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Spotlight on Photographers and Marketing Tools: Hit 'Em With Your Best Shot

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Headshots and reels are your calling cards to the industry. Make sure they're doing their job.

So you're sitting down with that formidable list of photographers, you've talked to friends in the industry, maybe your agent, perhaps you've even looked up a casting director or two for a few pearls of wisdom, and heard that oft repeated refrain: "Your headshot should look like you." You're ready for some serious shopping. Or are you?

Back Stage West recently spoke with a number of casting directors, working actors, an agent, and a well-known professional photographer to glean some advice about how actors can better prepare themselves for the creation of this indispensable marketing tool.

Said actor Alan Blumenfeld, "The headshot is like a calling card that you use to say, "Meet me, this is who I am,'"-a deceptively simple phrase, when you really think about it.

Determining "who you are" calls for a certain amount of introspection before you even cross a photographer's threshold. It's not enough to simply want to look fetching. Just making yourself into a glamourpuss can send a bland, artificial image that is neither striking nor memorable to a casting director with a pile of some 2,000 headshots on her desk.

"It has to come from within," said photographer Tory Von Wolfe. "You need to really know yourself-not what other people think you are or could be-and in the honesty of that, figure out what part of you is marketable before you go to a photographer and expect him to create it for you."

What this means is that you need to have some clear answers to the most fundamental questions about your career: What age range can you play? What characters can you play? While part of this is obviously based on the work you have done, some of it has to do with some careful creative visualization. Von Wolfe suggests paying close attention to the roles-including the smaller "entry level" roles-currently being cast in films and television, and envisioning yourself on screen.

"When you watch movies, watch them to ask, Could I do that part?" he said. "Could I play that young attorney, that college girl that's being chased by Ted Bundy, that cowhand, that down-and-out criminal, that doctor on ER?"

Your answers can help you-and later your photographer-with crucial choices in style and clothing that will best represent the "you" you're trying to sell.

A Collaborative Art

When you feel ready to scout out that magic lens, it's time to sit down and talk with a few (not just one) photographers in person to get a sense of their personalities and philosophies, and most importantly, to determine whether or not they will try to adapt to what makes you feel comfortable.

"Any time anyone says, "This is the only way to do it,' that's always suspicious to me," warned Blumenfeld. "Or if someone says, "Come to my house, I have a studio in my basement,' that makes me nervous. It's also really suspicious if no one's ever heard of the photographer. And if they won't meet with you first and show you their book, it's out of the question."

Ideally, you should find a professional who obviously loves what he does. Said Von Wolfe, "Go to someone who's going to spend the time to develop the looks with you. The photographer has got to be someone who takes responsibility for creating a space, a place, an energy, and directing people, who understands what it takes to motivate actors, who has compassion, time, energy, and devotion."

When you do get your hands on their portfolio, take the time to look at it with a critical eye. Does it look like an attempt was made to capture something distinctive with each one, or do all the headshots look the same? Do the poses look forced or relaxed and natural? Does the photographer tend to use natural or artifical lighting? While many actors prefer natural light, artificial lighting can often be easier from the photographer's perspective, but can also create dramatic and deceptive effects.

If you decide to go with studio lighting, Von Wolfe suggests asking whether or not the photographer will shoot Polaroid tests before each clothing or character change, and adjust the lighting accordingly.

"Faces are all different," said Von Wolfe. "When you walk in and that light is already set up, it's not lit for you. It's lit for the last 70 people who marched through there. You're in a passport office. Is your chin the same as everyone else's? Is the depth of your eye sockets the same? Your forehead? No photographer can create light for your individual face without moving lights and taking tests."

While it's not always true that you get what you pay for, according Blumenfeld, "If it's too cheap to believe it's any good, it's probably not."

Casting director Danny Goldman also pointed out, "If somebody takes a great picture of you, it's priceless. To have shitty, very standard-issue pictures taken of yourself-well, then you're already paying too much."

According to the actors Back Stage West polled, the average price range for two to five rolls is around $250-350, which includes several enlargements. The initial interview is the appropriate time to find out the specifics of the photographer's package, if they offer one. Ask questions about how hair and makeup is typically dealt with, how much it costs, whether (and how) retouching is done, and whether you will be able to keep the negatives.

Be sure to find out what the photographer's policy is about reshoots, in case you (or your agent) are not thrilled with the results. Agent Bob Preston (of Cunningham/Escott/Dipene) even went so far as to say, "Don't shoot with any photographer unless he guarantees his work. If you or the agent are not happy with it, then he should reshoot for free. We have that understanding here with every photographer we deal with, and rightly so. We all have good days and bad days."

Lastly, if you haven't already done so, consult your agent before making that final, fateful choice. Actress Brooke Dillman recounted a recent, harrowing (and wallet-depleting) experience.

"I just went to a new photographer, and the funniest thing was, it was the first time I was really comfortable in a photo session. When I got the proofs back I was like, "Hey, I look all right!' It was so ironic, because my agents were like, "No. None of them.' They just said, "It doesn't reflect you.' I learned a great lesson. Even if I did ask friends, I would approve it with my agent first, and make sure there would be some sort of agreement where if it didn't work out, the photographer would reshoot. Because now, there's $350 gone."

Taking Aim

On the actual day of the shoot, there are a number of factors to keep in mind, and under control. On the issue of makeup, all of the casting directors Back Stage West spoke with responded with the old truism: Less is more. "We like to see their faces as they look, " said commercial casting director Sheila Manning, "not terribly made up."

Try to have the makeup artist work with what features make you unique. Said photographer Tory Von Wolfe, "It's taking what you have-the big nose, the big chin, the high eyebrows, the high forehead, the bald head-and not being afraid to let the truth represent you."

Agent Bob Preston had similar advice. "All the shots now are very real. It's ER, it's Chicago Hope. These shows aren't looking for the perfect people. Look at the Gap ads, or Calvin Klein. These kids are edgy; they're street. It's not the perfect look anymore. Definitely not airbrushed, not any of the Proctor and Gamble of the '70s."

Getting overly made-up can also cost you extra money in the end if you get the proofs back and decide that you're unhappy.

"What often happens," said Von Wolfe, "is that when the actor gets the proof back, they see the makeup on their face, they see that they don't look the same, and they want to know if a retoucher can take it down. No. It's there. You're not going to change that. Besides, even if you put makeup on a pimple, it's still going to create a light shadow, you're still going to have to retouch. You can do a clean-up with the retouch at the end on your print to get rid of the pimple, the scar, the lines under your eyes, to accomplish the same thing that makeup would have done, but for less money."

If you feel like the makeup isn't going right during the session, speak up. Said Dillman, "If you feel that's happening, you just tell them, "I don't wear that much makeup, I want it to look very natural.'"

Simplicity is also something to consider when selecting your clothing. Beware of anything that might divert the viewer's eye from your face. After all, what casting directors typically respond to is "life in the eyes."

"We like actors to remember that they are the product," said casting director Sheila Manning. "We shouldn't be distracted by jewelry, prints, busy backgrounds, brand names, or fancy borders. Remember that the actor should be what we're looking at."

Got Character?

If you've done your homework, you've taken the time to ask what the types of characters you can play would wear. "The outfit should inform the character," said Blumenfeld.

Von Wolfe suggested coming in with a few character ideas that are truthful and meaningful to your ability, and clothing that is suited to that purpose. "Don't walk into the photographer with a bag full of clothing and expect him to figure it out for you. Also, when you look through your closet, try to squint with your eyes and see it in shades of gray, and not in color."

Especially if you consider yourself to be a character actor, it helps to go through the routine of the characters before and even during the shoot, talking and behaving for a while as if you're about to do a monologue. Often a good photographer will put you at ease, and even coach you through a few different scenes and interactions.

"You can't capture a still image from a still moment," advised Blumenfeld. "There has to be something dynamic, something moving that's captured. I find that it's best when I'm talking. The first one I did, I spent the whole time talking, having a conversation, and the photographer had shot off 15 shots before I realized it. The more you can be engaged in interaction with the person taking the shot, the more comes across through the photograph." Techniques such as these can help you avoid the stiff poses and smiles casting directors find so repellent.

"I don't like people who smile more than they really feel it," said Goldman. "It looks so phony you just want to smack them. If you have to look at a million headshots and you just see these phony, cheesy smiles, you want to scream!"

While opting for a three-quarter shot that is pulled back a little may also make you less uncomfortable in front of the lens-and while this style is definitely the current trend-there are some points to be wary of. Said Goldman, "The purpose of the three-quarter would be to see what the shape or the physical body was like-if it's an athletic body, if it's got too much weight on it, or some unusual feature. But what they generally do now is they hunch over-I could show you hundreds of examples-and it's wasted space. You can't tell if they have round shoulders, or if they have scoliosis. You just don't know because there's so much foreshortening. But a three-quarter that shows body, shows the person standing up, and there's no foreshortening, then yes, that would be helpful."

Lastly, while it may seem obvious, have your name printed on the front of the shot, so if your resum is lost, your name isn't.

As with anything, experience comes with practice, and it's not until you get in front of a camera and start trying out some shots that you will have anything to learn from.

"That's the thing about acting anyway," said Dillman. "You're constantly screwing up. You just get smarter. Then you take all these things you've learned about everything and it'll click one day. Eventually you can take your whole book of mistakes, and you've memorized them, and you'll try not to make them again."

The Reel Deal

When reviewing the material you have for a video demo reel, the most important question to ask, said actress Katy Selverstone, is: "What would you like to watch? What would be a pleasurable few moments to spend in front of a VCR? When you look at your reel, you have to say, "I would want to meet that person and work with them.'"

As with choosing a headshot photographer, once you've done your homework-by asking yourself (and your agent and friends) what you have to work with, and deciding how you would like your tape to represent you-it's important to seek out an editor with whom you feel comfortable, both personally and in terms of taste.

"Choose somebody who you feel like you click with," said Selverstone. "One of the ways of finding that out is to ask, Is their aesthetic anything like mine?"

Selverstone suggested asking the editor for a couple of examples of what they think is a really great reel, preferably tapes which show a variety of different styles-for instance, one that has something like a montage or a series of one-liners and one that's very spare and simple. These samples can also help you form a better idea of how you'd like to structure your own work, as can tapes of friends whose work you respect. It can also be useful to ask your agent for a couple of sample reels of actors whose work the agent feels very confident about.

When it comes to price, many editors charge an hourly rate. If you have the extra money to spend, you can opt to sit down with the editor and sort through your material together, but a good way to save money is by paring it down yourself, consulting friends in the business, and then going in with a specific idea of what you want to do.

Selverstone explained that with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you can probably do a nice reel for around $200, which allows for two to two and a half hours with the editor. At the other end, you could easily spend $2,000 for around 30 hours. The editing equipment you choose will also affect price. While it's often more expensive to get your reel edited on Avid, it can be done more quickly. With linear editing, your time is less expensive, but expect the process to take longer.

Guaranteed Grabber

Once you've found an editor, and are ready with your best clips, the rules of the game are basic: "Kiss it. Keep it short, sweet, and simple," said Preston. How short is short enough? The casting directors Back Stage West spoke with agreed that somewhere around five minutes is more than sufficient, with a maximum of around eight minutes, though they admitted to actually watching far less.

"Put your best work first," said Manning, "because I can almost guarantee that we are not going to see the last piece on that film. I'll watch two minutes, and if you're really good, I'll turn it off after 30 seconds because I'll already know you're good. If you're really bad, I may stay with it praying that you're gonna get better, but I will not look at amateur stuff."

Selverstone chose to structure her reel with this idea in mind. She followed her 30 second "grabber" scene (from a pilot she did called The L Word) with a brief montage of clips from different projects, overlaid with upbeat music.

Once you've pulled your best work for the opening of the tape, remember that with the following scenes, our attention should stay tightly focused on the product: you. "Don't include scenes that highlight other actors in the scene," said Preston. "We can't tell you how often other actors get jobs off one actor's videotape."

Similarly, any unnecessary padding should be avoided. "Don't do a lot of lead-in stuff that we couldn't care less about," warned Manning. "If it's a scene where you're only saying, "Yes, may I take your order ma'am?' don't bother. If it's something that does need a meaningful thing leading up to it, show one scene that shows the lead-in, and get to the point."

"You have to be a little bit brutal," said Selverstone. "If you've worked with somebody famous and you want people to know, grab a little piece of it that shows a nice exchange. Remember that you can internally edit scenes, and if there are scenes where you look fantastic but somebody else has a huge monologue, look for ways to cut them down."

It's also essential to attempt to show a varied selection of your work. Selverstone's nine-minute reel gives an excellent example of how to present a wide range of work. Each clip has a contrasting tone: We see her as the sexy seductress, the mother whose husband has disappeared, the bitchy "other woman," Drew Carey's funny, sarcastic girlfriend, and as an angry woman who falls in love while facing a terminal illness.

Said Selverstone, "When a scene changes, you set up an expectation that we're supposed to see something that we haven't already seen. Sending out a bunch of commercials that you've done is not necessarily a great thing because it says, "I don't have any other film or television experience that's worth your seeing.' If that's all you have, that's fine, but I think you have a window of time where it's OK to do that."

Casting director Mark Hirschfeld agreed: "If you've played hookers in five different things, then you shouldn't have all five of them there unless you want to be typecast as that."

Too Staged

Casting directors also advise actors to be careful about including video from a piece of theatre. One clip of a very professional, well-shot theatre piece is probably all that's appropriate. "Usually that stuff is just terrible," said Preston. "They have to sit in the room with you and they point to this dark figure and say, "There I am.' Unless it's professional quality, the lighting is great, and it shows you in something totally different that you can't get in a short film segment, don't waste your time." The same concerns apply when deciding whether or not to use film from a cheaply made independent film with poor visual quality, though your editor may be able to slightly improve the look.

If you don't have any credits, it is possible to use a video service which will film a scene or monologue for you, though again, proceed with caution. "Most of us really only want to look at stuff that's been on the air," said Manning. Preston and Goldman were less dismissive, yet emphasized that the piece should really give a sense of who you are.

Said Hirschfeld, "If you're going to do a monologue, it had better be pretty damn compelling. But I do watch monologues on tape and I have hired people from them."

Once you have your reel, it should always be kept current. Depending on the amount of new work you have, you should plan to update it once every few years. Obviously, you always keep the master, submit only copies, and make sure a return address is not only printed on the jacket, but also on the videotape itself. Finally, be sure check the entire copy for sound and picture quality before you cross your fingers, say that prayer, and drop it in the mail. BSW

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