Self Tape Auditions

Increasingly nowadays casting directors are asking actors to submit self taped auditions. Here are a few pointers for how to improve your chances of being called in for a face to face audition.

There are numerous examples of actors making the break into big budget films by sending in footage of themselves performing sides from a script in character. Check out Colin Farrell filming scenes from Tigerland or Gerry Butler in very scary makeup filming himself auditioning for the part of Dracula.

More and more often casting directors, in an effort to cut costs and streamline the casting process, are relying on actors to film themselves auditioning for a part before they get to the stage where they look at actors in person. It makes a lot of sense, and will become increasingly popular in the future.

So it is in your interest to have the facility to record and deliver an audition tape that is professional and conforms to certain standards. Luckily the technology to do so is relatively inexpensive. You may even have it to hand already, but if you do not then you need to get your hands on it, or at least be able to borrow it at short notice.

So you will need the following:

1. A camera.

You can record an audition on any number of devices, from the built in webcam on your laptop to an iPhone or a video camera.

The quality of the equipment you use to record your audition will not determine whether you get called in (that’s down to your performance and suitability) but it doesn’t hurt to have a decent image with good sound in your clip.

For that reason I always recommend actors get their hands on a decent video camera. It doesn’t have to be massively expensive, but reasonable quality will lead to better results and the investment will pay off if you book a single gig from using it. Aside from having the camera to record auditions for uploading I also recommend that actors use their video cameras to record and review rehearsals of scenes before they go in for face to face auditions.

Its best to buy yourself a memory card recorder rather than a tape system camera, you’ll save on stock and it will be a lot easier to transfer the footage from the camera to your computer.

As for the sound, most video cameras have built in microphones. Make sure you deliver the performance with enough volume that your voice is clear. Bear in mind that your video may not be watched in a quiet environment, or on headphones, so you will need to make sure your voice is clearly audible.

2. A light source

This is one area neglected by a lot of actors who submit tapes online. It is vital you are well lit and properly exposed in order for a casting director or director to be able to see your performance.

If you have access to a studio with lights well and good, but it is not essential to have a professional lighting set up. What you do need is a good strong source of light off to one side that is balanced out by a weaker source of light or reflected light on the opposite side.

The simplest way to achieve this is to sit near a bright window to your left or right with light reflected back from the other side by white walls or white card. You can also use domestic lamps to either side, but try to avoid using naked bulbs, as they create very harsh shadows. Instead use a lampshade or drape some white material over the bulb (without setting it on fire obviously!).

Be careful not to have the background too bright or your camera might automatically expose that area of the screen, meaning you will be silhouetted and barely visible.

3. A scene partner

The right scene partner can make or break an audition. They need to be discreet enough not to interfere with your performance, but animated enough so that they don’t leech the scene of all life.

Your scene partner should be the correct gender for the character they are reading. They should deliver the lines clearly and with meaning, but should avoid dramatic pauses or overdoing the emotion.

They should remain off screen, close to the camera so your eyeline is close to the lens.

4. A computer with editing software

You will need to title your audition clip and have a rough fade in and out at either end of the clip. In order to do this you will need some form of editing software.

Most new computers come with a free editing tool. On Macs it is called iMovie, on PCs its called Windows Free Media Editor (you may have to use Internet Explorer to download this if you don’t already have it, some browsers won’t download microsoft products). Alternatively there are a number of other video editing packages available for free download. Just google “freeware video editing” and you’ll get plenty of options.

You’ll need to get a handle on using the software. There are plenty of tutorials on youtube and other video sites, and most software packages come with links to online manuals and help databases.

Create a title card with your name, the role you are auditioning for and either your contact details or your agent’s. Use a simple font, white text on a black background. Put a fade in at the start of the clip, just before your audition starts and fade out at the end before you break character. Export the footage to a format that your video hosting site will accept (Mpeg, Mov, Mp4, M4v, Flv, whatever the best option is from your editing software).

One thing to be very careful about is the aspect ratio of your footage. Depending on the camera you use and the settings in your editing software the footage may come out stretched when you export it. You’ll have to change the export settings if this is happening.

5. An account with a video hosting site.

Youtube and Vimeo are the most popular. Youtube is more widely spread and more recognisable. Vimeo tends to be used by professionals more often.

Upload the footage in high resolution and password protect it, or restrict access. Don’t put it up so anyone can see it. This way only the relevant industry professionals can view it and you avoid leaving yourself exposed to internet trolls.

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A few more tips for creating audition tapes to send online:

- Frame yourself in a medium close up (chest up) or close up (collar bone up) and position your scene partner just to one side of the camera for eyeline.

- Don’t edit your performance, even if you prefer different parts of different takes. Its obvious when you do it and the director will think you are incapable of delivering a performance straight through. Bear in mind you have to deliver in one take in a regular audition, so you will be expected to do the same in a pre-recorded audition.

- Something that can put a director off an actor immediately is when they play an audition tape and the actor begins slouched in their chair looking disinterested. Avoid scowling, slouching or staring off bored. Show a bit of enthusiasm, its important to be focused in the moments before the audition kicks off. The same goes for the end of the audition. Stay in character and focused on your scene partner until the camera stops recording.

- If there are props involved in the scene and you can get your hands on them then do so. If not don’t worry, just mime the actions with commitment. As long as the props don’t interfere with your performance you should be fine. One thing to avoid is dropping out of frame to pick up props or to hand something to your scene partner. It happens a lot and it doesn’t look good!

- Dress appropriately for the role, but in a suggestive way rather than going all out and hiring a costume. If the piece is contemporary then go ahead and dress in something the character may wear, but if the audition is for a period piece then just wear something that suggests the era (lace collars, ruffles, military style shirts, waistcoats, whatever you have that looks right in the neckline/shoulder area). Hiring a costume will not help you get the part. Your acting talent is being tested, not your ability to hire a costume.

- By the same token I would suggest you avoid filming your audition in an exterior location like the forest or a castle or up a mountain. Many people think it can help the director to picture you in the film, but unless you have a professional crew, makeup, lighting, camera equipment and sound recording equipment it will just look like a low budget version and more often than not will just distract from the important thing, which is your performance.

- The key to an online audition is commitment. Look at any audition from an actor who successfully booked the role and you’ll see they all have one thing in common: commitment to the reality of the piece. Put aside your insecurities and don’t worry about looking foolish. If Gerard Butler had worried how he looked pretending to strangle an imaginary Van Helsing while sporting black eyeliner and hair like Russell Brand gone mad he’d never have launched his career in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2001. So just go for it!

- Don’t start recording your audition until you have rehearsed it a few times and you are happy with the performance, then film a few takes and review them. Make adjustments if necessary, then record a few more until you are happy. Don’t record too many takes though, or you will overload yourself with too many options and you will end up second guessing yourself.

- Try to make choices about the material that allow you to personalise the content. Connect to the text or subtext in some way so that you are bringing something of yourself to the part. Try to think how most people will play the part, the obvious choice, and instead bring something unique of yourself to your interpretation. You want to stand out, not blend in.

- Don’t allow the camera to lose your eyes. If you look down or look away for too long the viewer (the director or casting director) will lose any emotional connection to your performance. There is no point giving a great performance if we can’t see it.

- Try to speak naturally, even when you are doing an accent. Directors can spot a movie voice a mile away.

- Grooming is important. Try to style yourself appropriately to the character. Makeup is important, but don’t apply too much, unless the role calls for it. Guys need to consider powder or subtle foundation, and it is always a good idea to be well maintained. Always look professional.

For the more technically minded here are a couple of extra tips:

- If the quality of the audio you record is particularly bad and you have access to audio editing software or professional editing software run a high pass filter and a low pass filter on the sound. This will eliminate hiss and rumble respectively.

- Depending on the quality of the light you use and the settings and quality of the camera you have it might be worthwhile doing a quick grade on the picture if you have the right software. Particular attention should be paid to colour balance, brightness and contrast.

4 things every audition needs

In the course of my career I have sat through hundreds, even thousands of auditions. Time and again it amazes me how only a small group of actors, about one in ten, consistently deliver performances in auditions that set them apart from the majority of their contemporaries. These are the actors who are constantly being called back and book the jobs on a regular basis.

So what is it that this top ten percent of auditioning actors are doing that others are not?

I’ve always maintained there are two different types of acting. One is when you are working on a production, be it film, television or theatre where you are part of a collective effort to create something worthwhile and your efforts are encouraged and supported by the other members of the cast and crew. The other is when you are auditioning, an environment where you are being scrutinised, judged and compared to others, and you are essentially on your own.

The two different environments require different skills, and actors need to master all of them in order to be successful. I know so many great actors who thrive in the former environment, but fall apart when it comes time to audition. The actors who develop their skills to operate in both arenas invariably end up with successful careers.

The most important quality to have in an audition is confidence, and the best way to develop confidence is through experience. The more often you audition the less intimidating the process becomes.

But being confident won’t get you the job. You will be competing against a lot of other actors who are just as motivated and talented as you, and you have all been brought in because you fit the part physically. So your job is to stand out from the crowd.

My number one complaint as a director when auditioning is how many people come in to audition and give the exact same reading of the text. So when an actor comes in to read and gives an original take, something different to what everyone else is doing, it catapults them into serious contention for the role immediately.

So, to the purpose of this blog. How do you stand out from the crowd? I have identified 4 key areas where you can apply yourself before an audition that will give you the edge over your competition. These points are essential to delivering an effective and believable performance in an audition, but are more often than not overlooked by actors.

1. Subtext

The number one thing most actors ignore, or fail to explore in an audition.

Drama revolves around conflict, and in times of conflict we very rarely discuss the conflict openly. When writers are developing a scene they are told “If the characters are talking about what they are talking about then you’re in trouble”. In other words the characters will talk about anything but what is really at stake in the scene. Your job as an actor is to ferret out the real meaning behind every line.

So how do you figure it out? Well, the first thing to look for is context, explore the scene in terms of what happens before and after it in the script. You will find clues about characters’ motives in a scene by reading further ahead to see how their actions play out. Or you can discover information about one of the characters that the other is not aware of by reading earlier scenes in the script.

For example, lets say there is a woman, JILL, sitting at a desk in a room and a man, JACK, enters and asks her to go out in the sunshine with him.

The surface reading of the scene is that Jack wants Jill to go outside. There is conflict if Jill refuses to go, but the stakes aren’t very high.

Now lets say we read a scene earlier in the script where Jack places a bomb under the desk, intending to kill a rival. Jill came into the room unexpectedly and he now has to get her to leave without giving away the presence of the bomb. Suddenly the stakes are raised by supplying the actor playing Jack with information about the scene that he would not have had from reading the scene alone.

Alternatively we could read a scene from later in the play where Jack proposes to Jill in an elaborately constructed scenario in the gardens of the house with musicians and their close friends and family in attendance. Now when we play the scene Jack has a different reason to want Jill to leave the room with him, but the stakes are nevertheless raised.

So the same scene with the same dialogue could be played with two different interpretations of the subtext resulting in a completely different performance from the actor playing Jack.

Unfortunately you may not have access to the full script in an audition, but if you can get your hands on it do, and look for clues as to what is really going on in your audition scene. If you don’t have the full script, then you need to use your imagination and make some strong choices about what could be at stake in the scene. Just bear in mind that if you play the scene “On the nose” by delivering the lines with surface meaning then you will fall into the category of actors who all deliver the same performance.

If you make a strong choice about subtext and it is wrong or inappropriate the director or casting director will discuss it with you and give you direction to steer it more towards what their reading of the scene is. As long as you can adapt your performance to incorporate this adjustment you will have identified yourself as an actor who can explore a scene in depth, discuss it articulately and adjust the performance appropriately. This is a good thing.

2. Objective

Focus on the other person in the scene.

Most actors in auditions focus on themselves, thinking “How will I say this line”, or “How will I hold myself physically”, or “Where will I look at this point in the scene”?

I always encourage actors to avoid this. We are looking to create truthful performances that accurately reproduce human behaviour. In real life we don’t walk around deciding how to say a sentence or how to hold ourselves physically when interacting with another person. Our attention is more often than not on the person we are talking to. Francois Truffaut said that “film is life with the boring bits taken out”, and its true. Every scene in a film or TV show revolves around a moment of conflict, usually designed through the use of opposing objectives. When two people in a scene want different and opposing things conflict results.

So you need to decide on an objective. The basics of an objective are: It must relate to the other person in the scene, it must be achievable immediately, and you must be able to gauge whether or not you have achieved your objective by looking at the other person.

The difficulty with an audition is that you are very unlikely to have a scene partner who is complicit in your attempt to create a believable performance. This is the main difference between acting on set or in rehearsals with fellow actors who are as invested in making the scene work as you are, and an audition where more often than not the casting director or an assistant are reading opposite you. What this means is that you can’t rely on them to give an honest or reactive performance (no offense meant to any casting directors out there, but they’ve usually been repeating the same lines all day, so we’ll cut them some slack!).

So you must use your imagination to create the reactions that will allow your performance to flourish. This is one of the most difficult aspects of auditioning and can only be developed through repetition and practice.

Once you have mastered this though, if you can use your objective to keep your focus on the other character in the scene and not on yourself, the resulting performance will be far more truthful and believable.

3. Transition

Audition scenes are chosen specifically to include an internal shift for the character being auditioned. You must identify that shift and incorporate it into your performance.

Ask yourself in what emotional state does the character start the scene, and what emotional state are they in by the end of the scene. You must accurately and believably portray the shift from the opening emotional state to the closing.

Emotion is not something that can be switched on or off at will, it requires a stimulus. Usually in drama that stimulus is provided by your scene partner, but in an audition, without the support of a fellow actor to get you into the right head space for the scene you must provide your own stimulus.

This is where knowing your own emotional makeup is vital. As an actor you need to know what stimulates you to achieve a certain mood or emotion. What makes you happy, sad, angry, whatever. Through experimentation with the various disciplines of acting you need to figure out whether memory, imagery, sound, touch, a physical activity, a mantra, a person or any other number of things works best to create an emotional response.

Incorporate this into your preparation for the audition and use it to focus yourself in the moments before you enter the room.

Then, as you perform the scene allow the momentum of the drama to carry you from one state to another. Ideally this will happen instinctively, but if it is not happening that way you will have to create a stimulus to shift from one state to another.

The important thing is that the transition takes place gradually, internally and in the moment. This ability to shift emotion internally is a key thing directors look for when vetting actors.

4. Personal connection

Make the scene mean something to you.

As I mentioned, many of the other actors who are being auditioned are likely to be as suited to the role as you are. So how do you make your performance memorable? What do you bring to the table that no one else can? Well, yourself. Everything that makes you who you are. Your unique emotional makeup and attributes.

And how do you bring that to bear in the audition? You find something in the material that you can connect to on a primal level. What I mean by that is you need to find something in the piece that affects you in a deeply emotional way.

Think of it like this. Every scene in a well written script involves conflict, and the stakes are always high for the characters involved in that conflict. That’s essential for good drama. So to put yourself in the skin of the character you need to experience the same emotions. It is not enough to approximate, or indicate an emotion. The camera doesn’t lie, and we can see false emotion for what it is. Indicating a thought or an emotion is the quickest way to the exit door.

Substitution is a great tool to use to connect to the material in a scene. Unless you have experienced the exact circumstances of the scene you are going to have to use your imagination to connect to it on an emotional level. We all have relationships that are primal, mothers fathers, siblings, children, loved ones, family and friends.

Substitute an appropriate person from your own life for the character you are talking to in a scene and use your imagination to create a “What if?” scenario. “What if my boyfriend had just killed a girl while drunk driving?”, “What if my father just told me I was adopted?”., “What if my girlfriend were sitting in a room with a bomb and won’t leave?”. You see where I’m going.

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So, to conclude: All 4 of the above are things I look for in a casting situation. If I have an instinct about an actor I will discuss their approach to the scene with them and try to figure out what makes them tick. There is nothing more rewarding in an audition than discovering an actor who can intelligently and articulately discuss their approach to their craft and the scene in particular.

Keep these 4 concepts in mind when approaching an audition. If you incorporate them into your preparation you will elevate yourself into that top ten percent of actors who make a director or casting director sit up and take notice during an audition.

What a Director looks for during casting

The first thing to realise is that there are as many approaches to casting as there are Directors. In saying this however there are certain principles that apply to almost all castings.

Directors will look for certain attributes in an actor, some of them will be imperative and others more flexible. Basically what a director is looking for in casting is information about the candidates. They are not looking for a one off performance from them.

If the director is present the audition will usually involve a discussion with the director followed by a performance either of a monologue or a piece from the project in question with another actor or the casting director. If the director is not present the casting director will host the audition and your performance will be filmed, to be reviewed at a later date by the director.

The information a director looks for falls under several categories:

1. Physical properties
Does the person suit the role being cast physically, i.e. in terms of their outward appearance, their body language, their voice, etc? The best directors tend to be quite open to looking at different options physically, but they usually have a good idea of what it is they are looking for. It is important to establish this as soon in the process as possible, therefore headshots are the first port of call.

Candidates for audition are chosen based on level of experience, track record, training, recommendations from other directors or agents, and more often than not on an actor’s headshot.

Headshots should reflect your appearance accurately and not make use of light or filtering to soften permanent blemishes. Under no circumstances should a headshot be airbrushed to make the actor more attractive. When you walk in the door you need to look like the person in the photo. If you don’t you won’t be called back in future.

Prior to casting, directors will often also make a decision about who to bring in for audition based on a showreel. A good showreel should be 3-5 minutes long and contain at least a couple of good scenes where you are heavily featured and giving a good performance. Production quality is important, so don’t use inferior quality material, it will do more harm than good. If you don’t have enough good material where you have speaking parts a montage can work to give an idea of how you look on camera in different lighting setups, with different costumes and makeup etc.

You should also make reference to your height, body type, eye and hair colour, etc on your resume.

A good headshot and showreel won’t get you the job, but it will get your foot in the door, and once there it will very quickly be determined if you have the right physical characteristics for the part.

If you get past the first round of auditions to the callback stage you will be partnered with other potential cast, or actors who have already been cast to determine if the ensemble works. Part of this evaluation will focus on how the individuals fit together physically (height, body type, colouring, etc.). This type of thing is beyond your control, and can often be the reason why a perfectly suitable candidate is ruled out.

2. Character of the individual
This involves determining the less concrete aspects of an actor’s makeup, including their confidence, their outlook on life and the energy they bring to their efforts. These characteristics will indicate to a director whether or not they could work closely with the actor on a daily basis.

Obviously it is important to appear enthusiastic when auditioning for a role, however you should not attempt to put on a show for a director if the image you present is markedly different to your normal behaviour.

Don’t be intimidated, and remember the purpose of a casting session is not to eliminate people from consideration, it is to find the perfect actor for the part, so the director and casting director will be hoping you fit the bill.

3. Acting ability
This is an obvious one, but probably the most difficult to judge in a casting situation.

Performing well in an audition is a completely different skill to performing in rehearsals or on set with the other members of the cast and crew working with you to create an environment in which you can do your best work.

Unfortunately there is no alternative, as there is never enough time for a director to spend with each actor to determine if they could work together towards creating a compelling performance.

The audition room is a high pressure environment, but it is one you will have to master if you are to become successful and book work. Many fine actors with buckets of talent lose out on roles because they can’t get it together in the competitive and judgmental arena of the casting room.

There are steps you can take to better prepare yourself for an audition that I’ll discuss in a future post.

4. Directability
Directors will need to determine how well you take direction, whether you can incorporate suggestions into your performance, if you can adapt your style to work with others and if you have any habits or defences that may impede your performance.

To this end you will be asked to alter your performance in the audition, even if your original version was perfect.

Actors who learn lines through delivery and performance can often be thrown off by the director or casting director making an adjustment, or asking for a complete shift in focus.

A director needs to know that an actor can operate in the moment and react to what happens in the here and now. If you have predetermined your delivery this will become apparent quite quickly, and can be a cause for concern for many directors.

5. Intelligence
This is less about academic ability than it is about an awareness of your environment, your level of self-awareness and your sensitivity to others. Directors will also look for things like your personal tastes and preferences.

Again these qualities will indicate to a Director the possibilities that will present themselves when working with a particular actor and how self-reliant they will be when set particular tasks.

6. Commitment
A Director will look for a certain level of commitment not only to the role in question, but to the life of an actor in general. You will have to demonstrate professionalism through punctuality, preparation and willingness to apply some effort to the audition process. A Director will look for clues to your working habits, your motivation to act and your reliability.

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As stated previously every casting session is different and it is difficult to pre-empt what will happen, but you can prepare yourself by applying a structured approach to the process and by putting yourself on the hot seat as many times as possible.

Remember the casting director, or director, is looking for the person who will bring the character on the page to life. They are not trying to trick you into making mistakes or looking to intimidate you or make you nervous. They want you to succeed. They want to find the right actor for the part.

If you approach the casting professionally and with enthusiasm you will be treated with respect and given a genuine opportunity to impress.

So, now you know what it is a director is looking for in an audition. I’ll talk about what steps you can take to display these qualities at an audition in a future post.

Graham Cantwell