Self-tapes are the new pre-read. You need to be great at it. It’s pilot season, casting is happening faster than ever, and actors need to know how to turn around an amazing professional self-tape with only a few hours notice. No excuses. Actors are testing for pilots from tape and booking television gigs from tape. Globally, not just locally. The competition is fierce.

How many self-tapes do you do a week? How many of them suck? The next time you get a self-tape request, I want you to remember something. When you are tired, hungover, and your 50 year old roommate is asking you to set him up with a meeting with your agent, you have to memorize ten pages, and look like you just stepped out of a burned up forest, remember this: someone else, who is up for the same role, is going into a professional studio. They are camera-ready (sometimes bringing their own makeup artist), fully memorized with professional lighting and sound, reading with another actor, who is also bringing out a great performance. They are ready to step into the role at that moment. So, stop sending in bad self-tapes! Your agents and managers will not send it to casting and they will question your audition skills, your talent, and not want to pitch you, because they can’t trust you. You feel me?

You need to be competitive, as if you are stepping onto set.

Here’s what you will need: two softbox lights with daylight bulbs (or clip lights from a hardware store), a gray or blue painted wall for a backdrop (or a sheet), a good lavalier microphone to hook up to your phone, iMovie editing software, a Dropbox, WeTransfer or Hightail account, and someone who doesn’t suck to read with you. You can control the outcome, which gives you the power here. You aren’t going into an audition room and praying you nail it on the first take. You can spend 10 hours on this if you want. You can literally act in your living room, without nerves getting in the way.

Pay attention, I’m going to break down the most important parts.

Lighting

Lighting is key. Invest in two softbox lights from Amazon (I like the Limostudio lighting kit), and place them on either side of the camera, slightly higher than eye level. This will create a nice “catch light” effect in each of your eyes, making them twinkle. This also helps with shadows and replicates natural light from a window. Play around with formations, create dimension with the lighting. Avoid making yourself look “flat and washed out.” Nice shadows are flattering. Overhead shadows make you look like that dude from “Saw.”

Backdrop

Gray or blue is the current trend. So, paint a wall or hang a flat curtain without wrinkles. Don’t film in front of a white wall because it messes up the white balance of the video. Google it. The less messy the better. You don’t want anything distracting the viewer from your face. So maybe don’t film it in your bedroom with your “Acting for Dummies” book in the background and your cat sleeping on the shelf?

Sound

A good performance is unwatchable if the sound sucks. Whether you are using your phone or a DSLR camera, invest in a small lavalier microphone (I like VidPro), so that the sound of the actor is crystal clear, and thus the reader is softer. The worst thing you can do is have a loud reader. All anyone wants is for this to sound like a normal conversation.

Camera

Use your iPhone or use a good DSLR with autofocus. You can buy new or used DSLR Canon Rebel cameras with kit lenses (18-55 lens, which is great to zoom out for a body shot) for a very affordable price. Everyone has a smartphone, and everyone can take high-quality video now, so there is no excuse for a poor-quality, blurry self-tape. It’s amateur. A small investment can go a long way in your professionalism and ability to book jobs.

Framing

The camera should be eye level, or even slightly higher. The camera should never be looking “up” at the actor. The frame should be a medium shot (chest up), with a little room above the head. If you are filming with your cell phone, the video MUST be horizontal (use a tripod iPhone adapter). If you are adding a slate, I highly recommend filming it separately, and then put the files together in iMovie. It gives the actor a chance to reset before the actual audition scene, especially if the scene begins with some serious emotional stuff.

What happens when you are in a Motel 6 hotel room and your cheap tripod doesn’t work? This is where you get creative. Put your phone on some books, face it towards you, swap out some bulbs, and you can make it look EXACTLY the same. Play around. I’ve seen some actors be very crafty with this.

Eyelines

Always put the reader slightly right or left of the camera. Do you have a good side? Pay attention to it, Mariah Carey. Always film on that side. It matters. Never look right into camera, unless it’s a slate and they ask you to. If a new character enters frame, put them on the other side of the camera from the reader. Create the world, see everything around you and react accordingly. Nobody needs to know you are in your mom’s basement.

Upload and Edit

Once you get the good takes, edit it together in iMovie, compress the file, and upload it to a sharing service. And oh man your wifi better be working. I know someone who filmed a perfect self-tape and went to upload it right before the deadline, realized their wifi was out, missed the deadline and wasn’t able to submit it.

You should know basic editing, how to put the takes together in the timeline, adjust the sound for any excessive “room noise” or “hissing,” compress the file so it’s under 50MB, and then share the file to Vimeo, Dropbox, WeTransfer or Hightail. Period. You could get an email tonight at 9pm from your agent asking for a self-tape due the next morning that has 15 pages of sides. Get used to it. No excuses.

So, no more overhead lighting, shot in your bedroom handheld-selfie-style, with your creepy American Doll collection in the shot. It makes people question your sanity and not want to work with you.


Matt Newton is an acclaimed TV and film acting coach in New York City, the founder of MN Acting Studio, and the author of the new book “The No B.S. Guide to the Acting Biz,” available on Amazon. He recently was the on-set coach for Ava Duvernay’s Emmy winning Netflix miniseries “When They See Us.” Visit Matt on Instagram at @mattcnewton.

 

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Written by Matt Newton