There’s no question that this pandemic has been difficult for actors. Many have lost their restaurant jobs and are wondering if working in restaurants will ever make sense again. For those who are able to stick it out, one thing is for sure: the pandemic is accelerating certain trends that were already taking hold and that includes self-taping at home. Indeed, unions are now actively encouraging producers to cast remotely, so to keep acting, you’ll need a reliable self-tape kit.
If you’re already a professional actor in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, you know what a self-tape is, but you may be struggling with your self-tape kit, and you may not be sure about what equipment is best for your space.
If you’re not a professional actor, a self-tape set up reproduces the environment found at casting offices where actors are “put on tape” (i.e. where they’re filmed) for auditions. In the old days, filming was done on actual film tape and the expression stuck even though we’re now in the digital age. A self-tape is essentially an audition that’s filmed at the actor’s home instead of at a casting office.
Here are the 4 most important elements you should consider when setting up a self-tape kit:
1. Filming your Self-Tape Audition
While you can use a fancy camera, using your smartphone is absolutely fine and it’s become the norm for self-tapes. Just make sure you’re filming horizontally and that you’re framed from the mid-chest area up to the top of your head (you can have a bit of space above your head). Your slate (when you say your name, height, city you reside in, and agency representative if you have one) can be filmed vertically to make sure your entire body is filmed (a full body shot while slating is usually required).
2. Your Self-Tape Backdrop
You should never have anything behind you as you film yourself because it can take the audience’s attention away from your performance. You want them to be glued to you. The industry standard is to use a light grey or light blue background when possible. Darker background colors can be distracting. If you don’t have a plain surface to film in front of, you can pin a sheet to the wall behind you to cover distracting wires or whatever else is on the wall. To take it up a notch, you can use a photography backdrop. If you do this, you may need to rig something on your ceiling to hang it from. If you’re not the DIY type, get a photography stand. Just keep in mind that if you place your backdrop in front of a window and plan to film during the day, light may shine through it. This would obviously defeat the backdrop’s purpose, so be mindful of where you place it.
3. Lighting your Self-Tape Audition
Since we usually connect with people through our eyes, casting directors and directors need to see them clearly and that means having great lighting. If you don’t have natural light coming into the room you want to self-tape in, or if you want to make sure you can record self-tapes any time of day or night, use a softbox lighting kit. Using two boxes in front of you (on the left and right, angled towards you) is best to avoid dealing with distracting shadows on your face or in the background. If you want a kit that includes a background photography stand, you can get something like this (umbrellas are not needed).
4. Hearing your Self-Tape Audition
You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to hear self-tape auditions. This aspect of filming is so very important. Aside from lighting, bad audio is the number one element of self-taping casting directors complain about. To get it right, make sure your reader keeps their voice low, especially since they’ll usually be standing closer to the camera than you (readers usually stand right next to the camera to give the auditioner a good eye line). It may feel odd to the reader, but keep a low voice near the camera is incredibly helpful.
During the pandemic, however, you’re more likely to rely on a fellow actor who won’t come to you in person. In this case, you reader can read the scene on the phone with you, or on Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, etc. This can work well from an acting standpoint, but your reader’s dialog may sound distorted. If your reader’s lines aren’t clear, some of your reactions to them may seem strange or out of context. This will ultimately hurt your chances of getting hired. To fix this, get your reader to record their audio on their end (their phone is fine) while you’re filming your self-tape. When you’re done filming, get them to send you the audio so you can marry it to your video. This will require more advanced video editing skills but since getting called to record an audition is a privilege, it’s definitely worth the extra trouble. Though not necessary, voice over editing skills wouldn’t hurt you either.
A Self-Tape Worth Watching
If you get these 4 elements right, your audition will look and sound professional and you’ll stand out for all the right reasons. Since self-tapes are the new norm during the pandemic and that they were becoming the norm even before, they’re likely here to stay, so they’re definitely worth getting right.