When All You Can Think About Is…

Today is a dark day. As I type this, the death toll in Las Vegas’ mass shooting is 59 souls, and climbing. Citizens in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are struggling to recover from massive hurricane damage. Mexico is reeling from a major earthquake. Catalonians were beaten for trying to enter a polling location… These […]

Demo Reels: The Basics

Demo Reels: The Basics

Your reel is so, SO important. Often times, it’s the very first taste we have of your abilities as an actor. Sometimes, it serves as a reminder of who you are, and occasionally, it proves that you’re capable of handling a specific role. Your reel is meant to sell you; to agents, to casting directors, […]

Self-Tape Tips Part 6 - Unsolicited Self-Tapes

Self-Tape Tips Part 6: Unsolicited Tapes

Casting Directors don’t love receiving unsolicited self-tapes. My first instinct when I receive an unsolicited self-tape is to sigh and shake my head in frustration. I value an actor’s time and effort, ESPECIALLY the effort involved in self-taping. And to receive a tape from someone who is often not right, (which is why I didn’t […]

Self-Tape Tips Part 3 - Sound!

Self-Tape Tips Part 3: Sound

Bad sound is frustrating.

Think of all of those times when you couldn’t hear someone speak clearly; did it make you want to give up on listening and walk away? If the sound on your self-tape isn’t up-to-par, it’s easy to become annoyed and stop watching. If you pay a bit of extra attention to your sound, that dreaded outcome is easily avoided.

COMMON SELF-TAPE SOUND ISSUES:

1. Your reader is 20x louder than you. This is the MOST common sound problem we see in self-tapes. (Especially egregious if your reader is not a great actor or their voice is more engaging than yours.)

2. There’s an echo. You’ve cleared your space so that you have a plain background, but now you’re in an empty room/hallway which is ripe for sound issues.

3. The ambient noise is constant and distracting. Dogs barking, kids playing, sirens, smoke detectors beeping, etc. All of these things can land in your audio and take away from your read. (Note: it’s ok if some normal ambient noises exist, but if a siren is taking over 20+ seconds of your tape, we’re losing something…)

4. The volume is just WAY lower than you expected. This generally happens at the source/on your device, but can also happen as you’re exporting and compressing your file… OR it’s because…

5. You aren’t using your full voice. Perhaps this is because the device feels like it’s in your face, or you don’t want to wake someone, but an unnecessarily whispered read feels energetically dead.

6. The sound is out of sync. Again, this is usually an export/compression issue when something truly goes awry. But it can also be the curse of taping on an old device. This is the #1 thing that will make us turn off a self-tape.

SIMPLEST SELF-TAPE SOUND SOLUTIONS:

1. BUY A MIC (lavs, shotgun, etc.) A microphone kit can be quite pricey, but if you look on eBay or another site for gently-used equipment, you can find some great products at a discount. (Videographers are constantly upgrading and re-selling their equipment!)

NOTE: You can find very affordable mics online but when it comes to sound equipment, you truly get what you pay for. Might be worth investing a little extra money if you want to buy a mic.

  • Side story: We use lavalier microphones in our office. 98% of the time, they’re AMAZING. The other 2% of the time, they’ve run out of batteries without us noticing or the “mute” button was accidentally switched on or the adapter wasn’t pushed hard enough into the camera for the sound to be picked up or a cell phone rings (on silent) and the phone waves create static. Sound afflictions happen to the best of us. So if you DO decide to buy mics, test/check them OFTEN.

2. WHEN TAPING ON A DEVICE THAT HAS AN INTERNAL MIC (phone, tablet, DSLR) PLACE THE CAMERA CLOSE TO YOU, AND HAVE YOUR READER SIT A FEW FEET BACK FROM IT. Not only will this help your frame/light, but it will clear up the issue of your reader being too loud or you being too soft.

3. AVOID LOUD AMBIENT NOISE BY MAKING SURE THAT WINDOWS AND DOORS ARE CLOSED, and your pets/children/roommates are either aware of what you’re doing, away, or asleep. You will likely always have SOME ambient sound (unless using mics,) and that’s ok. As long as it’s not massively distracting, it won’t ruin your tape.

  • Side story: we were once in an office where the AC was UNBELIEVABLY loud for some unknown reason. Even though we used lavalier mics, when the AC kicked on, you could barely hear the actor and the reader became non-existent. As such, we had to turn the AC off whenever we had sessions. (It was July, in the valley. Fun.) So as long as your ambient noise doesn’t drown you or your reader out at any point, you’re probably ok.

4. LEARN HOW TO EXPORT OR COMPRESS A FILE WITHOUT LOSING QUALITY. YouTube vids are a great way for you to pick up some exact settings for whatever program you use to edit/export.

5. AVOID AN ECHO BY MAKING SURE YOU SELF-TAPE IN A ROOM WITH SOME SORT OF SOUND-ABSORBING MATERIAL. If the emptiest place for you to tape is the hallway or stairwell in your apartment building, you will likely end up with an echo. Taping in a room with furniture or things on the walls (just not in the frame,) will almost always help you avoid this issue.

6. USE YOUR FULL VOICE. Remember that this is an audition: would you come in to a casting office and use a quarter of your voice because you don’t want to disturb anyone? Probably not. (If yes, then we’ve got bigger things to discuss.) A self-tape should make use of the same kind of energy, voice and breathing techniques as an in-person audition. If you feel like the scene has too much yelling/screaming and someone may call the cops on you, perhaps do that audition at a taping/coaching facility. Otherwise, don’t muffle yourself for civility’s sake or because you think you’ll be overly loud due to your proximity to the camera. Perform appropriately for the scene.

7. CHECK YOUR SELF-TAPE. I can’t stress this enough. Once you’ve picked a clip and/or compressed/exported/uploaded it, CHECK IT. Watch it back, and make sure that nothing went awry in the process. Actors are always shocked when we tell them about technical issues we’re having with their tapes. Before you send your self-tape to casting or your reps, take 30 seconds and make sure it plays the way you want it to.

Next self-tape tip… FRAME/ASPECT RATIO!

Self-Tape Tips - Lighting

Self-Tape Tips Part 2: Lighting

Two of the most important technical elements to your self-tape are lighting and sound. If Casting can’t see or hear you, then the entire endeavor is moot.

Lighting can be unbelievably tricky. Until you find a set-up that works, this is one aspect of self-taping that can truly drive you crazy.

COMMON SELF-TAPE LIGHTING ISSUES:

  1. Lighting that creates shadows across your face. We’re not looking for dramatic ambience; we want to see you.
  2. Too MUCH light. It will blow out your skin tone and any facial feature that makes you interesting.
  3. Not ENOUGH light. We can’t see a lot of your subtle nuances.
  4. Forgetting to white-balance your camera after setting up your lighting scheme. Unless you’re shooting with the exact same light at the exact same time of day, (or in the same windowless room,) you need to white-balance your camera for every audition to avoid looking blue/yellow/orange.
  5. Lighting yourself in front of a very dark backdrop or a light-filled backdrop (see previous blog post.)
  6. ONLY using overhead lights. They will create shadows and bags on anyone, no matter how youthful you are.
  7. Trying to fix the exposure in post. This COULD work if you’re quite savvy with editing software, but more often than not, it’s too one-size-fits-all and could affect your file size and quality. You’re better off dealing with the issue at the source.

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SIMPLE SELF-TAPE LIGHTING SOLUTIONS (PROS AND CONS):

1. NATURAL DAYLIGHT.

  • PRO: Daylight really is your best friend. (Think of photos that are shot in daylight versus those with a flash… natural light is exactly that: natural.) As long as you can find a shadow-free spot, you can almost never go wrong with daylight. (And PLEASE don’t make the mistake of shooting your scene outdoors to get good light. You’ll end up with a nightmare of ambient sound.)
  • CON: Daylight is constantly shifting. If you spend an hour doing your self-tape, you will have different light in every take. Use it wisely, and quickly.
  • CON #2: If shooting your self-tape at night, daylight is obviously not an option.

2. LAMPS/LIGHTING YOU HAVE IN YOUR HOME.

  • PRO: A combination of the light from your (MANY) lamps can work, if diffused and appropriately positioned. Overhead lighting doesn’t look good on anybody, but overhead lighting in combination with directional lamps can get the job done.
  • CON: Lamps often use different wattage, so you could end up with one side of your face darker than the other. Low-wattage also means you’ll need a LOT of lamps to light yourself properly.
  • CON #2: Light bulb colors can range from blue to white to yellow. If your lamps all use different colored light bulbs, it will be hard to get a result that you’re happy with.

3. BUY A LIGHT/LIGHTING KIT.

  • PRO: You can find affordable photography lighting kits at camera stores or online. They’ll quickly take the guess-work out of lighting your self-tape. Some are even compact enough to travel with! (Bonus! Never miss an audition because you went out of town!)
  • SOFT-BOX CON: They tend to be bulky so you probably won’t want them in your living room all of the time. They can also be a bit annoying to disassemble and reassemble constantly.
  • RING LIGHT CON: They’re beauty lights… they run HOT (meaning: at best, you glow from your t-zone. At worst, you look like you’re dripping sweat.) Buy a dimmable ring light or divert the light by aiming it (at full brightness) at your white (or light-colored) ceiling.

Next self-tape topic… SOUND!

Self-Tape Tips Part 1 - Finding a backdrop at home

Self-Tape Tips Part 1: Finding a Backdrop at Home

When self-taping, BACKGROUND / BACKDROPS are the easiest technical aspect to figure out, but also the simplest thing to mess up.

As you saw from my previous post, in our office, we like to use a bright blue backdrop for our auditions. It’s a fairly standard color for Casting – pretty much everyone, no matter their skin color/tone looks good in front of it when lit properly. However, you likely don’t have a wall that color in your home, so…

HOW TO MIMIC A PROFESSIONAL-LOOKING BACKDROP FOR YOUR SELF-TAPES:

1. You could buy a kraft paper roll (color of your choosing*) at any office supply store. Word of warning: it’s a major pain in the butt to put up/take down without wrinkling or tearing it. If you use paper, you’ll want to tape it in a place where you don’t have to keep putting it up/taking it down.

2. You could use a plain-colored bed sheet or black out curtains. Hot tip: wrinkly bed sheets don’t look like backdrops. They look like wrinkly bed sheets. Bust out that iron if you decide to use a non-traditional cloth backdrop.

3. You could go whole-hog and paint one of your walls a usable, matte color. But ya know, that’s a real commitment…

4. Or you could go the economical route and use whatever plain-colored wall you already have. People often think their white or cream walls are just too light, but they will work far better than some of the pitfalls listed below.

5. There are now a number of pop-up backdrops online. They’re light-weight, nylon and true-colored. Search “photography pop up backdrop” and the world is your oyster.

*I say “color of your choosing” because people often opt for a shade of gray that works well and is a more “livable” color. For example:

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We see all kinds of background choices from self-tapes.

Often times, people even go so far as to self-tape outside (good light, I’m guessing?) or stage their scene as if we were just putting their audition directly into the film. All of that is unnecessary (and often distracting.)

As I mentioned before, your self-tape is a regular AUDITION and should look akin to anything that is taped in a casting office.

SELF-TAPE BACKGROUNDS/BACKDROPS TO AVOID:

1. A DARK BACKROP. You don’t have an empty wall at your disposal, but you DO have some midnight blue curtains you could stand in front of!

Here is what happens when you try to film in front of a dark background without proper lighting:

Either the entire frame will be too dark for casting to see you properly (TOP IMAGE,) or the reverse will happen and you’ll literally glow, because a dark backdrop soaks up too much light, (BOTTOM IMAGE.)

2. A GREEN/ORANGE/RED/PURPLE WALL. No matter how often you white balance, it’s far too easy to end up looking slightly green/orange/red/purple.

3. A CLUTTERED BACKGROUND. We often see tapes where actors are standing in front of a bookshelf/piece of art or sitting at their kitchen table with a magnet-covered fridge/bar/cook book selection behind them. Clear out whatever is directly behind you so that we can focus on YOU, not what you’re currently reading/eating/drinking.

4. ANYTHING WHERE A MAJOR LIGHT-SOURCE IS BEHIND YOU. Filming in front of curtains during day-light hours will create this effect. You know how you shouldn’t take a photograph with the sun behind you because you’ll end up too dark? Same rule goes for video. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to more lighting tips very soon!)

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Again, a blank white or cream-colored wall will likely serve your self-taping needs well.

Here are a few examples:

Next up in this self-tape series… LIGHTING!

Self-Tapes Tips

Self-Tape Tips: An Introduction

Actors know: self-tape auditions can be a blessing and a curse.

On the plus side: self-taping provides so much flexibility, (auditioning at midnight, after your shift is over and the kids have gone to bed? Hallelujah!) It alleviates some audition anxiety, (no intimidating waiting room stares,) and allows you to really take some time with the character, (I can do as many takes as I want? DREAM. COME. TRUE.)

On the other hand, self-taping can be a technical nightmare, (lighting, sound, UPLOADING?!) It can also be a MAJOR time suck because you end up taking TOO much time with the character. (15 takes of the same scene, is 12 takes too many.)

I began tweeting out some self-tape tips in an attempt to help simplify things and provide enough information that you can avoid some of the major traps. But there is so much more than 140 characters can cover. So, in this series of blog posts, I’ll consolidate and expand upon those tips and provide examples, wherever possible. (In all examples, actors faces have been whited-out to maintain anonymity – it’s not a series of weird, masked auditions.)

**DISCLAIMER: These tips pertain to when you are taping at home. If you don’t want to worry about any of these technical issues, there are a number of wonderful self-tape companies, as well as fabulous audition coaches (ahem) who will coach AND tape you.

The Self-Taping Technical Basics: Sound, Lighting, Frame and Backdrop.

This is what a normal audition looks like in our office:

You can see that our frame is fairly tight – from about the mid-bust/chest to just above the head. We use a softbox lights and plain blue paper as our backdrop. We also mic all of our actors with lavaliers.

This is a fairly standard casting set-up. There will, of course, be variations in every casting office, but this gives you a general idea.

The TECHNICAL goal of self-tapes is to make them look like they were done in a casting office.

(ANY casting/professional office – you don’t need to copy the photo above.)

This way, they won’t look markedly different than someone who came in to read live.

This is where your biggest hurdle lies when self-taping at home. Finding a blank wall, corralling all of your lamps to light you properly, dealing with sound, etc. The good news is that once you find a set-up that works, you won’t have to think about it every time. But it will take some tweaking to get there.

In my next blog post, I will give you some tips for working with what you’ve got at your disposal.

A whole bunch more self-tape tips comin’!