Beauty On The Fly

The Self Tape is the Future of Casting Actors-Adapting in the Age of Corona Virus

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If you can dream-and not make dreams your master; If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two imposters just the same…” an excerpt of the enlightened poet and writer Rudyard Kipling titled, If.

Article by and Photo of Model/Actress Paula Erskine. Representation Vogue Models and Talent Agency. Photography by Alexis Lagos of Laced Up Imagery. Makeup by Artist Wilfer Torres. Hair by Duarte, of Studio Hair Design, Toronto, Canada

Lights, Camera, Action!

One feels that with the reality of the Pandemic Corona Virus, accepting our new roles in this world play, as Shakespeare has described, is in the hands of us, the players. The stage is the whole of the planet’s inhabitants, each doing our part. The drama is real. I bow to all of those who may barely be able to help themselves, and to those whose compassion and professions triage the victims of a villain that lives in all of us.

A week ago, my modelling agent requested a self tape. A casting director had seen my picture and asked via my agent to submit an acting audition tape. I had to choose between five scripts. As we are all staying at home other than going out to attain our essential services, I had to get into resourceful mode from basics to completing the submission. There is a first time for everything. In a short few days, I went from zero to daunting to anxiety to determination to revelations to self tape mission accomplished!

The only thing holding me back, was, me, until now. The mind was the enemy. I did not dare utter the fear of failure. In the wake of Corona, this challenge was unlike the danger filled challenges of the other players in this play. So with this perspective, I pushed forward my being into an uncomfortable and slightly familiar yet mysterious realm.

Modelling is a hint of acting, creating a mood. Interpreting scripts meant I had to read between the lines. Reading a script is different than reading a book, because it does not come alive until one understands where the characters come from, what is the setting, and emotions being explored and expressed.

 Armed with Second City Improvisational Acting chops, I dug in with that “yes and…” narrative we use to build scenes out of thin air. With two sheets in my hand, I pulled out my highlighter and circled my lines. First thoughts were, I don’t get it. I don’t. How does anyone see life breathing through these words? Initially, I read them fast, to get them over with. Then I read with my roommate a few times. Then I realized on the second day, it reminded me of the movie The Notebook. Although I enjoyed the movie, I had to do it my own way. Partially because I am older than Allie in her younger years, and younger than the character in her older years. Also I did not have the elaborate set, the budget and access to luxurious video equipment. 

It is literally trying to think as the character, and saying something that only hints at the essence. We do this. We try not to hurt people’s feelings, we try to tiptoe around subjects. We avoid talking directly about what is really bothering us. Then we occasionally, react in an unhealthy way. Insults, gratitude, upbringing, word explosions, emotional meltdowns, damage control, clamming up, holding our breath, holding a grudge, keeping the peace, chip on our shoulder, sighing, oppression, joy, pursing our lips, a nervous habit, furrowing our brows…it is all fodder for acting.

Emotions unfold slowly. Acting aficionados call it processing. What is our process? Expressing the thoughts on your face, in the recoiling of one’s body, a flinch, a lunge, a smirk, a sneakiness, an innocence, masking a troubled past. Acting is not literal, or should I say direct. Our actions do not always match our deeply guarded desires. 

Like life, we are thinking of one or many things, and doing and saying another thing. What is our motivation, our embedded conditioning behind the words spoken? It has made me wonder if bluntness is the quickest way to destination. So many times, negative circumstances have sparked a drive to grow, learn and overcome life’s obstacles. But the aftermath of reactions keeps us in check. A part of us reigns in the ego just before blurting out, who is anyone to judge? My approach was, I must complete a decent self tape, and I took uncharted steps in that unknown direction.

So I approach it by quarantexting my artistic friends for advice. I educated myself with youtube for acting lessons. I will share these few gems, (in the next article), that, in a short few days catapulted me to the next level of understanding my inner actor.

First, I wanted to set the stage. I bought a king size grey colored bed sheet for a background from Walmart. I also bought a 60 cm black web wireless selfie stick tripod kit to house my phone come video recorder in horizontal mode, the preferred way to submit a tape. I placed it on an ironing table covered with a white sheet, while my roommate read her audible, off camera, lines, filmed, cued, and directed.

Another handy item off the shelf at Walmart purchased was a pocket sized clip on ring light by Bower. I got this idea because all the vloggers use a large ring light with a smartphone stand. Even though it is small, this clips on around the camera lens of your phone and did a decent job. I could not get too far from the phone, because I did not have a lapel mic (also recommended by my agent), but the phone mic turned out to be sufficient. I ordered a lapel mic and adapter from Henry’s. It did not arrive in time, but I messaged the help chat my phone make, my tablet make, and they sent me a link for the exact model of mic I needed and an adapter that could also be ordered.

I did order an 18″ ring light plus an 8′ stand from www.henrys.com, suspecting it would never arrive on time. I had a deadline, and shipments are backed up everywhere. I especially chose Henry’s because dealing with a Canadian expert and supplier avoids the charges customs may tack on to an online shipment from the U.S.A. Also Henry’s has a live chat option where I asked and they sent me links to the products I was describing I needed for an acting self tape. This saved me hours of time trying to mastermind the equipment needed. My good friend and actress Patty Sullivan simplified that she just finished her self tape in her kitchen with her smartphone stacked on top of books. All this equipment can be used as tax deductions towards any income gained in modelling or acting under supplies.

My friend Alexis Lagos and photographer for modelling and acting images recommended natural light ideally on 3 sides, (like a bay window I didn’t have), and not to mix lights. She also advised to use a sheer curtain if I had it, and throw white sheets or bristol board around to reflect light. My agent gave written instructions to this effect, adding that an overhead hanging ball light, if faced with filming in the evening, would give a nice soft light. Light behind you causes shadows. 

When I completed the first script taping, I wanted to demystify another script with my friend. We read it together, and googled, and suddenly we had an inside scoop on it, and I felt compelled to try it as well. (Details to be revealed in the next article).

My second script I attempted to create an old fashioned Hollywood lighting effect with a desk task lamp and made “barn door” flaps (4 pieces/flaps) to square off the the light with black bristol board, or black foam board (and duct tape). To achieve this home made effect, I had to put dark sheets on the window to make the task light the main source of glowing light shining from overhead onto my face. Done right, it can create a shadow to sculpt the jawline. I lost a lot of daylight trying to figure this out. Day became an evening shoot with just the task light overhead. While my photographer friends may cringe at this makeshift, improvised attempt at the technique, at least I can say, I tried. It was not perfect, but these are the perils of the self taping that must be forgiven of ourselves and casting directors.

I improvised lighting and reflective equipment from a dollar store. I stumbled upon silver toned front and rear reflective car sunshade panels by ProAuto for just a few dollars. I used these double windshield sized panels secured with duct tape to reflect light from the window from the sides and just under the camera to bring some light into the eyes. I also put white sheets on the sides and white bristol board under and in front of me. I took a few test shots to see if the lighting was okay. I also had bought strong thick rope from the dollar store. I put two identical lamp stands onto night stands from my bedroom, onto stools, onto upside down canvas paintings, tied a rope between them then secured each lamp stand with furniture and duct taped the gray bedsheet (which I painstakingly ironed), and made a backdrop for my shot. This cut my living room into a quarter. So gray backdrop, myself and a chair, an ironing board with my phone secured in the tripod, and my line reading roommate draped in a white sheet behind the camera, was the stage.

I taped a small piece of paper with a circle, like an eyeball to one side of the camera lense. So when I did my lines, I looked into the circle as if it was the other character. Looking into the middle of the camera does not work. Thank you actor Michael Caine for advising us all, pick an eye of the other actor, the one that allows the lense to show most of your face. In this case, my taped paper eyeball. Do not dart your eyes or try to look at both eyes if someone is there. A movie camera picks up little details. It is layers of self awareness, but a peeling away of self consciousness.

Although the script actions required kissing, dancing, crying, screaming, running it was impossible because of microphone issues, framing issues (to not see the ceiling, the floor, the piles of furniture on both sides of the backdrop. So after trying to memorize my lines and lamenting the logistics of creating the scene that I knew from movies, I researched and brainstormed. What might I possibly do to convey intimacy, reactions, emotions and actions? I did not come to this conclusion alone. But after very much advice and research on youtube, and sleeping on it, I made the decision to perform sitting in a chair. The casting directors want to see your face plus just around your waist to see your hand and arm gestures. Big gestures for theatre, medium gestures for TV and much smaller movements and gestures for movies. This was a movie script self tape to demonstrate my acting interpretation and ability.

Let us not forget the slate. State your name, agency, height and age on video before starting your scene. Ideally you have shown them your angles by standing facing left then right. One slate I did separate because it was my first attempt, and there was very much emotion, and I did not know if I could just jump into character. Technically, it should be all one video. The second script, (which was not required, but I felt a breakthrough of inspiration), I included the slate in the body of the video. I submitted the tapes via Actor’s Access to the casting director that requested them based on my photo head shots/body shots at my agency Vogue Models and Talent. Actor’s Access also has a live chat option which talked me through downloading the tapes. I was asked to email them, and the service submitted them for me.

I proceeded to my Actor’s Access pages, profile, added two extra pictures for $20.00 to my profile which had a surprisingly dated picture of me from two years ago. So I shuffled them, and put the newest pic as the main one, and kept the old one where I had blond highlights. Then I cleaned my actor access house, adding movie and video projects from the past, my other talents, makeup artistry, Padi certified scuba diver, Fire Fighting, First Aid, Second City Improvisational Actor Training, and a few more interesting details. There is a size card, and I always make sure my photos are not too photo shopped, the absolute minimum. It will not get you the job if you look different in person.

I would love to record my new evolving acting journey in the next article. Hope you comment below, subscribe or learn from my experiences. Opportunity is knocking in the form of a casting director requesting a self tape. I simply wanted to fulfill an inner promise to complete this project. I learned so much in a few short days. Perhaps we all go through phases of growth spurts and stagnation. For those of us who are privileged to have a home or shelter and are staying safe, it is a great time to expand our skills while flattening the curve from our living quarters. And for those still on the front lines, we salute you.

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