Acting Self Tape Setup : Getting Started

Woman sitting in front of her self-tape lighting setup

Setting the scene: you’re fresh out of acting school and eager to test your skills at self-tape auditions. You start by getting your new headshots and your resume, including a few student films and plays from school. Sign up on Actors Access and LA Casting to apply for roles.

The first audition that pops up is a nice co-star role for a popular TV drama. You’re thrilled! The casting notice states that actors should self-tape their auditions. “No problem!” you think. You’ve made self-tapes in school.

Choose your scene, memorize the lines, do some preparation work – you’re ready. On audition day, prop up your phone camera, make sure you’re framed in the shot, set your scene on the music stand, and hit record. You think you did great! Until…you watch it back. Yikes.

The lighting is awful, casting shadows on your face. The video quality is grainy and pixelated. The audio peaks and pops. Your framing is off, cutting off parts of your body and scene. Worst of all, you realize you haven’t fully memorized your lines. You stumble multiple times trying to read the script while acting. It’s one of the worst auditions you’ve ever seen.

You’re mortified thinking the casting director will see this mess. You realize you need to learn proper self-tape setup techniques before submitting again and don’t want to embarrass yourself by looking unprofessional. But you are unsure where to turn to find the solutions.

Unfortunately this story is all too common for budding new actors. If this sounds familiar don’t despair, in this article I have provided all the pointers you’ll need to help you rock your next self-tape home auditions.

The Self Tape setup: what You’ll Need


The foundation of a quality self tape setup is having the right filming equipment. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

Camera


Use a high quality camera – either a DSLR, mirrorless, camcorder, or smartphone with 4K video capability. Make sure it has manual settings so you can control things like frame rate, ISO, shutter speed, etc. iPhones released in the past 2 years will work well.

Tripod


You need a sturdy tripod that can position the camera at eye level and provide stable footage. You don’t want a shaky submission. Adjust the tripod so you are framed correctly with some headroom above.

Microphone


Poor audio is one of the fastest ways to have your audition rejected. Use an external mic plugged directly into your camera, wireless lavalier mic clipped to your shirt, or smartphone mic attachment to record clean, professional sound. Avoid using your camera or phone’s built-in microphone.

Memory Cards


Make sure your camera has enough storage space for multiple takes and video files. Have some spare SD cards if your camera needs them. You don’t want to run out of space halfway through your audition.

Lenses


Standard prime lenses like 24mm or 50mm work well for self-tapes. They provide attractive focal lengths to frame your upper body and nice background blur (depending on f-stop settings). Telephoto lenses may distort your face, so avoid heavy zooms.

External Monitor


A monitor that flips out from your camera, or separate monitor display device lets you see what your shot looks like while filming. You can check for proper framing, focus, and how it will all look on camera. Monitors that face you (instead of back of camera) can also help improve your eye lines when self-taping.

Setting Up Your Self-Tape Lighting

Woman acting and filming a self tape audition with a digital camera


Lighting is a vital component of an effective self tape setup. You want attractive 3-point key, fill, and back lighting. But avoid overly complex professional lighting setups – keep it simple. Here are some easy at home lighting solutions:

Main Key Light


Use the brightest soft light source pointed towards the front of your face at a 45 degree angle. Great key light sources include large windows with daylight, photography photo lights/softboxes (pro equipment) or a household floor lamp with soft light bulb positioned in front angled up towards your eye level. The key light provides flattering illumination so casting directors can see your facial expressions clearly.

Fill Light


Place a less intense, secondary light source directly in front of you in order to fill in any shadows created by the key light. Things like a table lamp, desk light, iPad/tablet screen brightness or white poster board can bounce light back onto the darker shadowed side of your face created by the main key light to provide nice modeling and dimension. Just don’t let this second fill light overpower your main key.

Back Light/Rim Light


Optional but nice for professional separation from the background, place another light source behind you, aimed at the back of your head to create an attractive rim lighting effect around you. Things like a standalone portable light on a stand, another floor or table lamp aimed from behind, Christmas lights strung back there, or even sitting in front of a brightly lit window can serve as effective backlights.

Avoid Overhead Lighting


Do NOT use overhead lighting directly above you. It will create unappealing shadows in your eye sockets and under your nose and chin which are not flattering.

Use Lighting Designs Sparingly


You really only need 3 basic lights for self-tapes (three point lighting) – a key, fill and maybe back/rim light. Only use more complex lighting setups if you really know what you’re doing. Overdone lighting can look fake and cheesy if not done properly. Remember casting directors are just looking for you, not impressive lighting design skills.

Filming Your Self Tape


Here are some key tips on how to audition for a movie or show with self-taping:

Frame Yourself


Make sure you leave some headroom above your head in the frame. Crop your frame from about the mid chest or waist area up to your head. Sit close enough to the camera so your face and expressions are clearly visible.

Eyeline


Look directly into the camera lens whenever possible so it seems like you are having a natural conversation and connection with the viewer. If you don’t have an external monitor to see what your shot look likes while filming, set your eyeline by having someone stand next to the camera for you to look at.

Sound Check


Do a test recording and play it back to check sound quality, volume levels, and audio consistency prior to taping your full audition. Make any mic adjustments needed so you can be heard clearly.

Room Tone


Record 30 seconds of “room tone” – simply hit record with no one making any sounds. This captures the ambient sound of the space. You’ll use this room tone clip later during editing when removing unwanted pauses or noises to maintain consistent sound.

The Ideal Backdrop for Self-Tape Auditions

Having the right backdrop is key for a professional acting self-tape. Optimize your background with these tips:

Choose a Solid, Plain Backdrop Wall Your backdrop wall needs to be:

  • Solid color
  • Unpatterned
  • Contrasting shade to your appearance
  • Avoids busy textures & objects
  • Positioned a couple feet behind you

This keeps focus on you as the main subject without distracting backgrounds.

Fabric Backdrop Alternatives If lacking an appropriate wall, hang a plain colored fabric sheet or large backdrop material a few feet behind you instead. Roll and tape the bottom fabric edge to create a clean, continuous backdrop sweep.

Formal Audition Backdrop Colors Use neutral, muted shade fabrics like:

  • Off-white
  • Light gray
  • Beige

For formal acting self-tape audition backdrops. Avoid bright hues.

Casual Self-Tape Backdrop Options For casual tapes, consider subdued tones like:

  • Medium blue
  • Green
  • Red
  • Black

If flattering to your skin tone and wardrobe choices.

Contrast is Key Pay attention to contrast between your outfit and wall color scheme. Avoid matching backdrop & wardrobe shades too closely. Complimentary but different tones are best.

Review Test Shots


Check backdrop framing by taking test video shots and review playback. Make any adjustments to optimize background as ideal stage for highlighting you as the acting talent, free of distractions.

Slate Your Audition


Start your audition tape by slateing – state your name, height (if required), city location, the name of the project/role, and the scene name or sides number. Then do a 3 second silent count before launching into your audition scene performance. This intro clip gives vital details and also allows video editors a few seconds of pre-roll room when cutting your audition tape together during post processing.

Take Multiple Takes


Shoot your audition scene atleast 3 times start to finish. This allows for options when choosing the best overall take.

Post-Production in Your Self Tape Setup

Man editing his self tape audition with his laptop


Editing tightens up your best self tapes performance by removing unwanted pauses, flubs, off-camera looks, and distracting mistakes.

Use basic video editing software like iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve or smartphone apps like Inshot. Import your video clips, slate intro (often you’ll need to perform your slate at the time of filming ), audition takes and room tone ambient track.

Review footage

Mark the best, try to put yourself in the head space of the casting director. Remove hesitations, off-camera glance moments at start and finish, flubs using room tone to bridge gaps.

Listen back to ensure consistent audio levels & quality throughout. Add some subtle color correction if needed. Avoid going overboard with effects/filters – keep it looking natural.

Export final edited video as highest quality file for uploading. Most audition submission platforms require MP4 files. Set to constant frame rate matching original footage (usually 24 or 30 fps).

File Compression


You’ll likely need to compress your edited video file to reduce file size for uploading. Sites like Actors Access, LA Casting limit attachment file sizes. You want the best quality possible without compromising on size.

Use Handbrake or Compressor video encoder tools for compression. Choose H264 codec and set video bitrate between 5-10 Mbps for solid quality HD video that won’t get rejected as too large of a file.

Lower bitrates = higher compression = smaller file sizes, but lower video quality. Find ideal middle ground through testing various bitrate settings when exporting your compressed audition file.

Review final compressed video prior to submitting to ensure quality was not reduced too far by the file compression. As long as your video looks clean without visible pixelation, blocking, banding or other compression artifacts – you should be good to upload.

Maximize Self-Tape Impact By…


Following this self-tape process will deliver high quality audition videos to casting directors. But great acting is still key! So remember to also:

- Choose compelling scene sides that showcase emotional range
- Have scenes fully memorized prior to filming
- Make bold acting choices that grab viewer attention 
- Show unique interpretations of characters/material 
- Have a reader feed you lines off camera
- Slate & dress appropriately as sides indicate 

The Right Mindset For Self-Tape Auditions

  • Have patience – self-taping can be tedious with lots of starts & stops
  • Don’t obsess over getting the perfect take – do your best & move on
  • Embrace the flexibility to record audition on your own time
  • Use multiple takes to capture a variety of compelling acting choices
  • Have fun with it! Directors still want to see personality shine through

Keep refining your self tape setup over time – but focus most on delivering powerful, memorable acting performances – that impresses more than perfect lighting & editing!

You got this! Now get filming your next star-making self-tape audition.

Break a leg!

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