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.
As my first e-book is being released, the world is slowly emerging from a blanket of stay-at-home orders due to the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. At the time of this writing, the industry is still (mostly) on hiatus and many unions, networks, and studio executives are working on solutions that will enable productions to resume. Many questions remain, the biggest being: “How do we keep actors safe?” Acting is a full contact sport, and in productions, actors are on the frontline. It now appears that testing will become a daily/weekly occurrence on set. It’s difficult to predict what the new norms will be, but here are some possibilities:
First audition rounds may be done via self-tape. If so, having credits from renowned productions will be more important than ever since casting directors won’t be able to assess actors’ readiness to go to set via in-person auditions;
Subsequent audition rounds may occur via apps like Skype that will allow directors/producers to work with the actor live but not in person;
To steer away from the red tape involved in live action productions, some funding could move to the animation sector where actors can work from home studios;
Since California is more stringent on its laws, many productions could move to other states. The reverse could also happen: actors will feel safer in California. If other states/countries mandate quarantines upon arriving, there will indeed be less filming out of state;
Many film sets are already opting to quarantine their entire crews;
Once a vaccine is available, being vaccinated may become mandatory to work on set.
Sets will likely be much smaller, meaning there could be fewer roles, especially smaller roles;
To compensate for this, there could be much more exposition in dialog, meaning more lines to learn.
I suspect that for actors to make a living in this new decade, a self-tape set up will be mandatory and a home studio to record voice overs will be a pretty good idea (read the Voice Acting series to learn about making a living with your voice).
At the moment, however, there are still many unresolved issues. For instance, when will acting schools specialized in theater and improv be able to start up again (in person)? Will working at restaurants still be feasible for actors? And where does the pandemic leave Canadians aspiring to move? It will, no doubt, be even more difficult to train, immigrate and breakthrough than it was before, at least for a while. But overtime, this may well pass.
So, in the meantime think about creating content that doesn’t involve many actors and locations. Shooting scripts with characters you’ve created and that you love may be your saving grace on a creative level. Plus, having good material online may be a great way for you to get discovered. Content distributors are scouring the internet for talent and ideas via feeds, and casting directors are seeing new actors via open calls for self-tapes. In a world where training and exposure are more limited, you can keep training with online classes. Audition training would be excellent right now. Many schools have found creative ways to teach online, including improv schools. You can also work on material at home by working on scenes with partners on FaceTime and Zoom. In other words, stick to your guns, work at your craft as best you can, stay healthy, and be ready to roll when things open up. You’ll be one long step ahead of those who weren’t able to stick it through.
I’ll go right out and say it: I’m not where I want to be in my career. I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be when I started watching Homeland, the TV show with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Claire Danes gives riveting performances in every single scene, in every single show, for seasons on end (and has the Emmy’s to show for it). I almost quit acting when I realized I didn’t feel like I could do what she does. Her incredible performances became a problem. My problem.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, is that I watched Homeland four years ago.
What did I do to address this problem in the last four years? I tried getting a new manager; I got many new headshots (I kept changing my hair); I took audition technique classes, worried about not booking enough when I did get auditions, or complained about not having enough auditions when I didn’t.
Addressing The Real Issues Holding You Back In Your Acting Career
And here’s my point: instead of fixing my real problem (strengthening my acting abilities so that I can believe in myself and stand behind my work with pride), I spent the last four years doing a bunch of things that “seem” important for an acting career. I think you’ll agree that in this context, these activities were a waste of time and energy.
When I finally decided it was time to stop avoiding the real issue (the number of new headshots I was shooting was getting ridiculous), in October of 2019, I enrolled in a serious scene study class. This is when things started to change. I gave myself what I needed:
I need to fall in love with acting again, for acting’s sake. Not to count the number of gigs I didn’t book.
Since then, I’ve performed nine challenging scenes in class and strengthened my acting to a level I never even thought possible. This has given me such confidence that I made a commitment to stay in class until I performed 200 scenes. The simple math tells me that if my acting can improve so much up after merely 9 scenes, my acting will be the stuff of legend after 200. And I decided that this is the level of confidence with which I need to run my acting business.
What Is Holding You Back From Soaring in Your Acting Business?
Now I’ll ask you: what is the one thing that will change your career? Do you need:
A great agent?
A guest star role?
A new demo reel that can really showcase your talent (instead of showing your casting type)?
To attend casting director workshops to help you with your nerves?
Get a part time job that will help you invest in your career more?
I hope this blog entry can help you quit all the useless things you are doing to “stay in business as an actor” and put energy into that one thing you really need to do to get to the next level, and don’t stop until you get it.
Be Honest With Yourself
Be honest with yourself, you know what the one thing is. Do yourself a favor and answer that call. Remember: Great things are never easy.
When people ask me if my husband is an actor, I always joke and say “No, I can’t be the stable one in the relationship,” but it’s true! I do believe there are a lot of advantages to dating people I call “civilians” (people with 9-to-5 jobs and careers).
Working as an actor can make for a rocky ride: the endless auditions (or lack thereof); the excitement that comes with booking a job; the depression that comes from losing one (you were perfect for); constantly changing (and canceling) plans at a moment’s notice; the physical and emotional demands; the agents that drop you; the new ones you sign with; the negotiation of contracts; the years of training; the breakthroughs; the regressions; dealing with unrewarding side jobs; the dry spells; the financial instability…
The ups and downs can be difficult for an actor’s significant other to keep up with.
Dating & Relationships Between Actors & Civilians
While some aspects of a relationship would seem easier for a couple with two actors in it, for the most part, there is a lot more potential for turmoil (like having two unstable incomes, the potential for significant time away from each other, career-envy, to name a few). Not that it’s all roses the other way.
If you are a civilian, especially one who doesn’t work in the film or TV industry, the prospect of dating an actor can be exciting. Acting is mysterious to most people which makes it intriguing. “How do they do it?” “Is it real or not?” “What is real, and what is not?” The world of acting is fascinating and generally fun to imagine. Initially, you may take pride: My better half is on TV, in the movies! That’s pretty sexy, right?
Until (here’s the record scratch) you realize your actor/actress partner may have to kiss other people on the job. They may have to embrace and pretend they are making love or having sex. They may even have to get naked in front of many people on set and be seen in these private ways by countless viewers on television and film. Before you can even make up your mind on what that means for you, you may think of your parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, roommates…What will they think?
Here I’d like to butt in (no pun intended) and say that there is no right or wrong way to think or feel about it. Some civilians will mind more than others and that doesn’t make any of them any better or worse than the next person.
These things are so very personal. For instance, my husband doesn’t like the idea of me getting undressed on set or having to kiss a pretend-husband. Other civilians may be more open to it. One partner is not better than the other; I certainly wouldn’t trade my husband for anyone in the world. For the record, I have dated people who were more open to it than he is and I still didn’t marry them.
A relationship has many aspects; the sum of its parts is more important that any one single aspect. And let’s face it, most civilians never even have to consider such issues. So for the civilians who are reading: cut yourself some slack if this topic makes you uneasy (actors should cut their civilian-significant-others some slack too).
For actors, there are a few important things to address:
Being clear on where you stand;
Helping your partner find out where he/she stands;
Creating guidelines that will be respected from both parties in the relationship.
Here I will point out that the more prominent the role, the more likely the actor will have a love interest or a partner in a movie or show. In this case, it will be difficult to rule out the things real people do within the confines of relationships (kissing, hugging and having basic conjugal interactions).
Consider the Hard Questions – Before They Come Up
Also note that roles (especially in television) often evolve, and writers can’t necessarily predict where your character will end up. For instance, Aaron Paul was meant to guest star in three episodes of Breaking Bad, so was Damian Lewis in Homeland. These actors had great chemistry with their co-stars (Bryan Cranston and Claire Danes) and so the writers changed entire story lines around them.
On the flip side, if as an actor you’re more likely to play small roles (“actor” and “small principal” roles in Canada or “costars” in the US), or you work primarily in the commercial sector, you are less likely to be asked to have physical contact with other actors. Still, nothing is impossible; you may be asked to play a couple, to be in bed with someone, and so on.
So, as an actor, you must answer some hard questions:
Will you accept jobs that require physical contact with others? If so, what about same sex contact
Will you accept jobs that require you to get undressed? If so, are there any limits as to when you will or will not do so?
How will your choices be communicated to your agent, manager, etc.?
Whatever your answers, I believe it is important, as an actor, to know why your choices are important to you. For example, I do not want to be restricted in my choices of roles because I view myself as both a piano and a piano player: I want to play all the notes on the piano.
It’s important for me to be able to play all types of roles, regardless of whether there is intimate physical interaction with other actors or not. That said, I am not comfortable with getting fully undressed and I would only do so for a director, screenplay and production company I absolutely love, respect, and trust.
I would have to believe in the project and feel that it was essential to the story. This is easy to communicate to my agent. When she asks me if I’m ok with nudity, my reply is a resounding No, BUT, that under certain very special circumstances, I might consider it. Since she’s represented me for years, she knows what that means, and she’ll only ever approach me with nudity if she feels the project meets my criteria.
Navigating Your Decisions with your Partner
Once you are clear about where you stand (as an actor), and you realize that you don’t want restrictions one the roles you’ll play, you should ask your civilian partner how they feel about your decision:
Can they accept your decision to work on roles that require physical contact with others?
Can they accept your decision to work on roles that require you to get undressed?
As you have these discussions, you and your partner may need some time to digest this information and answer these questions. If so, both partners should be patient and not force the issue. Here, remember that Time has a marvelous way of helping thoughts distill, so sometimes a talk that occurs over several days or weeks can yield more positive results than a one-time sit-down can.
If, as an actor you want freedom to accept all types of roles, but you feel some resistance from your partner, perhaps you can to ask them what they need to feel safe in the relationship:
If they need control: Would your partner like to see you work in real time (in class perhaps?) so they can get a better sense of what it is you are doing exactly, and to get an idea of what physical contact looks like in real life?
If they prefer letting go: Would they prefer not to know any details about what goes on set and/or in class? If so, should they be warned before a production airs that you have some scenes they won’t like?
How will you discuss this topic going forward?
A good rule of thumb is to explain:
A little bit about your process as an actor (what is real, what is not);
Why accepting certain types of jobs is important to you, or not;
How you plan on communicating in the future when certain jobs come up.
Whatever the situation, you are not wrong for wanting, or not wanting physical contact with other actors, or for being comfortable or uncomfortable getting undressed on set. No one should judge you for your decisions, and neither should you. You are an artist, so whatever your decisions are, own them.
As the civilian partner, you are not wrong either for not wanting your partner to have physical contact with other actors, or for not being comfortable with them getting undressed on set. No one should judge you for how you feel, and neither should you. You feel how you feel, so own it.
Lastly if you both cannot reconcile your preferences in your relationship, you will both have to decide if your partner’s views and choices are a deal breaker, and why. Again, there is no right or wrong answer here, just the one you can both live with without resentment for each other.
Conclusion: Finding a Peaceful Resolution
As I mentioned earlier, my husband doesn’t like the idea of me having intimate physical contact with other actors (or of getting undressed) but it’s not a deal breaker for him. He knows how hard I work at my craft and how I feel about it and accepts my decisions as a part of who I am. In essence he supports my decisions.
That said, he prefers not knowing any details until a production airs or a show goes live. As a rule, I do not let him know what goes on in rehearsal or on set.
As far as knowing when to discuss this, there is no wrong time. If you became an actor before you met, you can certainly discuss this topic as you begin dating. It is not a fun topic, but it will start the relationship on the right foot, since you will both have to be honest about your thoughts and feelings.
If you start acting after being in the relationship, then discuss it when this topic comes up for you or even before, if it’s something that you’ve been thinking about.
Either way, this conversation has the potential to strengthen your relationship, so go for it!
In Los Angeles and beyond, all productions, on-camera auditions and in-person classes have ceased. Yes – this predicament we are in royally sucks.
That said, this makes for a great time to stay connected to our passion. What better way to do that than by curling up and reading a great acting book? It’s certainly better than reading anxiety-inducing news.
Either way, every once in a while it’s refreshing to read a great book about acting. Like any good book, we can read them at different times in our lives, at different ages, and glean different things from them.
Classic Books About Acting
Some of these books made me want to act, others have been memorable workbooks and yet others are great history books. These acting books all inspired me in one way or another and have taught me about my own acting process.
I love modern books as well, because acting and teaching have evolved so much.
My personal favorite is written by my teacher at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Allen Barton. Not only is it a great history book (the school’s founder, Milton Katselas ran legendary classes and is a colorful character to say the least), but the writer is also a grounded, no-nonsense person whose approach to studying and working in Los Angeles is simple, clean, pragmatic and healthy.
Even beyond the Coronavirus, as actors we sometimes forget that we had a fire burning underneath us when we started. This fire may have gone out, or it might only burn embers. Why not read a great book about acting to reignite the flame? Perhaps it will inspire you to write and shoot a great part for yourself, push you towards more challenging material in class, or even get you enrolled in a class (once life resumes).
My name is Lili Wexu, I am a Canadian-American actress. I moved to Los Angeles some years ago and I’ve written a few e-books about acting in Los Angeles to help other actors who are considering relocating here (or have recently relocated).
Life as an actor is hard enough – you don’t need an incompetent or mean acting teacher to make it worse.
As someone who didn’t attend formal acting training, I’ve always had to be on the lookout for a great acting school/teacher. Even though I work full time (primarily in the voice over sector these days) I’m also always training.
Why I’m Always Training
Like any artist I need to practice often (professional musicians practice for 4-8 hours a day);
Acting can’t be done alone;
I must make sure I’m ready for whatever comes my way (Los Angeles can turn on a dime);
Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of painful experiences in classes taught by temperamental/guru-type teachers, but I’ve also found some wholesome ones who helped me surpass myself in ways I never thought possible. By continuing to pursue training as an actor, I’ve had to find teachers who are competent, kind, and can help me grow by challenging me in effective ways.
Since there is no shortage of acting schools (and since quantity doesn’t mean quality), my aim is to help you sort through local schools and teachers so you can find the one that is best for you. (If you’re more interested in comedy training, read my blog about the comedy scene and schools in Los Angeles as I’ve taken classes at most improv schools in Los Angeles).
Beware of Great Marketing
Los Angeles is a mecca for actors, which means there are many, many acting schools. Each and every one of these schools is fighting for a piece of the market. The aim of course is to turn as many actors as possible into loyal clients and students.
To lure prospective students, many schools are primarily adept at marketing. For instance, you’ll often hear that schools and teachers have taught “famous person X” often insinuating that this school’s special brand of teaching-magic will rub off on you too, or that you’ll make better contacts in that class than in another.
To make matters worse, there are a zillion classes, intensives and workshops that teach a zillion aspects of the industry. While you may (or may not) need these types of training, the key is to find a competent teacher who teaches constructively (as opposed to destructively).
If you study acting autonomously (outside of a college or university program) you’ll inevitably encounter Old School teaching methods. These are great techniques to start building the skills necessary to perform in a consistent and reliable way.
Old School curriculums generally include some aspect of “The Method” aggregated by Stanislavsky. These components of the method were disseminated by American teachers of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s who were either taught by him or influenced by him. These teachers include:
Most of these teachers had their own schools and their techniques are still referred to in most acting classes today.
Some of the students of these schools, particularly the Meisner and Strasberg ones, who might be in their 60s+ today have become teachers in their own right. Many of them (not all) have an almost religious view to the way acting should be taught, practiced and even experienced (the Old School way of their own teachers).
That doesn’t mean actors can’t develop excellent skills by learning with these teachers (I certainly have), but it does mean some aspects of studying with those teachers can feel a bit, shall we say, limited to certain beliefs or styles.
The New School is really just the unencumbered permission of mixing aspects of The Method altogether and using whatever other tools exist. Here David Mamet and William H Macy’s school (Atlantic Theater School) comes to mind as well as many schools in Los Angeles that focus on certain specific elements like cold reading (Meindl), psychology-based acting (Warner Loughlin), or even improvisation-based training which stems from the work of Viola Spolin and include the improv schools we know of today (UCB, Groundlings, Second City). For more about Improv training in Los Angeles, read my Comedy training blog.
Some classes in Los Angeles don’t really even teach technique. For instance, where I study, in the Advanced Scene Study class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, our main purpose is to present finished theater scenes to the best of our ability and to see what works and what doesn’t. As students, we have either learned techniques elsewhere or are creating our own special brew. The school’s primary focus is: “Are we (as actors, directors, and writers) telling the story in a way that is engaging to the audience?”
What is a Good School?
Whatever school you attend, it will come down to:
How you like what is being taught (and this can include the schools’ acting technique, approach or philosophy about acting);
How it is being taught (by empowering students, or denigrating them); and
How you connect with the teacher.
Some good questions to ask yourself initially are:
Do you trust the teacher?
Do you respect them?
Are you simply impressed with them because you know they have worked with someone famous?
Or are you simply there because someone famous referred them to you?
What is a Good Teacher?
A good teacher is someone who will challenge you professionally. It is also someone you can be open with about what you feel are obstacles to the kind of work you want to be doing. Ideally, this person can point you in the right direction either with acting material (good scenes to work on) or advice.
That said, the bulk of your exchanges should be related to the betterment of your acting skills. While this can be personal (i.e. I have trouble allowing myself to be emotional in my life so I’m finding it difficult on stage) a good teacher is not your shrink, and neither should they try to be. Nor are they someone you would be inclined to attempt to fool.
You should have enough respect for them (and for yourself) to avoid excuses like: “I was distracted during the scene or exercise because I got bad news today” or “I was late because there was traffic and I couldn’t find parking.” You should be as professional with a teacher (and your classmates for that matter) as you would with your peers outside of school. In Los Angeles you never know who is watching you. A classmate, teacher, technician, may be writing or casting a part that is perfect for you, but if your demeanor isn’t professional, they may think twice about getting you involved.
The right teacher is as professional as you are, if not more. They act in ways that are of service to their students. To be clear, they should never be:
In need of an invisible pedestal to stand on;
The point of going to class is to learn and hopefully grow, not to accommodate poorly adjusted individuals who may, or may not, name drop at every occasion. You aren’t an actor so that you can have a full-time job acting like the perfect disciple of a megalomaniac (you aren’t permanently cast in a production of Stalin or Saddam).
You also aren’t an actor so that you can support someone who has no business teaching (some casting directors fit this bill). And yes, there are plenty of such individuals who teach and/or run schools in Los Angeles.
Audit an Acting Class
The best thing you can do before joining a school in Los Angeles is to audit a class. When auditing, pay attention to the teacher. Are they:
Giving constructive comments to every student?
Talking about an event that did not happen in class for more than five minutes?
Talking about a celebrity for more than five minutes?
Getting overly personal with the students?
Would you invite your friends and family to listen to this teacher?
If your answer is no to most of these questions, then you would do well to move on, no matter how hot you think this class is. Furthermore, if you notice destructive behavior from the teacher, don’t walk out, run out of that class. You will simply learn more and grow more (and in a healthier way) elsewhere.
There are thousands of psychology books that can explain why that is. Also, remember that people move in like-minded circles. For instance, my favorite (and most professional teachers) had the best students I could imagine working with. Most of my actor friends come from those classes. Here’s another observation: I never really made friends with the students from the classes I attended that were taught by guru-type teachers.
On the flip side, beware of schools that don’t permit auditing. What are they hiding? A school should be proud of their work and of their students’ work, and they should want to share their beautiful work with the world and especially with prospective students. Period.
Acting School List
To help you in your search, here is a small list of recognized schools that appear on many Los Angeles actors resumes:
Do your due diligence and take your time when selecting a school, as you will likely make a sizable investment there for a few years. Considering that classes range from $250 to $600/month, it is best to choose judiciously.
I encourage you to seek teachers who will challenge you in a supportive way. Ultimately, you should want to go to class. Participating and attending should be a demanding yet fulfilling experience.
It is better to audit for a couple of months and find the right fit than go somewhere because [insert name of cool person, friend person, famous person] goes there. The wrong school can hurt both your soul and your wallet.