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The Practical Guide to Managing Actors on a Low-Budget Shoot

Rachel Wilson

If you have to keep costs down on your next indie film or video, properly managing your cast is essential for a successful (and enjoyable) operation.

Cover image: Ed Wood (Walt Disney Studios).

Low-budget filmmaking poses many unique challenges, and when members of smaller crews wear several hats, it’s easy for details to get lost in the shuffle. However, creating a fantastic working environment for your cast and crew is equally as important as telling a good story.

In my years working in production, I’ve seen shoots all across the spectrum of professionalism, and the most memorably bad ones were those that lost sight of how they were treating the talent. Since actors are often day-players, they’ll go on to work on double or triple the amount of productions as above-the-line crew. Therefore, if an actor leaves your set with a bad opinion of the project, word can travel fast that you don’t know how to provide for your (often unpaid) cast. And that can be a big, fat scarlet letter on your next casting notice. Here are a few easy (and cheap!) ways to create a great working environment for talent of any caliber.


Pre-Production

The best thing you can do for yourself, your cast, and your crew is to prep the heck out of your project. I can tell you from experience that anytime you think you might be done with pre-production, you’re not. There’s always something more you can do to ensure smooth sailing on set. What you lack in funding, you can make up for by investing time.

The Practical Guide to Managing Actors on a Low-Budget Shoot — Pre-ProductionImage via Shutterstock.

Let’s face it: when we’re producing our own short films, there’s definitely not enough budget for a First Team PA or a 2nd AD, and sometimes not even enough for Vanities — costume design or hair and makeup, departments that typically step up to look after the actors’ personal needs. That being said, you can create a comfortable environment for your actors if you put in the work on the front end.

When building your schedule, include plenty of time between set-ups to take care of everyone’s needs, but not so much that anyone is sitting around for too long. Schedule in blocks so that actors that won’t work until the second half of the day can be called closer to lunch rather than at the top of the day. No unpaid actor should be sitting around on your set waiting on you.

When you’re booking or scouting locations, be sure to look into issues of comfort, not just technical specs. Investigate the bathroom situation, check for indoor and outdoor “green room” areas so that the talent has private or semi-private places to relax, rehearse, or prepare for difficult scenes. The more private, uncluttered space you can provide for your cast, the better your production will go.

Introductory Communications

The Practical Guide to Managing Actors on a Low-Budget Shoot — Communications

The time between casting and shooting can be tenuous for creators and actors. A lack of communication sets a bad tone for your relationship with your actors. If you are running a small operation with no vanities, talent should hear from the director and the producer very soon after being offered a role — and throughout the pre-production process. They are relying on you for all information, including creative decisions, script changes, rehearsal times, shoot details, wardrobe notes, and so forth.

Giving detailed and recurring reminders of these things will help you help yourself by ensuring that all talent consistently shows up at the right location at the right time with all the right materials. If you are a director or producer communicating with the talent yourself, below are some of the times when they should hear from you:

  1. Welcome: Assuming you have offered (and the actor has accepted) the role, send an email welcoming the actor to your production. If you are a director sending this email, be sure to CC your producer and mention in the body of the message that the producer can be contacted at any time to assist. On this email, include your shoot dates (note if they are tentative), a locked or updated copy of the script, rehearsal schedule (or poll, see below, under “Rehearsals”), and any questions you may have for the actor if this is a collaborative effort.
  2. Costume/HMU: It is imperative that talent hears from a director or someone in vanities about the aesthetic details for your production. Actors will need to know what they should bring/wear to set or how their character is going to look. The visual component of a character is as important as dialogue in telling a good story. Sourcing wardrobe from an actor’s own closet is a great way to save money, but it’s important to convey the bottom line to your actors that you are here to help piece together the costume. You never want to put pressure on an actor to make purchases. It’s best to include options, i.e. “I would prefer a short brown boot, but a black or green boot will do as well — see attached photos for inspiration.” It’s a great idea to attach photos to this email to guide actors when sifting through their own closets to pull wardrobe pieces. The fewer options they have to bring, the less cluttered your set will be. Remember: clutter is inhibitive. Pre-production reduces clutter!
  3. Rehearsals: Be very clear with your actors both in your casting notice and in all post-decision communications about the time commitment you expect from them for rehearsals. If you have a larger cast, you may want to host a table read during which all members of the cast come together to read the entire script and talk through any issues. If you can, send the entire rehearsal schedule (table reads, fittings, chemistry/performance rehearsals, blocking rehearsals, and camera rehearsals) up front so your actors can block out the time. It’s very difficult to guarantee that everyone can submit to your schedule if you are not compensating them for this time, so it can be helpful to send a preliminary poll to see what dates/times work for everyone. I like Doodle for this.
  4. Talent Information Sheet/Dietary Restrictions: There is no better way to get to know your actors than to take them out for coffee before your shoot, but if this is off-limits for any number of reasons, asking after their needs via email will suffice. A good, comprehensive talent information sheet will include basic details: contact info, emergency contact, special diet/allergies, availability, how they would like to be credited, etc. I also like to add some more personal questions about an actor’s preferences or needs. Ask questions like: What is your Starbucks order? What is your favorite snack to see at crafty? If you ever need a pick-me-up on set, what can we provide for you? What kind of space do you need to prepare for emotional scenes? How long do you typically need to prepare for a scene? Do you like to stay in character between takes? You should tailor these questions to your shoot, and they will help you build your schedule.

The goal of doing this work in pre-production is to walk onto the set on the first day of your shoot having a rapport with your actors and a good idea of how best to work together. You will find that this makes directing or producing a low-budget shoot far more enjoyable.

The Practical Guide to Managing Actors on a Low-Budget Shoot — SNL
Image via The New York Times.

The Day of Your Shoot

If you’ve worked hard in pre-production to rehearse the material, build a smart schedule, and create a relationship with your cast and crew, you get to walk on set and simply create. Here are just a few things to keep in mind when you’re on set.

  1. Paperwork: Even if your shoot is just you and a few friends, it’s a good idea to create paperwork for all positions. There are a number of templates available online for crew deal memos (CDMs), simple contracts for actors, and so forth. It’s good practice to print and maintain an Exhibit G even when you’re working with actors that are not a part of the Screen Actors Guild. This will help you familiarize yourself with talent protocol and remind you to provide adequate breaks (lunch after six hours, and so forth).
  2. Green Rooms: Actors should be called after crew to ensure that private holding and rehearsal spaces are set up when they arrive. Any private area will suffice as a green room, even if it only has a few folding chairs in it. Stock the green room with bottled water, requested snacks (it’s a nice touch if you can swing it), and at least one hard copy of the script or the day’s sides and shooting schedule. These little touches make all the difference and will reflect well on you in the long run. Be sure to post signage on the door if the holding room or attached bathroom is private, so you don’t have crew entering the space. Take into account comfort and scenes of a sensitive nature. If an actor will be in water, cold, or partially nude at any point, be sure there is someone on hand during shooting to offer a robe and then lead the actor to holding when a reset will take longer than a minute or two.
  3. Private Conversations: Once an actor is led to the holding area and allowed to get settled, it’s a good idea for the director to spend some time alone with the actor before they are called to the makeup chair or to set. Actors will have different emotional needs for each scene, and it’s important that they receive personal attention from the director in the holding room — as opposed to on set, surrounded by people and commotion.
  4. Invitations to Set: In an ideal world, you will have a 2nd AD or First Team PA that can keep track of all actors’ locations at all times and formally invite them to set, but that’s almost never the case on DIY productions. I have witnessed firsthand the frustration of actors who are being shouted at from across location by the 1st AD or Key Set PA. It’s bad for concentration, and it’s simply never appropriate. Set the tone with a personal invitation. Remind an actor as they approach what you are about to shoot. If you don’t have a production assistant you can designate to go to holding, knock on the door, and invite an actor to set, it’s imperative that the director or producer take care of this. It may seem like a formality, but I promise you it will make all the difference to your actors.
  5. Coffee Runs: If you can afford to make a coffee run at least once during your shoot, this small gesture can really make the difference on a particularly tough or long day. Show your cast and crew that you value their hard work and have a PA take individual coffee orders. Hand-delivering an iced mocha custom latte to someone can work serious magic for morale. If you can do it, do it. I promise you people will remember it.
  6. Rides/Travel: You will have coordinated with your actors beforehand if they need a ride to set on any given day, but be sure to offer to cover a ride-share or a small amount of gas money if they drove themselves to set. This won’t cost a lot for you, and it will make a huge difference to the individual. Show your actors that you are interested in taking care of them and making sure they don’t lose money working on your shoot. This is especially important if you are not financially compensating your cast. At the very least, you can cover their travel costs.
  7. Wrapping: How you close out the day says as much as how you began it. If you have any qualms with how the day went, keep them to yourself until you are alone as a producer-and-director team. At the end of each day, thank your actors for their work, ask if they have any questions about tomorrow’s scenes, and make sure they have a ride home (and back the following day). If this is an actor’s last day, a director or 1st AD should announce loudly upon completion of the actor’s last scene, “That’s a wrap on [Insert Name]!” This is an appropriate time to applaud and take a quick moment to celebrate. Never skip this detail, even if your actors are your high school friends. Let them see how grateful you are.

The Practical Guide to Managing Actors on a Low-Budget Shoot — Coffee
Image via Shutterstock.

Post-Production

You have successfully wrapped your DIY film project. Congratulations! I’m sure you’re exhausted. But the worst thing you can do now is disappear. Actors who are working for little or no pay are in it for one thing: the product. If you don’t complete your project, or at the very least provide materials for your actors’ reels, then what did they achieve by working with you?

At the end of your last day, or the day after wrapping, you should send an email to your cast members individually thanking them for their work. Include several things in this email: a link to behind-the-scenes photographs if you have them, social media handles to follow the project as it moves through post-production, a projected completion date, any premiere plans as they develop, and information on when and how to receive footage for their reels.

This footage doesn’t need to be color-corrected or edited — it just needs to be a sample or good cross-section of their big scenes on your project. This is often how non-union or beginning actors get compensated, so do not skip this step. Wrap up your work together on a high note of professionalism and thoughtfulness. They worked for you, and completing this short checklist during post-production is how you can continue to work for them.


The Practical Guide to Managing Actors on a Low-Budget Shoot — Film Crew
Image via Shutterstock.

The bottom line here is that actors want to work on good scripts. They are grateful for opportunities to collaborate and create good work. But with the rise of digital production techniques, there is so much content being created, often by first-time producers and directors who unintentionally mismanage talent. Whether you’re making your first film or your fiftieth film, good casting is key, and the best way to ensure top-notch casting on any budget is with a reputation for taking care of your people.

Filmmaking is a business built on connections, and every person that can vouch for you is another person that can help you make the project of your dreams.

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