Getting Great Performances from Non-Professionals – Part 2: Filming
Lights, camera, but wait…before you say “action,” you need to be sure you’ve set up the conditions for filming in a way that best serves your non-professional presenter.
A film set, even the most modest one, for example a cubicle in a corporate office, can be an exciting place. And making a video should always be treated as a genuine occasion. Use that excitement to bring out the best in your presenter, but don’t stress them out with petty details. Take care of everything you can before bringing them to the set. Use a stand-in to work out lighting, framing, and sound levels. Lastly, make sure you’re familiar with all the talking points and product attributes.
Certain elements – wardrobe, lavalier mic placement, and the exact lighting of your subject’s face and hair – require their presence. And while your crew focuses on the production details, make sure that someone (you, the director) is giving them their complete attention, making small talk about anything BUT the filming. In addition to putting them at ease, the small talk is an opportunity to observe their tone for more precise mic levels and assess the strength of their delivery for the video. You’ve told them already that the filming will be conducted as a conversation, and your observations of them in their comfort zone will serve as a reference for how you want them to be on camera. A good lavalier mic (a must) is designed to hear everything, so there is no reason for your subject to be anything but conversational.
As you’re making your quick assessment of their capabilities, the important thing is to measure your presenter on their own terms, rather than a standard of perfection based on a professional. You’ve chosen to work with a real person for a reason, and their little character quirks are a big part of what makes them authentic and believable. If they happen to be a bit nervous by disposition then it’s better to embrace that rather than fight it.
Once the camera begins to roll, your presenter may be wondering how they’re doing and relying on you, as videographer, to let them know that they’re doing well. If you appear frustrated or unsatisfied with their performance they will likely grow more self-conscious. The degree of self-consciousness will of course vary, but its important that your subject goes in with a reasonable amount of confidence. Should they suddenly become more self-conscious on camera after having been relaxed in conversation, here are steps you can take to bring them back to the unselfconscious tone.
Your goal, when the camera starts rolling, is to keep your presenter in the conversational mode they employ when they’re at their most persuasive. Whether you decide to have them look into camera or slightly to the left or right of it (an important distinction, but one that matters less than authenticity), you need to position yourself (or the person directing) in the place you want your presenter to be looking and simply carry on that conversation. Their engagement with you will be critical in ensuring that their presentation is persuasive. If you lose focus or stop listening, their performance will reflect that. You are talking about the product now, and your questions should derive organically from the conversation rather than what’s next on your list of questions. Do keep a list but use it to make sure you are hitting all the topics. If your conversation is genuine, you will usually find that all the topics have been covered, as your presenter has long-since internalized the key talking points. If not, you can always circle back in the end, get a second reading or allow the presenter to restate certain points more succinctly.
A good trick for the first few takes is to have them warm up with non-essential material such as an introduction, their name, title, what they do, all of which can either be filmed again at the end or added as subtitles. Also, have them do one or two takes “as a rehearsal” with the camera still rolling. This will ease the flow from conversation into production. If “the rehearsal” goes reasonably well, don’t hesitate to tell your presenter they were “great,” and that you’ve already got some usable material. This will ease some the pressure they might be feeling. Once they feel they’ve done a few good takes, they should be more relaxed. [Note: I've referred to these as "takes" but it's not necessary to formalize that process as you would a feature film. There may be some starting and stopping for technical reasons but it's best to keep things loose and relaxed.]
It’s best to film in such a way that you can assemble your video from different pieces (i.e. using two cameras), so you can tell your presenter if they stumble to just keep going. By assuring them that any glitches can be fixed in post-production, you’re also making it easier for them to hit their stride and give you a range of strong performance from which to assemble a great video. In Part 3 of this series, we’ll discuss post-production, but for now you want to make sure you’re getting the best possible performances, which also means shooting more material than you need. This should not be a problem, as most presenters circle back and present an idea several times, but it’s also a good idea to ask your presenter to restate an idea or summarize in 30-40 seconds what they’ve just taken 2 minutes to explain. In general, the more footage you get, the greater your chances for success. So, for a 1 minute video, you should be shooting from 5-10 minutes; for 2-3 minute video, it can be between 15 and 40 minutes per camera.
By now, your presenter should be flowing and should not mind taking another stab at something if need be. However, if you’re still finding they are overly nervous or stilted in their performance then it’s time to acknowledge that fact and take aggressive steps. Have them speak to you as if they at a party or with their spouse. Shorten your takes and have them repeat sections until you’ve got a performance that is authentic and captures what’s best in the personality of your presenter.