Reinventing the self-tape: how remote TV & film casting is evolving for casting pros

As an entertainment industry professional in Hollywood, I’ve spent the last five years working in film and TV casting both independently (auditioning actors and serving as a liaison between the creative team and the studio/network), and at a studio/network level (overseeing the casting team and giving final approval on who gets the role). When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, it was immediately clear that the jobs of casting professionals in Los Angeles, New York, and abroad would be shifting into the unknown. This was especially the case for independent casting directors whose salaries are paid by individual film and TV show productions, all of which swiftly shut down.

Since our full-time job is to hire actors and no actors were able to work, working remotely has not been much of an option for most of us. This has meant relying on our union, Local 399, to continue providing us with healthcare while we file for unemployment and find other ways to earn income, while staying engaged with actors and other industry professionals. Many of us are teaching (virtual) workshops or coaching actors via video chat; others are hosting self-tape competitions to continue to create opportunities for actors, while giving ourselves the opportunity to discover up-and-coming talent. In the occasional case that we are hired to seek out talent or hold casting calls for upcoming shoot dates, we’ve been urged by The Casting Society of America (and our consciences) to limit auditions to self-tapes and online sessions.

Self-taping: an old friend and the new normal

For actors and casting pros alike, the self-tape is nothing new. It’s a tool that’s been used for years as a way to audition talent without having them in the room. Pre-quarantine, this would happen for a variety of reasons: the actor was based out of town or was shooting on location, the casting director was on a time crunch and needed to see folks quicker than scheduling and having them read in person would allow, or the budget of the project didn’t leave the casting director with room to rent space to hold auditions. And while there’s a certain convenience to the self-tape, it’s certainly not my favorite way to get to know an actor or their capabilities on a personal level. That takes face-to-face interaction, connection, and the ability to redirect the actor in real time in order to help guide them toward the best audition possible.

At the start of the Covid pandemic, it seemed like self-tapes would be the primary audition method for the foreseeable future. I noticed that many actors became hyper-focused on perfecting their self-taping skills, so I revamped my curriculums for classes and coaching sessions to highlight tips for a solid self-tape: prepping material the same way you would for an in-person audition; shooting in a quiet, well-lit space with a non-distracting backdrop; and making sure your camera or iPhone isn’t shaky and that you’re framed properly, to start. Even as productions begin to get moving again, it will inevitably be a while before it’s deemed safe to have a gaggle of actors in a cramped waiting room or unventilated tiny audition space one after the other sans masks. But in many cases, especially for screen tests or producer sessions (where executives and members of the creative team are present to watch an audition and weigh in in real time), self-tapes just won’t do.

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Enter: the virtual audition

As TV and film projects continue to develop and begin to attach actors even without shooting schedules in place, virtual in-person audition sessions are on the rise. Some casting directors are turning to popular video conferencing platforms to hold auditions where both the casting director and actor are tuned in live, but from the comfort (or discomfort, in some cases) of their own homes. This allows the casting director to not only get a sense of how the actor listens and responds, but also to stop and start them in real time to give direction or clarification. Though I’ve seen these platforms work well for general meetings with actors, it’s been a challenge to find a remote casting solution that aligns perfectly with an audition format -- not to mention there are the ongoing security risks.

There are certainly tried-and-true platforms specifically designed for TV and film casting to promote, upload, and share in-person auditions (Cast It and Breakdown Express, for example), and in my experience, their software developers have been eager to collaborate with casting teams to incorporate features that make them more intuitive and user-friendly. But what we need now is a platform that can do it all. I’m talking built-in scheduling software; a virtual waiting room; excellent picture and sound quality; the ability for multiple creatives to be watching an actor in real time with options for hiding certain participants’ cameras; a chat feature with direct messaging so that a director can write the casting director notes in real time about what they want to see from the actor; and recording capabilities that automatically label and store each take, saving them so we can easily pick and choose which clips we want to send along to other members of the creative team. Evercast is a really promising option, offering video conferencing, live streaming and recording capabilities that are already being used for table reads and in other areas of production. The idea that all areas of pre- and post-production would use one platform that everyone is familiar with would no doubt simplify and streamline the process for us all.

Hopefully the virtual audition process will continue to evolve in the coming months, allowing casting teams to conduct auditions comfortably and efficiently as they work from home -- for as long as Covid requires and beyond. Being face-to-face with talent is an irreplaceable (and my very favorite) part of the creative process. But now more than ever, we see the value in having a platform for online auditioning that works seamlessly in cases where it’s impossible to get an entire creative team in one room at the same time -- pandemic or not.

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