An Actor's Guide to Student Films | StageMilk
student film guide

An Actor’s Guide to Student Films

Written by on | Acting Tips

To be a successful actor you need three things; training, experience and luck. The very best place to get some experience when you are first starting out is in student films. Student films present an actor with a fantastic opportunity to meet some young up and coming filmmakers and to practice your craft alongside other enthusiastic and talented people, all trying to achieve the same goal of making something great that everyone can use as a calling card for future work. The downside is, as they are students learning their craft these shoots can be a little challenging – for a number of reasons. Also, there is a finite point where doing student films ceases to be useful for an actors career. As a wise man once said: ‘You gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to stop doing student films in order to do bigger professional work.’ Or something to that effect…

Without further ado, let’s get into it! 

Where to Find Student Films

So from that brief introduction, you have decided that maybe this whole student film caper is for you. You have been to a few classes, got yourself a headshot and maybe even a little reel of self-tapes and you’re feeling ready to get on set. No? Oh man then let’s backtrack a second and say – even if you are applying for student films you are still going to need an actors toolkit – headshot, showreel and CV. Check the links for great information on how to make all of that happen! 

Back on track, if you are feeling ready to get on set, then you need to know where to find student film auditions. The first good place to look is in Facebook groups. If you search the name of your local town and ‘auditions’ or your town and ‘actor’ you will be amazed about how many pages pop up, filled with local students who need actors for their projects. Same goes for searching for your local film school noticeboard or your local film school. Sign up for all of those pages and as the audition notices roll in find ones that suit you and follow the instructions given. 

Outside of Facebook groups, there are some great casting websites to join. Mandy in the UK, StarNow in Australia and Backstage in Canada and the USA. Other pages like Actors Access and Casting Networks have notice boards which can be really useful as well. Also, don’t be afraid to Google around and see what you can find in your local area. You will be amazed. Pretty much everywhere there are humans, someone will have a camera and a story to tell. You will just need to get your toolkit together and put yourself out there!

Note: please check the red flags section of our StarNow article to read up on some common red flags when it comes to these sorts of advertisements. Not everyone out there has the best intentions, and we want to make sure that you guys don’t get taken advantage of. So before applying to any and every job, check out that guide. 

How to Audition for Student Films

Now you have some idea where to find audition postings for student films – how do you go about auditioning? The process is this: find an ad on one of the pages above and read the casting brief. There should be some description of the film, the roles available, when they are shooting and when the auditions are required for. It is really important you read the brief – I can’t emphasise this enough – very thoroughly. Please don’t be that guy who applies for a role 30 years outside their age range. It makes you look like you have no idea what you are doing. Also, check the brief for the common red flags; poor spelling and grammar, sounds dodgy, unrealistic expectations, no compensation (not even food!) or a past history of terrible or problematic productions. That last one may be difficult to find, but have a Google of the people involved and just check you’re not about to work with a serial killer or something!

Find a role that is right for you and either apply through the website or email the production team directly. Just be careful about throwing your email out to people you don’t know – but if it looks good, go for it! They should get in touch with you and solidify a time for your audition, send you the full script of the production and some sides to learn for your audition. Then it is time to get to work!

We have so many articles on how to audition, and we run an entire Scene Club trying to prepare people for it! Which you should totally check out by the way considering how far you are through this article. But if you are looking for advice on how to audition for film and tv check out our in-depth articles on it here, here and here

The big one though – please, please, please, please, PLEASE learn your lines. Yes, you need to know them. Yes off by heart. No – you can’t read them off the page, even if the production company says you can – don’t believe them, it’s a trap. Learn your lines people. Check out our video below on how to learn lines fast!

Do the audition. Book that job and get yourself on set! 

Onset Etiquette 

Okay, now we are really cooking! You have yourself an acting job and a shoot date coming up! If you are extremely lucky, you might even get some rehearsals in before the shoot day itself (if so, grab yourself a lottery ticket pal! That action is rarer than hen’s teeth!) So with all of that in mind, let’s just go over how to behave on set.

  1. Be prepared please don’t be that guy that turns up and doesn’t know their lines. This is absolutely basic stuff and utterly necessary. Know your lines inside and out. Be able to do them backwards, forwards and sideways. Have some clear choices made inside your mind or a notebook for how you see each scene going, and be prepared to completely throw all of your ideas out the window and do it the way the director sees it. You can only have this flexibility if you know them inside and out. 
  2. Be on time at the latest the crew have been there for at least two hours before your call time. Again don’t be that guy that keeps everyone waiting! Be on time, if not early and come prepared to work
  3. Be aware of hierarchy this is very important. The 1st AD runs the set, the 2nd AD will be your first point of contact. The only person to give you notes should be the director. If anyone else is giving you notes, you have yourself a problem. For an in-depth look at the roles on set check out this article.
  4. Be professional regardless of how everyone else is behaving!

acting in student films

The Problems of Student films

The question of professionalism segues nicely into the common issues of student films. These detractions can be very challenging to manage, and won’t necessarily occur on all student films but they are extremely common. All of these are from my personal experience as an actor or close friends of mine. 

  1. Professionalism: The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘the skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well’ Now as these are students, they are therefore learning that skill, good judgement and polite behaviour, they are getting trained to do the job well.  I have been on student sets with a lot of, for lack of a better term – stuffing around. Big delays, crew not knowing how to do their jobs, and mistakes being made on the day that is very frustrating to deal with. In the face of all of that, it is vital that you are the change you want to see in the world. Be that that professional presence in the company of amateurs.
  2. Lacklustre production: There is a lot of confusion about exactly what it is that a producer does. Everyone knows they’re powerful, but a lot of people don’t know why. Producers make a film happen. They get the crew together, organise the locations, assist the director in casting, ensure everyone is contracted correctly. They also ensure that everyone knows where they are supposed to be and when. Herein lies the problem for student films – junior producers not giving the right information, not being organised, or giving misleading information to cast and crew. Even worse producers who think they are directors and come and give actors notes on their performance. This is the hands-down worst. 
  3. Inexperienced Directors: Once I was on a student set, for a highly regarded film school, where the director was so distracted by the beauty of the location that I ended up running the set – from in front of the camera. At one stage I had a knife to my throat (a real one) a synthetic neckpiece and a blood squib all attached and I was calling out ‘Roll sound, Roll camera, Director we are ready for you!’ Wild. Now that’s an extreme example I know but it goes to show what you can be up against as an actor working with an inexperienced director. I will go into more detail below about how to manage this further on in this article.
  4. Travel: Oh man. This can be a real doozy. So quite often, to avoid paying for locations and with minuscule budgets to play with, student films are quite often, shot in the middle of nowhere. Make sure you check in with production and see if you can get a lift in with the crew or get reimbursed for any travel expenses. Especially if you are travelling over an hour to get to set each day!
  5. Food: Another classic stitch-up. And this falls back to lacklustre production – but essentially, even if they say they’re going to feed you… bring food anyway. I have been assured of catering and then been presented with two packs of Doritos and a couple of apples. In my kit, when I go to set, be it professional, amateur or independent, I always bring snacks, a phone charger and a book. Assume you’re going to be waiting around for ages, then be rushed to set and expected to work straight away!
  6. Money: It is extremely, monumentally unlikely that you will get paid for this gig. So its really important that you are interested in the story, the character and that is it is relatively convenient for you to do it! My guidelines are, not more than an hour travel, catering provided and a guarantee that I will get some footage I can use in my reel. If you get a contract for this job then make sure you run it past someone who knows what they are looking at, an agent, a lawyer or a union representative are all good options.
  7. Never pay to play. EVER: You. Should. Never. Pay. A. Dime. To. Be. In. A. Movie. Period. No fees. No out of pocket expenses. De nada. If anyone is going to make you pay to be in their movie – run. 

As you can see there are a bunch of things that can come up that can be problematic about student films, even with all of these caveats they are still a really great thing to do! The connections you make, the experience you get on screen is worth all of the above hassle. Especially the networking. If you are lucky enough to get on a set with people who go on to do a lot of work, the best possible thing for your career is to kick ass in this production!

How to Nail your Performance

Acting is 90% preparation and 10% perspiration. There is no substitute for hard work, so you can never work hard enough on a text. The biggest trick in the world is this: knowing your lines so well they feel like part of your own history and memory, but having the flexibility to make different and interesting choices as a response to the people around you and the location that you are working in. Having a deep context and backstory but allowing yourself to be authentically flexible and open to stimulus from the other actors and the director. 

Now when it comes to how to prepare and how to act on camera we have a bunch of great articles to check out. There are literally hundreds of thousands of ways to prepare for a role or to find the truth of a scene. The most important thing is you do the work! You might be working with amateur filmmakers, but this doesn’t mean you should prepare any less.

Additional Resources: 

Acting Methods
How to Prepare for a Role

How to Develop your Acting Skills
How to Act for Film
How to Stop Feeling Like You’re ‘Acting’

The best way to get in the habit of nailing your performance on camera? Practice. Whether your a Chubbuck stan or a full Method sort of fellow, what matters is that your acting skills are primed and ready to roll. You have a process that works for you, that allows you to be genuine, honest and authentic on camera. If you’d like the opportunity to practice in your own time with great support and a wonderful community – all from the comfort of your own home, check out the StageMilk Scene Club

How to Deal with Bad Directors

Now, this could almost be an article in its self. In fact, we have a pretty comprehensive list of the common mistakes of Directors here. But in this section, I am more going to focus on what you the actor can do to take the words of a bad director and turn them into gold.

  1. Focus on actions: Often, inexperienced directors will give you a direction that is based in a physical outcome. I once had a director on a shoot say to me ‘Can you look like this? Like… do this face!’ He then pulled a very confused weird face at me. I had no idea what in the living hell this guy was talking about. He ended up pulling out my audition tape on a laptop and saying ‘Can you just do this?!’ In watching my tape back, I saw I was fascinated, perturbed, interested, unwell and then resigned. When receiving a note from a director that is purely grounded in a physical outcome – sad, confused, cry, pull this face – ask yourself what you are trying to do to the other person at that moment? What do you want from them? For me at that moment, I needed to understand what was happening, which would lead me through all of the emotions above, and produce the face the director was after. 
  2. Don’t take it personally: Directors are at the tip of the spear, every department is answering to them, more often than not they are running behind time and having to make compromises to their vision, nearly every moment of every day of the pre-production, shoot and in post. This in turn means they can be easily frustrated by… well… you. For not being able to bring the exact image they had of this project in their mind, into reality. Which rolls back to your preparation. Being outrageously over prepared is the best possible thing you can do to ensure you have options to work with on the shoot day. And even if the director does have a hissy fit, don’t take it personally. Listen to what they want, do it to the best of your ability and don’t linger on any outbursts or frustrations that may or may not occur.
  3. Do the work: I know I am repeating myself here, but it really can’t be undersold. I worked on a theatre production once, where the lead actor turned up to the table read, completely off-book. They’re onstage in that show for 80 consecutive pages. The director (who was one tough cookie) had respect for them the entire time – clearly, they had done the work. I had to leave for a wedding and come back to rehearsals one week and found myself at the other end of a few sprays from the director because I had not put in the same amount of effort. Learn from my mistakes people, be the person that turns up off book, with offers and if the entire thing collapses around you, you can remain the pillar of integrity in your craft!

Student films for actors

Where to Find the Final Product

So okay, you get on set and you do a great job. You collaborate with the other actors, the director is happy and you wrap shooting on the final day and get a nice clap off into the sunset. Now what? Well, assume it is going to take the best part of a year before you see anything. Yes, you read that right – post-production on more or less every project takes the best part of 12 months to complete. Some student films may be done faster than this to reach a deadline, but for final year projects, it is going to be around 12 months. Why do you ask? Well listen, editing takes a long time to get right. Then you have the sound design, sound mix, ADR (after dramatic read through where they might get you into a sound studio to re-record some lines) then finally the colour grade. Colour grading is a very difficult job and only a few places and or people do it and can do it to a high standard. In Australia, there are a handful of colour grading institutions nationally and they all have a massive backlog. 

The best practice is to stay in contact with the producers and the director. After about 6 months, if you haven’t heard anything, keep hassling them over email every couple of months to see what has happened to your footage. You need that footage for your reel, so keep on them about it!

So many times, I have been left in the lurch and never seen a frame of a film that I have worked on. It can happen sometimes that due to technical or creative problems, a film never leaves the editing studio. If that happens there is not a lot you can do, however, keep on their case and get a copy of that movie for your showreel! 

Usually, it will end up on Vimeo, but if they are going to premiere at any festivals and you have the opportunity to go, follow up with the producers and get them to book you a ticket! Get along to a red carpet and network! We have a great article on networking here

How Many Student Films Should I Do?

This is a fantastic question. See there is an upper limit here, and in a way, it is quite similar to extras work. Doing a couple is fine, doing quite a few is okay, doing a lot means that is what you do. I would set the limit at 10 – maximum. Once you have ten student films under your belt, you really are not going to gain much more from doing any more. Unless it is for friends or is for a script you absolutely adore, the cost-benefit analysis kind of taps out. The end result of that can be that industry professionals look at your IMDB credit list and go ‘Oh they have 45 credits, that are all student films – they’re not a pro’ and it is game over before you have even started. 

However, if you get a couple under your belt, buff out those credits, get some great footage that you can use in your reel, to get a professional agent who can see you have talent, who uses that footage to get your work in front of a casting director, who has a similar role to cast then bingo bango – we’re in the game! 

So yes, do that student film! But once you are hitting double figures, if you want to be a professional actor, it is time to step it up into professional, paid, independent and commercial work!

Conclusion

There it is ladies and gentlemen the decisive, conclusive, step by step process to smashing that student film! Hopefully, this gave you some guidance and ideas on how to go about making the student film your absolute bread and butter. Remember if you’d like to get in the habit of practising your acting skills and building up to student films and beyond, join our Scene Club by clicking the link below!

About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

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