Moonshine Moonshot Blog

Can screen testing help you craft a better video story?

Sep 06, 2022

Can screen testing help you craft a better video story? 

Last month, Mike and I did a screen test with an expert in healthcare we’ve known for years. This person is an exceptional talent – highly regarded in their field, incredibly knowledgable in their key subject area, charismatic, kind and larger than life in social settings. The whole package, really.

But when you put them in front of a camera? They come completely undone. I’m not sure what it is about that red record button, but it does something to people. It turns articulate, confident humans into speechless zombies. 

It’s why I’m a huge advocate for screen testing your proposed talent during the pre-production phase. I know it might sound like “extra work” but I promise, it can go a long way in helping you cast the right people in your film or video. And by the right people, I mean those who are not only meaningfully tied to your video’s topic, but those who can also relate to and engage your ideal audience. 

A screen test can help you come up with fresh ideas for your film or video too. If you caught last week’s blog or episode 29 of the Moonshine Moonshot series, you’ll remember that I shared the steps I employ when I’m feeling a bit creatively-deficient. I covered research, location research and pre-interviews. 

As the pre-interview is closely linked to the screen test (in documentary filmmaking, they’re one and the same, really), I’m going to call this week’s post a follow up. 

But that doesn’t mean you have to stop reading and jump over to How to come up ideas for your video project to feel in the know. 

This is a fine place to start. You can catch up on last week’s content afterwards. 

Ok, so let’s look at the screen test. Mainly what it is, what you should be looking out for during a screen test and how a screen test can stimulate ideas for your next video project. 

What is a screen test? 

In Hollywood , a screen test is used to determine an actor’s ability to perform on camera and their suitability for a role. Most directors and producers I know (my team included) believe them to be critical to any film’s success. 

For fiction films – dramas, comedy, thrillers etc – an actor will usually be given a few lines from the script and asked to recite them theatrically on screen. Screen tests are also used to see how make-up and wardrobe appears on a cast actor. This is actually super important – you’d be surprised how many accessories pop in front of your eyes but completely diminish on camera. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking – Thanks Sue, this is a fun lesson in screen testing for blockbuster features but I just want to make a 10 minute YouTube video that will bring more funding into my organisation. How does a screen test apply to me? 

And I want to reassure you – a screen test absolutely applies to any type of video you make. We use them for almost all of the content we produce at Moonshine Agency – our impact films and our short form videos that we produce for our customers. 

It’s just in these contexts we tend to lean on the term ‘pre interview’ rather than ‘screen test’, but I’ll continue to use ‘screen test’ throughout this blog for continuity. 

A screen test is an excellent step for any brand, business or individual who is making a video.

So what should you look out for when completing a screen test?

A camera can change the way your talent delivers information. It’s usually not deliberate but having something foreign thrust in your face can be seriously intimidating. Even if it’s only a test run!

It’s good to get a feel for how your talent responds to being in front of a screen before you launch into the real deal – I mentioned this in last week’s blog, but finding out in the edit suite that your talent comes across as flat, convoluted or just totally lacking charm can be a serious pain. It will usually mean a whole re-shoot (which can be expensive – from a time and cost perspective) or producing a sub-par video that misses the mark. 

I asked Mike what he looks for when he’s doing a screen test  and this is what he said to to me: 

“I want to make certain that I can understand what this person is talking about. What type of storyteller are they? Some people speak in really complex terminology that might suit an academic crowd, but if the video is targeting a more general audience, highly sophisticated language can be a major turn off. Viewers won’t stick around.’ 

As a producer, I 100% agree with Mike’s comments. When you’re making a video, you need to have confidence in your talent’s ability to share a message. So when I sit in on a screen test, I’m always watching to make sure that the talent will be able to connect and build a rapport with the intended audience. 

This is where your talent’s charisma (or lack of it) can really come into the foreground. And no, that doesn’t mean that you need to cast an Oscar-worthy performer. Oftentimes your CEO, a brand ambassador or a volunteer can be perfect talent for the video you’re creating. What’s key is their ability to be authentic, passionate and persuasive. Most importantly they must appeal and engage your audience. 

This is why I encourage you have a clear understanding of your target audience before you do a screen test. If audience is something that trips you up, you might benefit from my online course Define Your Ideal Audience. 

In the course, I’ll teach you: 

• Simple research techniques that you or your team can easily use to define an audience for any project

• What to research in order to identify your audiences values, worldview and interests

• The right questions to ask and what data is useful to collect

By the end of a few well spent hours, you’ll have all the information you need to get started on developing your video project with the confidence that it will find your audience

Learn more [} 

How a screen test can help generate ideas for your video 

I know how tough it can be to come up with fresh ideas all the time. We often have businesses come to us who understand that a video will elevate their brand or campaign to a whole new level – they’re just not sure what to make. 

In times like these, we regularly suggest doing a pre-interview or screen test with their main talent or the people they think would perform well on camera. 

Hearing these individuals discuss their passion topics can help trigger how your video story can unfold – it can often lead to completely new ideas for films too. 

I remember interviewing a leader in cervical cancer control for our impact film Conquering Cancer a few years ago. This professor was based in Australia but collaborated closely with a colleague in Malaysia. During one our screen tests, the professor discussed a program she had initiated with her Malaysian colleague that was helping to increase the cervical screening rates in Malaysia, 

It was an incredibly innovative program and after hearing about in the screen test, we knew we had to investigate it further. We ended up flying to Malaysia and filming with the group behind the program. Not only did it make it to the narrative of the feature documentary, we also developed a short film all about the program. 

It’s called Program ROSE: Removing obstacles to cervical screenings and you can watch it right now on the Conquering Cancer YouTube channel. 

I hope this blog has helped you recognise the importance of screen testing your talent before rolling camera on your next video project. A little extra work in the beginning really can pay off in the long term. 

If you’d like to learn more about screen tests and how they can help you generate more ideas for your videos, check out episode 30 of the Moonshine Moonshot series

And if you’re serious about making videos that reach your audience and have real world  impact, be sure to subscribe to the channel! We publish new episodes every Tuesday. 


Movie making magic emails*

Emails that make you a better filmmaker.  From us to you each week. 

*anecdotal onlymagic has not been scientifically proven

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason. Not even in exchange for a unicorn.