Directing Documentary – Part 2 – Talent

I like to say that real people are ‘talent’ enough. It’s a neat line to throw into treatments where we don’t have the budget for agency-represented talent. 

This line is a bit tricky to walk for documentary-style video production. You’re working with real people who may not have any on-camera experience, trying to keep things as honest and representative as possible. You also need to direct something impactful, something aligned with brand messaging, and something that’s entertaining to watch. Attempting fly-on-the-wall style directing doesn’t usually resonate, you’ll need to craft the scene yourself. 

One of the first techniques I use when we’re shooting folks in doc-style is to have a thorough conversation with the subject as our team is building cameras. For now, instead of doing a lot of talking, I do a lot of listening. I usually have them walk me through what it is they’re about to do in as much detail as possible. “Tell me what it will look like when you mount this circuitboard up for a vibration test.” “What kind of stretches exactly will you be doing before you exercise?” Most of the time I’ll have them mimic the task at hand so we can anticipate the action in front of us first, then have them do it step by step as we’re rolling, framing up the shots in between. If we have a lot of options to shoot (a full manufacturing plant, an entire Colorado ranch of action), I’ll ask them to lead me to the most visual options – horses are more interesting than tractors, soldering over working at a computer.

That’s usually the easy part, folks are pretty comfortable in their work or day-to-day routine. It gets a bit more difficult when we need people to ‘act’ a bit, using a product for a glamour shot or walking through a wide shot to establish the scene. It’s funny how walking sometimes throws people off more than a more intricate action. To direct sequences like these, I’ll talk to our subjects and walk them through what I’d like them to do. I try to use layman’s terms instead of film-specific verbiage and keep it as relaxed as possible. Sometimes it’s better to have them focus on something else while they complete the desired action- if we’re getting a shot of them pouring a cup of tea, tell them to focus on putting the kettle back on the stove instead of the act of pouring itself. This can let them do the action more naturally, avoiding the clunkiness of people trying to ‘act’ it out. 

I do try to avoid miming things out myself unless absolutely necessary. I don’t feel that it’s a very useful technique. It breaks the dynamic between director/subject and isn’t that effective.  There is a point, however, when you need to know when to call it. If the shot just isn’t working, it’s non-essential, maybe it’s time to move on to something the subject is more comfortable with.

As I’m building this, I realize that every single one of these photos, my eyes are glued to my monitor, so I figured I’d mention a final point. After you talk with talent – personally, directly, warmly – your job is firmly back to video. If it doesn’t read on screen, it’s not going to read. While you must take care to direct talent, you’d better make sure you’ve got eyes on what you’re shooting after you call action. And you’d better actually say ‘action.’ Trust me, it makes people take it a bit more seriously.

It’s important to be flexible, to keep your head on a swivel- eyes out for any opportunity to put the best ideas in front of the camera. Sometimes that involves listening, sometimes the ideas just seem to manifest in front of you. Whatever the circumstance, you (and your subject) have to be ready.