GRAD SCHOOL FOR SELF TAPING
By: Jess Canty
The consensus - among many agents, other managers and casting directors that I have spoken to over the past few months - is that some form of self-taping IS here to stay.
This is likely going to be the case moving forward for pre-reads, as casting can simply see many more people than they ever could holding these pre-read sessions in person.
It is also likely that many co-star roles will continue to book from self-tapes alone.
Casting will likely save the in person sessions for Callbacks and Producer/Exec sessions.
If you were not yet a Cinterra client as of last summer - or simply need a refresher - please don't forget about our "Self-Taping 101 Town Hall" Zoom Seminar where our good friend Cinematographer Dan Rink so kindly gave us his wisdom on lighting / microphones and framing along with a number of other helpful tips.
That video is available on Vimeo below, and if you would like to review his handy PDF guide can be found here.
But now what?
Welcome to Self-Taping Graduate School.
Now that we have all been living in this self-tape only land for over a year, I thought we should move beyond the basics and talk about some of the tips and tricks I have picked up along the way after watching hundreds of your tapes and spending hours talking to my colleagues and some very accomplished actors about how to set yourself apart.
Casting's Instructions -
In general you ALWAYS want to do your best to follow casting's instructions for your tapes. Some would like takes as separate files. Some would like all takes in one file. Some want a tail slate etc...
Their instructions are not arbitrary. Make it easy for them to package you up with the other tapes they want their producers and directors to see. This is your first chance to show that, along with being a great actor, you are also detail-oriented, can follow instructions, and care about their needs.
ALL of these qualities are needed on set!
THAT BEING SAID...
There are times we have found that casting does not give specific instructions. Or perhaps their instructions can still be bent a bit to better show you off as a performer AND smart actor.
This is where it is time to get creative.
Class 401 - Slating
ALWAYS follow all instructions for the slate.
However, now when they are asking for a "full body shot" we STRONGLY ENCOURAGE you to take the time to do the side-by-side slate shot. It just looks slick - there's no way around it. And it saves casting's time.
They can get the info they need from you to add to their notes while you are showing them your full body shot. If you need a refresher about how to accomplish this you can find our post about Side-By-Side slating here.
You Don't Need A Fancy Title Card!
One thing that I have heard a number of times from my casting friends on Clubhouse is to not waste any time at the top of your audition tapes by flashing your name / other info on a title card. They have repeatedly said that it is over-kill and actually some even say it is annoying because it takes longer to get to the actual tape. So no more title cards unless casting specifically asks for one.
Class 450 - Co-Star / One Liner / One Page Roles
For these roles where you have perhaps just a reaction shot, or only a couple of lines, we STRONGLY encourage you to submit up to 3 takes.
Show casting your range - especially when auditioning for comedy. Of course these have to be three distinctly different takes on your line or scene - but if you've genuinely got them - do it!
In this instance we recommend putting all of these takes back-to-back in ONE FILE so that casting is encouraged to watch all of your takes. This way you aren't creating any work for them having to click play on extra clips.
And by encouraged, we mean, they are sort of stuck watching all of your takes :)
Class 475 - One to Two Page Scenes / Up to Two Scenes
When you have audition material that is a full-page scene - or two scenes that are about a page or two each, we feel like it is usually strongest to submit two takes on the character.
Again you want to use this opportunity for casting to see your range and if you only have a page to do that - or two simple one-page scenes to do that - you simply may not have enough time in just one take. In this case, we are now encouraging clients to label these takes with the INTENTION behind each take.
So... instead of labeling your tapes:
We have been doing this instead:
Why? Because subconsciously we think that "TK2" always feels like it is just a bit worse than TK1 - right? Like you can't help but believe that TK1 is somehow better because it is first. But when you have two genuinely different takes on a character - why not let casting decide WHAT kind of character they want to see.
The trick with this trick, however, is to make sure to use words that are "college-level" (thesaurus.com here you come). This ensures someone does not have a clear opinion of how that word should be portrayed on screen.
I avoid simple words like "sad" or "happy" or "angry." Everyone has their own opinion of what anger looks like. And the last thing you want to do is set yourself up for having casting say "well, they said that take was angry, but that didn't feel angry to me."
So instead, label with "irascible" or "sullen." These words don't necessarily have as clear a picture in our minds - but they are synonyms of anger.
Get creative with it! Analyze the scenes! Perhaps the first scene is meant to show the tough side of the character and the second scene is meant to show their vulnerable side. In that case you could submit four tapes - two takes of each scene - and label them thusly:
OR you could decide simply that the character themselves is either someone that is sensitive or rigid. In this case you would do both Scene 1 and 2 as a rigid person, and then as a sensitive person (obviously these are extremes but just as an example).
So you could put your SC1 and SC2 into ONE file but give two takes like this:
Class 499 - THREE PAGES / THREE SCENES
When we get into guest-star / recurring land typically you will be sent up to three scenes or a couple of very long scenes that are 2-4 pages or more. In this case it is best to show the "SIDES" of the character within the work of these scenes themselves.
There is no need to do the above of showing your "intention" as the character should have their own arc in the material you are given.
This arc could be within each scene OR over the course of the three scenes given. And this is your job - to discover how to show off your range over the course of these large scenes. Tell us the STORY of the character as a fully realized human over the course of the material you are working with.
In a pre-read situation, we think that it is usually the strongest choice to submit only one take per scene - unless casting is asking for more.
Again, it is unlikely you are going to have two distinctly different reads on three 3-page scenes and that is A LOT of tape to keep track of / upload. And it would be a lot for casting to watch.
Save those nuances for the callback. Show them you can nail the character perfectly once.
There is a confidence in only submitting one take per scene when you have this much material - and we think it is typically best to signal this confidence.
Class 501 - TURNS
Of all the hours I have spent on Clubhouse - one of the most informative 10 minutes was when I was in a room with someone who has been a senior staff writer on a number of shows and had recently jumped up to showrunner.
He spoke about "graduating" to the job on one of his shows to writing the sides for actor auditions. Of course they wouldn't leave this task to just anyone! Also it was a reminder they are not always just pulling sides from the existing episode - that someone is in charge of preparing them specifically for auditioning purposes.
Now this is of course different for every show - but it was very interesting nonetheless.
One thing he spoke about, was that each scene that is given as sides (and again he was talking at the large co-star / guest star and above level) will have at least TWO TURNS. And this is what they are looking for from actors - their ability to recognize and accomplish those turns in the scenes.
And it makes sense - two turns means the scene will then have ... you guessed it! A beginning. A middle. An end. Just like an entire script.
How quickly you turn - without "transitioning" and how well you allow us into the characters thoughts IS what will book you the job.
If your tape is feeling like it is "one note" you are probably missing the turns. Or maybe you have one of them but you are missing the second one.
Humans turn on a dime. They snap. They are fickle. They can go from zero to ballistic faster than a formula one car. They can be totally elated and see a picture that reminds them of something sad, and will be instantly deflated.
Show us you can find the places to make your character turn - in that ever so unpredictably human way.
Class 550 - UNDER PRESSURE
One unfortunate aspect of self-taping is that it is very difficult to mimic the pressure of the audition room. But we encourage you to do this for yourself.
Schedule only 30 minutes to tape. Get a Zoom reader who can only give you 15 minutes of their time before they have to go. Give yourself a maximum of 3 takes per scene and stick to it.
The reality is - unless you are a series regular (and quite often even if you are) you will NEVER be given more than 2 takes on a TV set unless something goes wrong with camera or sound.
Film may have a bit more wiggle room - but not much. Doing thirty takes for a self-tape probably means that there is something rotten in Denmark.
If you tend to be someone that does a lot of takes - consider working on your material with your reader or someone else more before the camera is switched on. Give yourself the gift of a similar pressure to the audition room by rehearsing more (like you would have if this were not for a self tape) and taping less.
And it IS a gift. Because the pressure of a multi-million dollar set where you are acting against one of your heroes ain't nothing compared to that audition room.
You have to show them you can work under pressure by re-creating that pressure in your tapes. Casting are experts at reading people - and they can tell when a tape doesn't have that extra energy that comes from someone nailing it at the buzzer.
Class 575 - EYELINES
Want to know what sets the pro's apart? Eyelines.
A seasoned on-camera actor knows that the right look can replace an entire scene of dialogue. The camera is doing SO much work for you - especially the closer it is to your face. And what do humans look at on the face more than any other feature?
Knowing how to use your eye-lines to your advantage can be the difference in us perceiving a good performance vs. a great one. Knowing how to be specific with where you are looking / how your eyes read on camera AND the story they are subconsciously telling the viewer IS the 500 level class of self-taping.
Show casting / directors and producers that you are in control of your eye-lines so that you are editable.
If you cannot control where you are looking you run the risk of making your takes unusable by the editor. If your eyes are darting around or you are looking too high or too low for the character opposite you in the scene, the scene will not cut together.
Master your eye-lines and you will have mastered the self-tape.
Let's say your self-tape set up is such that you are taping the scene via your phone, but you have a zoom reader to one side or other of the camera on another device.
It can be INCREDIBLY difficult not to look at that "reader" on that screen. However, it is unlikely that your secondary device is able to be placed at an appropriate height, like an actual human reader would be.
In this case, the Zoom reader is essentially there for live sound. Unlike in an audition room you SHOULD NOT LOOK AT YOUR READER. It will kill your eye-line, and make it difficult for us - the viewer - to not be distracted by the fact that you are probably looking too low (if standing) or too high (if sitting). It also locks you into one point - and nobody in life is ever locked into one point for that long.
The reason why casting wants you reading to the reader in the audition room is because they are watching for your ability to create a connection. But that is impossible with all of these devices between you and your reader so you have to adjust.
Killing your eye-lines means killing your connection with us - the viewer. If you cannot help but be distracted, try turning the device to face away from you. Or place it directly behind whatever you are taping with - so you are forced to choose an appropriate eye-line on either side of camera.
In a scene with multiple characters opposite you, attempt to pick an appropriate eye-line for each of them. Discuss this with your reader. If they're with you in person, ask them to look into camera and verify that where you have placed everyone else makes sense from the standpoint of the viewer. Ensure nobody is "too tall" or "too short" based on where you have placed them.
Put post-its up, or use your childhood stuffed animal sitting on a chair to have something to focus on. Whatever it takes to make this world believable - will set your tapes apart.
Memorize not only your lines but WHO is addressing you - so that you are adjusting your eye-lines to match within the scene. It is one of those things that the pros will be able to do in their tapes that sets them apart.
The audience should feel like there are multiple people speaking to you, because you have a different attitude about each character that is addressing you - and you are "seeing" different people in each different location in the room. When you change who you are looking at / responding to we see that change in your character.
Remember when you were taught that it wasn't polite to stare? Well, in life, we are never truly locked into someone else's face when we are having a conversation with them. I mean that would be creepy and unnerving. But in a self-tape, you've picked your eye-lines and now you are completely focused and locked-into these spots. And it looks totally unnatural.
Just like sticking to the punctuation in a script (which in general you need to throw out so that your scene sounds conversational) sticking too faithfully to your eye-lines will make your scenes feel rigid and over-rehearsed. Let your eyes wander, come into yourself, look down, look up if your character is remembering something. But COME BACK to the eye-lines you have chosen for each opposing character, when you need to make a point. It is the coming back to the right spots that shows you are a pro.
I learned this trick recently from Glenn Moreshower, who let me sit in on one of his classes - and I think it is pretty awesome. When I heard him work on this with an actor in his class - and then saw the result - it felt like one of those gems that has been handed down from film-actor to film-actor over the years.
If you have a scene, where the character opposite exits, leaving your character alone (especially at the end of the scene, and thus your tape) - most people will "track" that character's exit. The actor will make the choice to follow this imaginary other person with their eyes all the way "out the door" sometimes even turning their head to do so.
Problem is, we don't really do this in life. So how do you solve this? Just like the two turns mentioned above - you need to have two moments within the exit.
First, follow the person with your eyes for a moment. Then, pick something personal to come back to - and add a thought. And THEN look back up to where they are NOW.
If they are leaving the room - you "track" them for a couple of steps.
Then maybe you look down sheepishly at your hands for a couple of beats, you're bummed this fight ended in them storming out.
THEN you look up once more - now at the door that they just closed on you. The placement of the door is further along the "track" if you had been following them the entire time.
And guess what - this gives the ending of your tape a clear beginning / middle / end of its own. And it's completely non-verbal. And the camera can't help but stay with you because you are doing so much without saying a word!
Don't believe me and Glenn?
Check out the scene in Episode 3 of Mare of Easttown when Zabel exits Mare's office at the police station. Sure enough Kate tracks him, looks down at a paper on her desk that she is engrossed with, and picks him up again at/after the door.
Class 599 - THE TECHNICAL AND THE CRAFT
In any audition the acting is always first and foremost what casting or anyone else is looking at. But that is the given. You are here because we already believe in your talent. We already know you have worked hard on the craft - and that you are still continuously learning and training. You wouldn't be here if not. You wouldn't have been called in for this audition if casting didn't see something in you as a performer. It is SO much a given that we do not feel the need to speak about it.
The best performances and the best films and TV shows happen at the intersection between technique and craft. Between technology and storytelling. Between a mastery of the tools - lenses, lighting, sound, VFX, editing - AND the mastery of the art - casting, acting, writing, directing, producing.
Within each art, there are a number of tools you must master. A writer needs to know how to use final draft and all of its bells and whistles - so that they can pump out revisions on a moment's notice.
As an actor you need to understand how the technical tools at your disposal - not only on set but also in your self tapes - will set your performances free. We want you to know about all of these tools, and how to take advantage of them so that you can give that look at the end of your tape that just makes everyone go "wow."
Part of this look IS going to be your acting.
But part of it is placing it at exactly the right part of the frame, with your chin lifted to just that perfect spot so we can see the full story of what is happening behind your eyes.
It is knowing that if you just turned your head an 8th of an inch to the left in your close-up we are going to see an entirely fuller version of the emotion you are attempting to evoke.
Look at your recent headshot session - not the selects, but the full session. How does a slight change in the angle of your face or eyes change what the photo is saying? Master these angles. Practice in the mirror. Know how to completely control your movement so that it will just happen naturally when you are engrossed in a scene.
We say this not to bog you down with the technical but to give you the ammunition to analyze your tapes. To improve them. To level up. To step up your game. To make you competitive.
To make it so that there is no doubt in anyone's mind that a scene in your hands is a scene in the hands of someone in complete control. To make it so your tapes are not good - but great.
Hollywood demands the great. You cannot be good. This town is full of GOOD actors. In this town, the good is the enemy of the great. Good does not cut it.
Graduate from the good.