Focusing on actor headshots
Your headshots will be seen by more people in a position to hire you than will ever meet you face to face. They are your surrogate. They represent you when you aren’t in the room. They represent you on a computer screen, in a sea of similar actors submitted for the same role. Therefore they must be very good.
But what makes a good actor headshot?
There are many components that go into creating a compelling headshot. Five essentials that you can focus on are below.
Your headshots must capture your essence, you experiencing a moment – a genuine emotion. And, your portfolio of shots needs to represent the various types of characters you can believably play. Anything else is frankly a waste of your time and money.
Think of your headshot as a “1-second short film.” It must convey tone, character, and tell a story. This is true for Commercial shots, and especially with Theatrical (TV & Film) shots.
Telling these stories begins with you understanding your believable casting types; how you are perceived by others. When an actor walks into a casting office their essence is immediately perceived. Our essence is our kernel. Your essence is something you should embrace and use to your advantage. For example, if you find you are frequently called in for and book the doctor role or the best friend role, that should tell you something. Use it to your advantage.
Most of us have a blind spot to our casting types and need some guidance, either in a workshop setting or with someone very experienced in this way of thinking. We perceive ourselves differently than how others see us, how the world sees us. Unless they are in the business friends and family will have a hard time discerning this too; they know you too well and do not see you in the same way someone in casting would. You need to have objective, accurate information to accurately represent yourself and your believable types, in your headshots.
The Eyes Have It
So, what is that stand-out quality in a headshot that connects with the viewer, that draws them in?
You’ve heard the quote, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Your headshot must connect to the viewer by inviting them in with your eyes. If the viewer’s focus goes to another area of your photo they should always come back to your eyes. Therefore the eyes must be engaging, have a spark and an emotional life in them.
Your eyes are also your key tool for communicating what I’ll touch on in another section, Acting in Your Headshots. It is through your eyes you divulge your secret, show that vulnerability, or convey confidence. Like on-camera acting, the moments you capture in headshot sessions should be subtle and nuanced. This is primarily expressed through the eyes.
Dress the Part
Once you know your types it’s time to prepare to convey those types in the headshot session. Write down 2-3 specific looks you want to capture. Once the looks are refined, pick wardrobe those people would wear. Examples should be observed in real life and on screen. Find out how these people and professionals are being wardrobed in film, TV and commercials.
Now I don’t mean a costume like a doctor’s coat or police uniform. Nothing says amateur to a casting professional than an actor wearing a lab coat in their headshot. (This may be new information for some and not for others. Because actors and photographers continue to do it, it bears repeating.)
Instead, think of your headshots as “flexible.” By that I mean depending on your believable types and your shot, you could use a “professional suit shot” for a doctor, banker, business person, lawyer, stock broker, and possibly a detective submission. With that approach you have 1 picture that could represent you for 5 or possibly 6 types of roles. Give the casting professionals credit for being creative. Hint at your character type. They will fill in the rest depending on the role you are submitted for. There’s more flexibility in a character type shot that is hinted at rather than branded for only one type of role.
Acting in Your Headshots
Remember your shots are not you simply smiling or looking serious. They are you experiencing a real moment, a genuine emotion. They are you acting. Prepare thoughts, secrets and scenarios that these people/professionals would be experiencing and use them during the photo shoot. Think of it as a script or subtext for the shoot. This is where your acting work comes into creating your headshots. You can use these thoughts/scenarios/subtext as a mantra or touchstone when you’re working in front of the camera to inspire grounded acting choices and guide you in capturing the images you are striving for. Without these guides you may become distracted shooting and find you end up with the same generic expressions in a series of photos of you in different outfits, which will not make for a strong or effective portfolio of shots.
Hiring Your Collaborator
Choosing the right photographer can be daunting. It is important to find someone who knows the importance of and is skilled at capturing compelling actor headshots.
When reviewing a headshot photographer’s work, ask yourself, do their shots from actor to actor look all the same or general? Their portfolio should have examples of actors experiencing believable moments and genuine emotions that set off one actor from another, even those with similar physical traits. Look for examples in their work that show individual actors representing their distinctly different believable types.
Clear communication between you and your photographer is crucial. They need to understand the purpose of the different character types you want to achieve, how to capture each of them distinctly, and most importantly how to coach you in the process so you may deliver the necessary genuine, nuanced emotion.
Your photographer needs to understand this approach and be able to capture a moment that shows your essence uniquely. The payoff comes when your shot is lined up with 5 or 10 other similar actors being considered for the same role and your essence – how you represent this type they’re looking for – shines over the others, and gets you in the room for that audition or agent interview.
You are looking for a photographer who will coach you as an actor and not work with you as a model.
Remember that headshots are a business investment. A lot of time and money go into shooting, retouching, formatting for print and the web, and printing the shots. When you multiply that by the number of looks you want to capture it adds up quickly. Use your time, money and effort effectively.
Here’s another expression, “Luck favors the prepared.” The better prepared you are for your shoot the better chance you have at getting your best, most compelling shots, those that set you apart from everyone else being considered for the same roles.
5 Headshot Focus Essentials – Recap
If you’re unfamiliar with bull riding, the goal of the rider is to stay on this massive, angry, leaping animal for eight seconds. There are other rules and scoring is involved, but the point here is the length of time; eight seconds. “But, I’m an actor. What does this have to do with me?” Bear with me.
A few years ago Microsoft did a study that concluded that the average human attention span is eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish. Yes, a goldfish. “Again, what does this have to do with me or my demo?” The point is most people don’t spend much time focusing on things. When you take into account individuals such as Casting Directors who are asked to do their jobs in less time and for less money than in the past, you can bet if they have the luxury of watching actor demos when working on a project, they will be moving quickly. “How can you be so sure of that?” Well, I did my own study.
While living in Los Angeles for 15 years and attending a multitude of Casting Director Workshops I along with the other event attendees took these opportunities to get as much sacred and professional information from CDs as possible. I can’t think of a time when questions about demos did not come up. When asked how much of an actor’s demo they watch before moving on, the responses were between 3 to 8 seconds. Yippee ki-yay! Let that sink in. Casting Directors, the gatekeepers to television and film productions, who, along with agents, are the people who we create demos for, will watch your demo for 3 to 8 seconds before determining if you are right for their project and either move on or, if they really like what they see, continue watching. These few seconds are as important to the bull rider as they are to the actor.
After accepting this sobering fact, you might wonder what you can do to make a strong first impression. So much can be said about what goes into creating an effective demo. It’s important for actors to know the different types of demos; how to best incorporate their name, show titles or graphics; how to acquire and choose material; how to edit selections with a discerning eye; and how to make the final cut available for viewing, but for this blog I will focus on the basic principles of an effective demo and how to stand out in those crucial first few seconds.
Demos need to be short and competitive
One thing I heard from both CDs and agents is that your demo should be short, ranging from one to two minutes, definitely no more than two and a half minutes. Demos must also be competitive, meaning they look professional. The acting, audio, lighting, etc. should have the quality of what the viewer would see in film or on television.
Only your best material
Actors should think of their demo as the "Insert-Your-Name-Here Show." It is all about you, and it should be unmistakable to the viewer whose demo they are watching. This means your demo should be edited so you are the focus, with each scene highlighting your work, going so far as to have the first and last image in each scene be of you. CDs are not interested in the story of the show or film or scene. Plot, build, story arc are not important. This allows you to abbreviate your scenes, selectively excluding others actors’ screen time, exposition, etc. to show what is important, your best material. Over and over in these workshops CDs repeated the same sentiment; the focus should be on you, your work with no filler, no fat, only the meat. This work is of course you acting; genuinely engaging with and reacting to a scene partner, listening, being in the moment. Knowing that, actors should exclude montages. From a Casting Director’s perspective a montage is seen as filler or fat, and should be avoided. Though these are brief moments of you captured on camera they do not represent an actor doing their best work.
Leave them wanting more
With all that in mind, if you have 3 to 8 seconds to make a good impression, the first scene of your demo will most likely begin on a shot of you, right as you are delivering some very compelling work. The scene progresses, but not for too long, and ends on a shot of you, leaving the viewer wanting more. To revisit that idea of the viewer not needing to know the story, don’t feel the need to give them closure or show the scene’s conclusion. Show them the meat and move on leaving them wanting to see or know more. Them wanting more will hopefully result in calling you in for an audition or a meeting.
So little time, don’t waste it on a title card
Because the overall length of the demo is so vital, and especially those first few seconds, it is important that actors avoid using an opening title card (your name, union affiliations, contact info, headshot, etc.). Beginning your demo with a title card instead of immediately showing you doing your best work is not you representing yourself effectively. If 3 to 8 seconds is all you’ve got to get the viewer’s attention, don’t waste that precious time with information that can either be put at the end of your clip or accessed by the viewer on whatever website they are viewing your demo on. Including the information at the top of the video might seem professional and efficient; however, it’s actually a hindrance and keeps you from getting out of the gate fast.
Actor demos is a big subject. There is a lot more to cover. Keep an eye out for additional blogs, or feel free to contact me to schedule a consulting session to address information specific to your situation.
It’s that time of year… Yes, the holidays, but also the time to begin focusing on the New Year. How was your 2018? Was it as productive as you’d planned? How is next year shaping up? Now is the time to start preparing for a more focused and productive 2019.
I recently met with a new client. He wanted to talk about getting his materials together and creating a website. He wants to begin marketing himself more effectively locally and in other markets. He laid out his thoughts, the materials he has and those he needs to obtain, and asked me what I thought. I told him, “That’s exactly what you need to be doing right now.” The business, no matter what size market you are in, slows down at the end of the year. That doesn’t mean the actor’s work should slow down. By all means, enjoy the holidays, relax, spend time with friends and family but keep in mind things will start up again soon. Take advantage of the quiet time to focus on tasks you’re not able to during the busier time of year.
What kind of tasks? The end of year lull is the perfect time for you to establish new goals. Take some time to think about how things went this year. What were your accomplishments? (Remember to celebrate them.) What would you like to accomplish in the coming year? Write down the incremental steps that will lead to those achievable goals.
Another assignment you can give yourself – headshots. Are you happy with your shots? Are they up to date – do you look like your shots? Are they effective – are you being called in after submitting them? If it’s time for a change, this is the perfect time of year to research photographers, define your believable types and the specific shots you would like to have to represent yourself.
Have you been feeling out of shape as an actor, wanting to challenge yourself or try something new? You can research training opportunities during this down time. And you don’t have to just focus on on-camera training or monologue and scene work. If you’ve had your share of that for a while look to an improv class, or singing or dance lessons. Find other creative outlets that will inspire you to make bold choices or add to your skills as an actor.
You could also be researching playwrights and reading plays to find and begin working on new monologues. Times change and so does your age range. Have you been doing the same pieces for years? Are you concerned about showing the same piece to a director, writer and or casting director for the second or third time? Have you wanted to work on a new and different playwright’s material? There are many reasons to find new pieces. Another great one is to be challenged by something new.
You can also do as my new consulting client is doing and create a website. Establish a spot on the web that is all yours, curated by you. Give people a location they can go to find out more about you, what you’ve done, what you’re doing, what you’ll be doing next. Create your virtual portfolio to display your work samples; resume, headshots, production shots, demos. You are a business, and most businesses have a website. Last point I’ll make on websites – I had a director from out of state contact me this year, out of the blue. He was directing a show in Minnesota. He was having difficulty filling a role and Googled “Minnesota actors.” I appeared in the results and he was able to find out who I am, what I’ve done, what I was working on at the time, and see work samples to determine if I was right for his project. He emailed me through my website and we scheduled an audition for his project.
Each of these actor tasks, and many others, can be done throughout the year. However, this quiet time is the perfect opportunity to pick one or two projects to focus on, while you have more time to work in earnest, as opposed to when the industry is in full swing. Take advantage of it. It will ramp up before you know it!
Self taped auditions are incredibly popular these days with on-camera projects. With the accessibility of equipment, user friendly technology and the fast pace of the industry actors are frequently asked to submit a recording of their initial audition, and callback too sometimes, to be considered for television and film projects. They are especially useful when an actor is in a different location than those making the creative decisions. Theatre companies are sometimes willing to have actors send in video to be considered for stage productions for similar reasons. This got me thinking; if actors pursuing on-camera work have on-camera reels to represent their work, shouldn’t stage actors have the same tools at the ready as well?
Now, there are issues with stage actors using filmed stage productions to represent their work. So to be clear, that’s not what I am suggesting. When a performance is captured on camera, especially if it is for professional or promotional purposes, the viewer will expect good production value, meaning a clean, sharp image and clear sound. Because of the way stage productions are lit, along with the distance the actors are from the camera(s) and microphone(s) the actor’s work never translates well for the camera. Another issue with recording stage work is if you or any other actor in a production are members of Actors’ Equity, the union has strict policies on recording performances, and the use of those recordings. The types of video clips I am referring to are those of a stage actor’s audition pieces, normally done in the room, that they can send to an auditor, just as an actor submitting for an on-camera project would send a scene from their reel that shows they are suitable for the role they’d like to be considered for. Think of it as having those hip pocket pieces of yours ready to go, but these are on your hard drive going long distances rather than in the room when someone asks, “What else have you got?”
When I was in Los Angeles working as an actor and recording self tapes for actors I had a regular client, a wonderful stage actor, who frequently submitted auditions to regional theaters. They would supply him the sides as a casting director for on-camera projects would, and we would record and submit them. More recently though, living in the Twin Cities area, I had a client come in who wanted to record a monologue and song to submit to a theatre company in a different market. After talking with this actor and brainstorming on the subject I thought if an actor living in one market wants to try their hand at or is already being considered for projects in another market, why wouldn’t they have the same materials they have prepared to walk in an audition room with, pre-recorded and ready to send to these remote auditors? With a quality recording set-up an actor could record their contemporary dramatic monologue; their contemporary comedic monologue; comedic Shakespeare or other classical playwright; dramatic Shakespeare or other classical playwright; their contemporary dramatic song; contemporary comedic song; their ballad (you get the picture). The actor can then have these grouped in clips according to type of audition (contrasting contemporary, contrasting contemporary/classical, monologue/song, etc.), or with the ease and speed of today’s technology they also have the ability to tailor the pieces to an auditor’s needs with a quick edit before sending it off. Now of course the actor can always record these on an as needed basis and then submit them. The big benefit I see to having them ready to go at a moment’s notice is the actor does not then have to go through the stress and time it takes of putting everything into action to get their pieces recorded, edited and sent off. This is especially important if an opportunity comes quickly with only a brief period of time to respond. With their material ready on the hard drive or stored on Vimeo or YouTube all the actor has to do is prep an email and “Send.” And with a quick response time and quality material to represent their work, the actor will look that much more professional.
Years ago I was taught when doing a monologue for an audition to always have another one ready if they should want to see more of your work. If the auditors requested one piece, have a second ready. If two were requested, have a third.
This practice proved to be true years ago at an audition for a large regional theater. They had requested two contrasting pieces. This was a big opportunity for me, my first for this company. I knew I needed to be more prepared than I’d ever been, so I had five ready. The two contrasting pieces went well. She asked if I had something else I could show her. After that she asked for another. When we were done I’d shown her four of the five pieces I’d prepared. A rapport had been established, which lead to a relationship with the theater and the auditor, who I would work with as a director in a few years time.
This week the practice played out in a different way. This company asked to see one contemporary piece. I had a second ready. After beginning my piece I got to a point about a third of the way through when I experienced every actor’s nightmare - I went up. This hasn’t happened in years. I can’t remember the words. For me, in times like this, I start to function on two different levels. I continue to do the piece trying to redirect where it needs to go; find a way or the words to get to the next moment. So, part of me is still in the piece experiencing the moment, doing the work, while the actor inside begins to work incredibly quickly trying to find the thought, the words that will compel the piece to move in the direction it needs to. The image that came to mind was me (in my head) taking a series of hard drives, one at a time from a shelf and putting them in the slot to discover, “That’s not it.” Take it out. Try the next one. “That’s not it.” Repeat. This of course happens in a flash yet feels like an eternity. I could not find it. I knew if I continued it was going to look like an actor riffing, go way off course, and result in me crashing and burning. This is of course bad, but I’m also auditioning for two directors, one of whom I worked with years ago. I also knew if I restarted the piece I was not certain I would be able to remember the line, and I'd end up in the same place. I very quickly and professionally stopped and said, “I’m going to do another one.” I efficiently turned, took a chair, placed it and sat down to begin the other piece I’d prepared. This one went well, so well I was shocked considering what I’d experienced seconds before.
This had never happened to me before. No class or words of wisdom ever prepared me for that moment. I hope I, or any other actor never experiences it. I know having years of auditioning experience, having to respond quickly to the unexpected helped. But what saved me was being able to quickly go to the other piece I had ready.
Actor Demo Lengths
I've had a few demos in my 15 years in Los Angeles. I'm happy to say the material has improved over time as the quality of projects I've been fortunate enough to work on has improved. Having picked the brains of casting directors over the years, worked with my agent on my demos and viewed many an actor demo I feel I've formulated some worthy opinions on the subject. Recently on an actor-centric Facebook group the subject of demo lengths came up. An actor in Vancouver said people there were recommending 6 minutes as a length for actor demos. He asked the members of the group what their thoughts and experiences were. After adding my 2 cents I thought that would be a nice first endeavor at something I've been putting off, the blog. So, here is my first, and hopefully not my last, blog entry.
"No one will watch a 6 minute demo except person who is using it to represent themselves or that person's mother. A minute and a half to 2 minutes has become the norm. I don't know why anyone would suggest anything longer than that unless they've been in the business since the 80s and have a strong emotional connection to the work they've amassed, which frankly the people casting today, producers included, don't have the time or patience to watch. Casting directors I've spoken with have repeated emphatically when it comes to demos they want to see "the meat and no fat," meaning your BEST work as an actor even if that includes editing down the scene to exclude the other actor's work, even if they are a known talent. No filler. No one-liners. No you giving George Clooney the keys to a Maserati on the Vegas strip saying, "Your keys, sir." or worse, nothing at all. The professionals watching these videos don't have time to watch anything other than your best work, in a brief period of time, and the actor as a professional doesn't have time to show them anything other than their best work."
One thing I didn't mention in the Facebook comment that I wanted to is no montages. They don't show the actor acting. They show the actor in different outfits with different expressions on their faces. Again, not acting. Montages fall under the "filler" category.
This only addresses the length of an actor demo, and some content to include and avoid. There is so much more to the subject I hope to address at another time that I include in my classes and workshops. For now, this is a start.
Casey E. Lewis, Owner