“I've done some acting but never received my clips to make a demo real. What do I do when I am asked to submit one?”
This is a common situation. Many aspiring actors are promised footage for their reel if they'll act for free in a student or other low-budget indie film, usually expressed as “copy & credit.”
But that doesn't mean great clips are easy to come by. Some of those films never get finished, or won't release footage until their festival run is complete. In other cases, the footage is of such poor quality you risk cutting a reel that is worse than having no reel at all.
So what are your options?
1) Face the facts
First, realize that it is perfectly fine to own the fact that you don't have a reel. Some casting sites ask for demos with initial submissions (before the phase of sending out audition invites), but you can submit for most roles without one. CDs will still look at submissions without media attached (Actors Access, I'm looking at you).
If asked for one specifically by a CD, explain that you do not have a reel available yet, and offer to record a clip of yourself doing a scene or monologue. It is NOT okay to send them a previous audition video, unless you have received written permission from the producers of that script.
2) Hunt down clips
Look back at your talent/image release, deal memo, or contract (you do have one, I hope) to refresh yourself on the details of the promised footage. If the clips are indeed “due,” I would certainly contact the producers and respectfully request that they do what is necessary to fulfill their obligations. If they cite delays for a release, do your best to get a quote of when they expect the footage to be ready (and don't be afraid to negotiate).
This won't always work, so be prepared for an unfavorable answer. I haven't gotten footage from my first role in a feature film, and probably never will, because my scene was cut along with several others during the assembly edit, and never got fully processed.
3) Produce your own!
If you have the funds and the friends to do so, consider producing some scenes on your own. Better yet—make it an actual short film. That way you get an extra film credit to boot. Creating your own footage puts the burden on you, but also provides all the creative freedom to play the roles you want, exactly how you choose. Not a terrible trade-off.
Do your best to get believable sets, costumes, props, good lighting, decent cinematography, good sound, etc. This is not the place for classroom theatrics. Mounting a full production isn't easy, but anything less is unlikely to get you quality footage.
Demo Reel Tips & Trends
If your acting blows me away, great. But I try to assume every actor can decently act unless I'm proven wrong (yeah, it's happened).
The main thing I usually need from a reel is to hear and see you how you normally look and sound. And most CDs don't have the time or luxury to watch reels in their entirety. So for at least your first clip, don't showcase an acquired accent, or rely on heavily stylized or overly emotional footage. After the first 10 seconds, feel free to move on to the rest of your “range.”
You don't need to put lines in context with long moments focused on your co-stars; keep the spotlight on you. A good length for a reel is between 1 and 3 minutes. If you really want to showcase more footage than that, try splitting it into Dramatic / Light-Comedic / Commercial genres. Another trend I've seen is having multiple “type” reels; I'd keep these short, 1 minute or less.
In our digital world of online submissions, we aren't sending physical reels off to casting offices, so it makes sense to have more customization in reels. Just as many actors now do with their headshots, if you have more than one reel to choose from, you can send the one/s that best fit each particular casting situation.
This question is from G.C.:
“As a casting director, what do you look for when you review auditions?”
The casting director is on your team. They are rooting for each actor, hoping for them to blow their minds and be the obvious choice for a role. But it isn't often that easy.
For one thing, casting directors are not the reigning monarchs of the casting process. If the director is “President” then they would be the member of their cabinet in charge of finding the best casting choices, and presenting/pitching them for approval or veto. Some “presidents” like to be more involved in that hunt than others. Sometimes other “cabinet members” are asked for their opinions, too.
PLEASE NOTE: Much of the following will apply to live auditions as well, but will be phrased more specifically for taped submissions...which is getting more and more common anyway.
With parameters from the script, budget, and the director's vision in mind, here are some of the top things we look for:
1) Instincts & intelligence
Is the actor making bold, believable scene choices?
Do they follow an appropriate and engaging arc for the character/scene?
Are they using available space to play to the camera?
In callbacks, does the actor understand and take direction well?
2) Appropriate physicality
Does the actor's physicality (build, ethnicity/coloring, voice, mannerisms, etc.) fit the role?
Does their essence / vibe / personality add or detract to the character being portrayed?
If part of an on-screen family, or age-progressed character set, do they look related?
Do they balance and/or add texture to the ensemble, in their acting style, energy, and look?
Does the audition video have adequate lighting, sound, framing, background?
Does the talent look like their headshot, or does their photo misrepresent them?
Did the talent/agent submit the audition in a timely manner (and before the deadline)?
Did the talent/agent follow all the instructions for the submission?
4) Adequate experience
Do they have the confidence/maturity needed to pull off the role?
Do they have the practical skills needed, or can they learn them in time?
Do they have an existing affinity to a cause showcased in the film?
Will they elevate the marketability or reach of the film?
Most of the factors listed above are under some sphere of your control; others are not.
If you don't get a callback, and can think of something you can do better or work on for next time—great! Learn from the experience and carry on. If you don't get a callback, and can't think of anything you would/could change, rest in the fact that you did your best and and carry on. At least you got on their radar, right?
If you DO get a callback—congratulations! Unless instructed otherwise, keep as many of the presentation and portrayal choices you made in the initial audition. Do your thing, but remember to be flexible for unexpected direction, too.
I received a question recently from A.S.:
“What are some acting exercises I can do at home?”
First, I'd like to define what an acting exercise is: a process or activity that develops strength, dexterity, or skill in the art and craft of acting. That still covers a broad area, so now I want to break it up into two categories. I call them Targeted Training (like a workout routine) and Functional Training (think a general active lifestyle without going to the gym). For optimal “fitness” you'll want to incorporate some of each.
There are tons of ways to target train, and most of these can be done solo or with a partner. Here are a just a few:
Functional Training relies more on your everyday life. You don't necessarily have to carve out a specific time and space, but it does require a level of intentionality:
One more bonus “exercise” for you: study Scripture like you would a script. Take a scene and break it down. Analyze the people (characters) in the passage, and what is going on (action). What is being said, and why? What is the subtext? Is there any cross-referencing to other “source material” you can do to construct a framework for the current moment in the story? The Bible is crammed full of amazing stories that really happened and people who really lived. Let them come alive to you!
Happy exercising! :)