If you’re like most actors, putting yourself on tape when you were a kid was somewhere between a giggle-inducing joy and an all-consuming need. Depending on when you grew up, you either snuck off with your parents’ camcorder or, if you don’t know what that word means, you did the same thing with a smartphone or tablet. Back in the day, it was no trouble to corral a friend or two, come up with a script, sketch or dance sequence, and get your fabulous self on celluloid.
But as working actors, the general consensus is that self-tapes suck. They’re difficult and time-consuming, and they increase that oh-so-awful feeling as an actor that you’re doing all this work for literally no one.
Self-tape auditions, however, are increasingly ubiquitous, a trend which shows few signs of slowing down. We can try to recapture that joy of our childhoods and maybe even enjoy this necessary evil with a little preparation and some serious hacks.
Get the Gear
Are you still balancing your iPhone on a stack of books and strategically aiming lamps at your face? These are frustrations you can do away with. It’s easy to spend a lot of money on self-tape gear, but you can also get yourself a decent set-up for less than $300.
The essentials are a couple of box lights (diffused lighting does wonders), a backdrop (green or blue screen) and a tripod. This not only elevates your work, but it gives you a sense of professionalism that can bolster your mood about the whole process. (And keep the receipts – these things are tax-deductible!)
It’s totally cool to use your smart phone as a camera, as long as it’s not too old. Just remember to angle it length-wise.
Look Your Best
We live in the Era of the Selfie. We all know our best angles, and self-tapes give us the control opportunity to capitalize on that knowledge. Do your make-up, pick your outfit then do a test-shot. Not perfect? Lucky you, your wardrobe is only a few feet away!
Even better, when you have total control over the shot, you can make little tweaks to help yourself feel your absolute best, no matter what’s really going on. Feeling bloated? No problem – give yourself a tight frame that doesn’t go below your chest. Hair gone flat? Use the old newscaster trick and clip or pin it from behind to fluff it out in front, since the front is all they need to see. Have a cold or allergies? Rejoice! You don’t need to worry about turning anyone off with a leaky nose or sneeze at the WORST possible time. Just pause the video and do another take!
Bonus: you usually only have to look the part from the waist up.! You’re not leaving your home, so why wear pants, amirite?
Own the Space
Ever walk into an audition room with tension in the air so thick you could spread it on toast? Or, even worse, a room full of distracted and disengaged people who barely seem to register your existence? As actors, we tend to be very sensitive to the emotions floating around any given space. Combine that with the teeny amount of time you get in the room, plus the general stress of the whole experience, and it can be incredibly difficult to ground yourself, mentally create the space of the monologue or scene, and drop into an authentic experience that shows off your best work.
But in the comfort of your own home? Own that space, baby! Light incense to calm your nerves or lift your spirits. If you have the time, you can create elements of the scene to really get yourself in the mood, like cookies baking in the oven if you’re playing a loving parent, or a glass of whiskey nearby if you’re playing a hard-hitting detective. (And yes you deserve to consume these things afterwards – you’re working hard!!)
No Reader? No Problem
Ideally, we all get smart, sensitive readers who are clear-spoken and emotionally available. And we should all have actor friends who do this favor for us, which we happily return as needed.
Sadly, this can be hard to find, oh, six times a week with sometimes less than 24 hours notice.
The best hack I’ve learned: if you can’t find someone in person, Skype it in! Call someone back home or even just in a different borough.
If you’re really in a pinch to find a reader, you can use simple software like iMovie to dub in the other dialogue yourself. This is a last resort, though, because, of course, you want to have an honest emotional connection. (Plus, most casting directors will be able to tell.)
Mistakes to Avoid
Casting directors are busy people, and the unfortunate truth is that they, like all employers trying to narrow down a massive pile of resumes, are looking for quick and easy reasons to say “not this one.” Give yourself a fighting chance by avoiding some common mistakes.
Don’t speak directly into the camera (unless instructed), except for your slate. And don’t forget to slate! (Side note: if you have basic editing software, it can be nice to add a simple transition between your slate and your take. I like Fade to Black, but anything that isn’t distracting works. This way you only need to slate once, plus you can take all the time you need between your “I’m a delight to work with” slate and diving into the world of the character and scene – another luxury not available during in-person auditions.)
Make sure your camera (on your phone or otherwise) is set to record at the highest quality. It will take up a little more space but it’s worth it for a cleaner picture.
Don’t let your eyes bob between your script and your reader. Do your best to get off book, but in a pinch, tape the lines to the tripod so that if you need to glance at it, the viewer is still getting a full view of your face.
And be sure, to label your file or link correctly and clearly. If they don’t give you instructions, use this format for files: Last Name, First Name, CHARACTER NAME, Project Title. And for links: First Name Last Name, CHARACTER NAME, Project Title. Upload your video to YouTube as “Unlisted” and leave the description blank, or simply say “Audition.”
Yes, the energy in the room is essential, for both you and the director, casting director, producers, etc., to decide if this project is a good fit for you. But, the process can also be nerve-wrenching, as you eye up your competition (and feel their eyes on you), stumble over a line (or chair!) and wonder if that’s all they’re thinking about … auditions, in general, can be a nightmare.
Taping your audition in the comfort of your own home gives you control over the circumstances, which can ease your nerves and enable you to do your best work. Without all that pressure, it’s just YOU, bringing a character to life on camera – and that’s what it’s all about, right?
Alison Preece is an actress, writer and producer living in NYC. www.alisonpreece.com, @apreecenyc