If talking about slates, lighting and camera positions make you shudder, you’ve come to the right place. BAFTA and Sundance nominated CDA casting director, Shakyra Dowling sat down with us this week to share the secrets to successful self-taped auditions.
Who is Shakyra Dowling Casting and what kind of work do you cover?
I’ve been casting since 2009, mainly specialising in independent film, along with some television and commercials. Originally trained as an actor, I quickly realised my true home was behind the camera helping to nurture new talent and find diverse and interesting people for filmmakers.
I am particularly passionate about championing women’s achievements in film, and also an advocate of diversity in casting. I get really excited when someone I have helped get their first break goes on to be a huge success (i.e. ‘is discovered’).
You are a powerhouse for diversity in casting. As an industry, this business can be cruel with a narrow vision. How do you promote diversity while meeting the needs of the production?
I try to offer a wide range of artists from all ethnic backgrounds for every role (unless, of course, the role is specific within the storyline). This way, we have options to discuss and are ‘colour blind’ casting.
Sometimes filmmakers just haven’t considered a different ethnicity, or that a woman could play one of the roles originally written as male (thereby increasing the number of females in the production overall) so by offering alternatives they hadn’t even considered, it opens up the casting process and makes it much more diverse and fresh.
Streaming services have had a major effect on the types of films that are produced. How has it affected the casting process? And has it resulted in more interesting stories?
I think that we are producing more and more content for so many different platforms and audiences that are far wider and more diverse than ever before. And with more content being consumed and more platforms to showcase it, filmmakers are given a greater opportunity to create stories that wouldn’t have seen their way into the mainstream audience or have been green lit previously. From a casting perspective it means that more actors can be seen for more varied roles. It’s an exciting time to be both a casting director and a filmmaker.
More frequently actors are being asked to self-taping auditions. How standard have they become?
Self-tapes are now the norm on all film and television castings. The first round of casting is usually done this way and it’s a great tool for us, as casting directors, because we can throw the net a lot wider than we could have done in the past. Many actors are getting seen for bigger roles than previously before (had they been relying on being invited to come in and audition), and casting directors can mitigate the risk of bringing someone unsuitable into the casting room (especially when they’re only seeing a small selection) because self-tapes allow them to bring the absolute best people for each role. It’s a win-win for the actor and us!
Has this made auditioning more inclusive?
Getting in the room is probably harder due to self-taping being used more and more. The good news is that if you do get in the room, it is like a call back rather than a first casting as we have already reviewed your tapes and think you are perfect for the role.
How do you make and submit a successful self-tape?
As we all know, technology isn’t always a good thing, and if you are anything like me, getting used to new things can slow you down massively! It’s best to have a test run on equipment before a self-tape for a big job comes along.
Here are my top tips on how to create the perfect self-tapes:
- Introduce yourself or have a slate with your name and the role. Keep this short but relaxed and let us see some of your natural personality.
- Name your files so the casting director can easily find you again e.g. JohnSmith_Waiter_Godfather.mov
- Have a reader in the room to read opposite you. Don’t have someone on Skype or worse still, a recording of your own voice. The best self-tapes are done with a reader there responding to you. It’s always a good idea to create a network of local actors who you feel comfortable with and can call on last minute to help out.
- Learn your lines. Do not read them off the phone, computer or tablet that you are using to record yourself on. We can actually tell when you do!
- If using a camera phone, it should always be LANDSCAPE. You can buy endless cheap desktop tripods that work perfectly. If using your computer, do not sit at your desk.
- Find a well-lit part of your house with a plain background. Don’t have pictures, windows, or wallpaper in the background.
- And probably one of the most important of them all is to prep prep prep – it needs to be a finished performance and as good as it would be if you were to come in the room. If it is not, don’t waste your time sending it at all as it will rarely, if ever, get you in the room.
- Finally, always read ALL of the instructions provided by the casting director. We take great care to specify exactly what we need for each production, and when you deviate from our instructions it may jeopardise your chance of that tape going further. If it says TRANSFER THE FILES then DO NOT upload to YouTube or Vimeo.
Do you have any advice about slates, camera position, lighting, using the reader effectively and submitting properly?
Slates definitely do make a self-tape look more professional and they can easily be added once you’ve shot your video. You can find apps that offer this service for iPhones and Androids. And if you’re using a computer, things like iMovies have these options built it. Do some research and practice! You’ll soon get the hang of it.
Lighting will depend on your room and what the outside conditions are like on the day. It’s a great idea to do some tests at different times of day in your usual self-tape location so you’re familiar with what works best for you. Natural light is great if the sun is shining (not into your eyes!) but on a dull grey Tuesday your shot won’t look the same.
I also recommend you have a contingency plan in advance of the day you are shooting. There is no need to buy expensive professional lighting, but do make sure you are not a silhouette. Having said that, there are plenty of cheap and simple lighting options available on the market now too. And lighting does make all the difference to a simple self-tape so it’s worth practising to get it right.
Is the rapport you get in the room with the actor lost with self-taping? How do you make up for this?
There is definitely something to be said about the opportunity to meet an actor in person. However, if you take the time to give a little bit of ‘you’ in your introduction, it gives us a chance to see your personality. Keep it short and sweet. Let your natural personality shine through. At least that’s what I like to see!
How do you prefer to be approached?
Being a busy casting director dealing with lots of different people and agents on a daily basis, email is always best. I don’t like actors using DMs on Twitter or trying to link with me on LinkedIn. Just send me a concise email and always pop a Spotlight link and thumbnail sized headshot on your signature.
What has been your favourite project to work on?
This is a hard one! I’m always in love with the project I am currently working on, and as soon as I’m on to the next thing then that becomes the one that I’m most passionate about. I always choose projects that I believe in! So perhaps I’ll just say, all of them. ☺
Have you set any goals for the next 10 years that you would be willing to share?
I don’t really do that – but maybe I should! Ask me next year and I’ll have some for sure.
How does your perfect day finish?
Now this is an easy one. It would usually involve watching a great movie or series! Oh and I always watch with my casting hat on!
About Shakyra Dowling
Casting Directors Assocation: www.castingdirectorsassociation.com