Storm in a tea cup
Director Porteus Xandau’s latest online film for fashion brand Trenery, blends soft, cinematic visuals with the intimate, unrehearsed words from expert tea maker, Swaady Martin. Her story of craft and attention to detail are mirrored appropriately by the documentary itself.
CUT & RUN | a case study in performance directing
TRUTH BE TOLD, as a director, working with non-actors can be an amazing experience or one that can label you a terrible performance director—a label that’ll take ages to remove with a combination of fingernails, soap, and alcohol.
It should be no surprise that I almost always try and work with professional actors. The most basic reason for this is professionalism. Little things like arriving on set on time, or not tucking into lunch while still in wardrobe or costume, which is the quickest way to get the wardrobe department to lose their collective minds. There’s also the basic expectation of performance range and consistency. The reason that the craft of acting exists is that if it were easy, everyone could do it. Believe me, everyone can’t do it.
However, in the short film, advertising, and online content space, the main reason one works with actors is because they’re interesting to watch. They possess a magnetic quality that magically translates through the lens. To be honest, some actors are boring as hell in real life, but boy, point a camera at them and they become homing devices for your eyeballs.
In my career, I’ve often been put in the situation where I have to work with non-actors, usually because the client wants a very specific look that personifies their brand image. And fair enough, a specific character’s look is just as important as a product’s packaging. Both create an instant impression within the mind of the consumer.
So, if a client is immovable in casting a non-actor, and let’s assume this non-actor is a complete ‘plank’, in other words has zero performance ability, as a director you’ll have to try and engineer a way to simplify the script so that “the plank” can give the illusion of a performance. Or be prepared, as the director, to be held responsible in the first agency and client viewing for not meeting their expectations.
When everyone is sitting in the edit suite staring at a castle built of planks and the shitstorm is approaching, remember that you, my friend, are the architect, and the King (client) is not going to be happy.
So, what’s my advice for directors?
1. Cast far and wide for a real actor who has the look a client wants.
2. Make the case to clients that narrative content lives and dies on performance. Fashion films don’t need acting, but stories do!
3. Learn to work with and around “planks”. Simplify the script. Use a narrator instead of in-camera sound. Find a memory or emotional key that unlocks a performance from them. It can be done, but it takes work and experience.
And if you’re a client?
If you’re dead-set on a certain look, ask for an audition in which your chosen star has to actually act. Then make a decision. Remember, while you can totally hang the architect when the shitstorm arrives, you’re still going to be the King of the Plank Castle when the viewing numbers, leads, and sales fail to rush to your drawbridge.
There are a lot of little tricks that can be used to get a “plank” to give a compelling performance in front of the camera. I’ll pull together a listicle you can read in the bathroom in a future post.
– By Porteus Xandau.