As a coach for the StageMilk Scene Club, every month I watch a lot of self-tapes. Probably somewhere in the region of 50 tapes a month, and it is incredibly frustrating to watch actors sabotage their work by making technical mistakes in their self-tape that could be easily avoided! In a perfect world, self-tapes are easy. We should be able to see and hear you and your scene partner, and we do not want to be distracted by anything! Be that props, noises, costuming or background. So, to save you all the pain, and hopefully to improve the overall quality of self-tapes submitted round the globe – here is a list of the top mistakes actors make when shooting self-tapes!
Common Self-Tape Mistakes
#1 It’s shot in portrait mode
Newsflash folks: A self-tape is not a selfie. Please, for the love of everything that is holy, make sure your phone is in landscape mode, not portrait. The reason is when they shoot the movie, they will be shooting it in landscape. Any film done in portrait mode is an Instagram story, not a self-tape. Casting Directors will put your tape straight in the bin if you are unable to do this. Please ensure your phone is in landscape not portrait!
#selfiesarentselftapes #saynotoprofile #nolandscapenolove
#2 Sound is too quiet/too loud
One of the most challenging and important elements of self-taping is getting good audio. We need to hear what you say. If you cannot be heard, or if we can only hear your reader and not you, or if you sound like you’re underwater – casting is going to throw your tape in the bin. Or if not they are just not going to enjoy your tape to the fullest! You don’t want to give them any reason not to enjoy your tape! So ensure when you are editing it, that the audio levels are bouncing between -3 and -6. If this all sounds like mumbo jumbo – do some research and become familiar with audio techniques and best practices.
#3 Background Noise
Okay again, we’re trying to limit distractions here. Make sure you pick a quiet place to shoot your scene or monologue in. If you are next to a highway, or underneath a flight path, or above a rock concert – we are really going to struggle to care about Ophelia – and be far more interested in why there are so many drunks singing ‘Living on Prayer’ nearby! It needs to be as quiet as possible so find somewhere, or shoot at a time of day when it is quiet around you!
#4 Lighting is too bright/too dark
We need to see you. I mean this is an obvious one right? If it’s an audition – we have got to see your face. Natural light is perfect! Make sure you are not in silhouette, but have the nice morning sun pouring through onto you, in front of a blank wall! If your using artificial lighting, make sure it is coming from next to the camera, not from above (scary eyes) or below (ghost story style).
Also check your white balance. White balance gives your camera a point of reference for all other colours, if your white balance is incorrect your skin might be a strange colour, like pale and green or too orange! Check the temperature of your lights and then check the white balance settings on your camera. If you are shooting on a smartphone or tablet it should have an automatic white balance, just make sure you are the focus of that! Pixel Village has an in depth video here for our DSLR shooters:
If you are on a smartphone or tablet, just do a test shoot and check that it looks right, and then go and mess with a few settings in there until it does! Nice natural lighting from a window is great! As long as you are lit, in focus and doing great work – we’re happy. If you are in the dark, in profile… you might as well be playing video games.
#5 Bad Backdrop
Again. Nothing distracting!! We want a plain, uncluttered background, ideally a plain blue or a grey. Think of this like your Zoom meetings, where someone logs in and they are clearly in bed surrounded by take away food. All you can think about during this meeting is: ‘Why so many samosas? Did they eat all that pizza themselves?” What you are not focussing on is what they have to say in that meeting! Self-tapes are exactly the same! Do not give the viewer of the video anything to be distracted by! Make sure you are the centre of attention and take our entire focus. Not your takeaway boxes in the background!
Also remember that you are not making the movie! You are filming an audition! It’s different! We don’t need to see a green screened background of 19th century London, we need to focus on your acting! Get a nice, plain, background and do great work!
#6 Poor Framing
Another one that goes wrong all the time! The camera needs to be set up with the lens at the same level as your eyes. Not above shooting down so we see the top of your head, and not below shooting up so we see the insides of your nostril, like my Dad on FaceTime. The best framing is to have a gap between your head and the top of the frame, cutting off around your mid bicep at the bottom of the frame. Check me out below:
See how the camera is set up so my eyes are the key thing in the frame? I am well lit and there is nothing distracting in the background. [I will put this tape at the bottom of this video for your viewing pleasure as a guideline of what to do!]
#7 Going overboard on Costume
Oh boy is this a hazard. Please do not jump the shark! Let’s say you had an audition as a scuba diver, don’t turn up in this:
All casting is going to be thinking about when you send this tape in, is if you are in your budgie smugglers too! Please just give them a hint of character instead. Would a tight fitting black t-shirt do the exact same thing, without distracting the casting team? Completely. Give them a hint of character without visiting the costume shop. Remember that if you book the job there is an entire department of people who will put you in the right costume! You just need to give a hint, a vibe, an indication of costume – you do not need to present an exact replica!
#8 Distracting or Dangerous Props
Too often I see self-tapes where actors are pulling knives out of their sleeves, guns out of their jacket pockets or using a plush toy in place of a baby! Not only is it dangerous to use weapons as props, it’s also incredibly distracting. A casting director is going to be completely distracted by the fact that you’re pointing a gun down the barrel of the camera, and won’t be paying any attention to your acting. Yes, you’ll be remembered – but not for the right reasons.
Unless the script specifically – and I mean specifically states that you must be handling a certain prop – please avoid using props as much as possible. If it’s something simple, like a pen and paper, or a watch, or a bag and it’s an essential part of the action, you may use those props. But if you’re just trying to be creative, and adding in random props to make the scene more “interesting” – there’s absolutely no need. And if anything, that will signal to a casting director that you are not confident in your acting choices.
HOWEVER: miming can also be a trap! There is nothing worse than watching an actor trying to mime her way through a 5 minute scene. Use your better judgement, or ask a few friends for their opinion. Sometimes you’ll get self-tapes with a tonne of action and miming a punch up and a kiss and a car chase can be a huge challenge. Be creative, get your problem-solving hat on and come up with a solution that will make it real for you, but not distract the casting director. You can also always ask your agent for their advice (if you have one) or a mentor, someone in the industry whom you trust.
#9 Moving Camera
Try to remember that your self-tape is not The Blair Witch Project. There is no reason for you to be handling the camera. You need to make sure it is completely still while you are filming. What if the casting team has motion sickness! Your tape could literally make them ill! The easiest solution here is buying a tripod and securing your camera to it during your take. This will also enable you to get the camera to the correct height, level with your eyes and it won’t be moving around during the take. Remember, this is a self-tape audition NOT the actual movie. Leave the cool camera moves to the filmmakers and just put down a great audition!
#10 Weird Edits
Self tapes are 1 take only! You cannot edit multiple takes together, this shows your skills as an editor not an actor. 1 take, all the way through, with great acting. If this means you need to do 10 takes to get it right, then so be it! This is the nature of the game, there’s no editing in auditions, and the same goes for self-tapes.
I’ve also seen some self-tapes where the actor has not trimmed the video – so it begins with them pressing record, and walking into frame, clearing their throat, fixing their belt, and THEN starting the scene. We do not want to see any BTS please! Trim the beginning and the end of your self-tape so it is JUST the scene from beginning to end and nothing else.
#11 Bad Acting
Now this is the big one to avoid. You need to be great if you’re going to book that role! Being a great actor takes two things, training and experience. If you are just starting out you need training. The best option for this is a three year, full time course at a reputable university or drama school. If you search drama schools and your country in StageMilk we have lists for all major markets! If you are unable or unwilling to go to drama school, then short courses or online training is a great place to start! In our online scene club we offer personalised feedback, play libraries, thousands of scenes and monologues to choose from and the most engaged, helpful online community going around! Don’t be a bad actor – be a StageMilker instead!
There we have it ladies and gentlemen, hopefully you found this article useful! These are the big things that stop casting agents, directors and producers from enjoying your work and casting you in their next production! Get on top of these and you’ll be taking the world by storm in no time! For now, go clean up those pizza boxes and grab yourself a microphone! It’s time to get self-taping!