How to Dominate Self-Tapes During Pilot Season

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Pilot season is well underway and some of you may be doubting how those self-tapes are coming out. Fear not! As a co-owner of a busy training studio averaging 20-30 self-tapes a week, I’ve had my fair share of experience prepping my students for this crucial time of year. 

Self-tapes are a skill I strongly encourage actors—at every level—to master for various reasons: Self-tapes have become the norm and are as common as in-person calls. If done right, they can be as powerful and effective as a live audition. And, of course, self-tapes equal bookings.  

Now that you know why, here’s how:

Pro Materials
Technology has changed the game. There’s no excuse for low-quality video, even if you’re creating your self-tape at home. 

First, get the right lighting, framing, and sound. Absolutely no shadows on your face (or anywhere else in frame) and avoid fluorescents above you if you can. Aim for natural light coming in through a window. Set up your backdrop (navy/blue) and get that natural light evenly on your face. 

No windows? Use a professional light kit. Your main objective in lighting is to make it even so CDs can see your face. Frame from the chest up, at eye level. Use a mic that plugs into your cellphone jack rather than just using the cell’s mic for a more cleaner, more clear sound in your tapes.

Is it really OK to shoot a self-tape on your phone? Absolutely. My clients have booked roles on major networks and streaming platforms from cellphone self-tapes. Plus, they allow you to easily upload the tape to your computer, edit it, then send off to reps.  

Memorization Tips + Tricks 
Yes, it’s important to be completely off-book. There’s nothing more disappointing than an actor who had 48 hours to turn in a self-tape that consisted of three lines and is staring down at the text their entire tape. Make the time; it makes a difference to those watching.  

If you have a matter of hours from the time you receive your call and the time it’s due, it may help to set up your sides on a stand in your eyeline, just off-camera. Use that as your spot for at least one of the other characters you’re interacting with in a scene and try to avoid going back to it unless needed 

READ: 10 Tips for a Winning Self-Tape Audition

Know your spots: Who are you talking to in the scene? Whether it’s one or multiple characters, be sure to place them properly off camera. 

Do your research! Who plays what, see if you recognize them or have a feel for the characters they play. Look up press announcements for the shows, see who’s directing, casting, etc. Know who you’ll be working with and who will be watching.

Sides + Character Development
Start with the basics: Who are you, where are you (physically and in life), and what’s your objective?

Raise the stakes and define any obstacles your character needs to overcome. Work your levels and vocal tones, being sure not to play the same emotion throughout an entire scene. Give depth by having a clear and concise idea of who you are.

Listen to what’s happening in the scene. Read the sides through as every other character and listen for something new that might help you with yours. The more detail you give to a character, the stronger choices you make in each moment. This is what helps CDs decide who to call in. 

Read the FYI sections! Don’t be the person who just memorizes and shoots but never reads the extra sheets that are attached—they’re there for a reason. The text marked FYI is crucial and directly specifies what is happening in your scene. Casting directors will be looking for that understanding and can tell if you did your homework or not.  

Film yourself and review your facial expressions. Sometimes an emotion we think we’re conveying isn’t clear until we see ourselves on camera. Remember, no matter how talented and prepared you are, if you don’t know how to properly make your hard work translate on a self-tape, it can work against you.

Read every line in your call email and attachments. I can’t tell you how easy it is for actors to miss crucial details. 

Finally: Relax, have fun, and be natural. If you have specific slate requirements, use that time to let them see who you are. Give it your all, even if you feel the part isn’t quite your cup of tea. I’ve had casting directors call in and book clients for other roles in the same pilot because they saw something in them. You never know what the outcome will be, but you can control how you present yourself. 

Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Theresa Fowler Pittius
Theresa Fowler Pittius is a New Jersey-based vocal and acting coach and mentor who specializes in audition/callback prep, self-tapes, college pre-screens, career counseling, and artist development in branding/marketing. Her students have been seen on Broadway/tours, film and television series on HBO, NBC, Netflix, FOX, Hulu, and more. She works with performers of all ages from coast-to-coast on a daily basis, in person, and via Skype/FaceTime.
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