David Irving is emphatic: “Actors like to work, period,” states the undergraduate chairman of New York University’s Department of Film and Television. As an educator and filmmaker, Irving has known many an actor, and so he feels confident declaring that even college-level motion pictures provide an opportunity for performers not only to stay sharp—“to work”—but also to “develop their craft, building a character shot-by-shot.”
However, of all the performance options actors have available, student films are encumbered by more than their share of shortcomings. With almost no expectation of being paid, the possibility that the finished project will never be seen by anyone other than a few film students (if it’s completed), and a director who might have only just graduated from high school, the unique world of student cinema can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But with every bane, there is a boon: The benefits of working on these productions can be incredibly and vastly rewarding, so long as the performer has an idea of what he’s getting into, what he expects from the experience, and how he can exploit both the knowledge and the connections he gleans.
In the past 30 years, hundreds of film and television schools have sprung up around the country, some of them based primarily on aesthetics, others steeped in production. New York alone harbors a few thousand film students, each bent on making a personal masterpiece, and each seeking talent for his or her production. With so many films being made, it’s natural that some will be outstanding, while others will fail miserably; a select few will find wide exposure at film festivals, while many will never make it beyond the classroom. But this is the wager an actor must make in order to explore his craft further, make artistic connections that can last a lifetime, and find projects that stimulate his mind and creative spirit.
Back Stage spoke with a number of film-school faculty and students, performers, and critically acclaimed writer-director Hal Hartley to get the lowdown on what actors should know about working on student films.
Best Case Scenarios
In the early 1960s, a then unknown actor by the name of Robert De Niro was auditioning for every possible production he could find—for both stage and screen, paid and “un.” “If you don’t go, you’ll never know,” he explained later, to The New York Times Magazine. The auditioning process was arduous for him, and didn’t lead to much work at first. However, he said, “You have to not look at it like a rejection. There are so many reasons you’re not picked that you can’t even worry about it.” One role De Niro did manage to land was a small part in an NYU student film, “The Wedding Party.” That film’s co-director, Brian De Palma, would later give De Niro his first leading role in a professional film—De Palma’s debut feature, “Greetings.” De Palma and De Niro remained friends and, in the early ’70s, they went to a party where De Palma introduced De Niro to another NYU film school alumnus, Martin Scorsese. This meeting would lead to Scorsese casting De Niro opposite Harvey Keitel in “Mean Streets,” a film that would be instrumental in jump-starting the respected careers of everyone involved.
“I had been studying in New York, and back then we would follow the trade papers,” notes Keitel, in an Urban Desires magazine article. “Marty [Scorsese] had placed an ad, and he was making a student film, and I answered the call.” The two men hit it off, and Keitel got the part. But not only that, “Marty and myself discovered that we had a great deal in common—there was a lot for us to experience together,” and so they continued to work together long into the future.
Beginning with these NYU student films, Keitel, De Niro, Scorsese, and De Palma inaugurated highly esteemed actor-filmmaker relationships that have now spanned over 30 years, making clear at least one important lesson: An actor must not only impress the filmmakers he works with right from the get-go—exhibiting the full range of his talent and passion even on the smallest of projects—he must also make use of his networking skills.
Of course, not every film student is going to become wildly successful, but an actor should remember to keep in touch with every talented individual he meets, no matter how young, because their future association could be endlessly advantageous.
Finding the Gig
With film students swarming all over the country—with a multitude of them right here, meandering through the streets of New York, hungry for new talent willing to work for free in their short films—an actor might get found without expending much effort. But it’s good to know how film students go about casting in order to broaden the options and know what to expect.
At the majority of film programs, students are all encouraged to explore a variety of methods to find talent, and each filmmaker has his own methods of casting—from using friends as actors to casting individuals off the street who have the right “look.” Many student filmmakers go to plays to find talent or use actors from their university’s own drama department, while some even hire casting directors or contact agents directly; most place casting notices in Back Stage.
NYU’s Irving says that, in addition to Back Stage and the NYU theatre department, acting programs such as The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute offer valuable pools of talent for his students to choose from. On the other hand, Mike Titus, who studied art and film at Cooper Union, cast most of his student projects through friends and referrals from acquaintances. He also found working on other classmates’ projects to be a reliable method of discovering talent, since he could observe actors in the midst of their performances. “It’s all based on character—on personal character,” he says. “How they carry themselves, and how they come across on film. You can just tell if they have what you need, if you’ll enjoy working with them, if they have the ‘look’ you require.”
Of all the actors he’s worked with on his student projects, there are a select few that he plans on using again in his future independent films. One of them had a particular flair for improvisation that he enjoyed, while another “just had this star quality—it’s hard to explain—she could play, I think, any lead I could think of.” However, he says, “If you’re going to use an actor again, it’s going to depend completely on how things went when you worked with them the first time.”
An actor who delivers a solid performance and interacts well with the crew members on set will often find himself starring in student films for the rest of the semester, with each project leading directly into another. And once the films are screened at the end of the session, actors who have delivered outstanding performances might find themselves being contacted the following semester by students they’ve never met. “Some actors really get in high demand in the student-filmmaking world,” agrees actor-director Joe Paradise, a professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA).
This variety of casting techniques offers up a truly unique experience on set, where each actor might be coming from a completely divergent background, with levels of skill and training varying wildly. In this dynamic environment, the actor is able to learn from everyone else’s experiences while at the same time being given a chance to share his own personal knowledge with those less experienced. This is one of the key assets of working on a student film: With the right attitude, the atmosphere keeps the actor’s mind necessarily fresh and nimble because the shared sense of exploration—and the specifically educational nature of novice filmmakers learning their craft—leaves open endless opportunities for character experimentation without any fear of career-tarnishing failure or professional embarrassment. It’s a learning and exploratory process for everyone involved, with the added benefit that the finished project just might be a work of art.
The likelihood of the completed film transcending its workshop roots is not tremendous, of course, and even Irving admits that the actors performing in the project may never even see a finished film—or at least a project of as high a quality as they might like. In fact, he says, most schools, including NYU, are “interested more in the process” than in the completed film. However, the workshop atmosphere, where no one project is likely to make or break an actor’s career, is an experience that involves “little pressure, allowing actors to push themselves,” Irving emphasizes. “They can dig deep into their own creative wells,” and find exciting new character insights that they might not otherwise have had a chance to explore.
Working with Student Directors
“Actors should react to a student director the way they react to any director,” suggests SVA’s Paradise. “They should keep in mind the youth of the director, but still be prepared to take direction. At any age, if a director is impressed with an actor and they develop a good working relationship and rapport, then of course they’ll continue to work together for a long time to come.”
Paradise—who, in addition to his duties at SVA, is currently working in the business as both an actor and a director, and has also taught at Columbia—notes that he keeps a running list of names of actors whose performances he found personally electrifying in his students’ films. Performers should consider that this is not altogether uncommon: Most film school professors are also industry professionals or have industry contacts, and even if no one in the general public ends up seeing an actor’s work in a student project, these faculty members will—resulting in exposure to industry pros who, if properly impressed, might one day call upon the performer for a professional gig.
And yet, as much as it’s important to deliver the sort of powerful performance that leaves an actor satisfied and impresses the students and faculty who see the film, actors shouldn’t be afraid to experiment, ask questions, and learn about the filmmaking process in general.
“For actors without film experience, working on a set gives them the opportunity to see the basic function of a film set—to understand hitting marks, the repetition of performance, what it means to have a camera watching them, how they must adjust to have their performances captured by the lens—all of which is invaluable for an actor,” says David Klein, deputy director of the New York Film Academy (which actually offers classes designed specifically for actors who want to learn about acting in film).
However, even if an actor has plenty of film experience, she shouldn’t dismiss the idea of working on a student project, says Klein, because “the best actors are working actors, and if they’re on a student set, then they’re working. And they’ll continue to hone their craft.”
And regardless of how experienced or inexperienced an actor might be, says Iris Cahn, the director of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Purchase College Film Department, “They have to have faith that even though some of these students are tots—infants—they wouldn’t be there, directing on that set,” if they weren’t qualified or talented or driven in some way. “Just be open to the fact that everybody, including the director, is going into this with just a blueprint and,” she says, “just let this crazy, flexible process happen.”
“I haven’t seen many perfect student films,” muses Cahn, herself a SUNY Purchase graduate and an Emmy-winning editor. “There are always flaws—but there are also usually moments of brilliance that don’t occur anywhere else.”
Another Purchase graduate, filmmaker Hal Hartley (“Simple Men,” “Trust,” “Amateur,” “Henry Fool,” etc.), says he has “known experienced and successful actors who worked on student or beginner’s films because they thought the writer and/or director was talented and might go on to make good work. Sort of an investment.”
Hartley, who is currently teaching at the Visual and Environmental Studies department at Harvard, adds, “With a student project, I would caution the actor to be patient. In the best circumstances, the student filmmaker is making it in order to learn, and so different kinds of attempts—revisions—are encouraged. At least this is how I teach my students. I don’t urge them to make ‘calling card films.’ ” (These are films that student/independent directors make strictly as a showcase of their professional talent, in hopes of sending the film off as a “calling card” to potential employers.) If, however, the project is for more than just a learning experience, and is intended as a “professional effort,” then, says Hartley, “the actor ought to expect the director to know his or her craft and communicate clearly how the scene is being shown to the viewer, so that the actor’s performance is ‘caught’ by the lens.”
The Performer’s Perspective
Student directors can become so encumbered with the technical aspects of filmmaking that, in some cases, the actors may feel they’re secondary to the camera, lights, or location. Performers might even find themselves with no structured rehearsals before the shoot and little or no direction being offered on set. In these circumstances, advises Hartley, “If young filmmakers know just enough to let an actor—whom they admire and believe is appropriate for the role—do his or her job, then they’ll be free to do all the other things expected of a director. And that usually contributes to a more controlled and efficient working environment where everyone is less paranoid and more creative.”
While actors need to listen to and trust in the director, they should also protect their own craft. If actors don’t feel like the director has scheduled enough rehearsal time, they should consider scheduling time amongst themselves. In the long run, the director will appreciate the extra effort and the film will be much better for it.
However, other directors may care only about the acting, and might try directing actors down to the slightest minutiae and tiniest movements. In situations such as this, a performer should try to have confidence in the director’s vision, and understand that the filmmaker may, in the end, extract a performance that the actor might never have found alone.
“I’m working on an independent film right now,” says actor Chelsea Varano, “and, really, it’s the same as working on a student film. The pace of the shooting and the technical aspects of the production are on a slightly larger scale, but not by much, really, than the larger student projects I’ve worked on. It’s made me realize how much those student films helped me, I think, in both very definable and very subtle ways. They prepared me enough—with being on camera, with acting in front of a crew instead of a stage audience—that I now find myself completely comfortable on set, which is great. With every film I work on, student or otherwise, it becomes that much easier to slip into character, immersing myself in the world of the film itself, with the technical worries of hitting my marks and keeping my sightlines consistent—and all the rest of the regular technical worries—becoming more innate and instinctual with every project.” Varano’s varied—and still beginning—career has involved a range of endeavors, including seven student films, a dozen plays, a few independent films, and a variety of offbeat performance projects. For her, student films have been a completely positive experience. “Despite some horror stories I’ve heard, I’ve actually found that film students, as opposed to a lot of other people I’ve worked with, are very, very considerate of the actors.”
Alice Rose Hurwitz—a former art teacher and gallery owner, and currently a wife, mother, actor, painter, and filmmaker—has discovered an inside track to student films through her job as coordinator of academic support services at NYU’s school of film. “After being on big productions where I was lucky if there was even a glimpse of me,” says Hurwitz, “I came to prefer the student films, which gave me real experiences in acting. Besides that big plus, I’m better treated and the hours are more reasonable. In contrast, I’ve been on Comedy Central skits for a grueling 20 hours straight!”
For the last two years, Hurwitz has “only taken parts that someone asked me to do because they’d seen me in another production.” And yet that’s kept her with plenty of work to do, her resume overflowing with student films, industrials, educational videos, small parts in a few features, and a number of appearances on Comedy Central.
Having acted in student films and worked at a film school itself, Hurwitz has seen firsthand what becomes of the projects she’s participated in. “The films are shown a lot—to other students, the professional faculty, screenings at the Cantor Film Center [at NYU], and film festivals around the country and the world.” Also, she says, “You get a video that demonstrates your acting ability, usually done quite professionally, and you get to grow from the experience and be an even better actor.” However, “Whether or not a student director graduates and ‘makes it’ in the film industry and remembers me as a talented actor is yet to be seen.”
Brigitte Bourdeau, a French-Canadian actor, has been living in New York for the past two years, acting both for the stage and screen. However, because of her luxuriant accent, “This acting agency I have gets me roles,” she says, “as the ‘French Girl,’ and I’m fine with that, but I want to move up.”
In order to move up, Bourdeau actively seeks out roles in the theatre and in student films, which give her the opportunity to stretch her creative muscles—in the former, she finds she’s less likely to be typecast, while in the latter, she’s played everything from a Gypsy to a painter, a model, and more. “Money we all think about, somehow, in the end,” she laments, “but when you’re in character, you forget about that, because if the character is good, well, that’s the juice you’re looking for as an actor.”
In addition to the aesthetic pursuit of immersing herself in a character, she’s found that working on student films has taught her about the differences between the lenses, shot structures, and everything else that makes a film set such a unique acting experience. “And you begin learning the film lingo, so, later [when you’re on a professional set], you’re not just a stupid actor sitting there, not quite knowing what’s going on around you. You save your time and their time and you get to know about the lights and the camera angles and how to move within the light.”
Bourdeau does have some caveats about the process, however: “The summer courses at the New York Film Academy are crash courses, so as an actor you’re crashed into them.” When deciding to audition for a student project, she cautions, an actor should consider taking into account the sort of program the student is in, what medium the project is being shot on, and what year the student is at within their school. As film students move from their first to their fourth year of film school, and then—in some cases—on to grad school, they are typically given increasing access to higher-end equipment, additional lights, dollies, cranes, and specialized lenses. They also become more experienced with the equipment they’re using and more assured of their ability to work with actors.
It’s important to keep in mind, says Bourdeau, that acting in a sync-sound thesis film being directed by a senior completing a four-year program is completely different from performing in a freshman’s initial non-sync project or the film of a director who’s only attending a six-week program.
If an actor does decide to work on a non-sync film, Bourdeau reminds us that, since “you’re not speaking, the film ends up as a visual—as a moving storyboard,” which can be an interesting experience, but not always the most fulfilling. “I did one of these once, and I learned from it, but I don’t think I need to do one again,” she says.
When working with student directors, she’s found that it’s best to take a proactive approach. “You shouldn’t be waiting for a director to tell you what to do. You do what you feel is right, because the director is worried about getting the shot, and the millions of things involved with that, and so he might just tell you to ‘turn and run’—but you, as an actor, must decide how to run, and your reasons for running, because often they won’t tell you that. And then, if they don’t like what you gave them, they will tell you.”
Still, from an acting standpoint, Bourdeau says she’s “never been 100% satisfied with something I’ve done with a student film. But I’ve been pretty satisfied with it as an experience. Let’s just say it’s not the most finished product you’ll ever get.” As an example, she recalls a film she worked on last year in which she had been particularly pleased with the way the shooting went. “I was also expecting it to be well edited, but it wasn’t, and then the director put this cheesy music under the entire scene, and the scene—it would have been a really good scene, but it was almost ruined. But you’ve gotta take what they give you.”
Actor Emily Grace has run into similar problems when acting in student productions. For instance, as part of the rehearsal process on an SVA project, she was required to perform scenes from the script in front of the director’s class. The student’s peers and professor could then make adjustments and suggestions before actual filming began. However, due to scheduling conflicts, the in-class workshop never took place. At least, not before the shoot—since the workshop process was a mandatory aspect of the class, Grace was asked by the director to perform in front of his classmates after the shoot had already wrapped.
Grace, however, did not snub her nose at the request. To her, student films are not so much about the finished product as they are about growing as an actor. “You can always dig deeper into a scene or a character,” she explains. “And it didn’t matter so much that we shot the film before workshopping the scenes, because I made sure I was as prepared as I could be before we shot—and the class was just another chance to dig even deeper.”
Trained primarily for the theatre, her experiences on these student films also gave her the on-set knowledge and self-confidence that she needed to immerse herself in her biggest role to date: Alongside two-time Tony-winner Judith Ivey, Grace is starring as the title character in “What Alice Found,” an independent film debuting this year as an official selection of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
And yet, even with a growing number of theatre and film credits filling up her resume, she hasn’t stopped auditioning for student projects. “I’d definitely advocate the process,” she says. “Student films still help me grow as an actor and learn and do what I love. I believe that the more you work, well, the more you work.” And if nothing else, she suggests, trying out for these projects “helps me hone my auditioning skills, keeping them fresh.”
Securing Your Copy, Watching Your Back
Outside of the learning experience itself, there are few tangible benefits to working on a student film. Depending on the filmmaker’s situation, some travel costs may be covered and meals might be provided on set, but the most important thing the film student has to offer is a copy of the finished film. An actor can use this finished product not only as an eternal document of his work (and something to show his friends and family), but as a very real way of promoting himself as a performer.
With the director’s permission, an actor can take it upon himself to submit the film to festivals, garnering himself more exposure. A performer might even organize a large screening of the film, or distribute copies to video stores (New York’s Kim’s Video stores, for example, offer a special section where they rent student films and otherwise unreleased independent features). And for those performers lacking professional representation, clips from these films can be used to build a reel of their work for submission to agents.
“Most film agents and managers won’t even look at an actor without a reel and credits,” says SVA’s Paradise. “So student films can make a big difference,” giving an actor some film credits along with the material he needs to build a reel or demo tape. Especially in L.A., continues Paradise, where there are “agents who don’t even like seeing actors in person anymore. Not so much in New York, where agents still like to talk to actors, or at least have them do a monologue.” Regardless if an actor is looking for an agent in New York or Los Angeles, Paradise thinks he should have a reel ready for submission.
But here’s the rub: many film students never actually give the actors a copy of the finished film. “I take care of my actors,” says Cooper Union’s Titus. “I make sure they get the food and they get a copy of the film. But I know a lot of students who just don’t have the funds to make copies, or they aren’t happy with the project so they don’t want to show anyone the film—I’ve heard a million and one excuses.” Also, he says, “The hectic schedule of a student film can really stress people out.” First the writing and the pre-production, and then the shooting, where “locations fall through, or you can’t get everyone to the location at the same time, or the camera fails, or who knows what else.” And then the student begins the editing and sound-design process, which can take hundreds of hours and the rest of the semester. After the film is submitted for a grade, the film student might skip town for the holidays, forgetting that he still owes the actors a copy. Or, in the case of the NYFA, says Klein, “We have a lot of European students. About 30 to 40% of our students are from overseas or South America,” and once they’re done with the program, they often leave the country, making it very difficult to track them back down.
The quandary is an old one, admits SUNY Purchase’s Cahn. Recently, in an exaggerated case of this, an actor called Purchase complaining that he still had not received a copy of his film. E. Elias Merhige, who recently directed the multiple-award-winning feature, “Shadow of the Vampire,” had made the student film in question over 15 years before.
“It is a big problem,” says Cahn. Sometimes it’s a problem of money, and in other cases it’s a matter of time. Regardless, she says, if the actor is promised a video or DVD copy at the beginning of the film, then she should be provided with one by the end of the semester, even if all the filmmaker has available is an incomplete film or a project he isn’t happy with—the student needs to deliver what he can. To insure this, says Cahn, “Everybody should have a contract when they work on any film,” even a student production.
Paradise agrees, and thinks that actors should always sign some sort of contract or deal memo, regardless of the production. “I also make my students sign a contract with the actors that says they’ll pay the actor $1,000 if the actor does not receive a copy within a specified number of months of completion,” he says.
All of the film schools Back Stage spoke with suggested that actors ensure at the beginning of a production that they know how to contact both the student (at his school and holiday addresses) and the school itself, in case something goes wrong. It’s a good idea to know who the student’s production teacher is (who may be present on set for part of the shoot, but even if not, the performer should ask the director for his or her professor’s name and office phone number) and how to contact the film school’s administrative office. All of the schools also mentioned that they welcomed phone calls and would do anything they could to help track down a student who has not delivered a copy of their film. NYU’s Irving went so far as to suggest that actors could call his office directly when necessary.
Aside from the video-copy problem, union actors are offered some protection that nonunion actors are not (unless they draw up their own contract regulations, as Cahn and Paradise suggest). For starters, SAG won’t even let their actors perform in a student film unless either the student or the school has filed the proper paperwork.
In cases where a SAG actor works on a student project, he needs to make sure the student understands the basic SAG regulations and has the proper contract available. On behalf of the students, most film schools have pre-negotiated this contract with SAG, but the students, who often refer to the contract as a “SAG waiver,” do not always have a thorough knowledge of the SAG agreement, and so it’s up to the actor to make sure everything is on the up-and-up.
The contract, entitled “The SAG Student Film Letter Agreement,” is only available to film students, and limits the budget to a maximum of $35,000, the running time to 35 minutes, and the shooting days to 20. Also, the exhibition of the project is limited in scope, and the finished film can only be screened within the film school, as a “visual resume” or as an entry in a film competition. If the film is later sold or distributed, then the SAG performers in the film must be paid, per the SAG Basic Codified Agreement for Independent Producers. The SAG Letter Agreement also has regulations regarding deferred payment, meals, travel reimbursements, and total work-hours allowed—all things that union actors need to be aware of, and nonunion actors should consider negotiating on their own.
Competition, Stardom, and Reality
If an actor is going to perform in a student film, she must take the endeavor seriously. “The film students,” espouses Cahn, sometimes “have a problem with actors backing out on the film when something better comes along, leaving the director $6,000 in debt without key scenes having been shot.” The performer, once making a commitment to a film, should then do everything in his power to behave professionally, arrive on time, deliver an outstanding performance, and cooperate with the director.
A performer’s behavior and performance will be remembered, and might result in unexpected benefits in the future. For instance, in 1991, writer-director Reb Braddock and writer-producer John Maass made a short student film, “Curdled,” for the Florida State University School of Motion Picture, Television, and Recording Arts. The film was then seen by writer-director Quentin Tarantino at a film festival—which led to Tarantino casting the film’s star, Angela Jones, in “Pulp Fiction” as Esmarelda Villalobos, the death-obsessed taxi driver who memorably interrogates Bruce Willis’ character with such classic lines as “So what does it feel like to kill a man with your bare hands? It’s a topic I’m very interested in.” Then, in 1996, Tarantino decided to executive produce a feature-length version of “Curdled,” for which he had Braddock and Maass return to make the film, and Angela Jones was again cast as the lead.
Or consider this: Chelsea Varano says that a filmmaker who’d moved to L.A. years ago recently called her. “I’d made a film five years before with this student director—it was called ‘Saint in the Sun’—and you would think that after cycling through the film festivals for a year or so, it would have gotten as much exposure as it could get, but then, a few months ago, the director, Walid Mouaness, calls me up and tells me it’s playing at the New York International Independent Film Festival. So I went, and the audience loved it and I met a lot of new film-industry people. Essentially, because of this one student film I did when I was 18, I’m still meeting new people, and my work is still getting shown.”
Hartley has also exhibited a loyalty toward those he worked with or knew while he was studying cinema at Purchase. “I have continued to work with a number of actors I met while in college,” he acknowledges. “Most recently, Robert Burke in ‘No Such Thing.’ Also, Karen Sillas was in my senior thesis project and in some directing exercises I made while at SUNY Purchase. Six years later, we made ‘Simple Men’ together,” and she’d later appear in other Hartley films as well. Other Purchase alumni who have acted in his films include Parker Posey, Edie Falco, Matt Malloy, and Bill Sage (who’ll be appearing next in Hartley’s upcoming “Nova”).
Posey, in 1993, just in the midst of beginning her film career, landed a starring role in one of Hartley’s independent short films, “Flirt” (released in 1995 as a feature), largely due to her collegiate connections. This, in turn, allowed her “to see how intimate those [independent film] crews were. It was all random connections; it was like, go to the deli, run into someone you went to school with, and have them recommend you for a part,” she recollects in Premiere, a national monthly movie magazine. Soon, she was ensconced in the New York independent film scene, and her career has included some 40 features in the decade since (including additional Hartley films). While it’s true that Posey had the advantage of a direct alumni connection to Hartley, it’s also true that any actors who work with student filmmakers will find themselves naturally intertwined in the same sort of film community—without having to attend the school itself.
Not that landing a role in a student film is necessarily easy. In fact, the competition for these roles can rank in the thousands. Actors must prepare for the possibility of frequent rejections, at least until they’ve built up a good reputation among the young filmmakers. Also, they should make sure to submit to both the general calls and individual films.
Many of the film schools, or production classes within the schools, will place a general casting call in Back Stage and/or their local papers at the beginning of the semester, seeking actors for a variety of projects. Later, individual students will place additional casting notices in order to fill specific roles they have yet to cast. “We easily get 1,000 resumes from [an ad in] Back Stage,” says SVA’s Paradise, regarding the casting notice his class places every semester. “Of these, we see about 100 people. Then, we only cast about 24 of them in big roles. We wish we could see more, but it’s just a time thing. When we hold auditions, at best we may be able to see 12 an hour,” otherwise the actors wouldn’t be given a fair audition.
At the same time, depending on how general an individual student’s casting notice is, and how interesting the project sounds, a single student film may elicit 500-600 headshots, sometimes more. Often, there may be too many submissions for a harried film student to even get to.
But here’s a final positive note for readers to remember: You can take heart in the fact that most film students share the actors’ submissions they receive. Many submissions—especially those sent to the general calls at the beginning of the semester—are filed away in the film schools’ resource centers. Reels, resumes, headshots, and audition tapes may be kept in a casting archive for as many as three years, on hand for hundreds of students to peruse at their leisure.
So, while it’s a good idea to keep submitting to individual projects on a regular basis—keeping your face fresh in the minds of the student filmmakers—it’s also possible that three years down the road, someone might find your old submission tucked away in a school’s resource database, and then call you up with a brilliant lead role.
Of course, by then you may already be famous. But if not, then with hard work, perseverance, and professionalism, you might just find your very own Scorsese, beginning a career the way De Niro and Keitel did—through the world of the student cinema.
Film Terms Every Actor Should Know:
DP: The cinematographer on a film. Usually, the DP is also the cameraman, but not always—the DP has the job of capturing the director’s vision, and is concerned with everything from camera movement and lenses to framing. Some DPs like to use a separate cameraman to actually operate the camera, while some directors might operate the camera themselves, but still leave the DP in charge of maintaining a consistent visual quality. Be nice to the DP, because it’s his job to make you look beautiful.
Film Stocks: 35mm film is the standard for commercial motion pictures and large-budget television dramas and sitcoms (such as “Friends”), so few film students can afford it, but occasionally it will be used. However, 16mm tends to be the mainstay of student cinema, and was at one time a favored medium for documentaries and a lot of television, although, lately, high-definition video (HDV) and digital video (DV) have been taking its place. Still, such shows as “Sex and the City” shoot on Super16 (which is 16mm film shot on a special camera that allows a “widescreen” 16x9 aspect ratio), and standard 16mm is still being widely used by independent filmmakers and music-video directors. HDV, essentially, is really good (and more expensive) DV. Ask a DP or director about film stocks and they’ll talk for hours.
Gaffer: Under the supervision of the DP, the gaffer manages the entire lighting crew. The best boy electric is his right-hand man. Even on a student film, lighting can take hours; however, it’s complex and detailed lighting that often boosts a shoot beyond an amateur level to a more professional realm.
Grips: The grips do all of the manual labor, lugging equipment out of the truck, setting up light stands, etc. They can often be found hanging around the craft services table. The key grip, working under the supervision of the gaffer, is in charge of the grips.
Hitting Your Mark: A “mark” is a point on the set that an actor must reach at a designated time during the scene in order to end up in focus and properly framed. Even if multiple points must be hit in just one scene, hitting your mark should never seemed forced or obvious.
Lenses: The length of a lens can have a dramatic effect on what you look like on film—stretching and compressing the image. Also, a wide-angle lens has a wide focus range, while a long-angle lens has a limited focus range (so if you don’t hit your mark in a long-angle shot, you’ll be completely out of focus).
Rolling, Turning, or Speed: The point at which the film in the camera (or the tape in the recording device—usually a DAT or Nagra) is running at full speed. The director won’t yell “action” to the actors until the cameraman and soundman have both yelled “speed.”
Sight Lines: For a scene to cut together properly in the editing process, it must always appear that the actor is looking in the correct direction from shot to shot. This can be tricky to maintain when what the actor is supposedly looking at is off-screen. Thus, an imaginary line is drawn between the subject and the object being looked at. This is your “sight line.” It’s more complicated than it sounds, but the director, camera crew, script supervisor, and continuity person should be able to help you with this (and other continuity issues) until it becomes more intuitive.
Sync/non-sync: Most films and videos are “sync,” which means that the sound (which on a quality film is usually recorded on a separate device, and not directly into the camera) can later be synchronized with the image. Often, however, beginning film students will use a non-sync camera, which means the script cannot use dialogue because the lips of the actor won’t be moving at exactly the same speed as the sound. A soundtrack and voice-over might be added later in the postproduction process, but it will never be possible to “sync” more than a few words of dialogue.
Thesis Film: This is the final film a graduate or undergraduate student makes before he or she leaves film school. Because of this, the student and crew usually have a lot of experience and are prepared to spend a good deal of time and money on the production.
This article was originally published as the cover story for a 2003 issue of Backstage magazine, under the title "Shooting for Success: An Actor's Guide to the Student-Filmmaking Experience," and it was is included as a chapter in the book "The Backstage Actor's Handbook."