“Casting” is the TV word for getting people (“contributors”) to appear in your TV programme or video. On Things Not To Say we cast scores of people and this is what I learnt from that experience.
What follows is quite long but that’s because this isn’t meant to be entertaining, it’s meant to be useful. For that reason I’ve tried to make it comprehensive, laying out exactly what you need to do.
The first thing to say is:
For some reason a lot of people see casting as drudgery. They can’t wait to get it done so they can talk about what fancy camera lens they’re going to use.
Well, here’s my advice: take it seriously. It’s the heart of your video.
Here’s a summary of how it works:
- Casting brief – decide what you’re looking for
- Get lots of potentials
- Whittle them down
- Aftercare & publishing
1. Casting brief
The first thing you need to decide is what you’re looking for. I like to scrawl the qualities I’m looking for up on the whiteboard.
You might be looking for stories or “case-studies” – people who’ve experienced something extraordinary who can be interviewed. Or it might be you need characters to follow – people who facing a big decision or challenge. On Things Not To Say, the quick editing style didn’t really allow a lot of time for stories. Instead we were casting for personality, people who spoke confidently and expressively.
Here’s some of the other qualities I’m always looking for:
1) Larger than life
There’s a phrase sometimes used in TV: “The camera takes 30%.” It means that a performance on screen has 30% less energy, humour and vitality than real life. That’s why you want people who are larger than life – people who are funnier, more energetic, crazy than your average Joe. Normal rarely cuts it.
If you want your audience to hang out with a person or a group of people it really helps if the people you’re putting on are likeable. It’s a hard thing to define but it doesn’t mean attractive… It basically comes down to whether you want to spend time with them.
3) A mix of humour and substance
I like to produce films that make people laugh and make people think. This means people who have a sense of humour but also people who have some anger or outrage burning in them.
A tick in people’s favour is if they have some kind of social following. On it’s own it’s not enough, but it is worth noting.
5) A diverse cast
All BBC projects (should) aim to cast diversely. This includes – but is not limited to – the following:
- Class / social background
- Gender (male, female, non-binary)
- Mental health & neuro diversity (e.g. autism)
- Body shape / beauty
Diversity doesn’t mean taking “B grade” people. Too often I’ve heard producers say something like, “Well they’re not great but they tick a lot of boxes”. No.
We need to think about diversity early, and think about where we’re going to get applications from under-represented groups, which takes us to…
2. Get lots of potentials
It’s important to remember this is casting. One mistake I see a lot with people starting off is they think they’re looking for volunteers. You hear something like, “I needed 3 people and I’ve got 3 people.”
If you’re doing your job properly you will want lots of applications and lots of options.
There’s two types of casting:
General casting is putting a call or ad out there and seeing what comes back. Targeted casting is when you’re going after specific people. Let’s start with general:
Writing your ad
You start by writing an ad describing the project and who you’re looking for. Think carefully about your wording and get it signed off. Here’s an example of a recent ad I wrote. Like all the examples here, it’s not perfect but hopefully seeing a real example is helpful.
Don’t forget to include:
- When you’re filming
- Where you’re filming
“Useful text” document
I recommend putting together a document with all your signed-off ads / pitches to agents. You can then save time by cutting and pasting key phrases.
These can work really well, especially on social media. They can often go viral themselves, being shared hundreds of times. Here’s some examples:
Getting the ad seen
…Here’s some basic things to try:
You’re looking for the door
This advice is from Rubina Pabani, the current series producer of Things Not To Say:
“Every online community has its leaders and these people are the access doors to more people. A person who has a big following in the community has already done the hard work of rallying the community to one place, whether it be on a blog, twitter account or YouTube channel these people will open the door to niche groups. I always ask for help and encourage them to be part of the editorial so that the films feel like collaborations between us and that community. When you find the door, open it and read the comments on articles, videos, Facebook threads and find those people.”
She describes how one contributor in her tattoos film ran an influential blog which both cast and promoted the film. Another time, she got help from a red-headed photographer had made a “Hot Gingers” calendar; March, April, May were all in the final film!
So. Think about:
Try not to outsource your casting
Bear in mind some institutions like to think they know how to cast for television so take all the recommendations with a pinch of salt.
Are there physical locations where people hang out? We cast for people with HIV in sexual health clinics. For Free Speech audience producers put posters up in shops and other places, or ask people in the street. [E.g. Rubina in that seaside town]
Rather than rely on applications producers often target specific people:
- Look for articles – either first-person pieces about a topic or those where a journalist has interviewed others
- YouTube videos
- Twitter accounts
- Comedians who’ve talked about the topic
- Ask community leaders / ambassadors who they recommend talking to
Everyone is an ambassador
“Talk about the series and the topics to everyone you speak to and get everyone to look for people for you. Tattooed people know body mod people, Brexiteers knew Remainers and surprisingly the gingers knew some deaf people. Old contributors who enjoyed being part of the series can be a good in to finding new contributors and even point you in the direction for new subjects. Basically keep chatting about it to as many people as you can.”
Don’t piss off the community
“Making allies is very important and knowing who is respected amongst a group is vital. On one film we were filming with someone it turned out was hated by the community, it caused us a number of problems. Another time we used image we hadn’t licensed in a casting poster and the photographer – who was a key person in the community we were targeting – was very unhappy. “
Do you mind if they’ve done other stuff?
Many people (often in news) want new “case-studies”. Personally, I’m less bothered but many casting producers will want “fresh” people.
Things Not To Say doesn’t pay a fee. The reasons for this are 1) it has a small budget 2) these are interviews and we don’t want people to be tempted to exaggerate their experiences for money.
The best approach is to be upfront about things but there can still be kick-back.
On the new BBC Three show I’m working on, we’re planning to pay fees to those who are professional performers or have a public profile. But still it’s an argument we have to win with bosses, who argue – as we’re spending licence fee payers’ money – we need to keep costs to a minimum.
Be cautious about what you write
Everything you write can be used in a newspaper article. As I once found out to my cost.
In case of controversy refer up!
When doing social media casting you run into kickback. I recommend avoiding acrimonious exchanges online about a project. You don’t have to deal with the stress, get your bosses to do that.
Be excited about your project!
Believing in the thing that you work on is the best feeling and when you speak to contribs if you show them you’re passionate and excited about making something, they’ll feel like they can’t miss out. Creating a buzz around the topic and episode gets people on your side.
3. Whittling potentials down to your final cast
Now you’ve got (hopefully) scores of applications, it’s time to whittle them down.
Before you start casting it can be useful to brainstorm with colleagues some good questions to ask people.
Is there video?
Watching someone on video (hopefully doing something similar to what you’re casting for) is the fastest way to assess someone. If that’s available go straight for that.
You don’t have to call everyone, start with those most promising and give them a call.
These calls are really important:
- This is your chance to make a strong connection with the contributor.
- This is likely to be when a contributor is most relaxed. In the studio when the lights and camera are on them it’s useful if you can say, “When we spoke on the phone I remember you telling me ____”.
As you’re speaking to someone try and continually assess how likely it is you’re going to use them. If they’re not “A+” then bring the call to a swift end. If they’re good then you need to take your time and find out everything you can.
I use a spreadsheet and type notes right into one of the squares. It’s really useful for when you come to putting together your shooting plan.
Get one of those headset things
Once you’ve got neck cramp from using a normal telephone you won’t knock it anymore.
Don’t forget these basic questions:
- Are you free on the filming date? (Start with this! Don’t presume they read the ad)
- What do you do for a living?
- How old are you?
- Where are you based?
Give yourself wiggle room
Lots of people will think the fact you’re calling them on the phone means they’ve been selected to be in your film project. It’s important to let them know this isn’t the case to avoid awkward situations later. Say something like:
“Thank you for speaking to me. We’re really excited about this project. Before we start I just want you to know that we’re speaking to lots of people and if we don’t end up using you it’s not because you’re not good, it’s just because we’re trying to find the right balance of perspectives and backgrounds. Shall I start by telling you a bit more about the project?”
Skype can be a good test of commitment. If someone agrees to talk to you on Skype but is then a no-show, you can bet they’ll drop out later.
Google your contributors – you never know what you might turn up that might be relevant. If your applicant has some kind of public profile it’s important to research them. Read articles, watch videos… it depends on the project, but for TNTS and Sister you should really know the people you’re pitching.
Get a photo
A photo really helps you get a sense of someone. It doesn’t mean picking the prettiest or handsome contributors, it’s just about trying to get a feel for someone.
Beware casting people you know
If you know someone it’s quite hard to know how good they are really. Ask someone else to do the research call.
Keep an eye on your energy
Depending on your personality talking to people can be emotionally exhausting. Stamina is a key quality in good casting. But if you find yourself in a negative place remember that that will colour your point of view of people so take a break. On the other hand, if talking to someone can energise you when you’re exhausted that’s a good sign!
Mental health topics
Get proper advice from BBC’s Editorial Policy on mental health topics. Some quick tips:
- One question worth thinking about is, have they spoken about their experience before publicly?
- It’s worth talking to a mental health charity like Mind for advice.
- You need to make it easy for people to pull out if they’re feeling unsure or unwell. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re tempted to bully someone into staying involved.
Make a wall chart
In big productions, casting APs and researchers will be pitching contributors to producers and execs. This often involves videos cut from Skype calls or self-shot videos. Even if you’re not doing all this it’s important to pitch your first choices to someone else. It forces you to be clear about why you think someone should be in the film and what they’re bringing to it.
At this point you A+ people only! No second-best. No weak candidates. No not-quite-sure people. You should be excited about these people.
None of these are reasons to cast someone:
- You had a long chat with them and you feel bad that you might have wasted their time
- You don’t want them to hate you
- You don’t want them to be disappointed
- They already believe (for some reason) that they’re coming
- They “tick boxes”
- There’s no harm in having extra options in the edit
Sooner is better
The sooner you drop someone who’s not A+ the better. You think it’s awkward now, wait until you’re filming with them and they’ve told all their friends about it and you don’t feature them in the edit because they’re a bit naff.
Let people down
E.g. I’m very sorry about this but unfortunately we’re not currently able to use you for the filming on Thursday. I really enjoyed speaking to you but because we’re trying to get the right balance of experiences, my producer has opted to use other people this time. However, if you’re still interested I’d like to keep in touch in case something changes. [We also expect to do films on other topics in the coming weeks, if you’re still interested I can add you to an email list to let you know about topics as they come up.]
How to organise your shoot day and how to get the best out of contributors is such a big topic, I’m going to post about it separately another time. For now please remember:
Try and have a few people in your back pocket for when someone drops out, which WILL happen. This is one of the main reasons I filmed with 4 pairs of people on Things Not To Say, as with 3 pairs I can still cut a film, but with 2 it’s pretty impossible.
5. Aftercare & Publishing
It’s good practice if you can send people a quick note after filming to say thank you. This is especially important if you’re doing anything about mental health.
Encourage people to share the film
If you’re targeting a community, the people in your film can really help seed it out once its published. This is a good chance to thank them. I say something like:
“Hello _____ ! So after a *lot* of editing – it was so hard to cut down all your great contributions down to just 4mins! – the film is finished: [links]
Obviously it’s so hard to cover everything about a topic in a short amount of time but we’re really excited about the final film and hope it can reach a big audience. If you’re about to share it on any social accounts or know any Facebook groups or email lists that might promote it, we’d be really grateful. (Pretty please!)
Thank you again so much for all your help!”
Remember your applications
One part of being a producer for online video is that marketing is now part of your job. You can’t just “post and hope”. So it’s a good idea to save all the applications you get so you can send them the video once it’s finished.