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To Use, Or Not To Use Professional Actors?

I’ve made a lot of videos using in-house actors over the years. Clients like to use CEO’s, marketing directors, founders, administrative assistants or just the guy down the hallway who seems really personable. I can attest that you will save money on your shoot by having them be in your video. I’ve also experienced a number of shoots go haywire when working with these in-house people – sometimes even to the effect of the whole video being scrapped.

It seems that, often, the very first solution to any budgeting problem with a live action video is the suggestion to use someone in-house. I don’t know why this is always the first suggestion – maybe its the highly publicized sky-high salaries of Hollywood stars (Tom Cruise topped it at $75 million in 2012 – the Twilight duo of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner came in tied at number 10 with $26.5 million). While your video might have a celebrity in it (so this is how Kurt Russell has been spending all his time lately), for a standard live-action web explainer video your talent will likely not be the most expensive part of the budget. Your talent will often make or break your entire video, so saving 5% of your budget might not be worth the risk.

I hear lists are popular on the internet – so I’ve come up with this handy dandy list of ways that your unpaid talent might screw up your entire shoot. I tried to alliterate the list because that seemed fun, but it turned out to be too hard. Some of these situations come from personal experience, others from second hand experience and others just because it seems like the situation has to have happened before. I’ve also come up with a second list of situations where you might want to ignore everything I’m about to say and use in-house or unpaid talent.

1. The Monotone Marketing Director (or Stale Delivery)

Sometimes someone who is charismatic in person will completely change the day of the shoot. Their normally amazing presentation will fall flat on camera and every line will sound like it’s being read off a sheet of paper with a lack of energy and no change in their pitch.

2. The Goofy Accounts Manager (or Awkward on Camera)

Normal in person may not translate to normal on camera. Cameras pick up our tiniest quirks and everyone’s focus is completely on you. So be wary of those idiosyncrasies and all the ummms, soooos and weeells. It’s hard telling someone on the day of the shoot to be ‘less awkward’.

3. The Forgetful Founder (or 100 Takes For One Line)

I’ve been in plenty of situations where the person just can’t get the line right and you end up spending hours just to get that one phrase out. It’s painful for everyone involved. You hire professional talent because they should have experience with memorizing scripts and are used to the lights so they won’t freeze up when the camera starts rolling.

4. The Odd-Looking Owner (or They Just Look Plain Weird)

Let’s be honest – some people have a face for radio. Enough said.

5. The Overloaded CEO (or They Don’t Have Enough Time For Your Shoot)

CEOs and other top executives don’t always have a schedule that lends itself well to production. Their days are often spent rushing from one meeting to another so their expectations for how much time they can give might be much different from the producers’ needs.

6. The Unprepared President (or Was I Supposed To Memorize All This?)

Sometimes people with busy schedules overlook emails and forget what you told them a week ago about preparation. You then find yourself in the situation where you are waiting for hours for the person to get their act together.

7. The Unprofessional Administrative Assistant (or You Want Me To Stand Here For How Long?)

Days on set can be long and arduous. A lot is expected from everyone involved as this is the one chance to capture the moment. Things are fast-paced and then seem to slow down to a crawl – ‘hurry up and wait’. So if the person on camera isn’t used to that, they might become difficult to work with, have unrealistic expectations or have to leave early to pick up their kids.

8. The Not Your Spokesperson Chairperson (or They Don’t Have The ‘It’ Factor)

Sometimes a brand or product needs that special spokesperson. Or maybe the script calls for a very specific character or look. Don’t be offended, but sometimes it’s just imperative that that special someone is found.

There are certainly quite a few reasons why you should use professional talent. That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. So when might you want to use a non-traditional actor?

1. They Are Famous

Ad guru David Ogilvy would tell you not to use celebrities in your video (Ogilvy On Advertising, page 109), and there are some who would saygo ahead, but do it with caution. I don’t have the market research to tell you one way or another, but as for performance, a famousathlete or celebrity will likely be forgiven for their awkward performance.

2. They Are Charming

I am reminded of Dave Thomas or Colonel Sanders – sure they’re famous – but only because of the fact that they became a spokesperson for their business. Mark Cuban and Richard Branson might be other examples – but I would say that they have a certain ‘it’ quality. These people can be awkward on camera, forget their lines, be unprepared, say their lines in amonotone way or just look plain weird, but there is just something about them that people relate to. Their likeability and relation to the company or product can really push your brand forward.

3. They Bring Gravitas and Expertise to Your Video

If someone is explaining a complicated problem, product or idea, sometimes you need an expert. Explaining string theory might best be done by a scientist who knows what they’re talking about. Granted that doesn’t mean you should be lazy in your execution – a rambling expert can get boring real quick. Make sure to direct and guide the content.

4. It Is Meant To Be Real

Sometimes a testimonial or a user experience story is best told using real people. A real person telling a real story can’t always be replicated using talent. The less memorized and the more spontaneous the response is the more the viewer believes what they have to say. Don’t overlook the ability of your viewer to spot BS – this situation needs to be real.

5. Up-and-Coming Actor

The person down the hallway might be an aspiring actor with that ‘it’ factor. It happens. If that person really seems like they’d be a great fit then go for it – but with caution. Check out their previous work and if they don’t have any do a screentest or 2 with them – preferably on camera so they start getting used to the lens.

No matter who you get for your talent, take it seriously, whether it is an internal person or professional talent. They will be the face of your brand, so if you’re trying to save money on your shoot, make sure the ‘cheaper’ option is one that will actually work effectively.

Written by Andrew Freer