Casting director panel

As shortcuts of modern technology become increasingly prevalent in the entertainment industry, SAG-AFTRA members need to adapt to a growing demand for self-tape auditions, which has left many frustrated and concerned. To help demystify the process, four L.A.-based casting directors shared their expertise on an information-packed panel all about self-taped auditions. During the event, organized by the L.A. Local and held at SAG-AFTRA Plaza on July 31, attendees were able to submit questions and panelists discussed their processes for reviewing tapes, what they look for and notice, and tips to help members nail their next self-taped audition.

Casting director and panel moderator Jenny Jue began the discussion by explaining that the emergence of streaming services has led to an eruption of new programming, which has resulted in many more opportunities for actors, but also less time for CDs to review auditions, hence the need for the self-tape format. By utilizing self-taped auditions, CDs are able to see more candidates than ever before, and panelists reassured attendees that every audition received by the deadline is given a fair viewing. In fact, several panelists stated that they keep and catalogue unused auditions to pull for future roles.

The most important take-away was that there are a thousand reasons why an actor may not receive a role and the overwhelming majority have nothing to do with the actor or their ability. Having said that, actors should know that casting directors feel pressure from producers and directors to fill the roles quickly and leave no stone — or audition — unturned. For this reason, self-taping accounts for roughly 85% of all auditions, and that percentage is only going to increase. So, actors should do their best to get comfortable with the format.

Still, the larger issue remains: For many SAG-AFTRA members, self-taping distracts from their principle task of delivering their best performance. Until now, a performer’s sole responsibility was getting to the audition and nailing it. Now, they are forced to also look for a reader and make technical and directorial decisions. 

Throughout the evening, the panel discussed a variety of topics, including technical direction, costume and props, slates and reels, readers, and the pet peeves of casting directors. In order to get actors back on track and focusing on their lines rather than camera angles, the panel delivered crucial insider knowledge on what casting directors want performers to know. Here’s a concise list of tips discussed.

Tips for Self-Taping & Insider Knowledge (From Casting Directors Themselves!)

Technical: Filming and Directing

Background: First, the background should never be the same color as your clothes! Otherwise, you may blend in. In addition, keep in mind that objects in the background, such as cords, fridges, animals, etc., can be distracting to the viewer, so clean backgrounds are the best. Panelists recommended looking at products such as collapsible backgrounds that can be purchased online for about $55 and can be used for every audition.

Lighting: You do not need expensive professional lighting. Remember, CDs do not see how the audition video is made, only the result. Products like selfie ring lights plug directly into your smart phone or camera, create professional-style lighting and run for around $35, with a tripod stand and cell phone holder included. Have a light but no tripod? Dig up those college textbooks; we have found a new use for them! Top your stack of books with a mug and you have just made your own tripod and cellphone dock!

Lines: While you need to follow a script, CDs do not mind if you drop a line to make the dialogue more organic to you and your performance. Pay attention to ellipses, punctuation, etc.; making sure you know how the lines are meant to be read is your responsibility. If you are confused by the tone or inflection, ask your agent for assistance. Finally, confidence in your mastery of the role adds to the vibe of any scene and, to have it, memorization and preparation are essential. Remember that one benefit of self-taping is that you have the room and time to make your audition perfect.

Eye Line: Your eye line should be as close to the camera as possible. If possible, your reader should be at camera level, so you can create the to-camera eye line easily and naturally. Also, please look at the camera and do not film in profile. Again, CDs want to see your performance, not your directorial debut. No matter what you do, do not keep looking down!

Scene Labels: Scene labels are only necessary if you are submitting several takes; however, few CDs want multiple takes unless it is for a short scene. 

Sound: This includes two categories: the sound you make in the performance and the background sounds in your video. For your performance, be sure to speak clearly and project to ensure you are heard. However, please never scream, unless directed to do. As for background noise, it can be distracting and you should try to have as little of it as possible. In the case there is construction happening right when you need to shoot your audition and you cannot change locations, use editing software such as iMovie to remove or lower the noise.

Video Quality: Poor video quality is definitely a distraction. But there will be times, especially when you are somewhere with poor reception, that the only video you can send is one of poor quality. If that is all you can do, do it. Again, do not get too distracted by the technical side; in the end, all the CDs need are your eyes, intention and passion. One panelist mentioned filling a major role for Assassins Creed based on an audition tape taken in a hailstorm on a Native American reservation with little to no reception. It happens.

Slates & Reels

Tips: Your slate should feel inviting and fit the mood of the scene. Remember, it is not a one-slate-fits-all kind of business, so a slate for a wartime drama should be different from the slate for a preppy retail commercial. The tricky part is how to exhibit your personal style and just be yourself in your slate. This does not mean you need to act over the top; better to act naturally, as when you speak to someone familiar.

On the technical side, your slate should show your full body, a profile and a close-up. The close-up should be from the chest up unless you are showing movement, in which case the close-up should be from the waist up. Any additional directions will be given along with the request for the audition, so read them carefully. If the directions confuse you, ask your agent to ask the CD for clarification rather than reaching out yourself.

As for your reels, it is very important to keep them updated, and you should have separate ones for comedy and drama.

What the CDs Say: Actors should know that some casting directors edit out the slate for different reasons. Some simply do not use them in their process, while others may delete them if they do not fit the mood of a scene. A great way to prepare for either type of CD is to send your slate and audition in as separate digital files, which grants the casting agency to use the slate or not without having to edit it out themselves.

For the most part, reels should not be sent in place of an audition but, if you would like, you can send a single reel as an independent digital file in addition to your slate and audition.

Costumes & Props

Tips: If you choose to utilize a costume, you want it to enhance the performance, not distract from it, and it may be better to not wear one at all. In practical application, this means you should wear normal clothing and utilize different styles, colors and shades, depending on the project. For example, if you were auditioning for a role as a police officer, a darker blue or grey sweater with slacks would be perfect for creating a “cop-like” tone.

Regarding props, unless you are doing stunts, your best bet is to not use them or pantomime them. They distract more then they help. However, if the character is on the phone, it makes sense to use your phone, but make sure the phone (and light) is off.

What the CDs Say: Do not wear a full costume and, especially, do not feel that you need to go out and buy one. You should never spend much money, if any, on hair, makeup or a costume for an audition. A full costume can sometimes come across as desperate and be a distraction. Similarly, props (real or pantomimed) can also be a distraction. Remember, what CDs are looking for is your performance.

Readers

Tips: Readers can be found in class, at SAG-AFTRA events and in film collectives. Network with other likeminded performers to find professional readers, otherwise use non-performers such as family members.

What the CDs Say: If you do not have a professional actor friend, it is not the end of the world. If your reader sounds stiff it’s fine, it just should not be distracting. Again, what CDs are looking for is your performance, your voice.

The CDs Final Checklist for You

1. Watch/review your final video before submitting it.

2. Get your auditions in as soon as possible. All auditions will be watched, but those sent in sooner leave more time for CDs to send feedback and even requests for an updated audition.

3. Remember that casting directors are on your side and want you to get the role. A win for you is a win for them.

Photo: SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Local Executive Director Ilyanne Morden Kichaven, left, with casting directors Krista Husar (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Tracy “Twinkie” Bird (Fruitvale Station), Caroline Liem (Jimmy Kimmel: Live) and Jenny Jue (Inglourious Basterds) prior to the self-tape panel at SAG-AFTRA Plaza on July 31.

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