It’s happening faster than anyone can keep up with. Two seconds ago, actors were being told they “should have” video in order to submit themselves for a role. Now, they “must have" video. If you're like most actors, you don't have great video. So does your heart skip a beat when you see that the casting notice requires video? Well, it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s a simple solution for you between now and when you finally collect enough terrific performance footage to put together a reel.
As they struggle to find a solution, I get inquiries from actors that roughly follow a few familiar scripts. These all seem to be coming from a deep-seated panic that they must have some video—any video—to send in with their submissions. Here are three recent examples and my responses to them, with a better work-around for each of them described at the end.
Question: I have VHS tape of theater performances I was in a few years ago. But as a longtime theater actor, I don’t have scenes from TV or film. Are those VHS tapes of any value in making a demo reel?
Answer: Any trouble you go to—for example, spending money to convert VHS to digital—will be wasted. First, no one should market themselves as an actor today based on footage from the 20th century. And second, recordings of theater productions are generally of poor quality to begin with, and they don't get better with age.
Question: I have some footage from student films and a web series. In one I play a vampire, and you can’t really recognize me and I don’t say anything. Another is a morose down-and-outer on drugs, but I get a great close-up of my glazed eyes. Another is more my type, I play a handsome and upbeat boy next door, where I have a kissing scene with a girl who’s doing most of the talking, all shot on a two shot. Oh, and I am shown as a “featured extra” in a training video. Can you edit this into a great demo reel?
Answer: There is little to no value in showing a reel of yourself doing things you wouldn’t be paid to do because it's not you playing your type. Until you are famous you will only be cast in a paying job playing the type of character that fits you and your look best. Submitting video that doesn’t show you and your type effectively is, at best, pointless, and at worst, creates a lasting bad first impression.
Question: I don’t have any great video, so I want to shoot a scene or two for a demo reel. I’ve got a script and an actor friend, so all we need is a workplace setting somewhere, preferably with a corner office on a high floor with a view of the city. (There’s a great bit of dialogue where my character gestures toward the big buildings he owns.) Can you shoot it?”
Answer: There are people who will shoot fake scenes for you. I don’t do it, nor do I recommend it. I will refer clients to the people who do if the client starts whining, but I don’t believe fake scenes create any of the benefits the hopeful actor expects. Scene shooting services are great labs for aspiring screenwriters, directors, and DPs to get paid practicing their craft and building their own reels. But actors in need of video shouldn't be paying to help anyone but themselves get hired.
So here’s the easy solution for these and other desperate pleas for help in our new “Show me the video!” age. Don’t panic. Instead, just put yourself on tape doing a monologue or audition-style scene that powerfully demonstrates your type, showing your chops. Wow them with your acting, up close, well lit, and with audio that’s crystal clear. The only video that will get you called in is of you performing something in your wheelhouse in a well-shot, high-quality clip.
The people you want evaluating you as an actor couldn’t care less about the DP’s clever tracking shots or perfect rack focus.
They get instant migraines looking at poorly shot theater productions.
They don’t want to see your archives from years ago; they’re casting today.
And they are not impressed by how you look as a vampire—unless you were on “True Blood.”
Brad Holbrook is the founder, chief cook, and bottle washer of www.ActorIntro.com, a Manhattan studio that creates video marketing tools for actors. He also trains and coaches actors in the skills required for performing on camera, privately and in group classes. He can be reached at email@example.com. Brad has spent his entire adult life in front of the camera. After getting degrees in theater arts and journalism, he first worked as a reporter in a small Midwestern TV station. That led to a 20+ year career as a reporter, anchor, and host at stations across the country. For the past several years, he has had the chance to scratch that acting itch again, and has worked as an actor on NYC stages, as well as in network TV shows and studio films. Currently he plays a TV host in The Onion News Network’s continuing parody series “Today NOW!”