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Self-Tapes – The Myths…Busted!


Self-tapes are on the increase and have been for the last five years. Some actors like them, some don’t but, they are an incredibly useful and beneficial tool to the industry…not least, they make auditions accessible! However, like with everything in the world, there are many pitfalls…

The rules?

Below are a number of ‘rules’ and advice when shooting. The first rule is ALWAYS READ THE EMAIL/LISTEN TO THE INSTRUCTIONS! Casting Directors or Directors might have specific requests for this individual tape, so don’t assume they’re all the same.

Also, remember that in the room, you may get the chance to work with the Director/Casting Director. With a tape, you are sending something that says ‘this is me doing my best work’ so make sure it’s right! This is you, at your best! Don’t be lazy, work hard, get it spot on! You might not employ a plumber with a dirty van because they look sloppy. An actor with a shoddy self-tape….?

How to shoot and what to use…

Where there are many companies out there that offer self-taping services, sometimes, doing it yourself is the best, easiest and/or only option.

- If shooting on your mobile/tablet ensure the camera is in landscape. There are ways of doing this, but a simple tripod/grip is a great purchase online. Do not attempt to hold the camera yourself or have your reader hold it!

- Frame the camera as a mid-shot/head and shoulders. Do not have your chin/top of your head missing. Similarly, if you frame yourself with a camera under your chin or on a high shelf, you can look a little odd. Keep the camera directly in front of you, at head height. Also, having a vast background with just a tiny version of you somewhere in it, is a waste of space. We want to see your face!

- The background is important!! Keep it blank and empty of ornaments, pictures etc. If you can find a neutral coloured background, use that. If you don’t have one, buy a sheet that you can use for just self-tapes. This can be just an off-cut of material and will be just a couple of quid from a fabric shop. I use a blue sheet because it is great for skin-tones and eyes. Remember, you’re saying to a Casting Director that this is your best work. If it looks like you can’t be bothered to find a good wall, this reflects on you!

- Lighting is very important. We’ve all balanced a lamp on a book and hoped it works! The more light, the better (without hurting your eyes!). This is especially true if shooting on an smart-phone/table as this will automatically adjust the brightness. The light should be front on, not from the side and not from behind! Sitting in front of windows will cause chaos! Even direct sunlight can cause problems as the sun goes in and out. An artificial light is best. These are available quite cheaply online. Shoot in the dark and we can’t see you! We want to see your eyes twinkle.

- Levels are really important. Often, the reader will be sat next to the phone/camera which will make them louder. If you can do, have them speak quieter or move them slightly further back from the camera. Your voice must always be more prominent or at least equal to the readers. If you can afford it, cheap (£10) microphones can be bought online that will go directly into your phone.

- Readers should be positioned directly next to the camera (left or right) so as to keep your eye-line as close to the camera as is possible – both seated or both standing. Moving them further away means your eye-line moves further away. Also, when speaking to other characters, you should choose a position for them on the other side of the camera – use tape or a post-it note to give you an eye-line. Your reader will still read all the lines, but it gives you the chance to play with thought and eye-lines.

- Props are a pain! Avoid them unless it’s absolutely necessary – smoking…not needed! Cups, passing car keys etc all fine. Don’t stress about it! They’re not testing your ability to source items!

- Simplify your stage directions. Often a scene will involve opening a window or making a brew. Simplify these as much as possible. You don’t need a window and/or kettle!

- LINES! Wherever possible, learn them! If you learn them, it means you don’t need to rely on sight-reading which is an entirely different skill! Learning them also shows that you’re serious and ready to work – you’re giving the best version of you! Sometimes it’s not possible to learn lines and so, you might want to use apps such as Teleprompter for Video which is free, and loads the lines onto your Iphone screen. OR be great, the best, at sight-reading! For best results, learn it!

- Got nobody to read with? Often this is the case (more so right now!). So, it’s perfectly acceptable to record the other persons lines on a voice note/memo and play these for you to respond to. However, make sure you have clear eye-lines, that the readers voice (you!) is quieter than your voice and that you don’t let it affect your acting! It’s not ideal but in worst case scenarios….

- Where possible (and this is difficult!) try to read with another actor! They give you more and as much as we all love our mums/dads/brothers/friends…sometimes it can be a bit weird for both parties and take a really long time!! Also, our dearest friends’ feedback might not always be the most accurate!

Mastering an Ident!

Consider the ident to be the bit where you get to be yourself – the interview section. They’re awkward, but important!

- Say your name, character and full agency name to camera, down the lens. Sometimes you’ll need your height, the country you reside in, driving licence, passport, recent jobs…. Again, read the email the tape was sent with – it will tell you!

- You might want your ident slightly wider than the ‘take’ shot, to show us more of you. Profiles are not always needed, but will be requested in the email if so. For commercial self-tapes, always include Profiles.

- Full-body shots tend to be more of an American thing however, I’ve seen them increasingly in the UK. For this, there are two options. 1) To zoom out/move the camera back and pan from head, down, and back again. 2) To see a shot of the body in its entirety. The latter is not always possible if we don’t have enough space! End with a smile! For this, you may find it more difficult to hide ‘lounge paraphernalia’ so don’t worry about getting a plug or coffee table in shot!

Sending the files…

- Files should be in an MP4, .mov or M2V format.

- Tapes should be sent via WeTransfer or Dropbox. Do not use YouTube as this is not secure and a lot of the material will be unreleased scripted material. To use Vimeo you have to have paid to get the upgrade, to enable your tape to be downloaded.

- If your tape is due in at 4pm, you HAVE to be sending your tape at 3pm – all too often the internet breaks, the computer crashed or many other problems! Wifi in coffee shops probably isn’t strong enough so if you don’t have it at home, find somewhere you know has the capability now, so you’re ready to upload. Remember, uploading your tape late only makes you look poor! Be an hour ahead of schedule every time!

- Edit the tapes!! A Casting Director doesn’t need to see you settling into a scene or leaning forward to press ‘stop’. Imovie is on all Iphones and mac books and can trim the tapes beginning and end, and add a slate very easily. There are also many other basic editing apps out there. Also, you may be sent more than one scene – these will need to be edited together. Your agent may be able to do this, but it’s easy with an app!

Some handy hints…

What to wear!

Wear something that has a ‘hint’ of the character! For instance, if you’re going for a plumber, don’t wear a suit. A business-person, don’t wear a polo shirt! Block colours are best and unless it’s a character, give it a little colour. You do not need to go into full costume – no hats, bonkers jewellery etc.

Shouting!

Often actors think that shouting to convey emotion is a good thing. Often, the actor is wrong! Emotions are best conveyed with subtlety and nuance and this brings a different dimension to your work. Coaching can help with this and this can be done online!

Stillness not Stiffness!

Only on my return to Manchester was I exposed to this odd phenomenon that acting on screen involves staying REALLY STILL! Never before had I heard people being told to move their eyebrows less! It’s a nonsense. As an actor we are looking to emulate humans and all we have to do is look around to see how, every day, in every conversation, humans move, gesticulate, look elsewhere than the eyes of the person opposite them. This is called ‘playing your space’ and requires you to be relaxed and in thought. You can move as long as it is connected!

Eyes!

Casting Directors will never (I prepare to be proven wrong!) give a job because the top of someone’s head wowed them! They want to see your eyes – that’s where the magic happens. So, you might want to have a deep thought and look down – don’t! Try to take that thought sideways or not completely down. All of that work you’re doing to show us you’re connected….it count’s for nothing if we can’t see your eyes. Similarly, if you haven’t had chance to learn the lines, you might be reading. LIFT THAT PAGE UP! Drop your eyes to the page too much and we lose them!

Scripts!

Sight-reading is a hugely important skill. It takes years to master and in return, will be your best friend – especially if you haven’t been able to learn the lines. There are courses and tips out there but, for now, just know that;

-Shuffling your script will be picked up and distracting! Un-staple them if they are stapled and work out the best way to hold the pages to aid your reading. Just drop the pages you’ve used!

-You need to practice at just glancing at the script to pick up your next line – a good long look takes you out of thought and ‘drops the ball’ in terms of energy. A glance should be all it takes! Practice! Holding the script up slightly means that these glances take less time – if there’s less distance between your eyes and the paper, the more we see your eyes!

-Highlight the pages so you can ‘lock on’ to your lines more easily when reading. Also, where possible, use your thumb down the side of the page to mark where you’re up to.

-Hold the script still – shuffling papers is a distraction!

The Journey!

Casting Directors will (usually) send you a scene that has a journey. They want you to do well in your tape so they have picked something that shows you off. Find this journey!! A scene with one note all the way through is not going to get you the job – it will be beige! You should start the scene in a different emotional place as to where you end the scene. Find this!! For instance, if you look at a scene at a funeral, our instincts are to play this scene ‘sad’. This is not a journey and undoubtedly it will slow the scene right down! Start with a sadness, maybe explore how it would be if by the end they were more angry or jealous or frustrated. Find that journey!

Choices!

With the increase in self-tapes for casting, it has now made it more accessible for more and more people to be seen. So, YOU have to bring your best work. As well as having a polished tape, you must stand out. This is about making choices. Ultimately, a coaching session can help you with these, or, if you’re doing it yourself, here are three things I would try to include;

1) Playing the opposite of something. If sad, try laughing through it. If angry, don’t shout, maybe smile or use a silence. Explore the options for at least one choice in the scene.

2) Use a beat somewhere in the scene to really process what has been said to you. That moment, just a brief moment of silence whilst you work with your reader, shows a bravery!

3) Break the scripts into units so that your journey is mapped out. Label these units with what your character is trying to do to add colour to the scene ie. Defend, threaten, beg.

NB: Choices don’t mean shouting randomly or dressing up! They must be connected to truth and remain in the realm of the characters’ world.

The End!

Don’t just let your performance disappear into nothing. Keep acting until the end. Keep in character. You don’t need to say ‘thank you’ or suddenly remove yourself from shot. If you’re editing it, give yourself a good ¾ seconds in thought so you have room to let the scene end and then chop the end off.

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