Your Guide to a Perfect Self-Tape

Article Image
Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

The rise of self-tapes has been one of the biggest shifts in the acting audition process over the past decade—a trend that has only accelerated in the wake of COVID-19. Historically, an actor would only be considered for a project if they mailed in a hard copy of their headshot; if they received an audition, they would then be asked to show up in person or send in a videotape via snail mail. Self-tape auditions have made it possible for more actors to audition remotely, and to audition for more projects at a time. As it turns out, cutting out travel (and the postal system) has been a big time-saver for all involved.

Of course, that means making the perfect self-tape is more important than ever for working actors. Wondering what equipment you need for a high-quality self-tape? Or what color shirt to wear when filming? Our in-depth guide covers everything an actor needs to know about self-taped auditions—including advice from casting directors, acting coaches, and other industry experts.

JUMP TO

What is a self-tape?

A self-tape is a pre-recorded video audition that an actor submits to the casting director or creative team. Actors film themselves reading select portions of the script (known in the business as “sides”), then edit the footage and send it in electronically. Some people find self-tapes more stressful than in-person auditions, since it requires a certain amount of planning and technical know-how. Others prefer the lack of pressure and audition jitters—with self-tapes, you can keep filming until you are happy with the final product. 

Self-tapes are the same whether they are for TV, film, or theater auditions. The only difference is the content of the audition. For theater auditions specifically, the casting director might be paying a bit more attention to your physicality and vocal quality to see if you can reach the back of the house. However, they’ll still be cognizant that they’re viewing your audition on film—and probably on the small screen of their computer at that—so don’t overwhelm them with your performance.

WATCH:

When do I submit a self-tape?

In most cases, a casting director will specifically request that you send in a self-tape. They’ll do so after viewing your demo reel, headshot, and resume that have been submitted by either you or your agent or manager. As part of the self-tape request, the casting director will provide the sides, additional instructions for filming, and the deadline.

Occasionally, you may run across an open call where anyone can submit a self-tape—similar to open calls for theater auditions where anyone can show up—but for the most part, you’ll only submit a self-tape if it’s requested.

What are some examples of great self-tapes?

For real-life examples of self-tapes, look no further than Backstage’s Audition Insider series. In the first installment, casting director Daryl Eisenberg reviewed two Backstage members’ video auditions. Her biggest note for actor Faith Clark Doebler was to widen her frame: “I want to know how you live in your body. Acting is not just [your face]. I don’t get that information when you have a tight frame.” 

For actor Henardo Rodriguez, Eisenberg stressed the importance of having a reader that doesn’t distract from your self-taped audition. Rodriguez had used a remote reader—but audio lags made it difficult to hear the reader’s lines and dulled the energy of the scene.

And don’t forget: Every now-famous actor had to tape auditions at some point in their career, a lot of which are now online. Although these technically aren’t self-tapes, watching these recorded auditions still can give you a sense of the level of acting that casting directors are hoping for when they receive an audition tape. Because, at the end of the day, that’s the most important part of a self-tape: to provide truthful, engaging acting. The quality of the visuals and sound are also key—but mostly because it keeps the viewer focused on your performance, rather than distracting from it.

WATCH:

What are casting directors looking for in a self-tape?

Ask any casting director what they look for in a self-taped audition, and one of the first things they’ll say is that it looks and sounds good—not necessarily professional-level quality, but that the actor’s face is well-lit and the audio is clear and free of background noise. But assuming you’ve nailed all the technical aspects, what else makes a self-tape stand out? We asked three CDs for their take:

Luci Lenox: “It’s just that they’re believable in the role. They don’t even have to do anything too much. I’ve seen some incredibly good self-tapes. And it’s when the person’s alive on tape, so when they’re not speaking, they’re still in character. You just believe them. You don’t have to have too many props or too much costuming. Someone [gave me a] self-tape [of them] being shot, and they added in sound effects. It was surprising, it was fun. Directors get bored listening to and seeing the same thing over and over again, and sometimes somebody will do something so random, but it’s charming, and you go, ‘Oh, let’s have him.’”

Marci Liroff: “[W]e often suggest that actors make a strong choice when they’re auditioning. My coaching clients constantly tell me they’re worried that their strong choice will be the wrong choice. Especially with self-taped auditions, you can feel as if you’re acting in a vacuum, as there is no immediate feedback in the room. But here’s what I see: If an actor makes a strong choice that’s headed in the wrong direction, and if they seem to be right for the role, I want to work with them to steer them back in the right direction. Because they’ve made a strong choice, I can see they are an intelligent actor and have done the work, which indicates that giving them adjustments, notes, and direction is worthwhile.”

Robert B. Martin: “The most important thing that I look for is ‘Does the performer understand the concept of the project we’re casting?’ Meaning, ‘Does he or she understand the material?’... In other words, say you have a scene and Christopher Guest is directing it. Now, what if I told you it is [the] same scene but it’s not Christopher Guest, it’s Steven Speilberg who’s directing it. Okay, let’s change it up. What if I said it was Michael Bay directing it? Each one of those directors is going to be a different tone. You’re going to approach the audition differently because each of those directors has a certain style and technique and because you’ve seen a majority of their movies, you already have a general idea of what they’re looking for or the style of performer that they’re looking for or, most importantly, their concepts.”

What equipment do I need for a self-tape?

You need four pieces of equipment to film a quality self-tape: a cell phone camera (or a DSLR), a tripod and rig, a mic, and lights. These are the basics of an at-home film studio and will help ensure professional-grade audio and video. 

Camera: It’s totally acceptable to use the camera on your cell phone for a self-taped audition. But we’d recommend using an external lens to enhance the video quality. The best external lenses for iPhones are the OlloClip, a Moment lens, or the DxO ONE:

  • OlloClip has a range of lens sets that range in price from $80-120 that come with a pocket-size tripod that you can place on something to get steady filming.
  • Moment has a selection of high-quality lenses that are compatible with many types of phones, in addition to their own selection of phone cases. They run from $90 to $100.
  • DxO ONE actually replaces your phone’s camera, rather than augmenting it. It plugs into your phone and uses the display as a viewfinder. It also comes with full HD video. 

If you want to get fancier than your smartphone and are willing to invest in a DSLR of your own, try the Canon EOS Rebel T7i—it’s an excellent starter camera. (Consider buying an older model, a preowned one, or a refurbished product from an authorized dealer to slash a few hundred dollars off the sticker price.) You’ll also need a number of accessories, such as a memory card, lens, etc. Make sure to factor those into the total cost.

Finally, avoid filming with your laptop—most accessories to improve your video quality aren’t compatible with laptop cameras, making it more difficult to get professional-looking footage.

Tripod and rig: You should attach your phone or camera to a tripod in order to get a stable, high-quality shot for your self-tape. Which tripod you need depends on the device you’re using to film, and the location you plan to film:

  • UBeesize Phone Tripod is a shorter tripod with flexible legs that allow it to be balanced on many different types of surfaces. It costs $16 and comes with a universal clip to make sure any type of phone is secure.
  • Eocean iPhone Tripod can stand on its own at 50 inches tall. It’s designed specifically to hold an iPhone and also comes with a universal rig, level indicator, and carrying case. 
  • Neewer 64” Tripod is an adjustable full-length tripod that’s compatible with both cameras and phones (rig not included).

Some tripods come with rigs, which serve as a mounting mechanism to attach your phone or camera to the tripod itself. But if you need to purchase a rig separately, we recommend these three options:

  • Aoonar ll078 Universal Smartphone Adapter is a standard phone rig that attaches to a tripod; it’s cheap and has great reviews.
  • Ulanzi Smartphone Video Rig also allows you to mount a lighting and microphone attachment (sold separately) right onto the rig itself.
  • Iographer sells a variety of phone cases in the $50-60 range that are compatible with tripods. Rather than clipping your phone into a separate rig, you snap it into the phone case itself.

Lights: Lighting is very important for a high-quality self-tape. Casting directors must be able to clearly see your face in the shot, but the lighting shouldn’t be so bright that it washes you out, either. Natural light by itself is usually not enough, especially because the quality of light can change depending on cloud cover or weather conditions. It’s always best to use two light sources: a key light (from the front) and a fill light (from the side). You may have to play around with where you set your lights up to avoid distracting shadows in the back and ensure that your face is evenly lit. You have several lighting options, depending on your budget:

  • LimoStudio sells popular softbox lights that cost between $40 and $70, depending on the kit. 
  • Neewer 160 LED Video Light is the classic go-to for affordable lights. Each one costs about $20. (Make sure you purchase a tripod and battery pack for each light separately.)
  • Fovitec StudioPRO 600 LED Panel is the same type of light as the Neewer LED, but has 600 individual LED lights instead of 160. Of course, professional-level lighting comes with a higher price tag—you’ll pay a hefty $180 per light. 

Ring lights are another popular option for self-tapes. In general, avoid using the flashlight function on your phone as a lighting source. It can be difficult to manipulate if you are also using your phone for filming and may prove too harsh. 

Microphone: Sound quality is crucial for a good self-tape. You should never use a phone to record without an external microphone; it will pick up all sorts of distracting ambient noise.

  • Rode VideoMic will capture crisp, clear, high-quality audio without breaking the bank. It also plugs directly into the headphone jack on your phone.
  • Shure MV88 plugs directly into the charger, making it better suited for newer iPhones without a headphone jack. Its settings can be optimized for the type of audio, including speech, singing, and acoustic instrumentals—making it a good option for actors recording a musical theater audition.

If you are using a DSLR camera to record your audition, the sound quality is probably fine—but an external mic attachment can help take it to the next level. The most popular type of mic available for this purpose is the shotgun microphone, which can be placed on top of the camera. Another option is the lavalier microphone, which can be attached to your shirt near your mouth.

  • RØDE VideoMic Pro is one of the most popular shotgun mics available. It’s ultra-compact, lightweight, and has shock-mounting and a built-in windscreen.
  • Audio-Technica’s ATR3350 is a budget-friendly lavalier mic. It has a low profile designed for decreased visibility, while also being omnidirectional.

For self-tapes, avoid using a hand-held mic or headset, since they’ll distract from your on-screen presence. Boom mics are also best left to film crews—you can get high-quality audio with another, simpler, microphone that doesn’t require another set of hands.

What is the best backdrop for a self-tape?

Self-tape backgrounds should be a solid, neutral color like white or gray. (Several industry experts also recommend blue.) You can go one of two routes: Use a blank wall in your home, or purchase a professional screen.

Avoid filming in front of patterned wallpaper, overly bright paint colors, or artwork or other objects—all of which could distract the casting director from your performance. If you can’t find a neutral backdrop, here are some screen options to consider:

  • Neewer Collapsible Backdrop is an easy, cheap option. It runs about $20 and comes with a choice of a black or white fabric backdrop. (It has other colors as well, but neutral is best for self-tape auditions.)
  • LimoStudio Backdrop Support System Stand has over 3,000 reviews on Amazon and is adjustable, which can be nice if you tend to film in different spaces or move a lot. Please note: You have to buy the clamps and fabric backdrop separately.
  • Upland Softbox Lighting Kit includes three backdrops, the backdrop support stand, and two softbox lights in one package; it totals $110.

For a more budget-friendly option, casting director Caroline Liem also suggests hanging a bed sheet, yoga mat, or curtain behind you to create a solid background. 

RELATED:

Should I be off-book for a self-tape?

In an ideal world, you would be completely off-book by the time you film your self-tape. But in reality, many invitations to submit a video audition come just a day or two before the deadline—so do your best to memorize as many of the lines as possible with the time you’re given.

If that means that you are able to memorize them all, nice work! “Yes, casting will notice and appreciate that you are off-book,” says Backstage Expert Brad Holbrook. “But no, they don’t give you demerits if you’re not. Casting understands that it can be very difficult to memorize a scene on such short notice; what they really want to see is that you understand the character whether you are holding the sides or not.”

If you do plan to use your sides, figure out a way to incorporate them seamlessly into your self-tape. If you’re auditioning for a role as a doctor, nurse, or lawyer, it might be natural for you to consult your “notes” on-screen. Or, consider posting your sides on a nearby wall instead of holding them in your hand: “When we see eyes drop down to the page to search for a line, it takes us out of the terrific moments you’re sharing,” casting director Caroline Liem warns.

Do I need a reader for a self-tape?

Although there are ways to tape an audition without a reader—by pre-recording the other lines yourself and playing them back, for instance—it’s always preferable to have a live reader for a self-tape.

Unlike in-person auditions, where you’re assigned a reader, self-tapes give you the opportunity to choose your own. You can give yourself a leg up by finding someone you have chemistry with, who knows what they’re doing and won’t distract from your performance. Ideally, you can recruit another talented, trustworthy actor to read for you. Don’t worry about gender, though—it doesn’t matter to casting directors if your reader doesn’t match the character they’re playing.

When selecting (and coaching) your audition reader, make sure to avoid these four common reader mistakes identified by acting coach Joseph Pearlman:

  1. Speaking in a monotone. The idea is that a robotic performance by the reader keeps attention on the actor auditioning—but in reality, it creates an imbalanced scene (and a weaker audition tape).
  2. Whispering the lines. Some people believe that the reader’s voice should fade into the background. But that’s a problem if the producers have to strain to hear half of the scene. Since readers are usually positioned right next to the camera, they’ll need to use a lower volume—but their lines should still be clearly audible.
  3. Using a different voice for each character. A reader should use the same voice for the entire scene, even if there are multiple characters involved. “It is the verbal equivalent of slipping on a banana peel: it pretty much guarantees the attention will be taken away from the actor auditioning,” says Pearlman.
  4. Having a distinctive accent or way of speaking. Even if you have great chemistry with this particular reader, it will draw attention away from your performance.

One last thing: Make sure your reader doesn’t read the stage directions. “You’d think that would be obvious,” says acting coach Matt Newton. “You’d be surprised.”

What should I wear for a self-tape?

Wear a form-fitting top when taping your audition, since the shot will be tight. Stick with solid colors—but avoid hues that blend in with the background, wash you out, or match your skin tone too closely. Casting director Carolyne Barry recommends jewel tones like emerald green, purple, and burgundy; she also notes that collared tops or V-necks are the most flattering on camera.

Steer clear of red, white, or black for a self-tape. White tends to create a green halo effect, black looks like a shadow, and red tones are often distorted by the camera.

Finally, be sure to heed any direction that is provided regarding what to wear for your audition. The casting director or creative team may or may not supply this information with the instructions, but if they do, be sure to follow them exactly.

How do I shoot a self-tape audition?

To shoot a self-tape, use a tight frame that goes from your chest to just over the top of your head. (This is called a medium close-up.) Make sure your reader stands close to the camera to create the correct eyeline. And keep your camera at eye level!

Since your frame will be tight, it’s best to stay mostly still while filming a self-tape. “Save the flailing chicken acting for your ‘Guys and Dolls’ audition,” acting coach Matt Newton advises. “Don’t pan, and don’t do any hand-held ‘Law & Order’ stuff. Lock the frame and keep it simple. Too much movement is distracting from the performance.” Consider taping a mark on the floor to ensure you’re centered in all of your takes.

Another common self-tape mistake is incorrectly positioning the reader. “The most effective eyeline is when your reader is almost straddling the tripod, standing (or sitting) right next to the camera,” says casting director Marci Liroff. “If your reader is even a few inches too far from the camera, we will not get the full impact of your eyes.” 

Finally, make sure your camera is at the correct height. Placing it too low can create an unflattering angle that will do you no favors. (“Trust me: No one wants to see your nose hairs,” Liroff laughs.) Instead, make sure your tripod is positioned at eye level or just above; if you’re using your camera, you can stack books on a table or shelf to achieve the desired result.

Should I slate in a self-tape?

You should only slate for a self-taped audition only if the casting director’s instructions request it. Otherwise, leave it out. 

Slating—stating your name and any other personal information that’s been requested by casting—is common at in-person auditions. For self-tapes, it’s a different story. “Unless specifically instructed to, a rookie mistake is to always slate for a self-taped audition,” explains Backstage Expert Joseph Pearlman. 

If you are asked to slate, make sure to read the instructions carefully. Every casting director wants something slightly different. Some want full-body shots, others tight close-ups or profile shots. If the instructions don’t specify, casting director Caroline Liem suggests shooting the slate vertically and the read horizontally (if you’re filming on your phone) and adding it to the end of your read. Her other practical tips for slating include:

  • Shoot the slate separately from the scenes.
  • Slate directly into the camera.
  • State your name, age, role, and agency (and anything else requested by casting).
  • Don’t slate in character.

How do I edit a self-tape?

The easiest (and cheapest) way to edit your self-tape audition is to use iMovie. It’s user-friendly, and if you film on your phone, you can edit your whole audition without even having to transfer it to your computer. You can cut the scenes, add text, photos, music, and transitions, all with iMovie. 

The more professional (and expensive) program that is popular to use is Final Cut Pro. This allows for more advanced editing techniques, but is not often necessary for a regular self-tape audition and is better suited for editing films that are to be produced and seen in their own right. The personal version of Final Cut Pro is $299.99.

How do I submit a self-tape?

To submit a self-tape audition, always follow the casting director’s instructions to the letter—and don’t send hard copies along with your electronic submission.

You’d be amazed at how many actors don’t fully follow casting’s directions for submitting self-tapes. This could include instructions such as: what needs to be included in the slate, the length of the piece, the number of takes to include, what to wear, when the audition is due, if the different scenes should be sent as separate files or all part of one file, what type of file to send, etc. Give yourself a boost by carefully reading the directions, following them exactly, and then double-checking them before you press send. 

Consider submitting early, if possible. “If you’re a last-minute kind of person, you might be missing out on a hidden opportunity,” notes casting director Caroline Liem. “Every office is different, but some view self-tapes as they arrive. If there’s time before the due date and your read is strong or just missing the mark, we’ll circle back with notes more in line with the vision for the role. That’s right! We’ll provide redirects without you stepping one foot in the room.”

Ready? Apply to casting calls on Backstage!

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Backstage team and/or a Backstage Expert. If you purchase items through these links, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partner. 

More From Backstage Guides

Recommended

More From Actors + Performers

Now Trending