Directing: Real People


Real actors have the skills, techniques and experience to immerse themselves in a character so that they can breathe life into a scene and make a scene believable.  Non actors, or real people – especially children & youth, don’t, so there’s a whole different skill set as a director that you need to employ.

There are a variety of situations where you’ll find yourself needing to direct non actors.  Sometimes it’s budgetary, sometimes it’s political – a friend of a client, a child of a client, or even the client themselves that wants to be on screen or a non-actor that has been cast as the lead or in the case of a commercial, the brand ambassador.  Sometimes, it’s the non-actor that’s perfect for the role.  I’ve experienced all these scenarios – but as a director, whatever the situation, you just have to make it work.

In many ways it’s getting easier.   The popularity of unscripted, reality TV programs where people are ‘acting themselves’ helps today’s youth in particular quickly switch on and off as if they are presenting the avatar of themselves they would like to be.   You can learn how to make it look like a version of normalcy which works if all you need is that moment to cut into a project.  It’s a different challenge directing non-actors where you really need to create a performance, interaction, or perhaps the most difficult, talk directly to camera.

Generally, any project that doesn’t require audio – that is, doesn’t require dialogue or other in situ audio such as most music clips –  are the easier projects to work with non actors as you can help guide the non actor while shooting to get the screen moment required.  Where there is dialogue, distracting the non-actor by giving them something physical to do is another effective tool in directing the desired performance.  What that physical task is depends on the project –  you try and use what would come naturally to that particular person. If you’re working with someone who loves sport, if it works for the scene, have them dribble a basketball or polish a surfboard etc while delivering the line.  Or, if giving them something physical doesn’t work for the scene, create additional story – for example, if the scene requires a conversation between friends, create the scene that leads into the one you want to shoot so there’s momentum at the start of your scene – this may also require a scene after the hero scene to fully translate.

Directing – whether it’s real actors or real people, is part talent, part luck, part timing and a lot psychology in figuring out the best way of communicating with your talent in a way they can translate on screen.

Case Study 1: Recipe For Healthy Living

Behind the scenes with Huey and DOP Ben Allan ACS

This was the first in the then new series of Jenny Craig Australia TV Commercialsworking with celebrity chef Iain ‘Huey’ Hewitson.  Huey is professional talent, but is not an actor, so I knew the challenge was to make Huey feel comfortable enough to play a chef playing himself on screen.

Huey fronted his own show, so he was used to cooking on screen, but it’s hard for even the most seasoned actor to play him or herself – especially with scripted dialogue.  But first and foremost, Huey cooked and was highly respected by his peers as an innovative and talented chef, so I realised the key to helping Huey with his on screen performance was to give him directions he was comfortable with – cooking over a  BBQ, dressing a salad, mixing, tasting etc…

Allowing the real chef to focus on the food ‘story’ helped create a warm and memorable performance that would lead to two series of ads featuring Huey as the Jenny Craig spokesperson.

Case Study 2: One More Goodbye

This was a music clip for Australian country artist Steve Gibson we shot in a day in the Gold Coast.  The brief was to make the video sexy – not subtly sexy but

Directing talent for the music video "One More Goodbye"

overtly sexy in a “T & A” way which was a first for me as a female director.  Steve toured the nation extensively so worked with a promotional producer and event girls who Steve said would be happy to appear in the music video.  After studying the song and being shown photos of the girls who were available for the clip, given I had no idea of whether any of them could act, opted to tell a simple story that would work with minimal acting.

I gave each of the girl a ‘Bond girl character’, with different kinds of ploys to distract our country Bond – Steve.  The girls were all comfortable in their bodies and had had a lot of experienced ‘playing sexy’ to an audience as models, so it was a pretty funny shoot trying to push the boundaries without – hopefully – crossing the line.  Because we had no audio constraints, I was able to direct each girl as the shot rolled – sometimes literally asking them to look left, cross their legs, bend down to reveal cleavage etc…  Not directions that would work with an actor creating a character, but with models used to this type of physical direction, it was direction they understood.

Case Study 3: Cisco Systems

This project was an international corporate production for Cisco Systems shot in Sydney, Singapore, and Korea.  The brief was to illustrate the strategic partnerships with companies such as Datacraft, HP, IBM & Hanaro Telecom that are the backbone of Cisco’s entire business model.  Cisco manufacture the hardware that makes up 80% of the internet, so the interview subjects were all C-Suite executives with extreme time constraints… and of course were all non-actors.

Some were comfortable on camera, but the challenge was to get them to say the right things to cut together a coherent video.  As non actors, a script was never going to work.  I’m not a fan of the teleprompter – they can be terrific in conferences or live performances – but as a tool to help capture words on screen, they are conducive to real, warm performances that can help inform the viewer of personality and individuality.

I’ve found the best technique when working in an interview context is to ask them unseen questions – that way, the responses are real ie. you see the thought before the answer, and the real emotion behind the words.  The only ‘trick’ is to remember to ask the interviewee to repeat the question in the answer so that it can cut together and avoid using such terms as “as I mentioned earlier” as the joy of editing is that you can connect the right takes of answers to create a coherent whole.

Another trick with ‘talking head videos’ is to shoot enough B-roll or overlay footage to allow you to cut in and out of the interview to maintain pacing, interest and story.  Interviewees – even at CEO level – are only human and nerves, discomfort or distraction can get the better of them, and particularly when you have the restriction of time, it’s best to simply keep the interview going by trying to get the right things said by asking the right questions in as many ways as you have time for.


Directing 4 & 1/2 year old Joshua Tanno

WC Fields may have had his own reasons when he came up with the oft-quoted line “Never work with children or animals” but, at least over the past 15 years, while I’ve found some animals easier to deal with than some of the children, I’ve yet to have a truly bad experience.

There are definitely some children who are trickier to direct than others, but if you cast well – and with children this means casting the talent as well as the parent to avoid working with the stage mums & dads – and communicate in a way they understand, then it mostly goes pretty well.  Every child is unique, so it’s important to connect with the person you’ve cast and figure out the best approach to making the project work.

There’s no pride when you’re working with children – their actions and reactions are real and pure, so you need to let go of any inhibitions, and just be real with them without pushing too hard – and most importantly, you need to work fast as children really don’t have the longest attention span.

Defining Youth vs Children

The UN defines youth as non-adults between the ages of 15 and 24 years inclusive.   Children can be described as non-adults between the ages of 0-14 years.  As a Director, defining Youth vs Children is more about casting a certain age group to fit a project or scene.  Generally, this becomes more about Babies, Toddlers (1-2), Pre-schoolers (3-5) & Primary Schoolers (5-10), Pre-teens or Tweenies (11-12), and Teenagers/Youth (13-24).

Case Study 4: Catholic Schools TVC

The brief was ambitious – to cast five females to represent one girl’s journey through life and five males to represent one male’s journey through life.  There were one or two semi cross-over scenes (ie. used the same location), but otherwise there were ten separate scenarios with separate shot lists to shoot in 3 days. Casting came down to believability of ‘look’ across the ages over acting experience, and shooting in Newcastle, we had a much smaller talent pool to work from than in Sydney.


Working with babies requires luck, so we tried to plan for a variety of outcomes.  With babies, there can be a lot of separation anxiety, so I tried to plan shots so that the mother (or father) could be just out of frame so that they can always see or even smell their parent.   When this wasn’t possible, and the scene required the actress playing the mother to hold the baby in her arms while the actor playing the father cooed and beamed, we tried to create a rapport between the actress playing the mother in the scene by having the mother there as the actress held her in her arms as she would in the scene, then passing her back if the baby got too upset.  Fortunately, our actress had only just given birth a mere 10 weeks earlier which must have helped the baby recognise another mother, so the scene went very smoothly.  Another tip that has worked on other projects with babies is to learn about the babies sleeping & feeding patterns so that, for example, for a ‘happy’ scene,  you can schedule to shoot when they are well rested and fed.  As a director, you need to make sure the child’s parents are happy and comfortable as the child will take their cues from them, not you.


Children aged 5-10 are pretty savvy.  They understand, communicate and can recognise ‘real’ from ‘pretend’.   Their parents are still an important factor in casting, but it becomes more about your dealings with the child, rather than the parent.  Primary Schoolers have rich imaginations and an active play life which makes it much easier to direct.  Being of school age, they’re also a lot smarter socially – most know how to behave in public and making a good impression.  Being more aware however, also means some are more sensitive so I’ve found it important to tread gently – especially if the scene’s not quite working.

The girl cast as our Primary School girl was new to acting, so it took time to work out the best approach to work with her.   The scene required her to play the violin – something she didn’t do in real life, so we were starting with something that was uncomfortable to begin with.  I realised she was a little flustered, so in the end I decided to start the shot with some foreground action to cover the initial discomfort, then as the camera moved in on her, she was busy figuring out the violin.  After flubbing a couple of takes, I realised she had started giggling with the other girls, so worked this in by having them be a ‘group’ together while the camera focused on her.  If a child talent gets upset, it’s an uphill battle to get the scene to work, but by keeping the environment safe and ‘light’, we got our shots. Sometimes, I’ve also found trying the scene in the ‘wrong’ way can trigger the ‘right’ reaction – eg. if the scene called for the child to be scared, try the scene brave and cocky.


Teenagers really are young adults so I find talking to them as adults rather than talking ‘down’ to them as children the most effective in communicating.  I guess it helps if you remember being treated like a kid and hating it – for good reason! – as teenagers, particularly by the time they’re 15 or 16, have their own personality and are pretty aware of what they can and can’t do.  They also have that natural bravado of thinking they can do anything, be anyone, and go anywhere, which is so necessary in a teenager before they discover some truisms about the world.

The teenage girl we cast was gorgeous, bubbly and gregarious – and untrained….so the challenge was, after the teenage scenario,  to ‘age’ her enough to make her believable as someone out in the workforce.  I’m not sure it entirely worked as she was so likeable and charming, but she committed and tried her best and I liked the rapport between her and the older lady in the nursing home.  Fortunately, the teenage boy we cast had some acting experience and real raw talent so helped make their scenes together which had to sell the ‘romance’ of the TVC’s believable.

Case Study 5: NDCO

Our project for the Australian Government’s National Disability Coordination Officer program was an interesting challenge.  Disability is a tricky subject to show visually without resorting to cliches, but our overriding desire with this project was to not show disability as merely someone in a wheelchair.  This video had to appeal to pre-teens and teenagers, so it had to be ‘cool’ yet accessible.

We decided to cast a variety of age groups so that the video could be both aspirational as well as informative and scripted the video in such a way that the ‘disabilities’ were of ‘objects’ rather than ‘people’ to try and help make it easier to discuss out loud.  None of the talent we cast were real actors, but we scripted each scenario with enough humour and enough of a separate ‘world’ – eg. a dancer, a pilot etc – that we felt would help the viewer feel that anything was possible…even with a disability, particularly a minor disability.

I decided in advance to use voice-over rather than dialogue as I felt that it would be easier and more effective with performance across the different scenarios to maintain a sense of various characters and situations.  It also meant that I could talk each talent through their scenes.

Pre-Teens or Tweenies are perhaps the most difficult to direct as they are at that vulnerable age where they think they’re an adult but are still really kids.  Some may act more like an adult, but may need to be coaxed even more gently than a toddler.  Directing Pre-Teens or Tweenies means being careful what you say as if they misinterpret what you say to be a criticism, the impact on them can be devastating.  Pre-Teens of Tweenies are also often the beginning of the romance phase where girls in particular start to pay more

Case Study 6: The University of Western Sydney (UWS)

Directing UWS with DOP Ben Allan ACS

Directing non-actor youths as students is surprisingly easy.  In the first place, unless there’s budget to hire actors, any student available for the video WANTS to be there, and second, as a director, you want them to look good.   As real students, they know what’s real – that’s not to say you can’t exaggerate a little or choose what to show on camera, but it also means they won’t let you get away with what’s not real.  Luckily, having experienced uni life, I know enough to set up a believable scene, but even if you haven’t, there a few tips that may help you.  First tip is make sure you’re working from a real script that isn’t too wordy and repetitive.  With this UWS Student Services Video, we described each category as a TVC.  ie. 30 seconds to get across that particular faculty – the key points only.

With 13 separate areas, plus intro and outro, even 30 seconds each amounted to at least about 8 minutes of video, so you want to make each section flow smoothly into the next so that the viewer isn’t bogged down.  You know you can always check the website for more information, so the purpose of a video is to simply get across the main points and give a picture of what the student can expect.  Another tip is to stretch each shot as much as you can.  With these sort of projects, I’ve found that it’s sometimes difficult to round up enough talent in time, so to try and ‘make it work’, I’ve asked each student to bring at least 5 different changes of clothing so that – if need be – I can re-use a talent as a new talent by re-framing and re-directing.


Case Study 1: Recipe For Healthy Living

Agency: Cyclone Advertising • Art Director: Greg Verzaci • Writer: Jonathan Correll • Production Company: Tribal • Executive Producer: Sharon Maloney • Producer: Jackie Fish • Director: Clara Chong • DOP: Ben Allan ACS

Case Study 2: One More Goodbye

Client: Steve Gibson Music • Producer: Miya Bradley • Director: Clara Chong • DOP: Ben Allan ACS

Cast Study 3: Cisco Systems

Production Company: X Origin • Producer: Darryl Thoms • Director: Clara Chong • DOP: Ben Allan ACS

Case Study 4: Catholic Education TVC

Agency: 2Creative Media • Art Director: Heidi Manning • Production Company: Concept Creative • Producer: Martin McGrevy • Director: Clara Chong • DOP: Ben Allan ACS

Case Study 5: NDCO

Client: Australian Government (National Disability Coordination Officer) • Director: Clara Chong • Producer/DOP: Ben Allan ACS • Composer: Paul Winn • Cast: Meredith Calthorpe, Luca Frost, Gemma Dawson, Fernando Villalon, Joshua Tanno, Paul Winn, Shuichi Kawano

Case Study 6: UWS

Client: University of Western Sydney • UWS Producer: Tanya Cook • Production Company: The Film Bakery • Director: Clara Chong • Producer/DOP: Ben Allan ACS • Composer: Paul Winn


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