Casting is essential to the success of your video, and if you don’t believe me, ask Darth Vader. Everyone who ever physically played the seven-foot Sith Lord has been atrocious in the role. Hayden Christensen made bad dialogue sound worse; Jake Lloyd treated us to the unfortunate spectacle of a nine-year-old child creeping out on Natalie Portman; David Prowse – who inhabited the original suit – spoke the villain’s lines with a thick West Country accent, so they had to get James Earl Jones to fix it in post-production.
George Lucas isn’t alone here (though getting it wrong three times with the same character IS kind of spectacular). People with huge budgets mess up casting all the time. More than one respectable director thought of Jude Law as a believable gangster, a believable Michael Caine, or a believable Michael Caine-style gangster. Nobody ever bothered to check if “doing a credible English accent” was among Anne Hathaway’s many gifts.
If you’re making a corporate video or an explainer video, you may well wonder if you have any chance of getting it right when so many others have gotten it so very wrong, with so much money – especially since you have to draw on a standard marketing budget, and a pool of amateur co-workers rather than working thespians.
But don’t despair just yet. Approach the casting process correctly, take heed of our casting tips, and you can secure great performances for your production.
Most of the time, you won’t be working with professional actors. That’s a good thing and a bad thing: good, because you can capture some of that genuine, unrehearsed energy and enthusiasm – bad, because they don’t know how to perform.
The first thing to do is to select who does the actual talking. CEOs can be particularly bad picks. It’s a natural impulse to give the person at the top of the pyramid the most screen time, but being good at running a company doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at selling it. Simply put, when faced with camera, even your fearless leader can turn into a gibbering, sweaty puddle.
Desirable traits vary, but you generally want someone who’s relaxed and self-assured. Members of the sales team are often good for this, because it’s their job to sell your company, and doing it on film isn’t a huge stretch. But be wary: the charisma of your confident, bubbly, highly popular types may sometimes evaporate on-camera. They need to be comfortable being themselves, and not everyone is: the best performance often isn’t a performance at all.
And when you’re selecting several “actors”, try to pick as broad a cross-section of staff members as possible. If you have a diverse company packed with employees of different ages, genders, races, and sexual orientations, but you cast only old, clean-cut white dudes, people are going to develop ideas about your company that don’t necessarily reflect the reality.
Casting a spell
It’s also important to remember that much of what goes wrong with casting has less to do with the performers and more to do with the broader production.
For example, a bad script always leads to a bad performance (with certain exceptions). Nicholas Cage got a lot of shit for his performance in The Wicker Man, but consider that he had to read lines that, on the page, amounted to:
“Oh no. Ow. Not the bees. Oh, they’re in my eyes. My eyes. Aaaaaaaah.”
“This is murder! Murder! You’ll all be guilty, and you’re doing it for nothing. Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey.”
You could get Meryl Streep, Alec Guinness, Denzel Washington, whoever to read those lines, and the result will still be borderline terrible. Without the right words, the right performance will forever elude you.
As well as casting tips, we’ve also provided some handy scriptwriting tips here, and we can even write scripts for you. But if you’re working with staff performers, the best approach is to be as economical as possible. They’re not equipped with the tools necessary to deliver believable monologues, so you’ll want to go for naturalism wherever possible: a list of talking points and some gentle steering will always serve you better than reams of overwritten dialogue.
Finally, be as discerning as possible about your production partners. While you’ll naturally get the last word on everything that matters, the experience and skills of a good video company will often serve you well. As John Frankenheimer once said: 65% of casting is directing.
Jamie Field wrote this article, but he also directs TV adverts, virtual reality videos, explainer videos and such. What a fortuitous coincidence! Get in touch to discuss your casting and production needs.