Five Tips for Directing VIPs


Let’s talk video tips for Directors when working with VIPs!

I’m sure I’ll be accused of namedropping, but everyone loves a good celeb story anyway…

A few weeks ago, I shared the TV spot we did for LEGOLAND Florida Resort. TV spots are wonderful, but they can be monumental projects with long timelines. What we shoot more often are VIP “content” videos, which are a whole different flavor of project. These are usually interviews or content marketing pieces that involve a celebrity, CEO/Chairman, elected official, or some other influential figure.

These have unique demands, and I feel like there’s not a lot of information out there about directing these types of shoots compared to traditional advertising shoots. I just came off a VIP shoot this morning, so it’s top of mind for me.

Here are 5 tips on what I’ve learned over the years of directing VIPs.

1. Everyone’s a Little On Edge Rarely are you doing a VIP shoot without a PR person, publicist, or some other handler (and most likely more than one) on set, actively involved in the shoot. They are responsible for keeping the VIP on message, making sure they look as good as possible, and generally tending to what they need. You’re filming their client or boss (or boss’s boss) so they have real skin in the game. If something goes sideways, you’re going to walk away at the end of the shoot; they’re going to have to hear about it every day and possibly risk their job. One shoot I directed with Jimmy Fallon had no less than 10 people trailing us; be prepared to manage more than just talent and crew.

TIPS: Take extra time to make sure everyone feels good about the setups. Show a rehearsal with a stand-in to the handler(s) before the VIP gets there so they can sign-off on it. Remember that they are potentially solving for things you’re not even aware of (legal concerns, licensed partner needs, hairstyle preferences, etc) and accommodate as best as possible. Most people will follow the Director’s mood on set, so stay calm, be positive, and focus on getting the best out of everyone and managing any distractions. A great AD is invaluable here.

2. They’re Human I’ve filmed dozens of executives, elected officials, and film/TV/sports stars—and Stan Lee, who is in a category all by himself. With few exceptions, they’re decent people who want to do what is being asked of them. Even if they complain a bit, it’s usually more from nerves than anything else—they just want to make sure they’re not going to look stupid. I’ve seen an Oscar-winning filmmaker get self-conscious when they were in front of the lens. Be gracious and kind, but don’t treat them with kid gloves.

TIPS: When you meet a VIP, build rapport by referencing something they’ve done that you honestly like or (better yet) has influenced you in a positive way. Don’t go fanboy, but just show an appreciation for their work; everybody likes to know their efforts aren’t in vain. Do some research beforehand, if you need to. When filming with Potter film stars, I told Bonnie Wright she was my daughter Kaylee’s favorite cast member (it’s true), and she was excited I was going to meet Bonnie that day. Her face still lit up, the other cast members commented how cool that was, and everyone was emotionally invested in helping us get the job done.

3. They’re Special The flip side is that VIPs are NOT like paid talent in almost every other way. They have a stacked schedule of things to do and places to be. They could literally be going from your set to a conference call to hash out a million dollar deal. A hard out is a hard out for them, and the clock is always ticking in their head. Your shoot is probably not the most important thing they are doing that day. Be respectful, listen to what they have to say, and don’t joke around a lot. At some point, almost every CEO asks, “How much longer is this going to take?” Roll with it. 

TIPS: Show the VIP the shot you’ve composed with a stand-in so they can feel good about how they’ll look and can see any blocking/movement you want. For executive shoots, I tend to dress in business casual and ask crew to wear show blacks. It’s a personal preference, but there is a language executives speak with their wardrobe. I like the crew to be seen as buttoned-up and me as someone who understands their world instead of some “creative guy”. Unless you think “creative guy” will get you a better performance, but chances are they’re more interested in the final product than your Joy Division t-shirt.

4. Move Fast — Nothing will lose your ability to get a quality performance from a VIP quicker than them feeling time is being wasted on set. Now, sometimes it can appear like nothing is happening but you’re actually chasing a shadow or fixing some audio issue. In those moments, communicate back to the VIP what is happening and that it will be resolved as quickly as possible. Most understand that production has some starts and stops to get it right. But if they’re left clueless during down time, it will frustrate them (see: more important things to do). They want to do what you need, do it well, and then move on quickly.

TIPS: Sometimes this might even involve having an entire second unit if you’ve got multiple locations. Being able to walk into the next shot instead of waiting for a company move costs more, but their time is (a lot of) money. Give the client the option in time vs money and let them decide. When shooting two people in the same location that are going to be in the same video, see if you can “rotate” the set by 90 or 180 degrees to get you a different look without a company move. Or switch which camera angle is primary and secondary, if you have multiple cameras. Don’t go near crafty until the VIP has left; ask a PA to grab you a bottle of water.

5. Still Direct — At the end of the day, the Director is still going to be held accountable for what ends up in the final edit. It’s our job to get the best out of our talent, which means you still need to actively direct VIPs. You might need to be a little more strategic with how you phrase direction than you would be with paid talent, but you still have to get the best performance possible out of them. Each VIP is different, so pay attention to body language, verbal cues, etc to clue into where they’re at emotionally and then lead them to where you need them to be.

TIPS: Give positive feedback along with direction. Make your direction conversational in nature. Ask them, “Did that feel good to you?” or “Do you want to do that one more time?” and then follow-up with a specific note, “Ok, let’s go for it. Maybe this time let’s try it bigger so we have a range of options.” If they’re being so self-conscious that it’s affecting the performance, blame a noise or technical problem so you can cut to give them a moment to regroup (grab some water, chat, etc) before you start rolling again.