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Casting actors for VR (how to make a virtual reality film)

Updated: Mar 9

Hey friends, and welcome back to the Alex Makes VR podcast. Today is episode number five of my new series where I take you behind the scenes on how to make a virtual reality film. Although, I'm not really sure it counts as a new series one my five episodes in, but hey, that is the opening I've memorised.

So that's what we're going with gang.

So if you followed the show so far, last week, you'll know that we covered a script writing. So theoretically, at this point, you've got a fully realised VR film ideal, in a scripted format. This means that you're in a really powerful position to start approaching either funders or key collaborators because no longer is this idea just a log line in your head, you've now got this actual physical script. So if someone read it, they would be able to instantly see what you're trying to do with a piece, they would be able to imagine it playing out, they would see exactly what your creative intention is with the piece and that makes it so much more attractive, and less risky to funders and collaborators, because now they've got a really good idea of what the piece is. So this will tell them whether they want to invest or whether they want to sign on to do the project with you. So if you're at this stage with your project, this is a really, really important kind of time and there's a few different things that you could do at this point, if you've got the script, and in this episode, we're going to focus on casting.

But let me know if you want me to talk briefly about the other kinds of things that you might do?

This is a full transcription of the podcast episode. Instead you can listen to it and subscribe here:

To be fair, I feel like there might come up in future episodes anyway but if you've not already got funding, which you probably don't, because most pieces don't get funded, unless you've got a full script, so that people can know what they're kind of, they are paying for essentially, but at this point, you could go after funding. If you've got a script, you can now go after grant money, you could go to production companies to see if if they would want to co produce and essentially pay for the piece, and, you know, you could go after angel investors that specialise in independent films. Although, again, VR is so new, it's a little bit risky, so I'm not sure how many independent producers are funding these kind of pieces but once you've got a script, you're in a really powerful position.

Now the reason I'm going to skip straight to the casting step is because if this is your first piece ever, this is the first VR original piece that you've ever made, I would highly recommend you go ahead and you make this piece, essentially as at little cost and as little resource and with as least amount of people as possible and the reason I think that is a good idea is twofold.

Number one, chances are if you're new, and you've never made anything before, funders aren't going to be as inclined to fund you because there's no proof that you could do something like this, which is fair enough. I mean, don't get me wrong, there's absolutely instances where you could get funding, especially if you've got experience in a different visual medium but you can sometimes waste your life waiting around for funding, waiting for you to just basically become a professional application writer. And for me, personally, I've gone down that route before and it just kills your creativity. It kills the momentum on the project, because, you know, you're just sitting waiting around for someone to fund this piece and I realised that I can say that from a very privileged position. But I'm just I'm giving you my advice.

This is what I did on my first VR project, I didn't wait around for someone to fund that I approached a few different people, they I kind of put toes in the water to see if anyone was funding this kind of VR peice which at the time was like a very simple 360 drama. No one was or the people that were it was very much like you'd have to go through a really thorough process, blah, blah, blah. So I was like, you know what? I just want to get this piece done. I want to prove to myself that I can make it and I also want to create something so that I've got a really good understanding of how to make this piece and that's this kind of second part to it. I think if this is your first piece, it's really actually quite important that you keep it small and you do as much by yourself as possible because when you come to work with a bigger team with bigger resources with a bigger budget, you will have such a better understanding of how it all works and you will be able to be so much more efficient at communicating what you want to key team members, when you have a basic understanding of what their job is.

So because when I did my first piece, I already I kind of had messed around with 360 cameras, I've done a few commercial corporate kind of commercial gigs and I already played with the camera myself. I like shot a lot of stuff, I had stitched off myself, I'd edited it myself, I took the time to kind of understand all the areas admittedly, the one area that I didn't know that much about was the audio recording, and it's still to this day, probably my weakest point but it's a really powerful skill to be able to know a little bit about the whole production process and also, it's really empowering to know that you don't need to sit around and wait for someone to give you money to make this piece. You don't need to sit around and wait for someone to tell you that your idea is good because if you believe in yourself, and you have the skill set to be able to do it, then just do it and you're going to be in so much more of a better position once you've done it. Because then you will evade something, and then you're more likely to get funded. You're also kind of showing to investors, like I'm someone that gets shit done and that's so, so valuable. People really underestimate that when I'm looking to work with anyone, the number one thing I look for in an employee or team member or contractor, anyone that I bring onto a project, are they proactive? That is, by far I would take someone who is proactive and get stuff done over someone who is, you know, the most talented person in that particular area ever because for me, especially in the climate that we're in, especially with VR, where it is right now, which is still vaguely new, nothing is going to be amazing. Everything is an experiment. So you just got to get it done. And I'm not saying don't put your effort into it because absolutely do, but the difference between that kind of, you know, you could get it 60/70% there by yourself, you know, you could get it to that kind of standard. Yeah, having a bit more money and more resource in teams would get it to from 60/70 to maybe like 80/90 but realistically where we are in VR, everything we're going to look back on in five years time is going to be cringe, so don't worry about it just get going.

So now into the actual bulk of the episode now rumbled by that five minutes and so if you don't go down the funding route, and if you're not going to use your script to go find key collaborators, which you absolutely could at this point, this is where you could reach out to directors, if you don't want to direct it yourself or reach out to even just getting people on board to come and help you as kind of production assistance or just people that you want to work with. This is absolutely the time that you could do that.

But the next big step is casting. Now there's two ways you can go about this again, it's been a while since I've done casting by myself, admittedly, again, recognising my privilege here. So I'm going to talk about the first route, which is getting a casting director on board and this is an area where I think is potentially worth the money if you can afford to buy even just like a few days of casting directors time, or do you know what...what would be better is if you go after a casting assistant, who wants to step up in responsibility and become a casting director, but they don't have that opportunity in their day to day job. So they're more likely to want to do that, at a rate that they would be paid as a casting assistant, potentially for an independent project. That would be actually that would be my number one piece of advice.

So the reason you want to go either way, the reason you want someone to kind of help you with casting if possible, is because especially at the moment, and there are so many actors, that really really would love an opportunity to work on an original piece like this. The last time that we put a casting call out for a project, we got 1000s literally 1000s of applicants because actors are just hungry for opportunities at the moment, especially with COVID putting a massive dampener on productions and things like that. So

the reason that it's helpful to work with someone in casting is you don't then have to go through those 1000s of applications to watch show reels, to pick who is going to be acting. Actually a viable option for you, you can kind of have a conversation with your casting director and say - okay, for this character, I want this kind of person, I want them to have this kind of vibe, I want them to be able to deliver the lines, you know, a little bit like this, but give them give them freedom. But this is basically who I have in mind for that piece and even maybe pointing to like celebrities who are of a similar vein. Like, for example, I don't know, you go...oh, yeah, I want them to be like this character from...blah blah blah.

But you get what I mean, you gotta point to someone and go, I want them to be like Joey Essex, it's good picking characters as a frame of reference and then your casting director can basically go through all of those applications and pull together a really strong shortlist of people that they think would be worthwhile auditioning. And so that is the the benefit, I guess it's a time saver, but if you really want to get into the nitty gritty, and like I say, don't let not working with other people stop you from making your piece. So by all means, you'll be the person to go through those 1000s of applications and it may be that even in itself will help you shape who you want in your head, because you'll see show reels, and you'll be like definitely not...but it's difficult to know really, whether someone's going to be any good at this particular character that you've written, because obviously, that's a very particular character, unless you watch a show reel where they've done exactly that kind of role before, it's unlikely that you get a sense of that. So the next step usually is that the casting director then does a preliminary read with all of the shortlist and they will basically...if there's anyone that was really bad, there's no other way to say it. They will basically save you from kind of having to audition that person. But also, they'll give the kind of the the shortlist notes from you without you being there. Does that make sense? So for example, in that first kind of shortlist audition, and the casting director couldn't kind of be like...well, you know, the director of this piece wants this kind of thing, giving them a bit of direction before you see them and that just makes it so that when you do actually audition them, you don't have to audition them, for ages. And you don't need to watch them perform it in three different ways because you're like - oh, no, actually, the way you've done that is the total opposite of what I want do it like this and it's almost like they come into the audition and they already kind of know a little bit about like how you want this character to be. Obviously, this is just my personal preference of the way that I've done things, you could be the absolute opposite, you could want a real diamond in the rough and you could just want a load of random people to audition so that you can be like, I just want them to deliver whatever they instinctively think is the character having read it and then you will just make your decision from that. That is also a really, you know, great way to, to cast people. But let's go with kind of the idea of you've got a casting director, they've got the shortlist down and then it's time for the actual castings with you.

So generally speaking, be the producer (if you've got a producer, but it could also be you) but definitely you and the casting director, or just yourself if you're working by yourself and then basically the way that you kind of want to cast your actors, there's obviously the main thing is - are they a good actor? And are they suitable for the character you're auditioning for? And that's obviously the main priority in a casting. But a couple of things that I've kind of picked up on over the years of doing this is for VR, especially if you are doing live action capture aka 360 video or volumetric or anything where they are on camera and it is recording in real time. I guess it's not something that they are a digital character that you can manipulate in post production, and they need need need need to be that kind of perfect middle ground of theatre actors and film actors. I always specify to my casting director that I want actors who have some kind of theatre background or could they basically know that they will be expected to know their lines by heart and be able to deliver a sometimes two to three to four four minute scene, unbroken, unedited. So it's a lot more like theatre in that way, your actors need to be able to memorise lines, they need to know that the camera is never off. So even if they're not speaking, they are always acting, you know, it's not like we're going to cut a way to a closeup of the character who is talking, they are always in short, their body, their body language, and the way that they are when there's someone else talking is just as important as them delivering their lines.

So number one, you want to look for someone that fits the role. Number two, you want someone that can actually work with the tech that you're using. So they need to have a theatre background or at least prove that they are the kind of person that can memorise lines and can kind of come into it and be on all the time. And number three, and this one is so often overlooked, and it's a conversation that I have with actors all the time when they are cast in my projects, because often, they'll kind of be like - we'll get into the conversation about how cringy it is for actors to audition, because obviously, this is quite nerve wracking, like it's literally like a job interview but it's funny, because you're on the other end of it, and you're looking for something very particular, usually 9 times out of 10, the reason an actor doesn't get a role isn't because they're a bad actor is because they weren't right for the role, because you've got a very specific idea in your head of what that person is going to be. I've had several pieces in the past where I've had amazing actors for audition, but they just weren't quite right for that role. Like, you know, I wanted them to be a little bit...have a little bit of edge, or I wanted them to be a bit more like this. You know, that's totally subjective, right? But the third and final thing that I really look for is, are they going to be nice to work with? Are they going to be someone that will take direction? That will be a laugh, but know when it's time to buckle down and get serious? Are they going to be someone that? Or are they going to be someone that's going to kick up a fuss and be an absolute nightmare? Be someone that thinks that they are you know, really, really, really important and be quite difficult to work with on a practical level? Are they the kind of person that is going to make my team's life difficult? And I don't care how talented you are, if you're a dick, you ain't on my set, like, full stop. I've done a whole episode about this in the past podcast episodes, but I really genuinely believe this. So when I cast actors, I want to see what's the kind of natural rapport that we have, you know, I don't want them to be like my best mate but I want to be, I want to know that this person is going to fit in well, with the team. I want to know that this person is going to be, you know, not laid back so that they're not doing their job, but I want to know that they are not going to be difficult, basically. And I've cast people in the past that have in the audition shown that they can be a little bit precious and when I've kind of said - okay, can you do let's let us do a tape where you kind of deliver a little bit like this. And they don't do it because they think they know best or they kind of like - oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it, you know, um, oh, well, I, I thought the character was a bit more like this and that instantly puts me off. You will have some directors that like that, but for me personally, my number one thing is we've got to get this project done and if you're going to be difficult, and if you're going to like be kind of patronising my creative decisions as the director, I'm not going to work with you full stop, and I don't really care. Like I don't really care how talented you think you are, or how talented you might be. If you're a dickhead, you ain't coming on my set, basically.

So three things number one, do they fit the role? Are they a good actor? And then do you think that they are suitable and fit the kind of character that you have in mind? Number two, do they have some kind of theatre background or are they able to deliver long takes, especially if you're working in 360? And number three, are they going to be nice to work with, do you get a good vibe from them?

Like I say, if you don't want to work with a casting director, or you want to do all of this yourself, you absolutely can and that is realistically probably something that we might look for Bad News, because there's something about getting in there and doing all of it yourself. And again, like seeing people right from the beginning, going through all those show reels, maybe it brings up this, this kind of - oh, you know, maybe I've always thought of this character this way, but now I'm seeing this actor, maybe that's more the vibe that would go for you go really well with that. So that could definitely be open to that. And once you've picked your actors, once you've got your kind of talent attached and then the next step, I guess is to finalise kind of contracts and things with their agents, unless they're unrepresented.

I would always recommend that you try and go for an actor that is that is attached to an agent just purely because it makes life a little bit easier when it comes to things like contracting and making sure that just making sure that there's no kind of problems that are going to come back and bite you in the ass. But having said that, again, if you're working by yourself, if you're working on something really small, and if you really, really like an actor that isn't represented, definitely don't let that put you off because, you know, like I'm a director that is not represented. I don't have an agent and I'm always thankful and grateful that people will consider me despite the fact I don't have an agent. So don't let that be the thing that puts you off massively but just be aware that you just need to make sure that your contracts are very clear with that actor, about the kind of the legal and the admin side of stuff, as well as the kind of nice creative stuff, sometimes it's just nicer to work with an agent, because then it keeps it all separate and your conversation with the actor is purely creative and you don't have to be bogged down in that, all of that other kind of stuff. Does that make sense?

Let me know what you thought of this episode, because I feel like there's probably loads more to casting that we could talk about, but in general, I feel like those are my key thoughts and key tips for anyone that's got a script that's looking to get to that next step. Because now once you've got your actors attached, now you can start workshopping the script, like I said, you can get a feel for where the dialogue might need a bit of work, maybe even rewrite bits based on the actors that you've cast. We definitely did that with Keyed Alike, rewrote little bits because, you know, the kind of actors that we cast in the end definitely have a certain way about them that was like - oh, actually, like this kind of line would be a bit more impactful if we wrote a bit like this. You know what I mean?

So yeah, have fun, don't get too bogged down in it and ultimately, if you start rehearsing anything and you find that actually, you know what, these actors, they aren't quite what I want you to just recast. You know, and you could maybe like even just cast actors to begin with, with the premise of workshopping the script. So you don't even have to necessarily cast them saying that they're going to definitely have the roles you could, you could put the call out for actors to cast for a kind of the prototype, for example. When we made Playing God, for example, there was a different set of actors who performed in the prototype of that piece, then the final piece, and so you could do it in stages like that. Let me know if you've got any more questions. I'm an open book and I love talking about this stuff. So reach out to me on Instagram or Twitter @alexmakesvr and if you want to sign up for the newsletter that goes out every Monday you can do so at alexmakesvr.com and I will speak to you next week.

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