The Video Director/On-Camera Leader Relationship

Illustration of the sacred space

We’re asking leaders to do something very vulnerable when they step in front of a camera. Unlike actors, this isn’t what they’ve been trained to do. Actors invest a great deal of time in learning how to block everything out and maintain a trusted vibe with their director. They create a sacred space. It’s a place of comfort, where the barrier between the actor and the lens disappears.

In corporate filmmaking very little time is devoted to creating what I can “the sacred space.” Leaders are expected to express their humanity on command, a task that many trained actors would find near impossible. And it’s very important that these leaders get it right. They need to connect with their target audiences.

I spoke about the concept of the sacred space with a creative manager, a communications specialist, and a producer, all of whom have worked with high-profile clients. Klaus Schiang-Frank is the owner of the film company Citizen Dane; Bob Florance is the VP Executive Electronic Communications for American Express; and Jim Tusty is a longtime producer, who has filmed leaders at Coca-Cola, GE, and Ratheron, among many others.

Vern: Corporate leaders rarely get time to meet with the director in advance. They show up on set and are asked to take off the mask and “just be yourself.” That won’t happen without trust. You can’t be expected to deliver an honest performance without developing even the faintest rapport with your director.

Bob: I think you need to spend some time [studying these leaders] in a covert way. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s really just watching and understanding the person you’re working with, because a lot of times people at those higher levels have a business persona that they present and our job as communications people is to have the real person show up.

Jim: To be authentic you can’t be too coached. This is the whole paradox of the situation. [These leaders are] trying to say, “I’m going to be real and authentic and be myself and now I’m going to have outside consultants tell me how to do that.”

Vern: A director has to help them through that paradox, so they can create, and then safeguard, a sacred space. Sometimes a director has to sacrifice their good standing to save a situation, even if this means going against what a CEO or communications team said they wanted.

Klaus: I remember interviewing Jeff Gravenhorst of ISS A/S, one of the largest companies in the world. He said something about what he didn’t want to do. I stopped the interview and said, “Jeff, could you please rephrase that and tell me what you want to do.” And he said, “Thank you, Klaus.” And he made it better.

Vern: That’s the best kind of rapport, when the person you’re filming can be spontaneous.

Klaus: Don’t come with a script. It’s like going to the dentist and saying, I want a cavity right there.

Jim: How we coach them, I think, is different for everybody. Some of these leaders are better looking at a teleprompter. Some are better memorizing lines. Some are better talking off the cuff. And so part of the strategy is how does this person come across the most real? What is the technique?

Vern: Right, and CEOs need to spend time prepping. It’s not just another check on the to-do list. Instead, it’s an opportunity to really make a connection.

Klaus: Thousands of people are going to watch these films. This is the audience. How much would you prepare if you were to stand up and give a speech to 10,000 people? Or 520,000 people?

Jim: I think practice is part of it. But I think just comfort in front of the camera is the biggest element of all.

Bob: I’ll stand in front of the person [I’m going to film], maybe be three feet away from them. I’ll say, “Now you’ve got to remember that when you’re doing this recording, you’re just talking to one other person. You’re not talking to a large group of people.” And then they sense that you’re closer to them than they’re used to having people. You say, “This is how far away the people are who are going to be watching you.”

Jim: When a CEO looks into the camera and thinks they’re talking to their 100,000 employees or 50,000 employees, whatever the number is, they sometimes can think it’s as if they’re on a stage in an auditorium with hundreds of people before them. And that’s exactly what it’s not. In those cases you have to sort of over-gesticulate. You have to overstate. It’s just a different thing than the camera, which is an intimate tool.

Vern: A sacred space is often the only route to getting that true, human performance. Just knowing that the sacred space exists, and that it’s so important, can help you do your part in kindling that connection, whether you’re the director or a member of the communications team.

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“It’s one thing to understand the role of video in business communication, it’s another to know how to use video to solve actual business problems. Vern Oakley gets that.”


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