As I’m a film maker looking to make the big break, making short films is the best way to make a name for oneself.

But making short films comes with it’s own headaches. Finding the right actor is a big part of this. You need the right person for the role, but is it worth getting real actors?

When To Use A Professional Actor

If you’re looking to make a well funded short film that you’re going to enter into competitions and film festivals, then yes you’re going to need a professional actor.

If you’re making a short film to develop your craft and put on Vimeo/YouTube, mostly to boost your CV – then no you probably don’t need a pro actor.

Generally if you’re shooting with (even a negligible) a budget then it pays (‘scuse the pun) to use proper paid actors and pay them proper rates. If you have no money, then don’t stretch the budget thinking having a professional will make a difference.

The Pro And Cons Of Using Pros

They know their craft

Professional actors obviously know their craft so they will be happy to get to know the character before you start filming. With proper direction, they will be able to hit the ground running when you start filming which can be a great help if you’re worrying more about the logistics of the shoot.

Often a professional actor will have learnt their lines or have developed aspects of the role that you hadn’t even considered.

But sometimes a student film or a simple short film doesn’t need a professional actor. In fact the pro actor might over think it or over deliver.

I’ve had several film shoots where I’ve had a professional actor who has been great at ‘acting’ but not ideal for the role. Comedy roles in particular can be over acted.

You’ll get a good performance

A professional actor will give it their best shot, regardless of the project. So long as you’re organised and ready to shoot not long after they arrive you’ll get a solid performance.

However if you aren’t properly prepared or the shoot drags, you could find that their performance and patience drops, which will negate the point of having a professional actor.

You can get a bargain

If you can get a pro actor for free then you are obviously getting a bargain.

But if you don’t pay then they can easily drop you for a paying gig and there’ll be nothing you can complain about.

What would you do? I for one would drop the free gig instantly for the paid gig and I’d make this clear before shooting. It’s unlikely you would be able to agree otherwise but perhaps check if the actor has a schedule or possible other job coming up.

If you do pay, you can often get a bargain too.

Agree a duration and a reasonable rate for their services. Technically you should use BECTU rates (in the UK – or here for USA rates) but budding actors will often take what they’re given.

You will need to write up a contract and agree a schedule so make sure you keep your side of any bargain.

The Pros And Cons Of Using Amateurs

So long as you know your amateur actor can act, you could be getting a great deal. In fact, I’m a firm believer that using an amateur who would like to have a go at acting is better (at least in the early days) than using a professional.

Here’s why:

They’re in it for fun

A pro actor is in it to progress their career. An amateur actor is in it for the craic and will enjoy being on a shoot just to say they made a film. This can mean you get a better performance and so long as they actually can act you’ll get a decent enthusiastic performance.

However if they’re prone to messing about, getting wasted or generally not taking it seriously you can end up with a bit of a headache. Try to make it clear from the start that you’ll need their full attention for the duration.

They’re more malleable

If you’ve got your directing skills on you should be able to extract exactly the performance you’re looking for. Especially if your actor knows you or the project, you should be able to work with them to make it go well.

The downside is sometimes you’ll need to give them a crash course in subtle acting or the art of not hamming it up. Learning lines isn’t always an amateur actors speciality so sometimes you’ll to need prompt or get them to remember short chunks of dialogue.

They’re easier to pin down

Now, I might be biased. But I have had a nightmare getting professional actors back for re-shoots or even for additional days of shooting. Due to professional actors schedules they can be off in a minute and unreachable for months.

Amateur actors are usually either holding down a day job or studying, so if you need them for an extra hour here or a day there then they’re often available.

However, with not being professional they’re just as likely to run off to a music festival on the weekend you needed them or be hungover the day of the shoot. Be prepared and make sure they’re committed – or at least have backup.

Be Prepared

No matter who you use to shoot there is no substitute for being prepared. Having your shot list, locations and equipment all ready will save you a lot of messing around.

Any actor, amateur or professional is going to get bored and frustrated if you haven’t prepared properly.

As a courtesy, meet up with them, or at least speak to them on the phone about what is expected of them in the role.

Be as upfront as possible about the schedule. Tell them the estimated time for the shoot but don’t over estimate. If you think you’ll need them for three days tell them three days, but perhaps an extra day for pickups etc.

Make sure you prepare a shot list and a call sheet, even if this is just an email with all the essential details. Make sure the actors and all crew have a copy of this.

Finding Actors

I use Stage32 to find actors and crew. You can also join actor or film making groups on Facebook or go to Meetups.

You can also use professional sites like Production Base, Casting Call Pro and others.

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