ADDITIONAL ADVICE FOR MAKING SELF-TAPES
By Helen Grady
[See also Helen’s video clip on https://vimeo.com/401893627
I hope the following tips and suggestions will help you as you prepare for a new style of festival entry.
First of all – and most importantly – it’s still what YOU do and how you perform that counts. The technology just allows an Adjudicator to assess it without being in the same room as the performer.
The Adjudicator won’t give marks according to how brilliantly you handle the technology and no-one is expecting professional TV or film expertise or the creation of a mini-production.
Professional actors are used to doing self-tapes and it can be reassuring to know that actors regularly send in auditions filmed on their smartphones from hotel bedrooms with less than ideal lighting and sound. This is the case even at the Hollywood end of the business.
It is possible to film a self-tape and submit it even if you have no-one at all to help you, though a bit of help from someone behind the camera will certainly make life easier!
You can use any kind of recording equipment capable of shooting video and recording sound to record your tape. Most smart phones have really excellent cameras.
The Adjudicator needs to be able see you clearly and hear you distinctly. That, in essence, is all there is to it. Here are some tips to help you achieve that – many of them are fairly obvious!
1. Steadying your camera
Keep your camera (whether that’s your phone or a camera or camcorder or your webcam) STEADY. Handheld is not ideal. If you don’t have a tripod or a phone holder then find a way to balance the camera so that the lens is at an appropriate level to capture the performance without too much wasted space in the picture. Take particular care with webcams on laptops or computers. The camera on your lap top is unlikely to be at the right level or angle if your machine is on your lap!
2. DON’T shoot in very high definition
There’s absolutely no need to do so and you will give yourself a real headache when you come to upload if you have a massive file. The Adjudicator is likely to be watching your performance on a computer screen – not in an IMAX! Making sure you are properly lit is far more important in terms of how well an Adjudicator will be able to see you. Consider compressing your video before uploading if you can.
Give some thought to how you are lit. This is important but need not be difficult. Most modern cameras (including smart phone cameras) are enormously forgiving and adaptable - so specialist lighting kits are not needed for self-tapes. Daylight is ideal, but artificial light can work too. The most important thing is probably the direction of the light. Don’t sit with your back to the light as you will then appear in silhouette and the Adjudicator won’t be able to see you.
4. Choosing a place and time to shoot
Choose a quiet time and place to record your video if you can. Don’t get too worried about this though. Everyone understands that this isn’t always possible – especially when more people are likely to be at home than usual if the “stay at home” advice is still in place when you are recording! An Adjudicator will be able to disregard interruptions (like a baby crying or a motorbike going past) as long as you can still be clearly heard. Most built-in microphones will do a reasonable job – but you can use an external mic if you have one.
5. Your ‘stage’
Try to find somewhere with a fairly uncluttered background if you can. This helps the Adjudicator to focus on the performance. A plain wall is ideal – or a sheet or blanket or blind hung in front of a cluttered space to disguise it. Sometimes sitting or standing in front of a door works well. If you have to choose between a) a busy background which is impossible to disguise but has good light and b) another place that has a plain background but is impossible to light properly – please choose a) ! Being well lit trumps what is in the background.
Filming outside doesn’t always work as well as you might hope in terms of controlling sound and light, though it’s fine to try it if you have somewhere safe and quiet to film. Wind (even just a bit of a breeze) is often the big problem for sound outside. A dull/overcast day is usually better than a sunny one in terms of lighting.
Don’t try to recreate a ‘stage’ performance. You don’t need to ‘project’ your voice for the microphone on your camera or an external mic in the same way you would on stage or in a big room. It’s important that we can hear you though! Make sure you test your sound. It’s still possible for people to speak too quietly, or indistinctly – even on a self-tape.
This is all about ‘landscape’ versus ‘portrait’, and how close to have the shot.
It’s a good idea to have the framing as tight as the performance will allow – it just makes it easier for the Adjudicator to assess your performance. It’s probably a good idea to adapt your performance (as far as possible) to allow you to perform within quite a small area. That’s also likely to make the job of filming easier!
This will vary a bit from class to class – and in drama also depends on the piece chosen. Generally speaking, a fairly tightly framed shot in landscape is advised.
Why landscape? Mainly because that’s how the final video will be viewed: on a computer or TV screen which is a rectangle with its long edges at the top and bottom – i.e. in landscape.
Have a think about how mobile footage filmed in portrait looks on your TV screen in news reports. There’s always wasted space either side of the footage.
If you are using the ‘selfie’ lens on a smart phone (perhaps because you don’t have anyone to help), don’t come too close to the lens and make the frame too tight – it can give a bit of goldfish bowl effect!
8. Where to ‘look’
For Speech and Drama classes, it is important to think about whom you are addressing.
You can choose to present your performance ‘down the lens’ looking directly into the camera lens – or you can choose to direct your performance to an audience of one or more people who are just off camera. Looking down the lens is the equivalent of looking directly at the Adjudicator and looking just off camera is the equivalent of performing to an audience (or speaking to another character – while still letting the Adjudicator see you clearly. My suggestion would be to have a marker just off camera (really close to the lens, but not looking directly into it) and imagine that this is the person you are addressing. More advice on this subject is given below for specific Speech and Drama classes.
If you are not sure whether it should be down the lens or just off camera – choose just off camera. That’s then the equivalent of performing so that the Adjudicator can see you clearly, without you staring at them! Have a look at the video and you’ll hopefully see what I mean.
How many takes should I do? How do I choose the best one?
The advice usually given to professional actors who submit self-tapes is not to do too many takes – and this applies here as well. Have a trial run of something other than your performance (e.g. saying the days of the week) so that you can judge the lighting, sound and framing. Then I’d suggest doing two or three takes one after the other without looking at them in between. If you have prepared well and set up and practised your filming then you are very unlikely to need more than three. Most performers find they get worse rather than better the more they do! If you can’t get a take you are happy with in the first three attempts, this is usually solved by going back to the material/script (maybe making sure you know it REALLY well) or sorting out the technical aspects of filming before you try filming any more.
If you do find a take you are happy with in the first three – submit that. Don’t agonise over it for too long. It’s surprising how often the first one you do is the best! Providing you can be seen and heard, don’t fret about any minor technical mishaps – they won’t affect your marks. You can regard them in the same was as you would if there was a disturbance in the audience in a live festival.
How can I manage if I don’t have anyone to help me film?
Take a look at the video. It is possible to do all of this on your own, but it’s likely to be a bit easier if you have a ‘camera operator’.
Should I edit my tape before sending it in?
Take a look at the specific advice from the festival about uploading your tape. It might be nice and neat if you are able to edit out you reaching to switch the camera on or off, or you getting into position – but it is not ESSENTIAL and no marks will be deducted if you don’t do it. Adjudicators will judge your performance – not your taping abilities!
It might well be worth looking at how to CROP a take with an editing tool – but again this is not essential and if you get your framing right in the first place, cropping won’t be necessary.
Should I compress my video?
Most videos for the festival will be fairly short, but video files can quickly become very large. If you have the expertise or you have the inclination to learn, it will be well worth compressing your video before uploading it. There are some excellent apps available that are remarkably simple to use. Uploading a video in its original form can take forever and if you have any internet difficulties then a big video file can cause you problems. Compression of your video can make a big difference to your stress levels! I do recommend looking into it.
SUGGESTIONS FOR DIFFERENT SPEECH AND DRAMA CLASSES
You are not obliged to follow this guidance and if you feel your performance is showcased best by doing something different then by all means submit that. The Adjudicator will not be awarding marks depending on how you choose to film. Just as in a live festival, it’s your performance that counts. When in doubt, keep it simple.
Verse speaking lends itself very well to a screen performance. I would suggest a fairly tight, head and shoulders frame where your eyes can be clearly seen. It is up to you whether you address it directly TO the camera – or very, very slightly off camera. The Adjudicator needs to see your eyes as well as hear your voice. Very young performers might find a tight frame a bit restrictive – so you can adapt as required. As long as the performer can be seen and heard, the self-tape will be fine! Try to keep your eye-line up. Have a look at the video to see why this is important.
You can choose a slightly wider frame – where we can see you from the waist up. I would suggest that you stand and hold the bible so that it can be seen within the frame. You could have some markers behind the camera to suggest ‘members of the congregation’ and address your reading to them at different points if/when you raise your head to look ‘out’. Don’t choose too many markers! Two or three will be fine and you can keep your ‘congregation’ quite close to the camera. It’s also absolutely fine simply to address your reading to one point just to the side of the camera lens – or even down the lens if you want to.
Prose reading can work well on camera. Frame your shot so that we can see you holding your book. You can choose to stand or sit. Do make sure that you can be heard: if you speak down into your book the microphone won’t be able to pick up your voice quite as well as if you have your head up. The movement of your head up and down can interfere with the sound level AND the light (you may find the camera keeps trying to adjust to whether it is filming your face or your hair!) – so keep your book up (but not obscuring your face).
I would suggest you sit down for this, though you don’t have to. Importantly, please imagine that the people listening to your story are at the same level as you! Keep your eyeline up so that we can see your face clearly. Imagine you are telling the story to just a few people, rather than a big crowd, just pick two or three places to look or you could choose just to tell it to one person: constantly looking around can be a bit distracting on camera.
Well, here’s a challenge! You may have to adapt your mime a bit so that you don’t use too big a ‘stage’ and keep your performance within a relatively small area. At least you won’t have sound to worry about. This is one class where going outside might be a useful option if there is somewhere you can go and film safely (such as a garden). Unless you have quite a big space inside where you can be well lit, then mime can be tricky to film easily – but please do try! You will probably have to experiment a bit with what kind of framing works best for your performance so that you can give the Adjudicator the best chance of assessing your skills.
Here the Adjudicator is assessing the performance not film making skills. So please don’t make this into a film making exercise by filming from several different angles/distances and editing clips together. Please film everything in one take from one angle and without using zoom within the take.
This is an interesting challenge for a self-tape/video performance and you probably will have to adapt your performance a bit to suit the new medium you are performing in. If you are not used to screen acting I think you’ll find it both fascinating and rewarding!
Probably the most important aspect to help the Adjudicator to assess your performance is where you place the person you are speaking to. This is not really any different from suggesting you don’t face the side wall in a live festival performance! The audience is where the camera lens is. If it genuinely is a piece addressed TO the audience, you can use the camera lens. If you are speaking to one person in the piece then I would suggest you imagine that person is situated very slightly to one side of the camera lens– and they should ideally be at the same level as the camera lens unless you are making a conscious artistic decision about the person you are speaking to being above or below you. The Adjudicator needs to see your eyes, just as they do in live performance.
Don’t forget that in real life we rarely look only in one direction when we are speaking to someone – don’t let performing for the camera make you forget all your drama skills! You can still be ‘in the moment’ - and that might well mean looking away from the person you are talking to from time to time. Have a look at the video for some tips on eyelines.
Once you have decided on the best framing and eyeline for your piece, then your job is to ignore the camera as far as possible and become the character.
If you are talking to yourself than you could choose the main focus for the piece to be down the camera lens OR just off camera. Either choice could work well for a soliloquy. Take a look at the video for how this looks. If you are speaking to several people in the piece, choose just two or three points of focus and find something you can mark those places with (like a post-it note with eyes drawn on it or some toys or photographs). You may choose to frame your performance as an actor would in a professional self tape – i.e. either tightly cropped so that you just your head and shoulders are seen (with as little wasted space around you as possible) – or from the waist up – if that seems more appropriate for the scene, or if you think your character is someone who uses their hands a lot! You can also choose to frame it so that your whole body can be seen if you prefer. I would suggest that you don’t try to recreate precisely what you would do on stage. Keep it simple and don’t bother with props unless you really need them. There is no need to try to recreate the setting of the play – and extra marks won’t be awarded for doing so. Adjudicators are not assessing the art department or stage management!
Once again, the most important thing is that you can be seen and heard – so try not to get stressed about the technical aspects. It will be your performance that is being assessed.
You might like to consider framing this in landscape with the ‘presenter’ slightly to one side of the frame and any object you are referring to in the spare space in the frame. Obviously you’ll have to assess how well this works because it will depend on the size of the object or picture! You might also choose simply to hold the object – but do make sure that it is included in the frame.
This is one class where I think looking and speaking ‘down the lens’ some of the time could work particularly well – but it’s not obligatory by any means. You could choose to film it as if you were on a stage and someone was doing a video recording of your presentation. The choice is yours.
These links give more advice about framing, compressing, trimming, cropping etc. Please keep in mind that none of this is essential. They are intended for professional actors – but it may be useful for those interested.
Finally, remember: Adjudicators just need to see you clearly and hear you distinctly.
I can’t wait to see your tapes!