Let me be clear. There are many, many ways to get a good image and good sound in self-tapes. You could go nuts and shoot on a BlackMagic Cinema camera, and use asynchronous sound recording via the top Sennheiser microphones.
Or not. There are ways to get really really good images and sound using very basic, affordable equipment. Here are a few suggestions.
You’ve probably already figured this out, but even your circa-2015 smartphone is pretty much the ideal camera for self-tapes (so much the better if you’ve got a recent model). The footage will be right there, ready to send off… with, possibly, a few judicious tweaks:
Filmic Pro (or similar)
Sometimes, your native camera settings are going to leave you looking jaundiced, or washed out, or too deeply shadowed.
And maybe your reader’s voice has a kinda booming (or conversely, murmuring) quality.
No worries. With a relatively recent smartphone, you can use a film-making app to adjust these levels (both light and sound) before you hit send.
Honestly? I need to get hip to these apps. Please send me your tips. Because round-tripping your footage through an external editor (I’ve been using the free version of Davinci Resolve, which I learned for my gorilla filmmaking) can be a pain. And a time suck. And earlier submissions are worth the time learning a new app. Right?
So, on to your supporting equipment:
Clip on Zoom Lens
59mm or 60mm cellphone clip-on lenses are a great way to flatter your face, and keep your shot within the backdrop without having to crop in post. You can clip this lens onto most cell-phones, tablets and even laptop cameras.
This attachment is for your standard medium close-up shot. You’ll want to remove it for a “cowboy” (knees to top of head) or full-body slate. (Which, by the way, can be handily shot in vertical mode by turning your camera.)
Blue and grey are two preferred colors for self-tapes. This pop-up backdrop has both. You’ll need a way to rig it at the right height behind your head (and yes, balancing it on a stack of cardboard boxes works). It can be folded down (tricky! but doable) from a huge 5′ x 6.5′ backdrop, to a reasonably sized case to stow away under your bed or sofa. Or…
Roller Shade – Neutral Backdrop
A pull-down roller shade can give you a nice clean backdrop. And grey is a good neutral color that flatters many skintones.
I bought this shade because I didn’t have an unfurnished wall big enough to use as my shooting area. During non-shooting days, it lives tucked away above my closet, rolled up and unobtrusive. And it’s a breeze to pull down and set up.
Just be sure to get a shade wide enough so that your framing doesn’t fall off the sides of the backdrop. I suggest at least 52″ wide, and enough length so that it hits the floor (so your full body slates — or at least cowboy shot slates — are covered).
Ring Light & Cellphone Stand
A ring light is an ideal primary light source if you are going to work exclusively in a medium close-up. The light is soft and flattering, and makes your eyes sparkle. Great especially for comedy, romantic comedy, and commercial work.
And… I will admit I never use these. For me, I like the old-school three point lighting. So, I use:
Daylight LED Bulbs
For fill light in your medium close-up, or for your primary sources for a wider shot (for example, your full body slate), you’ll need nice bright lights, softened with some diffusion. There are many, many variations on LED fixtures. You want very bright, dimmable, daylight bulbs, so you don’t start to look jaundiced. LED’s save energy, and are more affordable in the long run. CEC’s are the most color-accurate.
Sure, you could buy a fancy barn-doored LED light that’s meant to be portable, travelling to set, but you’d still need to power it, and let’s face it, they aren’t pretty. Why not just put a truly excellent bulb into one of your existing fixtures? You’ll still need to figure out diffusion, but more on that below…
Diffusion, on the Cheap
You need diffusion. Most affordable cameras (and definitely laptop cameras) need a lot of light to produce crisp images. And bright light can be super harsh. Enter the humble Chinese Paper Lantern. You’ll be amazed at how crisp, yet soft your face looks when you put one of these on a nice bright daylight bulb. For starters, they are so much more affordable than investing in diffusion cloth and frames or soft boxes. And they look good enough to just leave out around the house if you don’t want to pack your home studio away after every shoot. Use any old stray table lamps or floor lamps that you can press into service to house and power your LED bulbs with Chinese Lantern Diffuser/Shade. You might have to McGyver the lantern onto the lamp’s harp a little, but — hey! — you’re creative and you have twist ties laying about. You can do this!
You’ll also want to the ability to adjust your light to fit the scene. If I’m auditioning for a comedy, I’m most likely framed by my blue backdrop with the light cranked. If I’m auditioning for a grieving widow, I’m more likely to be framed with grey, with the light dimmed a bit, and some gentle shadows allowed on my face.
Always use a lav mic when you’re shooting a self-tape. Always.
You want the casting director to be able to hear the lovely, fully nuanced flow of your voice, and not a bunch of background noise. A one mic, lavalier set-up will favor your performance and not your reader’s, so think about where to place the reader so their dialogue is audible as well. If you want to get really fancy, and mic both you and your reader, you can use the solution below:
Wireless Lavalier Set
This is my set up. A little more expensive, a little more complex, but it’s got great sound, good battery life, and if I have to leave the shooting space to check a take, or go get some water, I don’t have to remember to unplug and replug my audio (avoiding the “hello! whoops!” ruined takes because the wire wasn’t plugged in again). And because it’s a two microphone set-up, I can mic my reader separately. This set conveniently comes with adapters for cellphones and DSLR cameras (so if you upgrade your camera, you’re still covered).
Okay. Go forth. Get your set-up nailed down. You’ll be so glad when the audition comes in and you’re not scrambling to create your in-home studio. Because when it’s go-time, your focus should be on your inner life and your given circumstances. Not on the damn tripod or lavalier connections.