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How to Direct Non-Actors In a Video Shoot

By Burkey Belser
March 24, 2015
How to Direct Non-Actors In a Video Shoot

Let’s get right to it. No messing around:

First of all, directors are leaders. 

Have a clear vision and communicate it clearly. "This is what we're going for." Establish your authority immediately. That said, your next job is to make your talent feel comfortable and safe. 

There are lots of videos on YouTube on directing non-actors in roles but precious few on directing non-actors in an interview-type situation. But at least you can learn everyone else has the same challenges with non-actors that you do.

In advance

Send out a personal email from the director to all the subjects and ask them to study the material, take it seriously and think in advance of their answers. Professionals rarely prepare and the results show it. Their lack of effort makes your job as director triply difficult.

Be prepared yourself

If we don’t know the material, how can we expect them to? We should know the questions subjects will be required to answer and have questions at the ready when they stumble. This cannot be overemphasized.

Create instant rapport and also control

Individuals who can speak comfortably to 500 people at a conference or stare down a jury freeze in the eye of the camera. There's no predicting who that will be either. The greenest professional can speak with utter confidence while the most seasoned will crumble. So, in order to improve their chances of success, we believe it is important to take over the moment the subject enters the room. 

We also believe it is helpful to chat your subjects up casually while in make-up. Less pressure than in a room filled with photo equipment, clapboards and people all dressed in black. Make them feel at ease before they enter the dark room filled with strangers. Then quickly introduce yourself and the team.

—You gain control by breaking everything down to the smallest detail on entry—outlining the process for the entire shoot, pointing out details that seem obvious to you ("Is that the camera?" they ask) and guiding them through their entire experience as much as possible. "You will straddle the X," for example. Or stand/sit here! Exactly here! Position yourself exactly here! Look exactly here!

How you give direction is as important as what you say. Each of us has a different style for giving direction but no one gives enough direction. How do we know this? Because the subject always has so many questions following our introduction. Someone who is shy may not ask for the direction they need. Think of your questions in advance. And tell them:

How long will this take?

Where is this video going to appear?

Why are you doing this?

What's the creative vision for the video?

—You gain their confidence by reviewing what they will be talking about. Ask for their ideas if they have any. Sometimes miracles happen.

—You gain rapport by giving constant feedback, praise and encouragement. Every action, every movement, whether correct or not on their part, should be praised first and corrected second. "Your smile is beautiful; let's have more of that. Even this serious topic is warmed by your smile." Honestly, you cannot lay it on too thick for an uncomfortable subject. We noticed that when a subject said their piece, we were very often much too slow to give our feedback. You can buy time by saying, "Love it; hang on, I'm thinking." Your constant chatter is important to engaging your subject and putting them at their ease. Otherwise, our silence seeds doubt. Combine suggestions with praise, "You said that beautifully but why don't we try this…?" Of course, that means you need to come up with good suggestions and that takes some confidence. In fact, the entire exercise is a lesson in leadership. While you may not know the details of their professional work, it is unprofessional on your part not to know the rudiments of their business. A lawyer is trained to eviscerate the witness blowing smoke. Other professionals are not much different. Admit what you don’t know but learn as much as you can in advance of the shoot.

BTW, their positive comments about your direction, patience and helpfulness get back to the CMO and ultimately management. Be smart. You cannot praise them enough for their effort.

Get them started. Our lead cameraman’s immortal words, "Whenever you're ready!" should be repeated endlessly or subjects do not know when to begin. If we fail to do that, then they start and we have to tell them to stop. As a result, they feel like they've made a mistake and become uncomfortable

Challenge what you don't understand. All of these videos should be accessible to the average, educated American. Listen to your gut and be alert to it. If you don't believe someone will know what a "defendant" is or a "class-action litigation," then ask the subject to reword it into plain English—"company" and "lawsuit." If you do not believe someone will understand the complexities of tax advice for a wealthy individual, then reword it. Sometimes we found 50¢ words like "obtaining" needed to be replaced with simpler words like "won." Subjects appreciate it, as we see again and again, because they want to be good. Listening to your gut with all else that is going on is no small feat. It means a silent observer needs to live inside your head as all the action is roiling around you. 

Help craft their story

Along those same lines, the best directors, we believe, will help the subject improve their story. But what is an improved story? You may not feel competent to discuss the ins and outs of transfer pricing but, actually, you don't need to know anything about what they do to know what feels authentic to you. Most of our suggestions lie in trying to find an authentic voice for the subjects to engage with their audience person-to-person, not professional to rocket scientist. We listen most intently for expressions that feel false. As we know, the right speaker can deliver the corniest line and make it credible. Tell the subject, “Believe and care about what you are saying. If you don’t, I certainly won’t.”

But try not to tell their story.

We pretty much fail when we give them lines to speak. The response is most often wooden. On the other hand, some subjects just crumble. To avoid complete failure, ask them to repeat after you. If you need a particular point made, well, some measure of wooden eloquence is better than gobbledygook. Tough call, this. 

Help them find the emphasis in the line

If you are using a script, in every line there is a point of emphasis that will carry the phrase or give it color or shade its meaning. "Pick a word and lean on that word" is good direction, we find. Pick a word and lean on that word.

It is very difficult to help someone speak louder, slow down or speed up their natural speech rhythm but this is often the most important thing you can do. While you must be polite, it's also extremely important to be firm. We notice directors using weasel words like "kinda" or "maybe you could" and other words and phrases that diminish the authority you are trying to convey. Eliminate weasel words. Be tough. "Louder," for example, is quite sufficient, as is "slower." Don’t be a bully but be firm.

Help them to be crisp

Make the point. There’s always a story arc—the set-up, the key message and then the close. Done. We learned how difficult it is for people not to ramble on and repeat themselves. People cannot hear themselves so you have to call them on it. Once again, no apologizing or weaseling but polite, "Did you notice you repeated yourself three times?"  "Make it crisp. What is it you're trying to say. Say it, then stop talking," followed by a kibble, "You're doing great!"  In any case, we need usable chunks of dialogue not long-winded declamations. 

What to do with their hands?

Well, we can't cut them off. We tell subjects to hold their hands together waist high as TV reporters do. In so many cases, they do but then they keep them there. We believe it is useful to interview your subject for a minute before you begin filming to learn how they actually use their hands, the speed of their talking and other personality traits we might be able to use (or correct) in the filming itself. Begin by talking about their dog or kids or spouse or last vacation to discover their real personality and to see what level of animation naturally appears. For some, the most expressive body language comes from their head, not their hands.


  1. Remind subjects to reference the question in their answer if it is required.

  2. Have an extra set of eyes (if not your own) to look for fly-away hair, sweating foreheads, bunched and wrinkled shirts and jackets, misplaced ties, etc.

  3. Remind subjects to hold their gaze on the camera before they begin to speak and when they are finished speaking in order to make post-production editing easier.

  4. Smile. Have smiling practice.

This article should keep you busy and help prevent the most basic blunders amateur directors and film crews make. “Amateur”? Yes, the rapid hiring of videographers by firms in response to the YouTubification of the internet does not mean professional directors or even professional camera crews have joined your ranks. Holding a video camera does not a professional make. Look at most of the video on competitor sites. Not very good, is it? That said, we are all learning all the time. Us, too. There is no substitute for experience. While we hope and believe this article will be helpful, we do not imagine you will become Billy Wilder overnight. Some creative areas demand you make quick judgments—on the photography set, the printing press or on a film set. If you’re wrong, the moment has passed. It’s wildly expensive to do it again so, for the most part, there are no do-overs. So, study hard. We’ve just scratched the surface here.