Auditions and Screen Tests

There are several types of auditions for film and television, but the most common is the screen test. The actor is given a page or two of a specific scene that will reveal at least one aspect of their character. They will then be given ample time (about 30 minutes) to review the script pages and rehearse their lines.

When its time to film the actor, the director will review the character and the scene. The typical items discussed are the character’s “moment before,” their “fighting fors” and their goal or motivation. Sometimes a director will also review the conflict within the scene, but that is typically left for the actor to determine, as the shifting of power at key points within the dialog is up to interpretation.

Sometimes the actor will be auditioned with an actor that is already contracted on the picture. Other times, they will play across from a neutralized actor – One who reads the lines in a monotone, so as to not give the actor any interpretation of the scene.

The goal of the director during the screen test is to learn if he can work with the actor. To do so, he will give various adjustments to the actor and learn if he gets what he is looking for. The interaction between the actor and the director makes up 75%of the casting decision. After all, only those who can act are brought in for screen tests.

The shooting set up typically includes a camera and a boom microphone. Lights are seldom a part of the screen test, although many studio pictures that use lights will also incorporate costumes and sets. The camera and boom mic help to establish the right level of acting and response (voice volume and movement) from the actor.

If the screen test is treated like a stage audition, the actor’s motions and voice will be too big and give an inaccurate reading of his performance. This may completely undermine the process of the screen test, but will still give the director an opportunity to interact with the actor.

Unfortunately, few independent casting calls are set up to give the director what is needed to determine who should be cast. Auditions turn more into a competition of personalities and a measurement of who has the longest list of credits. This type of audition typically finds an upset director well into the shoot once he realizes a couple of the actors are very wrong for the roles, as he watches the roles conform to the actor’s whims or his desire for a certain type of clip for his demo reel.

The key to a good screen test is to create a shooting environment that includes interaction between the director and actor. They need to learn if they gel and if the actor can give the subtle performance that the director requires in those difficult character development scenes. Few independent directors actually walk away with this type of knowledge from the screen test, as they don’t have a clue of how to conduct the audition.

I auditioned last Saturday for a role in a webisode that is to be shot in the spring. The audition was handled like a stage play, but taped for later review. There was no interaction with the director during the performance, nor was any instruction given. This typically suggests they were just looking for who has some form of raw talent for future projects, rather than looking for specific things for the webisodes. In fact, they even mentioned the myriad of projects they have in queue.

The audition was a common one for theater, which is very uncommon for screen. Each actor was asked to prepare a monologue rather than working with script pages from the story. The camera was far enough back to cause the actor to project his voice, rather than giving the intimate performance that cinema requires. Stage audition styles are actually more common than you’d think with independents, because most only have high school experience conducting an audition for the stage.

My directing experience suggests that a five-minute conversation with an actor can give me more of a glimpse into his performance than what the “cattle call” stage type of audition would give me. After all, cinema is about intimacy, not projection. It is also about interaction with the director with every performance, unlike the stage actor who only prepares with the director and then performs on his own with every open curtain.

The stage audition style is also detrimental to the actors, who need the immediate feedback of their performance. While amateur directors tend to only suggest improvements, actors need verification that the director got the exact performance and shot he needed or the actor’s performance will start to waver and weaken as shooting continues.

The actor is counting on the director to only keep the one take that makes them look good and will trust the director to tell them when that shot is achieved. The actor needs to take the guessing work out of the shoot, so everyone can perform at their peak. This also holds true for screen tests.

The silent director is the one who actors should avoid like the plague, especially during screen tests. After all, if the director can’t interact during the inexpensive audition process, how will he interact when he’s burning thousands of dollars an hour during a shoot and has to meet a deadline. It won’t bode well for the actor.

Copyright © 2011 By CJ Powers
Photo © seandeburca –

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