The UK Actor’s Guide to Successful Self-Taping

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Photo Source: Joelle Avelino

Congratulations! You’ve been asked to audition for the role of your dreams, but they want to see your performance on tape. Time to panic, right? Wrong. Self-taping is now common practice and lets you be considered by casting directors thousands of miles away. Being seen by more people who might want to hire you—what’s not to like? Learning how to self-tape effectively is now an essential skill so it’s time to get to grips with it and give yourself the best possible chance of getting that job booked!   

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What is a self-tape?

A self-tape is an audition you perform remotely.

You record it, edit it, and then send it electronically to the casting director who requested it. They’ll give you the sides, instructions, and a deadline. It’s just up to you to provide the role winning performance. Easy!

Why should I self-tape?

Self-taping an audition is an opportunity to reach casting directors you wouldn’t normally get to see, and it saves everyone time and money.

No longer do you have to schlep on a bus, train, or plane, only to be told they’re looking for another physical type. Now you can record your audition as many times as you want until you get it right. Plus, if you suffer from nerves, you can have a cup of tea in your pyjamas while you get over them, and then wow them when you’re ready!

When you’re thinking about your self-tape, it’s easy to get sucked into the minutiae of filming, but try to stay focused. What’s the role? Is it for theatre, film, or TV? Remember, the most important part of any audition, whether it’s in-person or on tape, for film or theatre, is to provide truthful, engaging acting. Your performance will shine through, whatever the format. You’ve got this!  

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What kit do I need for self-taping auditions?

When it comes to self-taping, a DSLR that records video or a phone with a decent camera is great.

A DSLR will give you that professional blurry-looking background, otherwise known as a shallow depth of field—or the Focus setting on Instagram, which is not to be used for a self-tape (obviously). Most DSLRs have an external microphone output, which means the casting director will be able to clearly hear you be brilliant.

DSLRs cost around £350. Look for a brand you’ve heard of and check it records video in either MP4 or AVCHD format. MP4 is probably the most popular format and will also mean you don’t have to do any tricky computer converting once you’re ready to send your audition off. Also, ask other actors what they use, or if you can borrow their kit!

External mics are worth spending some money on as it’s so important to have clean sound for your self-tape. Ambient noise will distract even the most focused casting director. The most popular type of mic available for self-taping with a DSLR is the shotgun microphone, which can be placed on top of the camera. Rode makes good semi-pro mics, like the Rode VideoMic GO that are easy to use and produce great results if used well.

Alternatively, you can shoot your tape on a phone, but be aware of its restrictions: many aren’t built for a professional job like self-taping. Loads of actors do use their phones, and you can boost its capabilities with a few external gizmos like an external lens, rig (if your lens and rig aren’t a two-in-one device), tripod, lights, and—crucially—an external mic.

Of course, if you do decide to stick to your phone then remember to shoot in landscape (lengthways), not in portrait (vertical—and the way most of us hold our phones).

It’s best not to use a laptop to film. It doesn’t do the job, you can’t buy accessories, and sitting in your kitchen filming with programmes such as Photo Booth is not going to give you a competitive edge when compared to what other people are using.

One general tip: You can spend thousands on kit in an attempt to improve your chances of getting a role, but there’s no substitute for a great performance. Ask your fellow actors what kit they use, maybe share the costs on equipment, and have a Google/Amazon search about what’s easy and effective to use, but don’t overthink it too much.

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Where should I film my self-taped audition?

You should film your self-tape by finding a space you’re happy with, and asking yourself if it’s quiet enough.

Will it add anything to the performance? What are the room’s acoustic properties? Are you going to sound like Brian Blessed in the bath? If the room is echoey, consider changing rooms altogether. Alternatively, move in some soft furnishings or tape sheets to the walls; either will help absorb the sound.

Also, take a moment to stand and actually listen. If you can hear a high-pitched whine, so will the casting director. Switch off any air conditioning or electronics, close any windows and politely ask other people to “PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SHUT UP!”

What background should I use when self-taping?

Avoid busy backgrounds. You need the casting director to be looking at you, not the patterns behind you.

One plain colour is best, but stay away from bright, hard colours that can make you look ill. Most self-tapers end up with a neutral or plain grey background. You can buy posh photographic backings, but a flat sheet can work just as well if lit right. Play with lighting; if it looks good in the viewfinder, it’ll look good on tape.  

What should I wear for a self-taped audition?

Think of a self-tape just like any other audition and dress accordingly.

Look and feel your best. Avoid patterns or colours that match your carefully picked background so closely that you blend in. Think about your character and what might help you inhabit the role. If the casting director can imagine you as the character then that can only help. Also, reread their instructions: They might have asked for a specific look and if so, you should go for it!    

How should I position the camera when self-taping?

The camera should be positioned at your eye level and you shouldn’t be sat too close to the lens.

If you’re spending money on a DSLR you may as well also buy a decent tripod. It prevents the camera from shaking and makes your shot look professional. Position the camera too high or too low and it won’t be flattering. Experiment with what looks good and trust your instinct. Sound-wise, make sure the microphone is relatively close to you and do a test to make sure you can be heard clearly.

PRO TIP NO. 1: Don’t sit in front of the window. You’ll be over-exposed and appear as a silhouette to the casting director, which is not how you’ll bag the job! If anything, sit facing the window. Remember: Natural lighting is your friend! However, the weather in the UK is anything but predictable so you might decide that artificial lighting is a better, more reliable bet.

PRO TIP NO. 2: You’re aiming for a medium close up, or MCU, which means framing from your shoulders to the top of your head. You want to fill the frame, but don’t sit too close to the camera or you’ll look weird. Your eye-line should be close to the camera, and unless you’ve been asked to do otherwise, it’s probably best not to look directly down the lens.

PRO TIP NO. 3: It’s usually best not to move around too much when you’re self-taping. Stillness works: The camera is looking at your face and you don’t want the focus to move to your flailing arm movements. If you need to, put a piece of tape on the floor as a mark to keep you centred. Lock off the camera shot and work your magic.

PRO TIP NO. 4: The casting director wants to see your face and enjoy your performance. All this talk about lighting, DSLRs, and depth of field may awaken your inner Scorsese, but remember why you’re doing all this in the first place. Make sure your performance is front and central, and if you’re comfortable with it, get someone else to help you out with filming.

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What lighting should I use when self-taping?

The best all-round lighting for self-tapes is soft lighting.

Filming outside is probably a no-no: British weather is changeable and you’ve probably noticed that it can be pretty noisy out there. That means taping inside with some kind of lighting set up. It’s not an accident that actors spend a lot of time worrying about their lighting. It’s important and you should take the time to make it work to your advantage.

So, first things first: hard lights and soft lights. Hard lights are small lights and can create dramatic shadows if that’s what you’re looking for. Soft lights are much bigger and give out even, often flattering light. It’s likely that for a self-tape, especially where all the wonder of your face is on show, you’ll want soft lighting. Search for softbox lighting; you can get a pair for around £70, but if you’re not keen on investing in studio lights you could try using a light with a lampshade. Just make sure you’re not being bathed in a green light!

Then it’s time to think about the positioning of the lights. Play around with this and see what works, but bear in mind that putting your lights too high or too low could create shadows you might not regard as flattering. The lighting you use should never overpower you, make you look washed-out, or be so dim that it creates shadows on your face. Use two light sources: a key light (from the front) and a fill light (from the side). Test them out and see what looks good.

What else do I need to self-tape an audition?

You need a good friend to give you a helping hand.

You’ll need them to film and to act as a reader for the other people in the scene. Unlike an in-person audition where you get the IT man to be your scene partner, in a self-tape you can get an actor-friend to stand in and help you out. This is a great advantage and can really help your performance. When you’re both at the BAFTAs in later years you can look back and laugh at your self-tape self-help group!

Also, keep the sides with you. You’ll probably have remembered most of the scene but it’s always good to have them near in case your mind goes blank. It also subtly reminds casting directors that this isn’t the finished product and you can change if necessary!  

What should I do before I press record on my self-tape?

Read all the instructions you’ve been sent by the casting director before you press record, and make sure you’re sticking to them.

Take a moment to remember why you’re doing this: to show them your best performance and get the role. Rehearse what you’re going to do and try to forget the techie stuff you’ve been doing up to this point.

If you’ve got someone to read the other person’s lines, position them behind the camera and to the side. If they’re an actor maybe give them a gentle reminder that this is your audition tape, not theirs, so not to over-do it!

Our main top tip at this point is to enjoy it. The great thing about self-taping is that you can keep on going until you’re happy with a take. Do it a few times, watch it back and do it again if necessary – the casting director will never know you’re not a one-take wonder!  

What’s the best way to edit my audition?

The best way to edit a self-tape audition is to use iMovie.

It’s easy, cheap, and user friendly. You can cut scenes, add text, photos, music, and transitions all with iMovie, which is a free app you can download on your phone or computer. Don’t make things more complicated than they have to be!

Any other self-taping tips?

Always follow the casting director’s instructions.

Check them repeatedly and double check everything before pressing send on your computer. Send a nice brief email, but let your acting do your talking for you and don’t be tempted to follow up with a hard copy of your audition. No one wants to plug a USB from a stranger into their computer.

In the end it’s your talent rather than the quality of your self-taping that will win you the role, but give yourself the best chance by creating professional audition tapes. Good luck!

For more on self-taping in the US, check out the Backstage Guide to a Perfect Self-Tape.  

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s London audition listings!