The Art of Self-Tape

October 11, 2015 | (4 comments).

Are you being asked to film yourself for an audition?

Times have changed.

In an ideal audition world, actors are asked to come to the casting office to be coached by the Casting Director and also recorded for viewing by the Creative Team.  Or, even better, the Director is in the actual room and works with the actor. In an ideal world, actors and creatives really get to know each other.

But who has time for this now in our fast-paced and global world? Directors are behind schedule and scouting. Casting Directors are casting multiple projects and episodes at the same time. Actors live and work all over the country.

Today, it’s common for the Casting Director to ask YOU to do the work alone and put yourself on tape.

In essence, this is the modern day version of a “pre-screen”;  the CD screens your work on the character and scene and THEN decides to introduce you to the creative team…or not.

To get called in to meet the team in person, or the more rare possibility of being hired from only a taped audition, you simply must pay attention to what works on camera and the most effective ways to translate your acting onto camera.

My theory about what makes good self-tapes is to approach it with the passion and enthusiasm of actually being on set and creating the work. 

Below are some guidelines to utilize.

However, I am also giving you something more than just technical feedback.

Think about creating a self-tape as prep to actually doing the job. 

For my DIY actor friends, which is all of you in this era of auditioning, look for the creative side of doing self-tapes. It’s more than just the good lighting and sound. It’s an opportunity to be the actor that you want to be.

theartofselftape

The Art of Self-Taping for Film & TV auditions

Preparation

Today, because every actor controls his/her audition submissions, it’s now expected for your acting work to be more polished.  We know you filmed it over and over and sent us your best one. Yes, you need to submit the “best” take possible.

Here’s how I define “best”:  you are specific in your choices, seem prepared (if not memorized), and are generally confident with the role and material. How would Meryl Streep prepare for a self-tape? She would prep prep prep.

Embrace the prep because it’s an opportunity to grow deeper as an actor. Every audition is a chance to work on your craft, including self-tapes.

Do what you gotta do to be prepared.

  • I always recommend that you work with an acting coach to nail specifics and/or work with someone who can do the actual filming of you. Particularly for the “important” auditions, or when you need a general tweak as an actor to stay inspired or on your game, it’s so useful to get prepped with a coach. Every athlete has a coach. Singers have a coach. CEOs have coaches. I have a coach for my filmmaking and business. Coaches are so helpful to see what you may not see.

A coaching session is going to move you ahead of the competition because you will be PREPARED.  A coach will sort out your choices with you and make sure that they’re clear and strong on camera.

  • If you can’t get to a professional Coach, call a friend to run it with you! Your peers are amazing coaches! They have been there and know the process intimately. I’m not saying to always go and spend more money, unless it’s super important, but I’m definitely urging you to get support.

Bottom Line. If you’re prepared for the audition, the CD and Director can trust your abilities to send you to the set. Preparation increases your odds of booking.

Scene Partner (Off-Camera Reader)

You really need someone to read off-screen with you and ideally that person can set up the camera and hit the ON switch!  I’m sure you know at least one other actor who can read with you! Wouldn’t it be great to actually “act” with someone?

If worse comes to worse, ask your friend or dad to read the lines off camera with you on Skype or the telephone. You just need an off-camera voice to react to.

Give yourself the chance to really be an actor with another actor!

Creative Tip: My alumni actors create buddy systems to help each other out for self-tapes. I love seeing that. You can do that too. Help an actor friend and they will try to help you back!

Lighting

Make sure that you have direct lighting on your face.   Ideally, there is a sparkle in your eyes! (See the “eye light” in Michele Pfeiffer’s eyes)

Michele Pfeiffer - Scarface

These days, yes you can buy a professional light kit for under $100 online. Just google. Ideally, you get a kit that has 2-3 lights in it. If you have 2 lights, put them both on either sides of the camera (and reader). If you have a third light, use it as a side light on your body.

If you don’t have professional lighting gear, no worries, you can do it with a lamp (no shade) and a side window with daylight.

Always try to make the main source of lighting come from in front of you – a directional lamp is easiest.   Beware that strong overhead lighting creates shadows under your eyes and strong low lighting creates the impression of a horror film.

Creative Tip:  a little side lighting gives depth.  Best trick is to have a window at your side to soften your light and make it more natural.   So place yourself near a window for the additional “fill” lighting.  Still use a main front source light.

Today’s HD cameras (and smart phones) are fantastic for low lighting so you can probably do it all with only a good lamp in the direction of your face, or maybe even one window!

Background

Use a simple flat surface that is one color.  Ideally, cream/white/beige.  Muted colors are best.  In the studios, you will often see a soft blue or green or gray background and I prefer that because it compliments people great.  But if you don’t have those correct tones, don’t fuss.  Go neutral and opt for a muted, soft background wall color.  Do not use a bright background (example, no reds, oranges, yellows).

Let your acting really stand out against the simplest background.

Make-Up & Dress

Keep it simple, solid colors are best. No striped shirts.  Dress suggestive of the part.  Read my previous blog notes regarding dress the part of a “hire me” actor ~ Blog: Steps to Dream Role.

Women – Minimal makeup for women is very important.  You need to look good on-camera.  Wear light base/foundation that smoothes out your skin, light mascara that draws attention to your eyes, and a soft lip color that adds a pinch of color to your face.  I always say “look great as a homeless drug addict”.  Beware that heavy makeup looks like you should be on a stage and not on a camera.  Exceptions include character roles that would be best served with heavy makeup.  See non-oily skin note below.

Men – The main thing to pay attention to is not letting your nose or forehead be shiney on camera.  Avoid having oily skin.  Some CDs advise using light face powder.  Also, fix your hair.  Give yourself a little style at least, don’t look like you just woke up and barely had time to focus on this audition.  Dress suggestive of the part too, men. But, also, look gooooood.  A little hipness or style can go a long way in terms of spreading your likeability (subversively).

Camera Framing

First, look at how movies are made. Use that as your internal guide. You want to be in the movie, right? So frame it nicely so it looks filmic. If you are using a smart phone, hold it horizontal like a film. With all cameras, keep it simple so we can just focus on your brilliant sensitive acting.

Think about the Genre – comedy or drama? Automatically, that will inform you on how much body to include in the frame.

Here are my own rules of thumb that I use.

Comedy – Film a 3/4 shot, a.k.a. “Cowboy shot”.  It is defined as a Cowboy shot because the camera framing includes the gun holsters on the Cowboy’s belt!  So, the bottom edge of your camera frame should be about mid-thigh (at the bottom of the gun holsters) and the top frame is just above your head (don’t cut off the head, and don’t have a sky above the actor!).  Allow space on the left and the right so that you can gesture freely and step a few inches left and right comfortably. Comedy needs room for the physical life of your character.  Creative Tip – this is also good framing for Theater Self-Tapes.

cowboy shot

Drama – Film a medium close-up.  You want the viewer to feel intimate with your performance, but not forced into it. Drama needs intimacy for the emotional life of your character.

Frame from mid-Torso or just below the shoulders (you decide what feels good) to an inch above the head. That’s a safe bet. Don’t cut off the top of your head.

Position within frame

The safest option is to put the actor in the center of the frame. See Lucy Liu. Perfectly centered and looking just off camera.

Lucy Liu - Southland

Or, you can use the “2/3 rule” which means that the actor is in the right or left third of the frame. In this photo below, you can see that Zoe Kravitz is framed towards screen right. She is in 2/3 of the frame.  But, her eyes are in the direction of screen left, to a person off camera that we can’t see. That is a natural balance to the frame.  Again, please just frame in the center if you don’t understand this technique.

Zoe Kravitz - Yelling To The Sky

Eye contact

Viola Davis - How To Get Away With Murder

Always make your eye contact off screen to the scene partner.  Do not look directly into the camera, unless you are told to do this. See all the images above – no one is looking into camera. Position your “scene partner” as close to the camera lens as possible for good eye line.

Sound

If I can’t hear you, I am not moved by you.  Do a test filming and play it back to know that you are secure on your sound.  Most cameras have a good built-in microphone for audition purposes.

If you want to get excellent sound you will need a separate mic for your camera. Either a mic that mounts onto the camera or a lavalier that you clip to your body. Walk into a camera supply store for support for your specific camera. (B&H Photo Video in NYC.)

Note: Be sure that we can hear your reader. If you use the telephone or skype technique (see above READER), then you need to make sure their sound is loud enough to record.

Slate

A slate is an introduction to the Creative Team.  Say your name very clearly so that your name is understood clearly.  Make it short and simple and with a glimpse of personality. (I cover the importance of personality in slates in my classes, too much to explain here! But do try to warm it up because this is the only time they get a sense of your personality until they meet you.)

Selection of Takes

Select and submit one Take of each scene only. Do not offer more than one Take per scene unless the CD requests it.  Do not do any internal edits of the scene.  You are NOT making a short film.

Some CDs prefer that you submit each Take individually, so see Upload options below.  Just ask and they will tell you what they prefer.

One exception may be if you have a very very short scene. If it’s super short, feel free to submit two takes of the same scene without asking.  If they get bored, they simply won’t watch the second take.

Creative Tip: Some CDs actually like two takes per scene so that they can select which one is best to show the Director. However, please give noticeable differences in those takes. Or, what is the point of offering multiples? If you are offering more than one take then it is best to use Dropbox or WeTransfer. (see below UPLOADS)

Editing + Labelling Files

First of all, most CDs want the individual files. (see below UPLOADS)

But, if you are editing the Takes together, keep the audition reel super simple. Title the Reel with your name, project title, and role at the start of the scene.  Add your contact info at the end of the Reel.  If you don’t have editing access, don’t panic.  Simply make sure that the file itself is clearly titled with NAME, PROJECT and ROLE TITLE.

File title sample: “CharlizeTheron_MADMAX_Scene1”

Uploads

**This is the area you might need more help with if you are not technically savvy.  Ask someone to support you on how to upload the file so it retains its video quality or use the services listed below to email large files.

Anything that you have a question about, I mean anything, is google-able. Google can usually help you out!

The most common current options for upload, sharing, and viewing include the following:

  • upload the video onto the server that the CD requests (CastItTalent, etc)
  • upload the video onto Vimeo.com or YouTube.com (I prefer Vimeo).  Select settings that allow full streaming and PASSCODE for privacy.
  • send the individual files via WeTransfer (free) or Dropbox (free service)

You can do it!!  Good luck!!!!

Please post below any additional TIPS for your lovely actor peers.

Comments(4)

  1. Great and helpful tips, very helpful. I do tons of self tapes and I feel good about them now. But this list of tips is going to help me make it even stronger, and have more confidence. Preparation, preparation, preparation.
    Thank you, Heidi Marshall. Great article. 🙂

  2. Evangelia Kingsley says:

    Thanks, Heidi. As always, great advice!

  3. Hi Heidi,
    Great blog post. I am excited to enroll in your class soon.
    Warmly,
    Madison Russell

  4. These are some fantastic tips; after all, a lot of work has to go into creating the perfect self-tape to send in to auditions. I especially like that the article goes over the different kinds of camera framing you should use. The type of genre that you’re auditioning for can really make a difference when it comes to camera position and angle.

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