James Demas on Directing the Non-Professional


James Demas on Directing the Non-Professional


I’ve been in the TV business for over 20 years. Technical I’ve been in the video industry since 1989. But for the sake of this blog, I’ve been rolling tape since 1994. Today it’s not always tape, but you get my point. As a broadcast and professional video entrepreneur I try like hell to find those great and understanding clients with interesting projects and more importantly realistic budgets. It’s like seeing three rainbows, watching a unicorn grazing in the grass or Big Foot eating beef jerky. It doesn’t happen very often.

We all want to work with decent budgets, the best crews and the most talented actors. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this…So is the life in the TV production biz.

In those cases, a Producer (or in my case a Producer/Director) will have to make a lot of tough decisions. Do I hire the best talent and try to squeeze by with a limited crew? Do I ask them to do more than one job? Or do I hire the best professional crew I can afford and turn to something like Craig’s List or Facebook to find some untrained, non-professional talent to work for peanuts. I’m lucky in a sense because SPI-tv Media Group has the crew in-house.

Let’s not sweat all the details and jump right to the chase. After all your prep work is complete, the day has come to start production. You are on set or location with your finely tuned script, you’ve set your shot, the lighting is just right and your audio is ready to go. Now the non-professional Craig’s List, Facebook talent is on his/her mark. Camera rolls and the director yells ‘action’! All you hear are crickets chirping and you can imagine that ‘cost-cutting’ client having a coronary when the footage is reviewed. First thing, DON’T PANIC! Second thing, it’s time to have a chat with the talent.

First, let’s take a step back. When you hold you’re auditions or if it’s as simple as looking at a digital picture that’s the time to remind yourself the “John Smith” you’re about to hire is not Robert DeNiro. These want-to-be Olivier’s are just nine-to-fivers looking to be on TV. They don’t have very much at stake. You do! Be prepared to be challenged. Now back to our scene.

Your non-professional talent, no matter how much they want to, will not be ready when it comes time hear that ‘action’ call. I’m speaking from experience. A local attorney needed a couple of TV spots produced on a shoe string budget. The attorney did not want to be in the spots so it was off to Craig’s List to hire Joe-Shmoe or Jane-Plain! I will not bore you with the details but we hired five or six non-professionals.

Each one had one line in different locations throughout the city. One line! Easy, right? Think again. Now, I don’t want to come down on the non-professional talent because it’s not as easy as you think. Nerves, over-acting, under-acting, not smiling, smiling too much, looking creepy missing your mark, hitting your mark but not remembering your line, speaking too low, too loud and on and on and on. These are just a small sample of the issues that can happen to the non-professional. You need to get a performance from them and you need it ASAP. How do you help them?


Quick answer; get them relaxed in a conversation. If, as in our case, they have just one line, try to get them to stop acting. Try to show them that this one line is like talking to their neighbor. Just get them to talk to you as the friend or neighbor. The best way to learn is by repetition. So stay with them as they repeat and repeat their line(s) until you are satisfied.


Now let’s say that your non-professional talent have learned their line(s) to your satisfaction, but you have an emotionless stick standing in front of your camera. What do you do now? Performance is just as important as dialogue so loosen up your protégé. Have them do jumping jacks, tell them a joke, do the running man, whatever you need to do to get that natural body movement to sell the performance. Unfortunately, when hiring the non-professional, things like performance will suffer. There is no rehearsal day in the budget plus these “volunteers” do not have the time to put in the extra work. So it’s run-and-gun and rehearsal is on your clock. Remember, the trick is to get them to perform for that one line, probably only a couple of seconds on screen.

The one thing I avoid as a director is telling professional or non-professional talent to “act naturally”. Because in order to act naturally you need to think “how do I do that”? The last thing I want is to have the non-professional thinking too much. If you think it’s easy, here’s a test. Close your eyes, think of your happy place, take a deep breath, open your eyes and say that old tag line from the vintage Tide commercial,“If it’s gotta be clean, it’s gotta be Tide”, and say it acting naturally. See what I mean, not so easy.

Another pitfall to avoid when hiring non-professional talent is scheduling. If you hire one person or multiple talent, making sure they can commit to your schedule is crucial. Without them there is no commercial. Because you have made a commitment to travel down this non-pro talent road, the success or lack thereof falls on the shoulders of the non-professionals. The key here is to tell the prospective thespian to commit one to two hours because we should be able to “crank this baby out”. In a perfect world get your non-professionals to commit an entire day or two if needed. That’s not going to happen.

Compromise and see if you can get a four-hour window for each non-professional talent. If it takes only an hour, awesome, if not, at least they know it’s a process. My advice is to hire more people than you really need. Some will show up and others just won’t. Plus it gives you options in the edit room to find the best performances.

I feel at this point I should state for the record, I always recommend hiring professional talent. As the Producer, you’ll have to decide between hiring union or non-union talent. All in all, hiring non-professional talent and working with them can be good and bad. But when they hit that mark, speak their lines, on time and with passion and vigor. It’s pretty cool I have to admit.


Jim can be reached here jim@spi-tv.com

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