The Insider's Guide to Production: Casting - The casting conundrum

Casting directors play a vital role in humanising a product and finding the right personality to communicate its values to the target audience.

Casting directors are often forgotten. However, in a society driven by Generation Y, where product recognition in many cases usurps political and religious recognition, we are the people who effectively humanise the brand and take it from a two-dimensional notion to a living, breathing, organic form.

Consider the chain; a brand owner wants to promote a new product or strapline with an integrated campaign. Two key methods of achieving successful results are either to put the product or brand into context or place it into an aspirational situation. The enlightened client relies upon his agency and its creatives to do this and they, in turn, will rely upon a production team to interpret not only the brief, but the product, its features and benefits, its character and in turn the target audience. Key to the humanisation and interpretation of the product is the role of the casting director.

One of the key questions to consider is what the consumer remembers; market research will tell you that it is a fact that many people remember the person, not the product, in a TV commercial.

The point is ably illustrated by the humour of Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins, who added their own aspirational ice and a slice to Cinzano.

A great casting director marries personality, colour, sex, location, creed and age with the core consumer values they represent, thus creating a perfect vehicle to promote both product and brand effectively.

Virtually every acted script, whether radio, film, TV or theatre, needs casting. In most cases, a successful characterisation will be assessed in a matter of episodes, performances or hours. The commercial is a microcosm of the script; a place where a personality (and the product it represents or promotes) is judged not by a career but in a matter of seconds. In short, instant impact is everything.

Of course, this is a Utopian vision, a nirvana where every creative can rely on perfect results from perfect briefs every time. In practice, life is not like this and in every 30 seconds of video tape there are weeks and often months of blood, sweat, tears and stress, and often many conflicting agendas and opinions within the creative chain.

The challenge is to fulfil the brief and its varying agendas with professional skill, technical credibility and often personality management.

Listening is crucial and the psychiatrist's couch, in many cases, can be more effective than the casting couch. As the bean-counters love to tell us, business is a numbers game - and the tighter the task, the fewer the funds available. The ability to listen allows the skilled casting director to define his brief to avoid relying on the numbers and play a game of refined and accurate delivery.

Parts can be performance-driven, personality and physically driven, technically driven or culturally driven in any combination. Consider two of our more recent series of castings, Joe Pytka and Ogilvy & Mather's IBM business campaign and Wieden & Kennedy and Johan Renck's Nike "dance" promotion.

In the former, our challenge was to find characters who were aspirational, believable and credible on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Pytka uses commonplace commercial situations to promote harmony with stressed executives, and creates an empathetic problem and a subsequent pain-relieving solution, thus providing a classic messaging technique.

With Nike, we provided cool and original talent capable of making the random watcher believe that the shoes would walk the road to their physical aspirations, whatever the truth is. In the former, performance and personality were everything; in the latter, physique, technical skill and culture were all.

In London, we are spoiled by the amount of available talent, one of the reasons the city remains top of the list for casting. The biggest misconception of the general public about our business is the notion that beauty is needed for this type of work. Real impact means real people who reflect real society and real values.

On occasion, some of our results come from street castings and chance introductions, while Nike and IBM need a more traditional, talent-led approach. Obviously, London attracts artists of all capabilities and levels from around the world, and probably still has a better all-round offering than any other city in the world.

One of the biggest challenges for any casting director (and, indeed, any business) is adapting and adopting. Since starting in casting, our company has both diversified and expanded to attract premium income and interest, embracing expert, high-quality talent in skills such as choreography.

Indeed, our choreographers have instructed artists of the calibre of Beyonce, Madonna and Michael Jackson, and we cast the straight guy in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy US.

We have also expanded from predominantly advertising to a mixed portfolio including music videos, film, and reality TV.

It is pretty obvious that as TV viewing becomes more fragmented by choice and interest, advertising patterns will follow. We are not harbingers of doom in this regard; TV advertising will naturally become more of a commodity-based industry as animation and volume of opportunity rather than acting and quality dominate its drivers.

Consider also the increase in digital options and you see that casting companies will have to adapt and offer fast, effectively communicated choice. We've already developed our own web application that streams real-time casting sessions via our website - an industry first - and it is so effective we have been approached to market it to other creatives.

Innovation is worthless without delivery and we are well aware that if showbusiness was not a business it would be called "showshow", as someone more qualified once said. It is always difficult to decide whether a casting director is an artistic performer or a headhunter, and perhaps the final challenge we face is keeping both aspects in balance and doing what we do with passion, verve and professionalism.

- Mark Summers is the casting director of Casting UnLimited.

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