Zooming in on auditions

Technology | Christi Carras 5 Oct 2020

While auditioning for a family Christmas commercial, actors Elizabeth Bemis and Gabriel Villanueva made a bold choice. After hitting their marks and delivering their lines as a married couple, the pair leaned in for a quick peck on the lips.

The sweet, unscripted moment lasted less than a second, but elicited quite a reaction. "What was that?!" exclaimed the casting director from behind his mask and face shield. "Can't do that unless you're quarantining together!" quipped the camera operator.

Actually, Bemis and Villanueva couldn't have auditioned at all - let alone kissed - unless they were quarantining together. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the entertainment industry to adapt to stricter health and safety protocols.

Often that involves auditioning remotely via Zoom or self-tapes, which actors film from their homes and submit online. In this case, it meant auditioning in person - with a quarantine buddy - for characters required to come within two meters of each other.

As Hollywood begins to resume production, actors and casting directors are navigating a whole new world for auditions: socially distanced studio layouts, elaborate self-tape setups and Zoom meetings.

The self-tape has long been a staple of the Hollywood casting process, but the recent dearth of in-person opportunities has pushed actors to step up their home video skills - acquiring ring lights, iPhone tripods, backdrops and other accessories to keep up with their remote competition.

"Self-taping at home is more anxiety-provoking, stressful, cumbersome than coming here and doing it in person," said Villanueva - who described one of their home setups as "a very sophisticated stacking of cardboard boxes." "You would think it'd be more convenient to just do it at home, but it's really not."

In addition to playing the role, actors must now also become producers, editors, readers, camera operators and directors when shooting from home.

Said actress Jocelyn Hall: "When we do get a chance to go in person, I love it because I don't have to think about any of the technical aspects."

One major upside of filming your own audition is, of course, the number of do-overs you get to land the material.

"Now that self-tapes are the new normal, you can deliver your best tape," said casting director Julia Kim. "You could practice as much as you want behind the scenes and settle on the tape that you want to deliver to us. So right there, you have the advantage."

Casting Society of America board member Zora DeHorter has been impressed by performers repurposing their home environments as makeshift sets - shooting a forest scene in a nearby park, for example, or a hitchhiking sequence on a road with a real car.

"Now I feel like there are more actors going above and beyond and going to a location, setting it up, getting into it and adding music. I'm blown away now by some of the stuff I've seen."

While auditioning for family projects from home, actress Colleen Bowling, her husband and their four children have become especially creative with self-tapes - browsing Target for toy commercial props, building a fire in their backyard for a summer-camp sequence and even sprinkling in voiceover effects to convey inner thoughts.

"I feel like it's challenging us," Bowling said. "It's allowed us to get really smart about the industry quickly - forcing us to do our own technology and editing. We've really become pros on iMovie."

Out of the pandemic, a new strain of audition horror stories has emerged: the botched Zoom call.

"There's that awkwardness that happens quite often," DeHorter said, "where they're not grasping the technology part of how to unmute and then, sometimes, even leave the meeting."

Crowded waiting rooms have been replaced with virtual ones on Zoom, where actors have no choice but to stare blankly at their competition through muted, Brady Bunch-style boxes at all times - lest they miss their visual cue to enter the online audition room.

"Normally if you come in [to the studio], sometimes you'll chat with another actor, or even if you don't, it's not weird," Bemis said. "But there's something about being on Zoom that makes it uncomfortable because you're just, like, staring at each other."

For the most part, though, actors and casting directors agree that video chatting is an effective alternative to live auditions.

Casting director Carla Hool, who often works with international talent, is used to interacting with actors remotely. Still, certain advanced aspects of the process, like chemistry reads typically staged with multiple actors in proximity, are near "impossible to have right now without breaking the rules."

"I do miss getting to know the actor's personality. They come in and talk, and I get to see another part of them - not just that take of that scene. So that is lost," said Hool. "At least right now with Zoom, you can see them. It's easier, but it's still not the same as being in the room and seeing the actor in person."

One loophole some agents and casting professionals have used to screen actors is the quarantine package: small groups of talent who are already living together and can safely audition together.

A recent commercial casting call at the 200 South casting studio invited real-life couples and sisters to play a father, mother and two daughters celebrating the holidays.

Actors were required to wait outside before their audition time, wear face coverings until they were on camera and bring their own props - Christmas ornaments - to avoid contamination.

"The first thing is to err on the side of safety," said Ross Lacy, casting director and owner of 200 South.

To encourage social distancing between actors, the vast waiting room was covered in masking tape X marks spaced two meters apart and color-coded according to audition room.

Printed guidelines posted throughout the mostly vacant, 13,000-square-foot facility reminded visitors to utilize the ubiquitous hand-sanitizing stations, maintain a distance from camera operators and assistants - who wore shields and face coverings at all times - and "cancel without fear" of retribution should they feel uncomfortable auditioning in person.

"There's no grudge held by us if someone can't come in or doesn't feel comfortable coming in," Lacy said. "To the actors, I would say: 'Don't do anything that you don't feel safe doing. If you get to an audition and it's crowded, speak up and say something.'"

Comfort didn't seem to be an issue for the talent auditioning that day, all of whom appreciated the extra precautions taken by 200 South to keep everyone safe. Many preferred acting alongside their real loved ones, as opposed to being paired on the spot with a stranger.

"I do like doing auditions with my sisters," said 12-year-old Chloe Bowling, speaking through a hot-pink face mask.

"I hope that stays[after the pandemic] because it's easy. I feel I can relate more to them instead of getting another person to pretend to be my sister,"

Other elements of the new casting normal that directors and actors would like to continue post-pandemic are spacious waiting rooms, more productive Zoom meetings and less commuting - as well as a newfound sense of camaraderie between all the filmmakers, casting professionals and performers just doing their best under unprecedented circumstances.

"It's crazy how, in every single department - every single aspect of our lives - it's just not going to be back to the way it was," Hool said.

"I don't think things are ever going to go back to exactly the way they used to be."

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

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