someone will perform. So, when you hold an audition, find a comfortable room where you can meet each person and keep it casual.

Videotape your auditions to gain more insight into your applicants, but talk with them first. Tell them all about the project, find out about their experience and then shoot the audition. Auditions should last about 10 minutes per person, but if this is your first set of auditions, allow 15 minutes so you don't feel rushed.

Evaluating Potential
How do you determine whether your church pastor or your bank president will be a better host for your program? And what should you look for in a host, anyway? Well, an ideal candidate would be someone who has a pleasant voice, good timbre, good diction and has a certain vocal presence or command. Someone who possesses an interesting or unique-but-pleasant appearance is also a consideration. You can make these initial evaluations before ever deciding to audition the applicants. If they meet these criteria, bring them in. If your project has a script, have them read from it, but shoot part of an informal interview as well. When actors read, their attention focuses down and they concentrate on just reading the material. When you interview them, you get much more of a sense of how they will shoot (how comfortable they appear on camera), as well as a clearer example of their personalities.

When actors are on stage, they act with their body, but when actors act on television, they act with their eyes. So, shoot parts of the interview close enough to really capture the actor's eyes. Shoot part of it wide enough to see the whole body, too, so you can evaluate whether the person shows any overt signs of stress, such as tearing at cuticles or a consistently twitching foot.

Hopefully, you will find people who put more into their auditions than just proving they have mastered the ability to read. They should seem to "own" the verbiage and make it their own. A more experienced applicant will adopt a plan of attack with your material and immediately identify any humor or any point resembling a climax or a twist in the script.

Considering our example, producing a video about Kids Day, the chance for these types of more sophisticated acting moments are probably limited, but an actor may well ask you what type of tone or style you are looking for in the read. An easy way to place the read in the more low-key category is to tell the talent you want more of an FM-radio sound. An AM-radio sound is more energetic. If you want them to go way over the top, just tell them you are looking for a "used car" or a "monster truck" read, which tells them you want all the shouting and yelling they can muster.

If you are having them perform a "dry-read," and they ask for a few moments with the material, give it to them. Anytime you can provide the written material to actors before their appointments, you will likely get better reads from them. In addition to actual excerpts from the script, you should also include a short description of the project and the purpose of the role for which they will read.

If your video involves performing a demonstration, (cooking pancakes or making balloon animals might be two key components of Kids Day), determine whether just inquiring about ability or actually requiring the actor to perform the demonstration is appropriate. For example, if you are looking for someone to cook pancakes in your video, simply asking whether they have ever flipped a pancake is probably enough. If you want to know if they can actually make animals out of balloons, (a bit more of a refined skill), you should have some appropriate balloons available and just let them make you a puppy or a hat.

If you are filling roles of a couple (husband and wife, mother and son), it's a good idea to have them read together to see how they interact.

If you plan to use a teleprompter, have the talent actually read the material off the prompter. Some actors are very good at not looking like they are reading. But teleprompters throw some actors for a loop and they not only look like they are reading, but they just look uncomfortable. The best protection against getting a day-of-the-shoot surprise is to have them read off a prompter at the audition.

Paying the Talent
Do you need to pay your talent? Maybe. If you expect the host of your program to memorize the script and perform it on-camera, offer this person a small token payment for the time they will have to spend memorizing the material. They may tell you that they are doing it for the experience, but a small payment on your part puts you in a better position. You can expect the material to be correctly memorized.

If your project is for a non-profit cause, such as Kids Day, people will probably volunteer. If your actors will wear standard street clothes, ask them to provide their own. If the clothing involves any special attire, (a uniform, a tuxedo, a formal dress), plan to provide it. Ask women to wear regular daytime make-up and not evening make-up, (unless you want them to appear "made-up"). Have powder available at the shoot to powder the bright spot off a bald head or a sweaty brow, but men don't usually need to wear any make-up aside from clear powder you apply to reduce shine. Promise all the people who are cast that they will get a copy of the end product and, if the project has credits, that they will appear in them. If the shooting requires people to miss a meal, you should feed them and provide some light snacks, water and juice for the talent during the shoot.

Giving Talent a Try
Now that you have thought though the process of putting talent into your next video, it's time to go cast your Kids Day project. Remember, most of your talent will be doing their first video work, so be patient and sensitive to their needs and you'll do fine.

The only way to get comfortable coaching performances from actors is to do it, and then keep doing it. Just jump in, and you may find that recruiting and shooting experienced actors to serve as talent greatly improves the quality of your videos.

Additional Tips:

1) Keep it simple. Don't tell actors more than they need to know.
Communicate succinctly and give your actors some specific suggestions.

2) Reassure your actors. Explain that this is not live television and that you will simply shoot until you get takes that work for everybody. Nobody will ever see the takes that don't work.

3) Don't act like Cecil B. Demille. Don't get caught in the trappings of video and start making a big fuss about shooting. Keep the environment non-intimidating and friendly.

4) Put the actors at ease. Keep the set warm and a little loose and you'll probably get stronger performances.