The Art of Self-Tape

(UPDATED 2020. Photo: Alumna Connie Castanzo. Stand designed & built by Matt Dominguez.)

 

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 to be 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 globalized industry? 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.

In order to get called in to meet the team in person, or the more rare possibility of being hired straight from a taped audition, you simply must keep honing your self-tape skills. Let’s get you to really 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’m also giving you something more than just technical feedback.

I want you to think like a filmmaker when acting on camera, even in the self-tapes.

Think about creating a self-tape as preparation for actually doing the job, or as practice to actually being on set.

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 good lighting and sound. It’s an opportunity to be the creative actor that you want to be.

There are tons of details below! Take your time with it. Return to this blog. I thought to share more than you ever thought you’d need, so you have tons to practice and grow with over time!

Enjoy these tips!

Warmly,
Heidi

P.S.—If you want to strengthen your self-tapes with me and my coaches, please join the Priority List at the bottom of the blog to get notified when I open new online acting + self-tape classes. Or, go here for Private Coachings.

 

THE ART OF SELF-TAPING
FOR FILM & TV AUDITIONS

 

PREPARE: DO THE DEEP WORK TO PREP

 

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.

#1 Tip: Do what you gotta do to be prepared.

  • Do your text work. Do the deep work and know your scene intimately. Pull out every tool you’ve got to shape your scene with strong choices. Do the work.
  • Get an outside eye. Another eye will simply see things on the script that you missed. And, that outside eye will be able to give you sparks when filming. This outside eye can be a friend, a fellow actor, or an acting coach or teacher.

Yes, I do recommend that you work with an acting coach, particularly for the “important” auditions, or when you need a general tweak as an actor to stay inspired and on your game. A coaching session is going to move you ahead of the competition because you will be PREPARED.

A good coach will sort out your choices with you and make sure that they’re clear and strong on camera. It can be superbly useful to get prepped with a coach. Every athlete has a coach. Singers have a coach. CEOs have coaches. I have had coaches for my filmmaking and business. Coaches are so helpful to see what you may not see.

If you can’t get to a professional coach due to time or money, at least call a friend to run it or film it with you! Your peers are amazing coaches! They’ve been through it too and know the process intimately. Even 15 minutes spent running a scene with an actor-friend will give you fresh ideas to incorporate.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m not saying that you should go and spend more money on your auditions with coaches—unless it’s super important—but I’m definitely urging you to get support. Don’t be shy about asking for support when you feel overwhelmed or uninspired, or if you’re simply feeling curious to expand.

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

 

SCENE PARTNER (OFF-CAMERA READER)

 

You really need someone to read off-screen with you so that it feels fresh and alive. You’ve got two options to do it live:

  1. Reader is in the same room with you
  2. Reader is on the phone or online

IN-PERSON READER

Ideally, your reader will be in the same room to help you feel grounded and real. And they can hit record on the camera!

Nothing replaces the truthful spontaneity and honesty of having a scene partner opposite you. But sometimes it’s not possible—even on set. Sometimes you have to act off a spot on the wall if there’s no space for the actor to stand opposite you. Or maybe they have to go do makeup for the next scene.

For your self-tape, if you can, offer an exchange or an iced coffee to another actor to read with you.

ONLINE READER

Ideally, you want to be able to see the friend’s face while you’re doing the scene. So be clever and use technology if you can’t get a reader in the room with you. Try using Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime. Or, at the very least, get their voice on speakerphone.

Yes, there’s a skill to working with a reader who is online or invisible, and not enough space to write about it here. But, I’ll give you a big insight…

My main tip for working with online readers is this: work extra hard to really make it intimate and make it feel like that person is in the room with you. It’s the very closest you’ll get to “green screen acting,” i.e., when the dinosaur is coming at you, but it’s not really there. Seek deep connection with this character through the virtual distance. Leap into the heart and eyes of the other character through the virtual void.

WHO SHOULD READ WITH YOU?

Your main goal is this: you really just need a live, off-camera voice to react to.

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? Everyone needs practice, all the time. At the very least, ask a non-actor friend or family member to read the lines off camera with you. They’ll have fun and can’t harm you at all—and it’s excellent practice for on-set challenges.

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’ll try to help you later! Or again, friends or family not in the business often find it super fun to read with you. Try it!

 

LIGHTING

 

Make sure that you have direct lighting on your face. You want to avoid shadows under your eyes. 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, affordable light kit. Just google it. Ideally, you get either a RING LIGHT or a LIGHT KIT that has 2-3 lights in it. If you have two lights, put one on either side of the camera at 45 degree angles from where you’re standing while filming. If you have a third light, use it to light the back wall to minimize shadows.

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! Daylight from windows is excellent fill light to break shadows on your face.

Always try to position the main source of lighting in front of you. A directional lamp is easiest—this means a light that can be aimed in a certain direction. Beware of strong overhead lighting that creates shadows under your eyes and of strong low lighting that creates the impression of a horror film. Turn off the overhead and see if that minimizes your shadows.

Creative Tip: A little side lighting gives depth. Best trick is to stand with a window at your side to soften your lighting and make it more natural. Place yourself near a window for that additional “fill” lighting, while your main source light is still in front of you.

Today’s HD cameras (and smartphones) are fantastic for low lighting, so you can probably do it all with just a good lamp shining 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 audition rooms, you’ll often see a turquoise-blue, bright-green, or gray background. I have a gray photographer’s cloth hanging in my studio. But if you don’t have those colors, don’t fuss. Go neutral and opt for a muted, soft background wall color. I recently saw a beautiful light brown wall that complimented an actor’s skin tone perfectly. Do not use a bright background (i.e., no reds, oranges, yellows) as they are distracting.

Let your acting really stand out against the simplest background.

Note: You can also search and purchase a pop-up backdrop. They are portable and easy to set up.

 

MAKEUP AND WARDROBE

 

Dress suggestive of the part. This is my bottom line: how would your character dress? Especially when you are at home, use your wardrobe to make it even more specific.

Women: Minimal makeup for women is very important. Wear a 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. It’s called the “no makeup look.” Beware of heavy makeup that makes you look like you should be onstage, and not on camera. Exceptions include character roles that would be best served with heavy makeup or ZERO make-up. See non-oily skin note below.

Men: The main thing to pay attention to is not letting your nose or forehead be shiny on camera. Avoid excess oil on your skin. Some CDs advise using light face powder. Also, fix your hair. Give yourself at least a little style, don’t look like you just woke up and barely had time to focus on this audition (unless this is the character!). Yes, overall, men should dress suggestive of the part too. Remember: you want to look gooooood. A little hipness or style can go a long way in terms of (subversively) spreading your likability.

 

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 cinematic. If you’re using a smart phone, hold it horizontally like a film. With all cameras, keep it simple so we can focus on your brilliant, sensitive acting.

Think about the genre—comedy or drama? That will automatically inform you on how much body to include in the frame.

Here are some rules of thumb that I use:

Comedy: Film a 3/4 shot, a.k.a. “cowboy shot.” It’s called 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 (remember: 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 can step a few inches to either side comfortably. Comedy needs room for the physical life of your character.

Creative Tip: This is also good framing for theater self-tapes. But, I will say that more and more, the theater audition requests ask for the medium close-ups…they still want to see your internal life!

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)—up to a tiny bit 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 and Sterling K. Brown. Perfectly centered and looking just off camera.

Or, you can use the “2/3 rule,” which means that the actor is in the right or left third of the frame. In the 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, looking towards a person off-camera that we can’t see. There is a natural balance to that frame. If you don’t understand this technique, please just use center framing.

Zoe Kravitz - Yelling To The Sky

 

MOVEMENT WITHIN FRAME

 

Well, here’s where I get stumped writing a description. It’s all much looser than what you think. And, you can really play with it like a filmmaker does more than you think. I am a fan of moving away from the simple “bobbing head” framing and instead, maximizing the levels and dynamics within a frame. I will be opening online self-tape classes soon so you can practice with me and my coaches. After decades of doing this, the process is so instinctually tied to discovery on each individual scene that it’s very hard to write out.

Work with this to start!

  1. Move inside the frame for dramatic effect.
  2. Remember, it’s not theater.
  3. When you focus on making your scene partner “real,” your physical dynamics change totally.
  4. Live and breathe in every moment.

 

EYELINES & CAMERA HEIGHT

 

Viola Davis - How To Get Away With Murder

Eyelines are where your eyes look towards the off-screen characters or activities.

Tip #1: Always send your eye contact off-screen to the scene partner. Do not look directly into the camera, unless you are asked to do this. See all the images above—no one is looking into camera. That’s cinematic!

How do you do this? Position your scene partner—real or virtual—as close to the camera lens as possible for good eyeline. When watching your self-tape, you want it to feel intimate, but not too direct. So find that sweet spot where the auditioning actor, you, is looking close to the camera lens but not into it. That will make it feel like you are REALLY talking to someone.

Tip #2: A crucial element to getting your eyelines correct is the height of the camera—not too high and not too low. Ideally, the camera is precisely at the eye level of your reader.

NOTE: If your reader is on Zoom or Skype, you’ll need to play around with the screen positions of your reader on your laptop or phone screen so that a) your eyeline seems like going off to the side of the camera lens, and b) you can still see your reader’s face expressions. It takes some finagling, but it’s doable.

 

SOUND

 

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

If you want to get excellent sound, you’ll need a separate mic for your camera—either a mic that mounts onto the camera, or a lavalier that you clip to your body. A lav is a great idea. Walk into a camera supply store for support for your specific camera (i.e., Best Buy or B&H Photo Video in NYC).

NOTE: Be sure that we can hear your reader.

  • When using an in-person reader, position your reader near the camera lens.
  • If you use the telephone/skype/zoom technique—see above: SCENE PARTNER (OFF-CAMERA READER)— then you need to make sure their sound is loud enough to record, but not too loud that their volume overtakes yours.

 

SLATE

 

A slate is an introduction to the Creative Team. Say your name very clearly so that your name is understood clearly. Give a glimpse of personality too!

NOTE: I cover the importance of personality in your slates in my classes, it’s 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. They want to get a sense of how you’ll be to work with on set.

 

SELECTING TAKES

 

This is where you will hear different opinions. I can only share what I advise and have done countless times.

I suggest to submit 2 takes per scene. Why?

  1. Give them options to inspire their own ideas! The creative team doesn’t always fully know what they’re looking for. What?!? Truth. They might start with one idea but then evolve during the casting process towards another idea. Or, they might be wide open to many, many ideas for a character. Or, they might not have yet articulated it in a character description. You’re left guessing what they want! So, how would you know which take to submit? You don’t. Give options.
  2. Let them pick which one to send to the director. Many casting directors will watch both takes and then pick the one they like most, or they feel best fits the director’s vision, and forward that one take. Let them whittle it down.
  3. Show them your range of talent. If you show two totally different ways to do the scene, you’re actually showing your range. And that range and flexibility can give them confidence that you can do almost anything!

Creative Tip: If you do submit two takes per scene, be sure to give noticeable differences in each take. Or else, what is the point of offering multiples? Look for inspiring ideas on how to switch up your choices.

 

EDITING & LABELING FILES

 

Don’t do any internal edits of the scene. You’re NOT making a short film.

Most CDs want the individual files, not one edited file of all takes (see below: UPLOADS).

If they don’t give you labeling directions, make sure that the file is clearly titled with YOUR NAME, PROJECT and ROLE TITLE.

Sample file name: “TRUEROMANCE_Alabama_PatriciaArquette_Scene1Take1”

 

UPLOADS

 

*This is the area you might need more help with if you’re not tech 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 googleable. Google can usually help you out!

Some CDs prefer that you submit each take individually, so see links for upload options below. Just read their audition directions carefully, or ask and they will tell you what they prefer.

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

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

You can do it! Good luck!

 

LET’S PRACTICE TOGETHER

 

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Comments

  1. Callum Palmer says

    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.

  2. Janet Aldrich says

    MOST valuable session with you – and worth taping.
    I noticed some CDs, when you audition in their office, forego any slating. Is this a new thing?
    Also, I have a few lights, but am really excited about filling with the window -thank you!

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