The Director’s Chair Issue #17 – August 20, 2001 (Directing Direct Response Television)
THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
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August 20, 2001 Scene 2 – Take 8
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Welcome to Issue #17 of The Director’s Chair (August 20, 2001).
1) THE FEATURE ARTICLE this month is “Directing Direct Response
Television” by Randal K. West.
As production values increase and viewer sophistication grows,
Direct Response Television requires a complete crew of creative
professionals to develop an infomercial that sells product.
2) THE DIRECTING TIP this month comes from Frank Capra.
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7. FEATURE ARTICLE – Directing Direct Response Television
“Directing Direct Response Television” By Randal K. West
Telling someone you are a Director of Direct Response Television
is somewhat like telling someone you are an International Chef
who cooks with Spam. Many people assume infomercials direct
themselves, and anyone who can get a pitchperson and
demonstration to stick to tape can produce a successful one. Not
true, although in the 1980’s, as infomercials were evolving into
Direct Response TV, it was easier to motivate a direct sale
through television. Now, as production values increase, viewer
sophistication grows, Direct Response Television requires a
complete crew of creative professionals to develop an infomercial
that sells product.
Many components combine to create a successful infomercial: a
unique product, a dynamic product demonstration, a compelling
offer that makes the phone ring, a believable spokesperson who
loves the product and loves talking about it, “before and after”
shots which portray the consumers’ magical transformation through
product use, and “real” people testimonials filled with factual
material but also possessing an emotional center.
What’s most important to creating a homerun infomercial? Product
comes first, then pitchperson personality and skill. What’s next?
The show format? The budget? The script? Nope! The power of your
So how do you capture testimonial lightening in a bottle? Start
with people who have an actual relationship with the product. If
your product has been available for use by the public for a while
or if a substantial group of people have been “test marketing”
your product just pick the people that best suit the demographics
to which you hope to market your product and schedule a shoot.
This is difficult with a new product, but as soon as Direct
Response television is seriously considered, create a test group
that fits the product demographics and start them using the
product. As a director, you can’t dig for an emotional and
declamatory testimonial if the true breadth of experience is not
Once a client provides you with a list of potential “real”
people, take the “product attributes” list you’ve created and
affirm that potentially these people can address the product’s
features and benefits in their testimonials. If the “testimonial
people” are readily available do an initial interview well in
advance of the actual shooting. Tape these interviews with a
consumer camcorder and assess how they look on-camera and record
the content of their initial testimonials. No Director can “Fix
it in Post Production” if initially you don’t get raw material
with potential. If an infomercial is to be testimonial driven,
you must do everything to assure that the testimonials are
The day you shoot the testimonials, don’t make a “big deal” out
of the trappings of television. Lights, cable, cameras, the place
crawling with crew. Down play the entire environment. I explain
that we are shooting onto videotape and that no one will see
anything that isn’t well done. We are all here to shoot this in
the “absolutely least painful” fashion and we can just keep
shooting until we are all happy with their performance and their
content. This is not entirely true, because if you don’t get
something you can use in the first 4 or 5 takes most people begin
to lose energy and build frustration, but I still initially
assure them that the number of takes doesn’t matter.
Explain exactly what is going to happen and exactly what is
expected of them before you begin to shoot. Take the time to make
them as comfortable as possible in an unfamiliar environment.
Don’t just push them through like cattle. Time spent with each
individual person you interview can pay big dividends later. This
is the time for a Director to be a Coach, both in terms of a
television “acting coach” and to some extent an athletic coach.
Use whatever works to relax and yet focus them. Make them “real”
and yet enthusiastic and committed to the product. Build
techniques that inspire immediate trust between you and your
“talent”. This can be as simple as “really” listening to them
when you ask a question or they make a comment. Amid this
environment of choreographed chaos that is television production,
let them know how important and special to you they are. Many
times you feel as if you fall somewhere between a confidant and
the person who tells them to go, “Give them one for the Gipper!”
No matter how well you cajole or “cheerlead” some people will not
work “direct-to-camera”. The “perfect” testimonial consists of
the “product user” communicating directly and very personally to
the viewer at home, looking directly into the camera lens. But
the subject can also look just “off-camera” a technique that is
often preferred because it substantially increases believability
and emotional response. Sit directly to the left or right of the
camera lens and “lean in” to the person. Make very solid eye
contact and memorize the questions so you don’t have to break the
mood between the “talent” and yourself. During this process,
communicate with the crew in a very “low key” fashion. Don’t yell
commands for all to hear. Don’t “count down”. Just, in a calm
voice, say “roll tape” and that is confirmed by a low key
“speed” by the camera operator. If this environment is still too
unnerving for the testimonial subject, roll tape while the
subject is unaware and just shoot them “talking” about the
If you are careful how you utilize both types of testimonials,
“to-camera” and “off camera”, they can “live” together within the
body of the same infomercial. For the most part, you are looking
for sound bites. Brief, emotionally moving revealing how the
product transformed the user’s life. When you identify a subject
who can speak in longer terms that are moving and well
structured, this person might have an actual “story” that you
want highlighted within your infomercial. Consumer “features”
based upon how the product changed their life, highlighted with
either photos they supply or footage you shoot, at home, work or
play, can be a very important component in an infomercial. Many
successful infomercials contain 3 or 4 longer “features” and are
loaded with testimonial “sound bites”.
Testimonials grounded in fact and motivated by solid emotion can
boost infomercial sales substantially. Don’t take a path of least
resistance with regard to testimonials. If what you are shooting
isn’t making you want to “pick up a phone”, keep working these
people. If the initial group can’t provide quality testimonials
destined to create a sale, you may have to suggest starting a
whole new “test” group. This time be involved from the start,
interview the potential testimonial provider and select people
who will “play” on television. It would be less expensive to
start over and create moving testimonials than to produce and air
a testimonial driven infomercial that has weak or only average
If your testimonials are running too slow and uninspired try
increasing your energy as a listener. If the subject is babbling
too quickly and incoherently “lean-in” and react to what is being
said and they will slow down to allow for your reaction. So you
see despite all of the technology involved in shooting today’s
infomercials whether your testimonials work can come down to the
human element. How well you connect with your talent.
Randal K. West is the Vice President/Creative Director of
Hawthorne Direct Inc. http://www.hawthornedirect.com/Default.htm
8. DIRECTING TIP – A quote from Frank Capra
Here is one of my favorite tips – and it comes in the form of
a quote from the legendary director, Frank Capra.
“There are no rules in film making, only sins.
And the cardinal sin is Dullness.”�
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