Tips on How to Direct Non-Actors

We all want to work on films and commercials where we have the budget and the creative that allows for casting calls, talent agents and professional actors to deliver inspired performances. But in reality many creative concepts these days call for "real talent," another way of saying using real people vs. professional actors.  After years of experience working with and without professional actors as talent, I have found that despite having non-pros as actors, you can still evoke great performances in advertisements or brand films.  In fact, when a good directing job is achieved, you may find the real-person performance is the most authentic, from-the-heart acting on camera.  And if anything, directing non-professionals is great practice in a more forgiving environment for your directing skills. Working with non-actors from all different backgrounds - professional athletes, doctors, CEOs, patients, customers and members - has definitely seasoned my directing.  In fact, this is the window through which Explore Media's full-service video production emphasis looks on television commercials, where we go through the process of casting talent and then directing actors on set .  And believe me, it's been a growth process and will continue to be one, I'm always picking up tips in advertising techniques, storytelling, or refining my directing skill set. Here are a few tips I've learned on "How To Direct Non-professional Acting Talent." Hopefully they can help you!

The First Cardinal Rule: Don't ask non-professional acting talent to memorize anything. Ever.

Tip 1

From the moment your (probably nervous) talent arrives on the commercial set make sure your subject is comfortable.  From the makeup person to the AD to the producer, make sure everyone who comes into contact with the talent knows they are not an actor, chit-chat with them, take pictures and show them how good they look.

Tip 2

Keep the HD monitor away from the talent.  You don't want them feeling insecure about performance or being distracted.

Tip 3

Direct talent from a physical position of comradery.  I often will situate myself and put the monitor in a place only I can see it.  This way, I can be right beside the talent, showing them we're in this together while we make small talk.


Tip 4

Clear the set behind the HD camera of everyone except for the cinematographer or videographer and AC.  A non-actor can be easily distracted and become insecure if too many people they perceive as professionals, and also their colleagues, are within their peripheral zone.

Tip 5

Keep their focus off the black hole of the HD camera lens.  One trick we used in the spots below was to draw a smiley face on a piece of pink gaff tape and stick it on the lens. The talent could focus on the face and imagine a person vs. looking into the scary cinema lens.

"Thanks Nurses" Beacon Health System Tip 6

Warm up your talent by having them repeat a silly tongue twister, or maybe together you can make fun of the marketing director who is making them perform. Tell a few jokes, talk about movies or music, or if you want to really get them into the flow, ask them about their profession or area of expertise.  Any directing technique which gets them talking on the same marker where they'll deliver lines helps ease their tension.

Tip 7

One trick which works for me is to have the videographer start rolling without letting the talent know (you can easily hide any pesky red lights).  You'd be amazed how many beautiful takes we've achieved by using this technique. There's nothing like an authentic, real performance that only a non-actor can truly provide.

Tip 8

Keep repeated takes to a minimum.  If something isn't working, make the talent feel like indeed it is working and you've got a good take.  Then move on and come back to that same line or situation at a later time.  Like muscle confusion or brain flexibility exercises, presenting the cue unexpectedly later can often produce great acting results.

Tip 9

Don't tell them what they are supposed to do, or who they are supposed to be.  You can't offer the same background stories or character tips you would to a professional actor, instead using mimicry has been one of my favorite ways to get the desired performance.  "Repeat after me, just with your own voice."

Tip 10

My last technique for Directing Non-Professional Acting Talent is to ask the subject to think of a person, situation, or feeling from their own experiences.  For a positive message, ask the talent to think of their favorite memory from the summertime, then cue them to say the line.  For an emotional delivery, ask the talent to pause and think of a person they know who is going through a tough situation, then cue them to say the line.  The key is to bring the feeling which is inside every person, professional actor or not, and help them to channel this emotion through and out to the film camera.

One last note:  At the end of your time with the talent, ask them to say the line, or give the physical performance, exactly how they want to.  Then let them flow without turning the camera off.  You never know what you'll get, but sometimes what comes out to the viewer is a pure molten smoking hot performance.

Here are a few more examples of tv commercials and brand films I've directed which use non-actors as talent.

"#1" University of Notre Dame"Why You Should RV" Go RVing"Professors" LaGrange College"We're Here" Beacon Medical Group And to juxtapose the spots above, here is a spot where we did Casting Calls, negotiated with Talent Agents, and had the opportunity to Direct some pretty amazing young acting talent.

"First Vacation" Interra Credit Union

Jeremy Pinckert is a Brand Film and TV Commercial Director. His work for Production Company Explore Media has won over 35 Tellys, Best in Show ADDYs, and an Emmy Award. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremypinckert, LinkedIN, and see his commercial portfolio reel.

- This blog originally appeared on ProductionHUB where Jeremy is a contributor on video production, post production, advertising techniques, and the commercial production industry through his lens as a Director and Owner of Explore Media.