CAMPAIGN CRAFT: THE CREATIVE ISSUE - How directors can get a good performance from amateurs. Commercials directors no longer need actors for the lead role, Jim Davies says

You’re watching the third commercial in the fourth ad break of the evening when you suddenly realise there’s something missing.

You’re watching the third commercial in the fourth ad break of the

evening when you suddenly realise there’s something missing.



In turn, you’ve witnessed supermodels, celebrity chefs, television

presenters, footballers, athletes, stand-up comedians, captains of

industry and members of the general public - even the kind of jumped-up

socialites who are just famous for being famous - touting everything

from beer to banks to takeaway chicken.



Then it suddenly dawns on you. There are no actors among this motley

crew. They can’t all be resting, surely? Or too snooty to pocket the

advertising dollar? So what’s happening?



There was a time when you were almost guaranteed to see luminaries of

stage and screen endorsing all manner of products and services with

thespian gusto. They were all at it. Helen Mirren brought sophistication

to Virgin Atlantic, Bob Hoskins talked up BT, Joan Collins hammed it up

for Cinzano and Rutger Hauer was enigmatic for Guinness.



Even the late, great Orson Welles took a bow for Sandemans Port, when he

had famously fallen on hard times. Now, with one or two notable

exceptions, they all seem to have vanished.



There are a number of reasons behind the phenomenon; the first and most

mundane being the recently resolved dispute between Equity and the

Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.



For the main part, TV viewers are currently scrutinising shoots carried

out earlier this year, when card-carrying actors were advised by their

union not to appear in ads. So agencies and production companies were

forced to look outside the pages of Spotlight for their protagonists.

Suddenly, non-actors were in the frame for their 30 seconds of fame.



The next, and more compelling reason, is the commercial director’s quest

to create credible scenarios. ’Generally, I’m trying to create a feeling

of naturalism,’ Trevor Melvin of Blink explains. ’If you’ve got people

thinking, ’Wasn’t he in the Bill last week?’, the spell is broken.

Non-actors can often bring something new and fresh to a script.’



Melvin’s Meat and Livestock Commission commercial through BMP, featuring

a devoted octogenarian couple, was a case in point. The casting agent,

Amanda Tabac, discovered the engaging pair at a day centre for the

elderly.



’They were just good mates,’ says Melvin, who was also responsible for

the effervescent Lilt ladies. ’They had each other for support and were

very relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera. It’s a shame some

of their improvisations didn’t stay in, they were so funny.’



So how do you go about getting a half-decent performance out of a

non-professional? ’Remove anything wooden from the set so there is no

point of reference,’ the director, Paul Weiland, says. He has



directed everyone from Gary Lineker and the Spice Girls to Jonathan Ross

and Caprice.



’It’s not rocket science,’ he continues. ’You’ve just got to create a

relaxed atmosphere and know exactly what you want. As a director, you’ve

got to have an attitude and a point of view and convey that clearly.

Actors are trained to react and have opinions, whereas non-actors are

more like puppets.’



Tomboy’s Theo Delaney, a die-hard football fan who has directed Eric

Cantona, Alan Shearer and Peter Schmeichel among others, prefers to keep

his distance for fear of becoming overawed. ’Celebrities’ most precious

commodity is time,’ he explains.



’So it’s important to let them see that you are being totally

professional on set and that they aren’t left hanging around. I treat

them just as I would any other actor: keep them informed, reassure and

encourage them.’



There are various tricks of the trade that can also help. Weiland admits

to having kept the camera running on occasion, so his charges are

unaware they are being filmed. One ploy of the Godman director, Mark

Denton, is to tell his subjects that the shot he is going to use is

already in the can and he’s just trying one more ’for luck’, which

relaxes the situation. Denton, who has acted in commercials himself and

is gearing up for a performance as the Edwardian footballer, Nobby

Shufflebottom, in a forthcoming Co-op ad, says the critical period is

pre-shoot, during casting.



’You’ve got to be able to spot that special ingredient that makes

someone relaxed in front of the camera. Even professional actors can

fall apart sometimes,’ he says.



Melvin agrees, maintaining that because non-actors have nothing to lose,

they often produce more effective performances within the short

time-frame of a commercial.



He should know - he’s even directed his mother-in-law for a Halifax ad.

’She is 75 years old and has seen it all,’ he says. ’She isn’t afraid of

anything.’



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