Philly Creative Guide

Guest Columnist

Zave Smith

Working With Talent
by Zave Smith, 1 Jul 2007

Zave Smith is a Philadelphia-based, visually compelling, lifestyle photographer in the advertising field. Check out his assignment and stock work at

I am often asked how I get such seemingly natural looking performances out of my talent. I believe this look of authenticity comes from paying close attention to three important areas.

Casting: We spend a lot of time on casting. Our goal while casting is not only looking for the most appealing face, but also for the most believable one. We start by making sure we understand the "character" that we are after. We want to know the back story, and through a thorough understanding of the creative brief, we want to make sure we understand the emotional note the talent will have to portray. Often times, our talent appears with others in the shot, and we also need to make sure that the potential talent works well with others.

During the castings, we don't just line up the talent and have an assistant shoot headshots. We tell each potential model the back-story; we tell them what exactly we are after. We try to give them props and light them the way the photo shoot might be lit to see how they emote and will look during the real shoot. If the shoot calls for interaction between talents, we will often pair them up to see how well they will play with others. The goal here is to make sure that the talent not only looks good and has visual appeal but that they can also follow directions and emote. In short: will they look and play the part?

Zave Smith | Zave Smith Photography

External Direction: External direction is telling talent where to stand, what they should be doing or what they should be looking like. "Smile", "sit", and "move your right arm" are examples of external direction. External directions are fairly easy to give, but giving to many commands can confuse a model and make a model feel insincere which leads to forced expressions. I use external directions to get a model into place.

Internal Direction: Internal direction is a bit subtler. This is where I use dialogue to try to coax the talent into the mood I am looking for and, therefore, into the right emotion for the shot. It is by this method of internal direction, which the model buys into his or her role and the sense of authenticity of the character comes through.

Internal directions often begin before the model is on set. I try to create an atmosphere on set that is supportive and conducive to performance. A while ago I heard a wonderful interview with Alan Alda on National Public Radio. He was talking about how when they first started filming "Mash," the actors, instead of hanging each alone in his or her only trailer, hung out together around a fire barrel. He believes that it was around this campfire that the cast bonded and learned to trust each other. He believes that it was this trust that allowed the cast to achieve the level of performance that helped make "Mash" the hit it was.

I also try to hang out a while with my talent before the shooting begins. Whether it is during set changes or during make-up, I can often be found talking with and getting to know my models. It is during this time, when I can observe them up close that I can really see the raw material that I will be working with and in turn this allows them to get to know and to trust me. This is also the time when I can discuss the shoot without the pressure of being on set and in front of a lot of people. This is where the model can feel free to ask any questions about what is expected without feeling silly or shy.

Helping a model bring a concept or character to life is what I live for. Through creating the right atmosphere on set, giving easy to understand external directions and by helping the talent breath into their roles, we can achieve images that are not only visual stunning but believable also.

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