A self-tape is an audition an actor films on their own time to submit to a casting director, either by uploading to a particular website or by sending the footage through an email or file transfer system. Self-tapes are now required to access roles in films, TV, streaming services, theatre and even musical theatre productions.
While live, face-to-face auditions are how auditions have been conducted for decades, modern technology now allows casting directors to filter applicants more quickly without having to see the actors in person in the first instance. A good self-tape may lead to a face-to-face audition, once the casting director has caught a glimpse of what they are looking for.
As such, self-taping is an important skill for the contemporary actor to master. Just as it saves a casting director time and money, it also saves you time and money – you don’t have to travel long distances to do an important audition, plus you have some control over the product you submit.
There are two aspects to work on in self-taping. One is what you put forward in the self-tape audition – presenting your acting skills and your suitability for the role at hand – and the other is the technical know-how required to put a tape together successfully. Here are a few important suggestions around both:
Read the instructions carefully
Make sure, before you begin creating your self-tape, that you understand what is required by the casting director. The casting notice will usually outline the character description and any other important details for the audition. This may include the format they want the tape in, as well as instructions about what they want you to shoot. It may be that they have provided specific lines for you to speak, or a monologue to learn, or they may want you to present your own piece. Be clear on what is required and don’t deviate from it. Similarly, if it's a musical theatre audition, you'll need to make sure that your song is age and gender appropriate and meets all the other requirements.
Make sure you introduce yourself at the beginning of your self-tape, stating your name and the character you’re going for in the production. This is called the slate. The slate should demonstrate that you are confident, and that your personality comes through. Once you’ve made your introduction, pause for a moment, and then go on to present your audition piece.
Where a casting director has provided lines for you to learn plus the lines of another actor in a scene (sides), rope in a friend to read the other character’s lines off-screen. The camera’s focus should be on you, as you’re the one auditioning. It’s enough just to hear the other lines.
If the casting director has not provided specific lines for you to learn, you may have some choice as to what you do in your self-tape. In this instance, the content of your self-tape audition can be either a monologue from an existing film or theatre piece, or it can be an improvised character. As an actor, you will usually have a selection of monologues you’re familiar with for audition purposes. For your self-tape, choose one which closely resembles the character role you’re going for.
But if you don’t have one, you can write or improvise yourself a piece. There are set characters in most genres: in a hospital drama, there’ll be doctors, patients, nurses, family members of loved ones. In a police drama, there’ll be constables, detectives, criminals, drug addicts, gang members, victims, and suspects. In a coming-of-age drama there’ll be teenagers, bullies, teachers, parents, love interests and quirky best friends. Genre is really familiar to all of us – so even if you have only a little information about the character you’re applying for, you can probably take an educated guess as to what they’re going to be like and their role in the story. For your self-tape audition, you may be able to improvise a one- to two-minute monologue for a character that’s matches the character you’re auditioning for, and submit that as your audition piece. Again, this is going to take some preparation, thought, and rehearsal before you shoot.
If you’re auditioning for a role in particular market, e.g. the US market, you will need to deliver your audition using a US accent. If it’s for an Aussie production, just use your natural accent.
Props and costumes
The clothing you wear in your self-tape should be appropriate to the character. Suggesting the character through clothing should be enough – you don’t need to go to a costume shop to hire something - but if, for instance, you are going for a role as a businessman, and you don't own a business shirt and tie - get down to your local Vinnies and find something that suits. It's a few dollars' investment to achieve an important outcome. The casting director needs to visualise you in the role. Likewise, if you're playing a woman who's a little older than your actual age, choosing clothes that make you look older may be just what you need to feel in character and convey your ability to do the part - source a blouse or jacket from your mum's closet! But remember, it's got to be just enough, and not too much, for a self-tape. In the same vein, props should be kept to an absolute minimum in a self-tape. If you don’t need a prop to tell your story, you don’t need one. General rule of thumb: avoid props.
Casting directors do not expect to see a high-quality production in your self-tape; they know you are likely filming on your phone or on a home-based video recorder. What they do need to see, however, is a well-lit shot. The director needs to see what you look like, clearly, and that you can act. Don’t stand in a room with the light coming in from a window behind you; choose a bright and airy space to shoot, especially if you don’t own any of your own lighting equipment. Poor lighting can make you look washed-out. Alternatively, if you have the cash, and it’s a really important audition for a big role, book into a local facility which has what you need – a film studio, or drama school like Perform Australia may have what’s needed. The quality must be watchable and the sound decent.
Choose a background that’s plain. You don’t want anything that will distract from your face.
Make sure your camera is on a tripod or mounted securely so it won’t move during filming – or get someone to hold it for you. Place the camera at your eyeline. You want to be in the centre of the shot. Generally speaking, you want to frame yourself somewhere between a close-up and a mid-shot. There is not usually any reason for a full-body (long) shot in a self-tape. You can stand or sit in your self-tape, depending on what is comfortable for you.
File size and naming
Chances are, after you’ve filmed your piece, it’s a huge file. You may need to compress it in order to send it away to the casting director. Find a video compressor online – there are some free versions – or perhaps your device has software in which you can save it to a smaller file size. And if the casting director has specified a format for naming your file, make sure you name it that way. You want that file to end up in its ultimate destination, and if it does not follow the prescribed naming convention, when it’s downloaded to a computer it may be hard for a casting director to find, if it’s not automatically lining up underneath all the others. Don’t make them search for your file.
How many takes?
You only need to send one – so whatever you do, don’t send an edited mash-up of all your takes. Send the best take you’ve got as your final self-tape. When you’re filming, don’t do so many that you don’t know which one to choose. Put 80% of your time into your preparation for the role (learning lines or song lyrics, researching your character, developing ideas for your self-tape), and 20% on your filming. Try not to overthink it. Perhaps invite a trusted friend to help choose your best take if you’re having trouble. How you see yourself and how someone else sees you can be quite a different story!
Good luck with your next self-tape audition.