It Takes Talent

Many years ago, I left "the day job" cranking out corporate video for a major corporation to start a small production company. The real reason I quit was because I believed I wasn't in control. I found myself complaining incessantly about the mediocre work I was forced to turn out. Everyone around me was at fault, to hear me tell it: the small-minded client; the writer's flat, lifeless scripts; the bean counters' ridiculous budgets.

Fast-forward to 2003: Armed with your $500 MiniDV camera and Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro, you really can do it all. You can shoot, edit, write the narration, record it, add the music and titles, master to tape and make DVDs. For better or worse, the one-man-band is a reality; a single individual can assert control over all the variables, with one exception: talent.

No, I'm not referring to that ethereal quality that inspires our muse; I'm talking about actors.

True, you can delude yourself into believing that your own mellifluous voice is ideal for the narration, or that your out-of -- work in -- laws could easily play the part of Mr. and Mrs. Prospective Client. But if you really want a finished product you can proudly sign your name to, you've got to use real talent... actors who earn their livings doing these very things.

Using professional talent, it turns out, is not a thing to be feared. Despite Mel Brooks' famous comeback in "The Producers," ("Actors aren't animals... they're human beings!" "Really? Have you ever eaten with one?") collaboration with seasoned professionals doesn't necessarily diminish the control you have over the finished production, but can instead enhance the look and feel.


In the nonbroadcast arena, there has always been a fervent debate over the use of union talent versus non-union, sparked by questions over pay rates, contracts and signatories. I've known producers who have selected less-skilled performers simply to avoid union employment, and their productions invariably showed the result.

The simple fact is that actors who choose to join AFTRA, SAG or Actors' Equity have made a statement of commitment to their craft. Although it's no guarantee of a stellar portrayal -- only a casting session can answer that question -- union membership is one mark of professionalism. And even for actors who'll "go both ways" -- accept union or non-union payment -- it becomes important to accrue a certain amount of work on the union payroll to help lock-in the year's pension benefit.

For the record, a producer doesn't need to become a union "signatory" to use union talent; there are dozens of paymasters who'll do the paperwork for a modest fee, including many casting services. In our experience, there is no huge financial penalty for choosing union employment, and the difference in the performance is often significant.


Since we're located a few miles outside of New York City, it's fair to say that we're located in one of the most geographically concentrated talent pools in the United States. In other words, we've got it relatively easy... even out in the suburbs, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an actor or two.

But elsewhere around the country, the actor-per-square-mile quotient drops dramatically; what's a producer to do?

There are the time-honored techniques: search out the best and brightest performers from community theaters and universities, or make friends with the local TV and radio on-air talent. Technology, though, offers the chance to use really good voice-over talent from around the country.

Years ago, one VO guy we knew had an entire studio in his home, and would mail you a 1/4-inch tape of the completed script. Wow... what a concept! By comparison, today we know maybe a half-dozen folks with high-quality, inexpensive home studios; they'll interact with you over a phone patch during the session, and post your completed track to their ftp server 10 minutes after you're done recording. Their charges for this service usually approach giveaway rates... they're glad to have the work and don't need to hit you for equipment.


In general, money spent on better talent comes back to you in spades. We regularly use one of the VO talents from PBS' "Nova" series and another favorite is a major force in theatrical trailers. Most of our on-camera talent has had at least one or two guest appearances on NBC's "Law & Order." And, when the project calls for it, we've got several less expensive, but equally talented, alternate performers.

It's hard to measure the impact in numbers, but when the client's product is described by the Nova announcer, it's accepted by the viewer as fact, not as a sales pitch or shill, and that's money in the bank. And our theatrical trailer talent pours on his most meaningful emphasis for our tug-at-the-heartstrings pieces; I've heard the muffled sniffles and seen the wet eyes in the audience, including the teary-eyed client. Bingo.