Video Production 101: Design and Execution
- “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.”
- —Elie Wiesel
How important is design to the creation of a media project? The choice to design your piece and create images to fit your design, as opposed to just accepting what is there, is key to the accomplishment of a finished work. If you’ve ever seen a finished media project that was not designed by its creator, you probably realized that not making a choice is making a choice.
For instance, some content creators, especially those who are new to the form, stage their action directly in front of a blank white wall, without thinking about how the color, the contrast, the manipulation of space within the frame, or even the distance between the camera and the subject might influence what the audience understands to be happening in the shot.
Exciting shot compositions that match and balance each other, as well as consistent visual design that creates a world onscreen, don’t happen accidentally. They are the result of a lot of work and high standards by the crew and the bosses who are often willing to say, “No, this isn’t right. This won’t work.”
In this chapter we’ll cover the importance of several areas where exacting standards and attention to detail are needed to complete a polished, interesting piece of work. Casting your project, designing it, costuming it, and lighting it are all key steps to creating a work worth seeing, thinking about, and talking about. However, no matter what level of lighting gear, props, and actors you have access to, the key determinant to the quality of your finished work is your vision and your perfectionism.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Whatever it is, get it right.
Casting a Wide Net
The director is the creative boss of the film crew, and though different theories ascribe to directors more or less responsibility for the ultimate success or failure of the project (the French auteur theory gives them all the credit! Sacré bleu!), few would question that the director is the crew member most responsible for tying together the work of many other talented professionals to create the best, most unified whole.
The director’s three main responsibilities toward the project are as follows:
- To visualize the script, designing the camera shots necessary to tell the story and translate the script into pictures and sounds
- To cast the best possible actors to play the various roles in the project
- To direct those actors to give performances that are appropriate and build the project to a proper culmination or climax
Many directors, including Martin Scorsese, agree with the great theater and film director Elia Kazan that casting—finding just the right actors to play the roles in a project—is 90 percent of their job (see FIGURE 4.1). It has often been said that if a director does that, the rest will work itself out.
FIGURE 4.1 Cat casting for Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1961)
Casting for a media project will be done either by the director or by a casting director. The casting director is probably the job known by the fewest people outside of the media industry that carries the most power. They have so much power, in fact, that when playwrite David Rabe wrote his landmark play about Hollywood, Hurlyburly (1984), the three main characters were all casting agents and casting directors.
You might be asking yourself, if casting is one of the three main responsibilities of the director, where does the casting director fit in? Just as the editor applies a fresh set of eyes to the footage shot by the director and the crew, the casting director is the primary crew member trying to connect the director and producers to the right actors. Interestingly, though the job of director is still dominated by men, casting directors tend to be women.
The casting director schedules and oversees auditions, deals with actors’ representatives, and creates a casting breakdown, which will list all the roles that are being cast, like this:
- Jenny (mid-20s): A housewife feeling the pressure of domestic life, itching for a little excitement.
- Balin (early 30s): A career con artist for whom no grift is too big or too small. He’s beginning to feel his age and wonder whether there’s anything for him beyond changing towns and names every few weeks.
- Fenton (late 40s): A master manipulator who plays everyone against everyone else and sits back until the dust clears.
Casting can lift a project or sink it. The director needs to determine during the actor’s audition, or tryout for the role, whether they have the qualities and the abilities to get across whatever the character is feeling, thinking, and doing.
Some actors have a mercurial ability to transform themselves into almost any role. Actress Meryl Streep is the best example of this. She has played a Polish immigrant living in Brooklyn in Sophie’s Choice (1982), the editrix of a major fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada (2011), chef Julia Child in Julie & Julia (2011), and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2013). She has been nominated for an incredible 18 Academy Awards for acting and won three.
You can Google “actor’s auditions” and see any number of amazing examples of exactly what an actor did to impress the casting director to think that they could play a role.
One example of this is Rachel McAdams’ audition for the lead role in The Notebook (2008). McAdams, at that point, had appeared in supporting roles in a number of films including Mean Girls (2006), and since she was trying out for a lead role, she was going to really have to nail it to win the role over more well-known actresses.
If you watch this video (available on YouTube), you can see the honesty and emotional reality she brought to the audition, which no doubt impressed the casting director and the director enough to feel confident casting her. Her performance and the worldwide success of that film turned her into a movie star.
Another great casting story involves the film The Public Enemy (1931). Originally, director William Wellman (his film Wings won the first Academy Award in 1927) cast actor Edward Woods in the lead role of gangster Tom Powers and assigned the role of Powers’ sidekick to an unknown actor, James Cagney. However, in rehearsals, the director and producers saw that Cagney had more charisma and seemed more like a forceful and interesting criminal and switched him to the leading role.
Cagney became a movie star.
A final casting example that may be more familiar involves the making of the first Iron Man (2010). Director Jon Favreau wanted actor Robert Downey Jr. to play the main role, and Downey felt very capable to play it; however, the actor’s troubled personal history made the producers reluctant to cast him as a lead in such a big-budget project for which there were high expectations.
Downey agreed to screen test for the role (which he ordinarily might not have done due to his stature as an actor), and everyone could tell from his audition that he was the only actor who could embody the complicated identity of Tony Stark/Iron Man. The decision to go forward with Downey may be the most pivotal piece of casting in 30 years because Iron Man launched a series of the most successful and profitable films in history, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Audition Process
Auditioning can be nerve-wracking regardless of which side of the table you’re sitting on. As a director or casting director, you’re desperate to find the performer who can elevate the character as written on the page and bring them alive onscreen. You may even feel, as some creative types do, that unless you find just the right vessel to create that one-of-a-kind role in your project, you can’t even move forward with it.
As an actor, you’re looking for the chance to get to use your gifts to create someone and something real, beautiful, and memorable...and maybe get paid...and maybe put something out there impressive enough to get you hired for another gig and get even more opportunities.
This is why many actors, when they’re just starting out or even after they’ve been at it a while, are willing to try out for or submit themselves for student films or amateur productions with no pay, where their only compensation is a copy of the finished project that they can showcase on their reel.
In fact, even some well-known actors will participate in a no-budget project if they think the script is really something special or the writer, director, or producer is someone they think they might want to work with in the future.
Most of the time, producers list their breakdowns and project information in periodicals like The Hollywood Reporter or Variety or on websites such as http://backstage.com and http://actorsguide.blogspot.com. More resources for actors are listed in the appendix.
There are several popular formats for auditions. If you are holding auditions for your project, you should decide whether you want to see actors do some or all of the following:
- Read prepared monologues (speeches)
- Read sides (pages) from your script
- Perform improvisations based on a general understanding of the characters and situations the actors are trying to portray
Improvisation means acting spontaneously in character without a script. It’s considered such an important talent for actors, comics, and even writers to have that many acting programs and classes dedicate a considerable amount of time to it.
After auditions, as casting director you may decide to hold a second round of auditions known as callbacks, which continue until you have found the best actors to cast in each role.