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Self-Tapes Are Here to Stay

Posted on: May 20, 2021

There has been an increasing demand for actors to provide self-taped auditions. Peter Allen Stone, author of Acting for the Camera, explores tips and techniques for creating high-quality self-taped auditions. 

One thing that we have learned about acting for the camera during the pandemic has been the importance in creating a high-quality self-tape audition.

For the past few years, casting directors for film and television projects have moved more and more toward using self-tape auditions as a tool to find the right actor for a particular role. For the foreseeable future, self-taping is here to stay.

One reason is that self-tapes allow the casting director to instantly see an actor for a role who may not be living in the heart of New York City, Hollywood, London, Atlanta, or another major acting hub. For the actor, this is great news! The self-tape audition allows them to have more autonomy over their work, and it provides them with more access to be considered for a role than ever before.

However, like a good headshot and resume, the self-tape submission needs to look and sound professional, because it will allow the casting director to focus their attention on the actor’s performance.

What Are Casting Directors Looking For?

It goes without saying that casting directors want professional looking and sounding self-tapes. But what else are casting directors looking for?  Jandiz Estrada Cardoso, seasoned casting director and Director of the Episodic Writer’s Program at the Sundance Film Festival, offers this insight:

We are not there to look at you for this one role.  You are there today to present your choices for this one role, but in actuality, I may be looking at you for other roles.  I might be pushing you for a role that you aren’t right for because I love how creative you are, and I keep inviting you back.

Use every self-tape audition as an opportunity for self-growth as an artist.

What Makes a Self-Tape Look and Sound Professional?

Put simply:  no distractions.  The best self-taped auditions are the ones where the focus is on the actor.  First and foremost, you need crisp sound, good lighting, and a simple background.  If your sound is muffled, you are backlit, or you are bouncing out of a frame that’s too tight, it is likely the viewer will not make it past the first 5 or 10 seconds of your video.  Additionally, it is equally important that your reader is not distracting.  If your reader is too loud (they’re often closer to the microphone), or uses multiple character voices, it can detract from your performance.  Finally, make sure that what you are wearing is not distracting.  Wear solid colors that suit the character and bring out your best qualities. Busy fabric patterns can pull focus and thin stripes can create a distracting moiré effect.  Prints may not be the only thing that is “loud.”  Wearing jewelry that adds to the character is a good idea but choose jewelry that doesn’t make jingling noises as you speak.

How to Self-Tape Like a Professional

But I’m not a professional filmmaker!  In addition to being a strong actor, students need to develop production skills now or the business of acting may leave them in the rearview mirror. The good news is that with a little practice, students can develop these skills and be more invested in their creative work as actors. With a few small purchases and a little creativity, they can build an affordable self-tape studio in their dormitory or home. This year I was impressed with how my students took ownership of their work and created self-tape studios in their dorms or apartments and delivered dynamic self-tape auditions.

Here are some use useful tips to give to your students to ensure that their next self-tape submission looks and sounds professional.

15 Self-Tape Production Tips

  1. Find Your Space Now. Do not wait for the audition to come. Whatever your living arrangement may be, start to figure out where you can self-tape at any hour of the day.
  2. Silence is Golden. Random background noise is very distracting and a sign of an amateur self-tape audition.  If you are not shooting in a room with carpet or drapes, throw some blankets on the ground so it will help absorb any distracting noises or echoes. Oh, and be sure to close the windows and turn off loud home appliances like air conditioners.
  3. Backdrop. The backdrop should be clean without any distractions. This means no cracks or pictures on the wall and no doors in the background. You should be the star and focus of the self-tape audition. A neutral gray wall works wonderfully. If you don’t have a gray wall do not hang a sheet.  It will always look wrinkled.  Instead, purchase a roll of seamless photo background paper that you can tape to the wall with painter’s tape.
  4. Smartphone. Today’s smartphones produce high quality videos and work great.
  5. Tripod. Put the camera on a tripod. Handheld footage is distracting.
  6. Lighting. Two LED Video Lights work great. Position them on both sides of the camera at about 45 degrees creating a diffused and cool light that is evenly spread across the actor. Another affordable option is the ring light.  Most of them now come with a tripod and a phone mount.
  7. Shadows. Create space between you and the backdrop to remove distracting shadows.
  8. Microphones. An external mic will give you better sound than the built-in microphone in your phone. Shure and Rode make excellent shotgun and lavalier microphones for smartphones to improve the quality of sound.
  9. Framing. A medium close-up from about the middle of the chest to just above the top of the head with the actor centered is the ideal frame for self-tapes.
  10. Horizontal. The frame should always be horizontal and never vertical.
  11. Eye-Line. The camera should be level with the actor’s eye-line or slightly higher.  This forces you to lift your chin which will be more flattering.
  12. Settings. Set your phone on airplane mode and do not disturb so that your audition is not interrupted by an incoming call or text.
  13. Slating.  Shoot your slate separately from your scene.  Look directly into the lens and state your name, height, and city where you are based (and any additional information listed in the audition notice).
  14. Editing.  Using a simple but effective program like iMovie you can trim your clips and add text and transitions from your iPhone, iPad, or laptop and export the final video file ready for uploading.
  15. Submitting.  Follow the casting director’s instructions.  It is imperative that you follow directions regarding what is to be included in the slate, how to label the file, and the due date.  Double check that you have followed the instructions carefully and submit only your best take.

Oh, and one final piece of advice for your students:  If your goal is to be a stage, film, or television actor, remember to have fun.  For the 5 minutes that you are filming your scene, that role is yours and yours alone.  Take time to prepare for your performance and enjoy your time filming it.  And if you do it well, you may find yourself on set playing that role!