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Innocence Lost

I've got a little speech I like to give just before we start to roll on every "civilian" video shoot. (That's our term for any project where the subject isn't carrying a SAG, AFTRA or Actors Equity card… non-professional talent.) My directorial soliloquy doesn't vary much from performance to performance, and the veteran camera operators and sound guys I work with usually move their lips along with the more familiar passages: "Pay no attention to all these lights and wires…" or, "When I say 'action,' I'd like you to take a little pause first…." And don't forget the nearly obsolete refrain: "Tape is cheap! We can always give it another try."

Over the years, directing nonprofessionals has actually been an enjoyable and challenging part of the job for me. The enjoyment is simple: trying to coax out a natural, relaxed performance means less trauma for the poor, disoriented subject. Moreover, it means that the civilian's production experience isn't nearly as painful as imagined—and that we'll be invited back to shoot again another day.


The challenging part, of course, is succeeding where Mother Nature has failed. Historically, most humans have seemed as instinctively afraid of the limelight as they are of snakes—from the great and mighty CEO down to the most reclusive retail clerk. And no matter great or small, when that tally light goes red, the face goes pale and flaccid, the sweat glands start pumping, and cognition ends. It's our job to pull them back in from that ledge, and make them comfortable enough to live through the shoot.

Inevitably, we occasionally fail in our mission. Interview responses are expelled in bursts of three words or less; eyes dart frantically to and fro, searching for deliverance; and that characteristic doe-eyed stare washes over the perceptibly vibrating subject. A blotchy red pigmentation rises from a woman's clavicle to her hairline, and her ears turn so red they threaten to burst into flames. One prominent cardiologist started pouring such copious volumes of sweat from the "mask" region that the makeup artist simply remained next to him on the set, just out of camera range. We later slowed the footage to watch the individual droplets grow from each pore… just like a nature film. All of which makes the successes—and there are many—so much more satisfying.


Most of these experiences arise with subjects in my own general age range; after all, you usually have to have lived a little before anyone is particularly interested in what you have to say. As we encounter progressively younger interviewees, however, I'm beginning think that the curtain may have come down on this director-turned-counselor role.

Last week, we packed up the gear and set out for a shoot at a rural high school. There we profiled a young woman whose achievements as a budding performer were to be recognized at a fundraising gala for the local performing arts center. Bereft of more meaningful B-roll scenarios, we shot the girl and her posse hangin' out around the school—out in front, down back in the cafeteria, and so on.

I imagine that Ed the cameraman must have heard me clearing my throat for the customary warm-up speech—because he elbowed me sharply and waved me off. He'd seen an opportunity, and had started rolling already—the four teen girls in the shot had already lapsed into a steady stream of animated chatter and juicy gossip. Perfect! I'm a big fan of "stealth" shooting, capturing subjects unawares.

I worried, though, about the close-up coverage; how would we maintain that disarming spontaneity with the barrel of a big ol' lens mere inches from their faces? Amazingly, the group never missed a beat. The yakking continued seamlessly. Stranger still, these four 17-year-olds ingested my verbal instructions and adjustments without either looking at me or mugging the camera. Stunning. I've worked with veteran actors who couldn't manage that feat.

As the shoot progressed, it was apparent that these subjects weren't fazed by lights, fishpole microphones or, for that matter, the potentially intimidating questions posed by adults in positions of authority. All those old bugaboos—don't look at the camera lens, answer in complete sentences—were deftly skirted by every young person we worked with on this project.

I've had several discussions with peers since that unusual shoot, and there's a consensus building: Below a certain age threshold, those old-school fears surrounding on-camera performance seem to have vanished. Our mutual conjecture is that the advent of "reality TV" is the variable at work here. The apparent ease with which favorite reality characters shed their inhibitions seems to be mirrored in the genre's generally younger audiences. There also seems to be implicit understanding of the carrot-and-stick inherent in reality shooting: being "natural" and ignoring the camera will make you a star, but mugging the camera or looking uncomfortable will earn you a spot on the cutting room floor.

Exeunt director, stage left… sans speech.