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Casting Notes #16: Making the Final Casting Decisions (For Filmmakers)

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.


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Making the Final Casting Decisions

Now comes the moment of truth.

By the way, “final casting decisions” may be a misnomer. As you’ll see in Part 17, your first choice may suddenly be unavailable, which leads to your second choice.

But this is still decision time. You can do it. And by ‘you,’ I mean the same creative team who was behind the callback decisions.

As before, the director or showrunner should get the deciding vote. However, the decision may not be obvious. The director may appreciate some perspective from the rest of the creative team.

Before meeting, all of you should try narrowing actors down with these questions:

Who’s the top choice for each role?
Yeah, this is the question some of you have been wanting to put off for the longest time — especially if the the casting director has given you a lot of choices.

What does ‘top choice’ mean? Ask yourself who’s going to be best at that particular role.

Remember any role has some essential attributes an actor needs to sell. That’s what you were testing in your auditions. Among all the contenders, you had the “green, yellow, and red” candidates, but like as not, there were one of two “green” candidates that you and your creative partners raved about. [1]

Sometimes you’re aided by the fact that one actor was good in Role A, but great in Role B, and you can’t see anyone else in Role B.

This realization is critical to building your cast — and one of the reasons you often don’t get the cast you were expecting, yet all your hard work results in a strong cast at the end of the process.

If you’re truly stuck on two different actors for one role, it’s probably because you found both actors were very strong at selling those essential attributes. [2] Now’s the time to step back and consider not just that character’s essential attributes, but how they relate and must relate to other characters. Understanding those key relationships and how the two actors sell that relationship can be crucial, which also leads to:

Will the top choices work with each other?
Don’t ignore this question! This is more than chemistry, though that’s a big part of “working with each other.” One of the biggest issues I find consistently arise in indie film productions and smaller theater productions is uneven casting. By this, I mean that it’s clear some actors are more experienced than others — or their acting styles are remarkably different and aren’t meshing.

A veteran actor can be generous and give younger actors a great deal to work with in a scene, but that sometimes depends on the temperament of the actor and skills of the director.

Who are the next choices?
You won’t want to do this and it hopefully won’t be important, but it’s all part of risk planning.  You want to think about other actors now versus when you suddenly need a replacement for your lead.

The reasons for this are multi-fold. Not only may your preferred actor be unavailable when you first contact them, they also may suddenly need to bow out because of an emergency.

Will those choices work with one another?
Don’t worry about figuring out every iteration of who will work with whom. There’s no reason to go through a neverending thought experiment on this. However, if you have a key relationship, especially between leads, it’s worth while to spend a moment considering if the new match will be uneven in any way (for the same reasons mentioned above).

Is everyone happy, or at least comfortable, with these choices?
If you’ve gone through all questions above diligently, this particular question should be answered. Nevertheless, it’s good to ask yourselves this question at the end. Nagging doubts and tingling spider senses should be voiced and addressed (though perhaps not always resolvable in that same meeting). Does one of your creative team really feel you need to call in more actors for one role? Do you all agree that you have the strongest cast you can have? [3]

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can move on to who will be contacting actors and what information to be conveyed, but that’s the focus of the next article.

###

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FOOTNOTE # 1: If you recall in part 11 about running the auditions themselves, I recommend always taking a minute after each audition to discuss the actor who just left the room. This is because, yes, you can remember the actor’s audition and, yes, you can review the tape — but you absolutely remember if you raved about a particular actor to your creative comrades. This happened for various actors for all of us while casting The Broken Continent. Enthusiasm counts.


FOOTNOTE # 2: It’s not uncommon for an actor to discover something about the character that you –even as the writer/director– may not have realized that still rings true to what you intended. You may find that actors sell a character’s essential attributes in much the same way OR you may find two actors find two ways to play a character that are different, but you find equally compelling. So long as the chosen actor’s approach meshes with the other actors and their approach, that’s fine.


FOOTNOTE # 3: Every project has a different timeline, so answering the question of if you have the strongest cast you can have is constrained by how soon you need to move into production. There have been many projects where I would have loved to have audition or outright cast certain actors and the schedules didn’t work out. You need to be prepared for that unhappy possibility.

How do I Register for Stonehenge Auditions 2017?!?

Stonehenge Auditions 2017 aka the sixteenth edition of the in-person mass auditions for film and video will be in Washington, DC on Monday, March 20th (hint: this link goes to the event information page, including an extensive actor FAQ and producer FAQ).

However, if you want to be direct like John Wick, this is the tactical page for you.

First things first: are you an actor or a producer?

PRODUCER?
If you’re a producer –by which we mean producer, casting director, or anyone looking to hire actors– you register for the in-person event on the WIFV website, just like last year.

Producer Registration is now open on the WIFV website and will remain open until noon on Friday, March 17th (i.e. the Friday before the Monday event).

Once you have registered for the in-person event, we’ll contact you about getting set up on Stonehenge Casting (we also have an article about getting producer access on Stonehenge Casting).

ACTOR?
All actors register for Stonehenge Auditions 2017 by going through Stonehenge Casting, not through WIFV.

If you’re an actor, DO go ahead and create or update your free profile on Stonehenge Casting. Remember, your profile needs to be 100% complete to be eligible for the lottery.

Registering for Stonehenge Auditions 2017, by which we mean the lottery to get a slot, is the same process as submitting to any other project on Stonehenge Casting (here’s the link to the article in case you’d missed it).

Specifically, you’ll want to go to the “Projects” tab once you log in. Then click on the project that looks something like this:

Note, there may be other projects at the time you register, but the name will be "Stonehenge XV Actor Registration."

Actor registration opens on Monday, February 13th and closes on Saturday, March 4th. It really doesn’t matter if you register early or not, as long as your profile is complete. Remember, if you register and your profile is incomplete, you won’t be eligible for the lottery. Take your time. Besides the FAQ on Stonehenge Casting, you can also take a look at the Stonehenge Casting How-Tos on this blog, including one about getting your profile baseline to 100% as well as how to get all your measurements.

When you register, please follow the listed directions.

That means in the “ROLE” field you don’t put any information on roles you might wish to play. You put conflicts (if any) you have during the audition times of 10am to 6pm on Monday, March 20th. We’ll do our best to schedule auditions based on those notes.

By reading the directions, you also know you do not put anything in the video audition field.

SC_S15_roles_and_video

Even if you’ve already submitted: Make sure your profile is 100% Complete
This is a requirement to be eligible for the Stonehenge Auditions lottery and the one most actors are missing.

There’s a handy bar that displays at the right of each page of the actor/performer profile.

Completion Percentage

The completion percentage is different from the required fields and does not mean you need to fill out every last field in the profile.

As mentioned in the submission instructions, the Stonehenge Casting FAQ about Completion percentage lists all the fields you need to fill out to make your profile 100%. Again, those are:

Basic Information

  • First Name
  • Last Name
  • Screen/Stage Name (Yes OR No)

Projects and Preferences

  • Logline
  • Types of Work
  • Types of Compensation

Contact Information

  • Email
  • Telephone
  • Telephone Type
  • ZIP code
  • State
  • City

Appearance

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Hair Color
  • Eye Color
  • Races or Ethnicities
  • Age Range
  • ALL Measurements (put N/A in any that don’t apply to you)

Vocal & Language Skills

  • Not required for completion percentage

Physical & Athletic Skills

  • Not required for completion percentage

Union Status & Availability

  • Willing to work background (Yes OR No)

Special Information

  • Car available for background (Yes OR No)
  • Dog available for background (Yes OR No) Special Skills (Yes OR No)

(Can you tell producers sometimes use our site for background performers?)

Attachments and Links

  • Headshot
  • Resume
  • Demo Reel (Yes OR No)

The two sections actors seem to be missing the most are their logline (which has a how-to article) and their measurements: ALL TWELVE of their measurements.

Wrapping up
Remember, if you’re an actor or a producer, we have a page all about Stonehenge Auditions 2017, including links to an extensive Actor FAQ and Producer FAQ.

Thanks for reading and we hope to see you at the Henge.

Finding Audition Videos of DC-Area Actors

Casting, more often than not, is on a tight schedule. It’s one of the reasons we here at Team J love developing rosters of talent.

But while the concept of rosters is all well and good, you still need tactics for how to find the right actor to call in and audition as fast as possible (assuming the client didn’t give you a last-minute requirement and you need the talent for the shoot tomorrow!)

So for those of you in the DC area, here’s one tool to add to your bag of tricks:

Check out the actor’s audition videos.

Team J has been running the Stonehenge Auditions since 2005 and posting the videos of said auditions online since 2006.

You can visit our YouTube channel and scroll through the names. Alternately, you could just type in an actor’s name and “Stonehenge” and you’ll see if they have a Stonehenge audition.

We have over 700 auditions online, but bear in mind, actors can write us at any time and ask for an old audition video to get taken down (usually because they don’t think that video still showcases their best work).

We’re happy to hear that the Actors’ Center film and video auditions are now online as well so you should be able to do the same thing on their YouTube page.

When to use this casting tactic
As much fun as just randomly clicking on videos can be, we’re assuming you’ll want to use this in when you have limited time. Here’s some actual use cases we’ve used and other producers have told us they’ve used.

1) If someone tells you about Jane Actress and you want to quickly see their work

Let’s say you’re at a party. You mention the project you’re working on and you mention you’re looking for an actress who has both clowning and stage combat experience.

“Jane Actress is great at both,” your friend says. When you get home –or perhaps even then and there on your smartphone– you type their name into the YouTube search. Bam!

2) If you’ve narrowed down headshots/resumes to a handful of names and want to see them act

You’ve put out the call for headshots/resumes and received a bundle. You’ve pared down the contenders based on look and the experience they list on paper… but are they really a fit? Checking out some of their recent auditions might help you know before you call them in yourself.

Open a link to the Stonehenge YouTube channel and open a link to the Actor’s Center channel and search the name both places.

Similar Tactics You Can Use
Obviously, you could just plug in their names into a Google search, you might get their website which might have clips, or just clips in general. We’re not saying don’t do that.

What we are saying is that going right to the Stonehenge Auditions or Actors’ Center channel and searching will automatically cut down on some of the irrelevant search results.

For those of you producers who use Stonehenge Casting, Team J’s online casting system, we also keep on pushing the actors to list their clips and demo reels. They can list up to five and you can do a search just for profiles with videos. As of this writing, about 570 do, but obviously we’d like that number higher.

So there you have it: one more casting tool for your toolbox. We’ll be posting more in the months ahead.

How do I Register for Stonehenge XV?!?

Stonehenge XV aka the fifteenth edition of the in-person mass auditions for film and video will be in Washington, DC on Monday, April 4th (hint: this link goes to the event information page, including an extensive actor FAQ and producer FAQ).

However, if you’re laser-focused on registering, this is the page for you.

First things first: are you an actor or a producer?

PRODUCER?
If you’re a producer –by which we mean producer, casting director, or anyone looking to hire actors– you register for the in-person event on the WIFV website, just like you did for Stonehenge XIV.

Producer Registration is now open on the WIFV website and will remain open until noon on Sunday at April 3rd (i.e. the day before the event).

Once you have registered for the in-person event, we’ll contact you about getting set up on Stonehenge Casting (we also have an article about getting producer access on Stonehenge Casting).

ACTOR?
All actors register for Stonehenge XV by going through Stonehenge Casting, not through WIFV.

If you’re an actor, DO go ahead and create or update your free profile on Stonehenge Casting. Remember, your profile needs to be 100% complete to be eligible for the lottery.

Registering for Stonehenge XV, by which we mean the lottery to get a slot, is the same process as submitting to any other project on Stonehenge Casting (here’s the link to the article in case you’d missed it).

Specifically, you’ll want to go to the “Projects” tab once you log in. Then click on the project that looks suspiciously like this:

Note, there may be other projects at the time you register, but the name will be "Stonehenge XV Actor Registration."

Don’t see the link? That means actor registration isn’t open yet. Actor registration opens on Monday, March 7th and closes on Saturday, March 19th. It really doesn’t matter if you register early or not, as long as your profile is complete. Remember, if you register and your profile is incomplete, you won’t be eligible for the lottery. Take your time.

When you register, please follow the listed directions.

That means in the “ROLE” field you don’t put any information on roles you might wish to play. You put conflicts (if any) you have during the audition times of 10am to 6pm on Monday, April 4th. We’ll do our best to schedule auditions based on those notes.

By reading the directions, you also know you do not put anything in the video audition field.

SC_S15_roles_and_video

Wrapping up
Remember, if you’re an actor or a producer, we have a page all about Stonehenge XV, including links to an extensive Actor FAQ and Producer FAQ.

Thanks for reading and we hope to see you at the Henge.

Stonehenge Casting How-To: Getting Started with Producer Access

While we’re finalizing a series of video tutorials and FAQ updates on Stonehenge Casting, proper, we thought it’d be a good idea to give you producers a how-to article here on the Team J blog.

After all, why should actors have all the fun?

Bottom line: we can usually set producers up the same day you need access.

Here are the steps:

  1. Register as a user on Stonehenge Casting
  2. Contact us and let us know if you:
    1. Want us to create a new company profile, OR
    2. Want us to add you to an existing company
  3. Pay the invoice and get to casting!

Step 1: Register as a user on Stonehenge Casting
Whether you’re a performer or someone looking to hire performers, your first step is becoming a registered user on Stonehenge Casting.

The registration form is as simple as your name and preferred email address (both of which you can update). Oh, and you need to agree to the site terms and conditions. Pretty standard stuff, really.

Once you’ve done that, you can log into the site.

Actors get to use the site for free. Many producers are also actors. Therefore, you’ll see that you too can create an actor/performer profile.

Apparently, this is very alarming to those of you producers who are not also performers.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to fill out an actor profile. No one will force you to appear on camera (or on stage).

Producer access isn’t free however. So if you want to use that side of the site, you have to contact us.

Step 2: Contact us and let us know what producer access you want
This step also occasionally alarms some producers. Presumably, they expect to sign up, pay for access through an automated shopping cart, and be off to the races.

We understand. We’d love that too. And it’ll happen in the future, we promise.

For right now though, just like you’d contact a venue owner to rent their space or contact a rental house to arrange using their equipment, you’re gonna need to talk to someone.

Don’t worry: we’re friendly. We’re maintaining this manual process until we know we can offer the kind of intuitive self-service people expect from the latest technology. We want your projects to be a success.

So, the top two ways to request access are to shoot us an email via our contact form:

Contact Us link: On the bottom right of the Stonehenge Casting site

Or just click the “Request Additional Access” button:

After you log in, this button is available from the home page on the bottom right.

Someone will get back to you within one business day.

(Honestly, we often get back to you within the hour, but if you haven’t already figured out: we’re not a large, multi-national corporation. In case mayhem is ensuing at Team J HQ, we’re gonna keep our service expectation to one business day).

What we’ll want to know:

Are you a new user for an existing company?
If you’re an additional user for an existing company OR your company has used Stonehenge before and your want producer access turned back on, let us know.

Are you part of a new company?
If you haven’t used Stonehenge Casting before, we’ll confirm your company’s name and contact information in order to create a company profile. Don’t worry, your company admin can always change this in the future.

Because access is per individual, we want producers to only pay for the access you need. All companies require one Company admin, but additional users are cheaper — and all access is available either annually or month-to-month.

UPDATE:

As of January 1st, 2019, we have simplified our pricing.

The price is $19/month-to-month for solo producers or $99 for annual access.

The price is $39/month-to-month for companies or $199 for annual access (for up to three users). Additional users are $9 month-to-month or $50 for the year.

Step 3: Pay the Invoice and Get to Casting!
Once we’ve confirmed the access you need, we’ll send you an invoice.

We do our invoicing via PayPal, which means even if you don’t have a PayPal account, you can pay by credit card.

If you are getting producer access though a promotion or special deal (for example, the two free months’ producers attending Stonehenge Auditions get), we’ll just turn on access immediately.

In any case, we usually confirm what your latest project is so we can offer you pointers on how to maximize using the site. We also let our staff know when we might need to field a few more questions from actors (you’ll be able to list your contact information, but trust us, some actors always ask us questions about your project).

That’s it.

We know this isn’t the same cold, calculated process the latest tech startup uses — and as mentioned above, we are working on additional FAQs and video tutorials. In the meantime, free free to contact with any questions. We want help you take the ‘slog’ out of casting and make your project a success.

Casting Notes #15: Don’t Mind Me – Casting Background Performers (For Filmmakers)

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.


Previous Casting Notes Article | Next Casting Notes Article


Don’t Mind Me – Casting Background Performers

Just as with the fight auditions, not every project –even an indie feature or web series– is going to have background performers (aka “Extras”)[1].  The good news is that most of what you’ve read so far about getting the casting notice out and processing the submissions holds true for casting background performers.

Good background performers know how to re-create their actions precisely, take after take, as well as take direction just like the speaking roles you’re casting. This is not to say that you shouldn’t pack an audience scene with friends and family. Indie projects by their nature have a small budget and may need bodies for crowd scenes. Just remember that you do get what you pay for and the allure of “working on a film” can make the bodies of those friends and family restless as you press on into hour four of the shoot.

Here are some things to consider when casting background performers.

Consider always having some background performers
I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but background performers are a great way to expand the cinematic world you’re creating. Just as I always advocate having a variety of ages, body types, and so on in the cast (like you have in the real world), the real world is full of people in the background. [2]

Even when the world you’re portraying is far from real, you often want people in the background. For The Broken Continent, we had committed to some form of “epic” fantasy. Having a couple people with swords on camera wouldn’t do. Wherever it made sense, we wanted to have additional soldiers, advisers, or denizens in the background to fully realize the world.

Even in an indie project set in modern times, you may have characters in offices and stores or walking in hallways or sidewalks. Unless it’s apocalyptic setting, there might always be one or two people in the background (and even in apocalyptic settings, c’mon: zombies!). [3]

Getting the word out for background performers
The method for getting the word out for background performers is essentially the same as for your regular cast. In fact, you might find some potential background performers among the actors submitting for regular roles (more on that below). So when you’re crafting your casting notice for background performers, try and find a way to make them want to come and stand around for hours at a time. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you describe the background role as exciting? (“We need background performers to portray a crack SWAT team.”)
  • Can you describe the scene where the background activity is exciting? (“We need 20+ background performers to be mystified, befuddled, and ultimately entertained by a street performance by our two female leads.”)
  • Can you evoke memorable, archetypal crowd scenes from other movies?  (“Be part of the frightened masses fleeing mutant snakehead fish as they emerge from the Potomac River!”) [4]

You will not have an enticing hook for every project and every type of background performer. In some cases, you might honestly just want to make sure this office or that street corner isn’t completely deserted. But you don’t lead with that. Remember, in part 4 of the Casting Notes series, we talked a lot about crafting your casting notice with a mind to woo the performer. Don’t stop wooing when it comes to seeking out background performers.

Create a separate casting notice for background performers
Now, using Stonehenge, I would both create a different casting notice for background performers and make sure to note whether or not the performers had checked the box on the site that they were open for background work.[5] To explain that reasoning, I should explain what we did for The Broken Continent.

For that series, we created one omnibus casting notice. At the bottom, after the 20-some roles, there were clearly plenty of opportunities for background performers listed.

Then, during the auditions, we checked in with people at the end of the audition to see if they would be at all interested in background work. Our director, Francis, cheerfully noted that we were asking this of everyone (which was true) and we would perfectly understand an answer of “Hell, no!” (which was also true). This question was asked with what I thought was about as light a touch as could be done. And we did have a good reason to ask people whom we were calling in for principle roles. As we explained, we fully hoped the pilot would lead to a regular web series — and so it would be wonderful to cast someone as one of the king’s advisers in the pilot who then could be revealed to be a key supporting role in a later episode as if we had planned it all along.

Many of the people we wound up casting were excellent actors, and we had every intention of doing exactly what we said because we knew they had the acting chops to rise to the challenge. That Woman of the Wood you saw in the opening? She could strategize with one of the leads at the eve of a later battle. That courtier looming behind King Eadwyn? He was in league with the scheming Barda to consolidate power. Even some of the refugees were capable of popping up in later episode to add to the epic story. The background actors were a combination of people whom auditioned for us along with some people who we did not initially call in, but had indicated they were up for background work.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, there were a few instances that, despite Francis’ light touch, the actor was surprised and probably a bit uncomfortable at the question. For that reason, in the future, I would do the separate casting notice as mentioned above — and also check the Stonehenge tool to see who was up for background work. However, I would make sure that the check-in staff informed all the actors that their Stonehenge profile was up-to-date in terms of their availability and interest in background work (“Make sure it’s not checked if you don’t want it and make sure it is checked if you do.”)

Consider budgeting for background performers
One thing I would not change with what we did with the Broken Continent was to pay all the actors, including the background performers.

Time and again, I hear from fellow filmmakers who’ve had no end of trouble getting even 10 people to come out and be background for free. That’s because the mystique of filmmaking quickly loses its allure to many a newcomer when they realize just how much hurry-up-and-wait is involved. [6] Background actors hurry up and wait even more than most.

Consider that you could ask for 4 hours’ time for a background performer, pay them $40 and they’d be making well above current minimum wage. [7]

For the Broken Continent, we didn’t pay that much, but we did follow state and federal minimum wage laws — and we paid overtime if actors were hurrying up and waiting for more than 8 hours (like you’re supposed to). We did this, in part, because we knew we needed to make costumes for these actors and, in part, because we knew our shoot days could be long and would be somewhat remote. We wanted the actors to commit to being there.

Now many filmmakers reading this might be running numbers in their head. They might reasonably calculate how they could add 10-20 extras at that $10-per-hour rate and quickly add $400 to $800 of cost. If you wanted a modest throng of people over a couple days, you’d quickly add thousands of dollars to your budget.

It’s fine if background performers are where you want to cut costs. Just don’t pretend that “being in a film” is that big a motivator, especially because you’re asking someone to hang out and not do much of anything — and often they need to be near set and quite quiet. For isolated needs, where you need people for less than a four-hour chunk –and ideally a less-than-one-hour chunk– many family and friends can probably be relied on again and again. If some of your friends are actors or creatives –and the background performers have something moderately interesting to do– you’ve just given creative people an opportunity to play. You can safely bet on an extra hour or so. But if you really want people to commit to being background not simply state that they “should be available,” money should be one of your tactics.

Remember, you’re spending the money on background performers to add production value. Not every shot is a crane shot or needs a Steadicam. Not every set or costume needs to pop. But sometimes, having one of those elements is that special ingredient you want to spice up a shot. Feel free to cut those ingredients from the budget if you don’t need that spice, but plan on adding that to the budget if not having the background performers will visibly lessen the production value or take an audience away from what they expect.[8]

Storyboard the shots with background in mind
Do you need to do this step before casting? Not absolutely. But you do want to do it before the day you’re shooting with background performers. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking at your set, looking at your limited amount of extras, and realizing things won’t look good.

Storyboarding with a realistic notion of the final number of background performers you’ll have therefore becomes critical to ensuring that you’re maximizing your production value — and also not looking too cheap in key shots. In general, you want enough extras so that they can fill out the edges of the frame indicating further people off camera. Sometimes they’re integral to establish motion and activity of a location by cutting in front of the camera or passing in back of the main action. You can do a lot with just a few background actors and careful framing.

I counsel many indie filmmakers to take a look at television shows, especially those from more modestly budgeted days of yore. Nowadays, TV shows may have show-stopping cinematic setpieces with a lot of background performers (though some of them might be CGI). Modern TV directors also know that they can get away with more cinematic compositions because of both expectation and the rise of huge home theater screens. But older TV shows wanted to give the impression of bustling Western towns, hospitals, space stations, and police precincts without having anything close to a blockbuster budget or epic-sized audience expectations. The camera framing and number of background performers in these shows reflect those constraints. [9]

Regardless of how average or ambitious your shot list may be, you want to take the time to know how you’ll use background actors to your best advantage. Depending on what location you wind up with and the number of extras you get, you may need to adjust your framing.

Have at least one crew member manage the background performers
This may come as an absolute shock to some industry folks, but not every production has a Second Assistant Director, let alone a Second Second Assistant Director or Third Assistant Director. Heck, many an indie production I’ve been on hasn’t had any assistant director. That’s okay. [10] However your crew is organized, make sure someone on the crew is responsible for (and knows beforehand they’re responsible for) checking in and checking out the background performers including all their paperwork especially their release.

Ideally, you not only have a crew member to do the organizing and get the all-important release, but all the crew who might interact with them, from the production assistants to craft services, can be pleasant, but firm as necessary. Remember, for many background performers on an indie production, this is their first exposure to a film set. You need everyone who interacts with background actors know they need to helps them remember such boring but vital things like:

  • Where to stand and not stand
  • Who to talk to and who is going to be busy [11]
  • What activities are fine for hanging out and waiting… and waiting  (book-reading yes, beat-boxing no).
  • Who will bring them to set and what to do at the end of the day

In other words: don’t assume your background performers know “the rules.” On an indie set, “the rules” may vary (and that’s okay). But even if everyone on your set knows what “the rules” are for this set and can communicate those rules to extras in a firm, but friendly manner, having a point-of-contact that the background performers report to is a good idea.

In Conclusion
Whether you’re paying background performers to populate your web series world or you’re trying to get people to volunteer their time for short, student film, you want it to be easy for potential extras to say, “Yes!”

Figure out ways to woo your background performers from the casting notice, onward. Knowing that the extras will be doing something interesting or dressing up in costume can often entice people to spend some time hurrying up and waiting.

If you determine that you really need background performers in certain shots to sell the story, consider paying people as one of your tactics to make them commit.

Know what your “rules” will be on set, make sure the crew knows them, and make sure you have a designated point-of-contact for the background performers on set. [12]

Just as with your casting speaking roles, the effort you put in here will pay dividends. I have yet to have a standard guideline for how many people you should expect to reach out to in order to get a minimum number of background performers. Assuming you are paying less than SAG-AFTRA scale, you need to rely on the wooing indicated above and perhaps some novelty for the novice background performers involved — and it doesn’t hurt if you’re shooting in their backyard (proverbially if not literally). Searching by ZIP code isn’t a bad idea (and something you can do via Stonehenge). If you want 10 background actors on the shoot, reach out to 50… unless you can reach out to 100. I have yet to meet a director or D.P. who doesn’t find a use for the right background people (remember Footnote # 2).

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FOOTNOTE #1: Because people can take umbrage about anything and everything, it probably comes as no surprise that some actors object to the term “extras.” However, before you dismiss using the term “background performers,” as actors being overly sensitive, bear in mind you’re asking people to do, in some cases, precise repeatable actions take after take — that is, if you like your editor and continuity. Moreover, these actors are being asked to be this precise for the sake of being unobtrusive “moving scenery.” Just like we mention to actors: when you have a choice that won’t hurt you and might help you, choose to not hurt yourself. (At the same time, any background performer who freaks out or goes into a tirade upon being referred to as an ‘extra’ on set may need to consult a medical professional.)


FOOTNOTE #2: The needs of the story prevail. If you’re shooting a project like “The Wire” and your setting is the proverbial “mean streets,” it’s best that your extras don’t look like they’re about to go yachting. That’s not the problem I see. The problem I see time and again in indie projects is what I call “20-something White Guy Syndrome” where a film has characters and background that is very, very narrow and takes you out of any reality the film is trying to establish.


FOOTNOTE #3: Or mutants. Or Triffids. Or mutant Triffid zombies.


FOOTNOTE #4: Okay, that’s a bit of a dated reference for denizens of the DMV only. As it happens, someone made a snakehead horror film. I have no idea if they had a great pitch to entice people to be an extra in the film, but rest assured, if Team J ever does a creature feature, we absolutely will.


FOOTNOTE #5: I have seen other projects where they do the same thing on the paper form they have actors fill out upon checking into the audition. As has been alluded to elsewhere in this series, we don’t advocate doing on paper what can be done easier and more effectively online. Part of the Stonehenge profile actors fill out is whether they’re interested in background work. Yeah, you can have that checkbox on a whole bunch of paper forms, but this way, you can tally up the actors with a couple mouse clicks. (The results of actors suddenly deciding, no no, they meant “interested in background on the latest Hollywood-budgeted feature” are the same as the paper method, though.)


FOOTNOTE #6: One of my favorite stories to illustrate how quickly the cinematic glamour fades was when one roommate wanted to come out and be on set for the day during one of our shoots. I had no objection, but said he should bring his own car. He looked at me confused and more than a bit annoyed. What sense did that make? We were heading to the same place and it wasn’t like I was hauling a lot of gear. Moreover, this was going to be in the city and parking would be a pain. I insisted and he begrudgingly went along with it.

After about four hours of incremental camera set-ups in a less-than sweet-smelling alleyway, he pulled me aside and mentioned he’d be heading out and, hey, best of luck with the rest of the shoot.


FOOTNOTE #7: At least, the Federal minimum wage as of April 2015.


FOOTNOTE #8: The idea here is that viewers expect some shots to have “spice.” Offices and shops usually have other people in them. Streets have cars and pedestrians. We are used to seeing this in both film and TV. A great example of this was when I was working on a web series which had a series of episodes set at a gym. Part of the script called for a comic scene in a gym class. Even though he knew he could rely on some gym rats to be game to hang out and participate in some of the shots, the director enlisted the help of one of the staff to corral a group of gym goers and they were all paid $20 to participate in a brief scene and ensure the gym class was full. He was thrifty on budgeting the whole series, but this was where he knew for the sequence to work, it couldn’t take the viewer out of the location (or the joke) by having a sparsely attended gym class.


FOOTNOTE #9: I suggest this because many indie filmmakers have great ambitions for the look and feel of their films. I have no problems with this. Personally, I try and mix some Kurosawan elements into anything I shoot. However, we generally don’t have the budget for Rashomon, let alone Ran, so I find it’s good to eat a slice of cinematic humble pie and see what people with constrained budgets did. At the same time, I don’t advocate necessarily looking at indie films or web series. Why? Because network shows of yore, even though they had producers and network execs trying to figure out endless ways to do things on the cheap, they still didn’t want to look cheap compared to all the other shows on at the same hour. Trying to keep your show on the air for several seasons is more peer pressure than trying to get your low-budget movie into some sort of distribution.


FOOTNOTE #10: Assuming you can maintain high amounts of on-set safety and low amounts of sleep deprivation with the reduced crew. Small crews are fine, but remember: background performers, especially on an indie production, can be some of the most inexperienced people on set. Having someone make sure they’re safe and they’re not endangering the safety of others by galumphing into a power cable or messing with rigging is important.


FOOTNOTE #11: I know this varies on indie sets and the prohibition of extras talking to the lead actors or director may not be as strict. But  know what your version of “the rules” may be. For example, your director might be happy to talk to the extras and not be as distant. Just make sure when she needs to focus and huddle with her assistant director and cinematographer, she can.


FOOTNOTE #12: And don’t forget: if you’re shooting under a SAG-AFTRA agreement, there are certain rules you absolutely must follow in order to not violate the terms of your agreement. Luckily, this mainly means being detail-oriented and actually doing your paperwork… which is an unsexy behavior real filmmakers have accepted for some time.

Casting Notes #14: The Bonus Round – Fight Auditions (For Filmmakers)

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and for actors to find work.


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The Bonus Round – Fight Auditions

While many of the articles in this series can apply to many different projects, this one is pretty specific to what we did for The Broken Continent. Nevertheless –or perhaps for this reason– I wanted to go into the additional auditions we did specifically to test actors’ faux fighting ability. As you may be aware, the genesis of the Broken Continent came when its writer/director, Francis Abbey, worked with an accomplished actor-combatant and thought it would be fun to do a film involving some swordplay. Great fights were planned from the beginning and advertised in our crowdfunding campaigns, so we knew we needed to deliver.

If your project has any special physical performance requirements –anything from juggling to stunt driving to equestrian work– it’s not at all a bad idea to verify your performers can do what you need them to do. Odds are, you need them to do that specific physical action on cue and repeatedly.

Also, when it comes to stunt driving, equestrian work,  and even juggling –depending on what is being juggled– safety is a concern. The bad handling of a monologue means you need another take. The bad handling of stunts or stage combat could result in injury or death. ‘Death’ really should make you pause and think about how you hire performers here.

In many cases, you’ll have an expert on hand to judge the performer’s prowess. In fact, in situations where safety is even remotely a concern, you should absolutely have an expert. Specifically, unless someone on your production team is a sought-after stunt coordinator or fight director, budgeting for the services of such an expert is a must. In part, what you’re paying for is the expert’s experience with –and knowledge of– stunt performers and stage combatants who can safely deliver the needs of the script. In that sense, the expert is vetting the performers for you.

In our case, by the time we were ready to cast, we also had an experienced fight director in the form of Robb Hunter. The exact relationship you as the casting director or producer have with this expert varies. In general, a good approach is to consider the delegation that often occurs with a choreographer: the director or producer is responsible for the overall vision, but the choreographer often translates that vision into the particular physical display. This isn’t simply isolated to dance or performance skills. I recently worked on a short film set during World War II where the director had a team of historical reenactors. [1] In many cases, you may find you will have enthusiastic experts in some particular performance skill, happy to do it on camera. Just be sure they are ready to work in the way you need and safety concerns are addressed. [2]

Robb has worked with many actors in the area and had some suggestions for actor-combatants to check with. However, some of our leading roles ideally needed to be able to handle weapons as well — either for the pilot or for future planned episodes. For that reason, we scheduled an additional audition after our regular auditions when we had an idea who our cast would be. In addition, there were several along with those actors who voiced interest in being one of the actor-combatants both in their response to our initial casting call and then during the auditions themselves.

This meant that the special fight auditions were attended by two overlapping groups of performers:

  1. Actors who had speaking roles who we definitely wanted to do well, but would need varying degrees of fighting ability [3]
  2. Actors or stunt performers who did not have any speaking role that we wanted primarily for their stage combat prowess [4]

By design, we did not immediately tell Robb whether the performer walking through the door was to have a major or minor physical role. That meant he was testing each and every one of them with the same high standard for the expected physical demands that we were applying to the actors with the acting roles. [5]

Because we wanted the performers to get physical and be safe, we needed another audition space than what we used for the regular auditions. The process for finding an audition venue and organizing the venue was the same as outlined in our earlier articles in the series.

We wound up with a dance studio. The floor was such that it could withstand the rigors of the athletic audition and it was sufficiently large to accommodate several people.

This was a key difference in the format of the fight auditions: Robb and his assistants could audition a large group each hour and then break up into smaller groups to run individuals through additional routines. Finally, each individual or pair did a camera test with the routine. At the end of the day, we checked in with Robb about his recommendations.

Within those recommendations, there were surprises both pleasant and not as pleasant. Some actors whom we didn’t know at all who proved to be surprisingly good combatants: able to take direction and deliver hits that were soft as feathers but looked like sledge hammers. Other actors, some of whom clearly wanted to engage in some faux swordplay, hammered away with the weapons without regards to their fight partners.

The key thing is that we were now comfortable about how to proceed with the fight training (and related rehearsal costs). For The Broken Continent, we followed up the auditions with several rehearsals for the main fight, and staging the fight for the camera crew.

Whatever your project, in the indie realm, these physical performances are probably a key part of your “production value.” With that in mind, it’s worth the time to make sure it can be done safely and look spectacular.

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FOOTNOTE #1: In regards to the WW2 reenactors, these men are experts in period tactics and how to handle their weapons safely, but realistically. The director was able to give their commander basic instructions and they choreographed the action, even being able to repeat themselves on multiple takes. As long as safety concerns are addressed, being able to do this level of delegation is a joy to watch and capture on film.


FOOTNOTE #2: The production team (director, producer, casting director) should always discuss how they’re going to work with the performers or coordinators before they’re on set to avoid headaches, heartache, and potential injury as much as possible. Certainly, for any physical performance where the possibility of serious injury is possible (e.g. anything from motorcycle stunts to juggling chainsaws), you absolutely need to know what your production insurance is covering and what the performers’ insurance is covering (if anything — this likely only works if they’re hired as independent contractors, and even then, you better verify).


FOOTNOTE #3: Within the actors we cast, there were actors whom we knew would need to fight in the pilot and others we knew whose characters would eventually fight in the series. We proceeded on the assumption that we would do a series, so we didn’t have a problem with any of those actors attending the fight auditions. However, we only really tried to make sure the ones who would fight attended. If we were able to continue as a series, we planned to have Robb hold a “stage combat boot camp” for everyone who needed to fight on screen in addition to individual fight rehearsal times.


FOOTNOTE #4: Again, for many actors, just as we did with the background actors, wherever we could, we tried to make sure our actor-combatants had some vocal chops to match their physical prowess as, in many cases, we anticipated their characters appearing later in the series.


FOOTNOTE #5: This also meant that Robb came out to the check-in table a couple times to ask me if someone was already cast to fight in the pilot. Some actors, and would-be stage combatants, were not as skilled as perhaps they thought they were… especially in regards to safe hits.

Casting Notes #13: Determining and Conducting Callbacks (For Filmmakers)

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and for actors to find work.


Previous Casting Notes Article | Next Casting Notes Article


Determining and Conducting Callbacks

If you’ve actually gone to all this trouble with your auditions thus far, you owe it to yourself to do callbacks. And if your casting director has done their job well, the director has some tough choices.

At the same time, you can rest easy: you should already have the audition space for all the time you need for the callbacks. Plus, you already know how you’re going to go about running the auditions. In many ways, the callbacks are even more fun — because you’re excited about all the actors you are calling in.

The overall steps are:

  1. Sort all the actors
  2. Review the actors & auditions and pick your “finalists”
  3. Schedule the callbacks
  4. Run the callbacks

1. Sort all the actors
Now it’s just about time for the creative team to meet and discuss who to call in. The definition of the “creative team” can vary from project to project. It nearly always means the director (or showrunner) and the casting director, but may also include producers or writers. Just as not every decision-maker is in an average writers’ room, you won’t want all your project’s leadership here. Ultimately, the director or showrunner should have the final decision about who to bring in for callbacks. [1] At the same time, other members of the creative team can and should have recommendations.

For the Broken Continent, since all three of us were not only producers, but potentially wearing writer or director ‘hats’ for a future series, all three of us felt comfortable weighing in. Of course, as the showrunner, Francis had final say.

However, before this meeting (see step # 2 below), there’s a few things the Casting Director should do, either by organizing the the print headshot/resumes into folders or by organizing them into online folders in a tool like Stonehenge Casting.

First off, you want to eliminate all the ‘Reds.’ No, you’re not being a McCarthyite, you’re just being practical. As mentioned in running the auditions, you have some actors who did not do well. You rated them ‘Red.’ These folks are not up for any of the speaking parts, so they may be removed from the pool under consideration. If you want to consider any or these actors for background roles, go ahead and make sure they’re marked as such. [2] You may still want to have two folders of the Reds on hand for the review: ones who rated a Red who are up for background and ones who rated Red who did not, in case one of the other creative team asks, “Hey, where’s [Actor they know]? Didn’t they audition?” [3]

Next, the Casting Director wants to group the “Greens” for each role. If you have two-to-three greens per role (or more), you’re in good shape for callbacks. If you don’t, you want to be sure you have the ‘Yellow’ folder for each role handy. That way, you can determine if you want to call back any of those actors. Alternately, if all of you review the ‘Yellows’ and no one looks promising, you may want to call in additional actors for that role — perhaps even doing a new casting call in extreme cases.[4]

Also, you want to make sure it’s reasonably easy to review the taped audition. This can be as simple as having the video files marked by day along with a printout of the final audition check-in list of the actors who showed up, so you know where to fast forward it.

Note that this whole preparation is primarily, “put the actors into folders according to a Green, Yellow, Red system.” In that sense, it isn’t complicated. The complexity comes in that some actors might have read very well for one role, but not another, and some roles might not have any “Green” candidates. To facilitate the meeting going smoothly, the one among you wearing the Casting Director hat should know all of these facts: they should have the big picture on everyone’s reactions thus far.

 2. Review the actors & auditions and pick your “finalists”
There’s no hard and fast rules for where to begin, but if the Casting Director does have a good idea of who the green candidates are for the various roles, there is a good approach to pursue.

Start with the roles where there are few, but sufficient ‘Greens’ for the callbacks. For these roles, all the group needs to do is validate that those are indeed the people to call back. Starting this way builds momentum and confidence as you get to the more complicated decisions: for example when you have multiple actors who could be called back for multiple roles… or you have roles where you don’t appear to have a lot of good candidates.

For the Broken Continent, we only occasionally needed to consult the audition tapes at this point. The auditions were fresh enough in our memories, it was mainly if someone’s headshot did not resemble them at all that we needed to go back and find out why we rated “So & so” a ‘Green.’ (Yet another reason why actors need a good headshot).

In discussing the candidates for a particular role, one actor might clearly be favored candidate by all the decision-makers. For any of a number of scenarios, if you’re committed to having callbacks, you might as well call that favored actor back. These very possible scenarios include:

  • If you cast Actor A in Role # 1, that decision greatly impacts who you should cast in Roles 2 and 3. [5]
  • You may want Actor A, certain to be offered Role # 1, to read with the actors for Roles 2 and 3 during callbacks to ensure a good fit.
  • You may want Actor A for Role # 1 — and they might even agree to it tentatively. But then something comes up and Actor A isn’t available. Good thing you had those other actors called back, huh? [6]

If you’ve already laid out the process of callbacks during the initial auditions, this won’t be a surprise for the actors and they’ll be excited to hear from you… which neatly brings us to:

3. Schedule the callbacks
This can be essentially the same process discussed in Steps 4 & 5 of Part 8: Deciding Who to Call In. Once again, since actors are busy people too, sending requests for schedule dates via email is a perfectly acceptable practice. If you have new and additional sides, be sure to include those as well.

Feel free to include that you enjoyed their audition in the email and be sure they know how to contact you with questions about the script, etc. If you haven’t worked with these actors before, this is where a lot of the relationship-building begins. Odds are that some of the actors you don’t wind up casting are still actors you want to work with in the future. Expect to spend a bit of time with the callbacks.

With that in mind, for the Broken Continent, we went with 3-4 actors per half hour. I’d definitely recommend no more than that. If you want actors to read with each other, you might want to structure things a bit differently, but there too, try not to overcrowd your hours. For example, you might want no more than the 6-8 people you want to read together for the same hour.

4. Run the callbacks
Here should be a process very similar to the process described in Part 11, about how filmmakers can run their auditions. The difference is that you should have more time, which you can fill with trying a few more takes at a read and playing with a given actor. You can and should address some of the logistical questions an actor might have. At this point, the actor should have no doubt about the payscale [7] and while shooting schedules are often in flux, your final candidates deserve to know the latest, greatest information. After all, if you want to hire them, they better have those dates free — and the best actors are working hard to fill up their schedule. [8]

In terms of what scenes the actors are reading for the callbacks, I highly encourage having additional or alternate sides from the script. In studio and commercial situations, it’s not uncommon for an actor to audition with the same scene from the script through several rounds of ever-higher-level staff on the project. There’s certainly merit in this approach as it shows consistency [9], but taking into account our case study, since you are the final decision makers on casting, why not be that much more certain of your casting choices? As mentioned previously for the auditions themselves, if you don’t have additional material, write it! We did this for several characters in the Broken Continent and were very happy we did.

As with the first round of auditions, you want to address actor questions. It’s okay to be vague about when final casting decisions will be made. We’ll talk about the different reasons why you might not want to give a firm deadline in Part 16. However, if you can provide a “no later than” date for casting decisions –even if it’s “before the end of April”– then that helps the actor.

Before you get to letting the actors know, you need to make your final casting decisions. Before you do that, you might have some additional casting, which is the focus of the next two articles.

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FOOTNOTE #1: Remember our case study example. If you’re dealing with studios and whatnot, I don’t have any claims about what should be — except I know anecdotally that creative teams often have their meeting and executives often then exercise their input which may be a veto.


FOOTNOTE #2: For the Broken Continent, as part of the audition process, we asked all the actors if they would be interested in background. That way we knew if they were up for it (or ambivalent) before asking.

Note that if you are using Stonehenge Casting, actors already indicate in their profiles whether they are willing to work background, so you can filter accordingly. Remember, they might change their mind depending on the project — most hard-working actors are up for any part, but don’t yearn for background.


FOOTNOTE #3: Usually, at least one of the auditors remembers who auditioned, including those actors they know and had great hopes for, but whose auditions were lacking. Disbelief, couched in previous excellent experience with a given actor on set might make an auditor forget the disappointing audition. Nevertheless, the auditor asking about the actor may lead to a necessary discussion about who to call in. There are, occasionally, actors you want to call back, but often if your expected cast does not materialize, you need to talk through your assumptions to find the new cast. Remember what I mentioned in Part 8, step 3: almost without fail, you don’t wind up with the cast you expected at the start of the casting, but you’re still excited by your cast.


FOOTNOTE #4: Depending on what you’ve worked out for your audition venue, you might be able to add in a new casting call with the same audition space, perhaps adding a few more hours at the beginning and end of a callback day. Ideally, you’ll be able to do this within or close to your original schedule.


FOOTNOTE #5: Actors play off of each other. Even for stories where you have a clear protagonist, you want the actors to mesh. As we’ll discuss when talking about making the final casting decisions, you’re casting an ensemble — or if you prefer analogies, you have several ingredients and spices for the dish you’re making. Time and again, one of the faults I see in low-budget film and smaller theater productions is totally mismatched actors. To go back to the spice allusion, you know there’s something off with the dish if the spices are wrong.


FOOTNOTE #6: As mentioned throughout this series, things come up and actors are suddenly not available to audition. The same thing happens with actually booking actors for a project.


FOOTNOTE #7: For The Broken Continent, we left the exact details of the compensation somewhat up in the air, because we did casting before we did our crowdfunding. This made sense because we wanted to show potential backers the cast we had assembled and we then had a larger team rooting for us to succeed. Nevertheless, we were clear with the actors that the project was under the SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement and the rate we were aiming for was similar to the SAG-AFTRA Ultra-Low Budget agreement which at the time was $100 per day (standard 8-hour workday if you actually follow Federal labor law, I might add).

While this approach worked well and made sense at the time, I don’t think I’ll leave things so ‘up in the air’ for Team J projects in the future. I want to be able to let the actors know up front what the rate or pay range is, so they can choose whether or not this project is for them. It’s fairer in my mind to the actor and also fits with my overall Norwegian communication style: I have a low ‘bull’ threshold and like to be as direct as propriety and need-to-know considerations allow.


FOOTNOTE #8: I almost always have the good actors I want to work with contact me if there’s a schedule conflict or even a potential conflict. Generally, they’re trying to build relationships too — and they know that if they can’t work with you now, they hopefully can work with you later. However, that respect they’re giving you goes both ways. If you really don’t know and can’t give them definite production dates, then you have to be prepared to let them go. For example, let’s say you’ll shoot for 10 days in “the month of September,” but you don’t know when yet. Maybe you don’t have all your locations locked down. An actor you really want to work with can book some other three-day shoot from September 14-16 and calls you because of the conflict. If you can negotiate a deadline to let them know the dates, great. If not, then thank them for letting you know and if the dates don’t work out this time, then hopefully you’ll get to work with them in the future. This is an easy approach because it’s the truth. Plus, you’ve also shown that you value the actor booking work. Note that if it’s a case of the actor (or agent) trying to force you to commit to a casting decision before you’re ready, this approach still works. You’ve given them an answer and they get to decide. Team J’s unofficial official policy is to be insidiously nice. It works for the nice people and annoys the jerks no end.


FOOTNOTE #9: It can be frustrating to the actor, who may silently say, “If you like me enough to keep calling me back in, just hire me already!” but they won’t say it out loud. Unfortunately, this is often part of the process, and it’s often hard to tell where the proper vetting of actors ends and the corporate covering-of-posteriors begins.

Casting Notes #11: Conducting the Auditions (For Filmmakers)

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.


Previous Casting Notes Article | Next Casting Notes Article


Conducting the Auditions

Filmmakers, isn’t it nice to go to 11?

While this isn’t the only fun part [1], all the work you’ve done up until this point should pay dividends. Indeed, after processing all 500-odd submissions for the Broken Continent and going through the all the efforts to find a good audition venue, I enjoyed the auditions far more than others I have done previously — and I know it was very much thanks to all the prep work.[2]

However, while there’s fun to be had, you need to be prepared for long days and the need to take breaks. The overall audition day will have five parts:

  1. Beginning your audition day
  2. Checking in the actors
  3. The Audition itself
  4. Checking out the actors
  5. Ending the audition day

As we’ll explain, parts 2 through 4 run concurrently. The auditors will be handling part 3 –the auditions themselves– while the check-in staff will be handling parts 2 and 4.

1. Beginning Your Audition Day
There’s three basic tasks that should be done starting a half-hour to an hour before the auditions are set to begin. Due to your team needing to get on the same page  –and some actors invariably arriving early (so as not to be late)– I recommend planning on starting this an hour before the first audition, at least on your first day.

a) Set-up the Space 
As explained in the previous article, there’s a number of set-up functions that you might only be able to do on the first day of the auditions. In addition, on any given day, you will probably need to set up your equipment, make sure you have your WiFi connections, hang signage, etc. Divide and conquer as you see fit, but consider partnering audition veterans with the new folks for efficiency’s sake. [3] Even with an hour’s head start, the time will go fast. You should not be surprised if you start seeing actors 15 minutes before your first schedule audition time.

b) Level-set Expectations
Whether it’s a huddle with the whole team or two separate touch-points with the auditors and the check-in staff respectively, it’s a good idea to let people know how you expect the day will go. For the Broken Continent, I did separate touch-points with the check-in staff and the auditors in my role as the casting director. Even if you’re working with people who’ve done this before, it probably won’t hurt to reiterate some of these points — unless you all were casting last week.

In terms of the check-in staff, you’ll want to make sure they don’t have any questions and are comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I can check.” for any questions they can’t answer. You also want to re-affirm your expectations about the flow of getting people into and out of the audition room. And don’t forget to let them know where the food is.

For the auditors, especially a director who many not have tackled a large casting like this, make sure they’re comfortable with their role in directing the audition and how they want you as the casting director to facilitate. For all the auditors, remind them that the day may seem long and that they should take breaks even if it’s just the proverbial stretching of legs. They also should be told where the food is (though in the case of the Broken Continent, we had the food in the audition room).

c) Check/get supplies and do “pit-stops”
Speaking of supplies, make sure every has the food they need, the batteries are charged (if needed), and the phones (at least in the audition room), are set to silent. At about 5 minutes to the first audition time, it’s time for anyone who’s going to be in the audition room to heed the call of nature and be back so you all can start on time.

2. Checking in the actors
Even as the auditors are getting ready for the first auditions, your check-in staff will likely be greeting actors. This will continue throughout the day and be a ‘rolling’ activity. Some actors will be very early and some will be very late due to traffic problems, parking problems, and other fun reasons.

By scheduling actors into half-hour blocks, it’s easy to take actors as they come for their half-hour slot. And if you make sure you don’t overbook your half-hours, you can easily plug in an actor who comes late. Nothing relieves an actor more than knowing they don’t have to rush and they will be seen. They also may be subconsciously happy to hear you’re on schedule. (For more details on the how we scheduled by half-hour, take a look at Part # 8: Deciding Who to Call In with particular attention paid to Section 4 about ‘Initial Scheduling’).[4]

Just as with Stonehenge, Team J takes pride in actually being on schedule. This often surprises and confounds actors, who are very used to filmmakers “running behind” by as much as two hours or more. Even if running late might be objectively ‘normal,’ we urge you not to find it acceptable. If you’ve done your ‘triage’ well (see Part 7 about processing actors and Part 8 about deciding who to call in), you should be reasonably confident about who’s coming through the door.[5] Incidentally, when it comes to projects done under a SAG-AFTRA agreement, you can’t be so cavalier about keeping actors waiting, so you might as well aim to be on time now.

For the actual check-in, you want to make sure the actor has the requisite number of headshots and resumes (whatever you asked for during scheduling). Even if you don’t know your production dates, it’s a good idea to collect the actor’s current conflicts in the date range you think you’ll be shooting (e.g., you’re pretty sure you’ll be shooting in June-July, so ask them for all their conflicts then). For Broken Continent, we filled this information in on the spreadsheet. Now, we’d ask them to update their availability in Stonehenge.

If your check-in staff are knowledgeable about the production details, you may want them to to ask the actors if they have any questions about the project (e.g., the shooting dates, rehearsal dates, SAG-AFTRA agreement, key personnel, etc.). This can lead to fewer detail questions in the audition room, however, the risk is similar to the game ‘Telephone’ where your staff may paraphrase something that leads to more confusion or questions in the audition room.[6]

Regardless, the check-in staff should note that the actor is “here.” For the Broken Continent, we used those modified spreadsheets with the audition call times for all the actors. You can easily create the same thing using Google Drive. Since we had a mobile hotspot, the check-in staff were able to mark every actor as “Here.” on the same spreadsheet we could view in the audition room. They could also update if someone was delayed and, importantly, when they were done and “checked out.” [7]

I highly recommend using some variant of this system: it improves communication, reduces paper, and gives the impression that your production is actually in the 21st century.[8] In the audition room, we had a better sense of where we were in our day, and who we had seen — and it was very reassuring.

In addition to that very real, technological “check-in”, your check-in staff should make sure the actor knows:

  • Where they should hang out (i.e., within eye-shot of the check-in desk in most cases)
  • If they’ll be asked to find their own way to the audition room or be guided (I recommend guided)
  • Whether or not they need to check out (Again, I recommend at least a ‘light’ check-out).
  • Where the bathroom is (along with any other amenities, like water, water fountains, power outlets, etc.).

As mentioned in the last article, your check-in staff are a critical part of setting the tone for the audition. Friendly, but firm people who can exude a “Don’t Panic” vibe will absolutely help your audition day be a success.

3. The Audition Itself
There’s nine steps to this dance. While there’s nothing I can say here that will address all the variables you may experience and all the tricks you might employ (that’s a whole workshop in itself), following this procedure itself is not difficult and I think you’ll find how to make it work well for you.

a) Get the actor into the audition room
You’re ready for the next actor. As mentioned before, for the Broken Continent, as the casting director, I went out and got the next actor, but the guide could be a casting assistant like a reader.

Rather than have one of the check-in staff point the way, I do recommend having someone guide the actor from the waiting area to the audition even if it’s obvious where the audition room is. This gives you another opportunity to make the actor feel welcome and exude the “Don’t Panic” vibe.

Remember, you want the actor to feel comfortable and make this environment a safe one for them to play and experiment in: all while they’re dealing with a special level of job interview stress. After all, most standard job interviews don’t involve you actually performing the job — they just talk about it.

Having that personal guide also allows you to easily transition into the next step.

b) Perform introductions and preliminary questions
As you lead the actor into the room, the guide can pass out the headshot/resumes and make the introductions.

For the Broken Continent, I would make the introductions, then hand Francis and Kelley the headshot/resumes. By the time I walked around the desk to sit down, they would have had time to scan the resume and possibly have questions. If not, I always had some questions about their experience with a particular show, working with a director I recognized, or asking them to elaborate on some interesting special skill listed. If one or more of you know the actor, it can be a chance to catch up collectively.

Don’t dismiss this as purposeless small talk. I know for some directors, this is the epitome of their job interview. [9] After all, you are deciding whether or not to work with this person. If you think audition stress is bad, what about a 12+ hour day on a difficult location shoot? Will you get along? What’s their personality like?

All of this can be light and quick and take less than two minutes. Maybe one minute. As the auditors, we found a natural flow with each other and, case-by-case, with each actor.[10] This small talk eases the actor into the room and assures them, even if it’s only subconscious, that they can open up in front of you. The final question from you should always be something along the lines of “Do you have any questions before we start?”

I want to make it clear that it’s absolutely fine for them to have no questions whatsoever. Indeed, many an actor might reply with “No, let’s go!” (in fact, several did during Broken Continent auditions). This question is a final “escape valve” for the actors. Perhaps they’ve been really wondering about an accent or an assumed bit of backstory. They’re conflicted about making a choice themselves and again, even if it’s only subconscious, this conflict will stop them from doing their best or connecting to the material to the fullest. Your answer might not help, but it might just give them the permission they need to make a bold choice. You want them to be bold.[11]

c) Let them perform
Steps C through E are what you could spend a solid workshop on, so I won’t go into great detail about all the tactics you might employ. Suffice to say Step C is where you let the actor take their first stab at the script you provided. While I always ask “Do you have any questions?” in case they need that background to take the flying leap into their read, I most enjoy seeing what choices they brought to the script with a minimum of direction.

What you’re looking for here is how well they connect to the character — and sometimes they connect to the truth of the character in a way you recognize as true, but hadn’t imagined. That’s always a delight, but don’t depend on it happening with every actor.

Regardless of whether they connect to the character in an expected or un-expected way, the important thing is that they do — and this is why it’s so important that the portion of the script they’re reading is that critical character moment: whether it’s where their essential nature is revealed, where they’re most vulnerable, where they’re honest, or where there’s a transformation. That character is in your script for a reason and there’s some point in the script where they sell the audience on who they are, why they’re there with that tone they have (e.g, bitter, banter-filled, brooding, buoyant, other adjectives not beginning with ‘b’). The script side need not be long and after many hours of auditions you’ll be glad that is isn’t, but the main thing is: you need to test the actor on that moment.[12]

d) Have the director make adjustments
Odds are, you’ll have many actors who didn’t quite connect with the material — you need to give them direction. Other times, what they did was fine, and you want to explore the character and their take on said character further.

However they perform, it’s good to be neutral to positive. For those of you new to being an auditor in audition rooms, this is why you hear directors and casting directors saying “good” or “nice” so much, as if they were giving out free candy. The reason they do this is because the average actor –even the veteran actor– has “self-doubt demons” looking for any excuse to come galumphing into his or her psyche and spoil the audition. You want to keep the energy up and the demons at bay to get the best audition: you want the actor to succeed. If someone does a great job, you don’t need to hide it, but the floor is always upbeat at the very least. When the director is giving adjustments, it’s because of a new possibility, something new and fun to tackle. Call it a conceit if you must, but don’t discount it helping you get what you really want: actors performing their best. [13]

By the way, I say the director here, because they’re the person who’s going to be needing to direct them on set. Depending on your project, several of you might be directing different episodes of a web series, so you can feel out how you want to give directions, but it is good for the director to work directly with the actor here in giving them notes (and even in the case of multiple directors, I would recommend the showrunner/pilot director be the one giving notes).

Incidentally –and this is something that I always make clear to the director when I am the casting director prior to the auditions– even if you think the actor has absolutely connected with the character, with the scene, or what-have-you, I always make adjustments. If they did a scene standing, I ask them to try it seated. If they did it seated, I might ask them to stand. If they did it big and worked great big, can they make it small and still work well? If they did it small and it was exquisite, how big can they make it and keep it true? You get the idea: it’s time to play.

For actors (and directors) who obsess about “nailing the audition,” they wonder “Why?”

Find a reason. Make a bold choice. Because if you think having to suddenly do the scene sitting in a chair is odd during an audition, just wait until you’re on set and you need to re-block, re-work, or re-costume a scene for any of a number of reasons so you can make your day. Often there’s 30+ people on set who are working to shoot X number of pages that day.

The ability to play and experiment in the audition room often translates into the ability to problem-solve on set — and in the most wonderful, creative way. You’re not having the audition for the actor to “nail it” or for the director to be absolutely sure the actor can “take direction.” You’re there to see what kind of magic the actor and director can create together.

Yes, that magic should pertain to the character at hand. Yes, you should be confident that the actor can take direction, but it’s worth noting that even though this is a job interview, you’re in this business to do more than make widgets or hire good widget-makers. If the audition is all about checking off a box, we have some exciting medical paperwork job opportunities for you… [14]

e) Let them read another character (if applicable)
Given our case study, it makes sense at this point that you might have a second character you want them to read for. Or perhaps you’ll ask them if they wanted to read for another character (don’t discount this, as sometimes you’ll discover the perfect actor for a given part). [15]

The process here is similar to step (c), give them enough background so that they can jump in — and let them have at it.

f) Have the director make adjustments there
This is essentially the same as step (d). Have fun working on some “alternate takes” as it were. You probably won’t have time to do more than one or two adjustments — and in some case, feel free not to do any (see step (g) below).

g) The auditors agree that they have what they need
Eventually, which is to say about five to seven minutes after step (a), you know you need to wrap up. The given format of 4-5 actors per half-hour means you can’t keep on working out a scene with one actor: the main idea is to know whether you want to call them back and doing the initial read followed by a read with adjustments should do that.

Bear in mind that you could always mix this up and have 4-5 actors per hour, giving you ample time to work with each actor in turn. However, given the cost of the audition venue rental and thinking of our case study of trying to find and cast 21 roles, we think you’ll find large casts may require a rather full initial round followed by call-backs (we’ll talk about the more leisurely pace of the callbacks in that article).

h) Conduct a wrap-up with the actor
Here is where the one of you wearing the casting director hat goes over the logistics of next steps. For us, this included:

*How callbacks would work. We were careful not to promise them to anyone and made sure they would hear from us regardless at the end of casting (i.e., we would actually close the loop — something most people never do).
*How fight auditions would work for those interested (this is a separate audition, which we will describe more in Part 14)
*If they were interested in background work (we’ll do this differently in the future, but we’ll describe this in detail in Part 15)
*When the shoot dates were.

In addition, we gave them another opportunity to ask questions that any of us could answer. We fell into a pattern of which ones I would answer as the casting director (more of the logistical/business ones) and which ones Francis would answer as the writer/director (more of the artistic ones).

This is, in some ways, an optional step because it constitutes something of a “Check-out” process, but we found it was reassuring to the actor to have Francis, Kelley, and I answer the questions directly, further establishing trust.[16]

Finally, before they head out the door, we thanked them again for coming out.

i) Judgement time
We can and should be as nice as possible to the actors and make the audition room a safe and fun place to play in: but after they’ve left, you gotta judge them.

There’s no way around that this is the best time to do a parallel to the ‘triage’ you did when figuring out who to call in. Was the actor you saw good, bad, or ugly? Besides that, did they connect with the character and the material? Did they take direction well? Did your spider sense tingle?

All of these questions and more may spring to mind. You don’t need to answer all of them or create a checklist, but the auditors definitely need to discuss what they thought.

For the Broken Continent, we sorted them into a similar red/yellow/green system as we did for calling people in, only we made sure to put post-its on each headshot resume as to which character they were red, yellow, or green for. In addition, between this and the callbacks, we devised a new category that might be more in line for people doing web series: Future Episoders. These were actors that we thought were great, but didn’t really fit any of the characters we were reading for — or as well as another actor for that character. Still, we knew we’d love to work with them.

This entire conversation usually takes less than a minute, and then your guide is off to get the next actor.

Remember, these nine steps will be happening four to five times every half hour if you’ve scheduled as outlined in Part 8 — and some of those half hours you’ll want and need to take a break. Usually the time evens out as the actors you really want to try new characters take a bit longer and the ones who are sadly duds take less. However, the time only evens out and you only stay on schedule if one of the auditors is willing to be the slightly bad cop. If the director is having a lot of fun directing the actor and they’re really connecting to characters, that’s your clue that they’re a callback candidate.

4. Checking out the actors
After all the energy inherent in an audition, this part isn’t nearly as exciting, but it’s part of closing the loop. Generally, you’ll want the actor to let the check-in staff they’re done, especially if you have actors waiting to audition multiple times as you may do during callbacks or however you’ve structured the auditions. This also gives the actor another opportunity to ask some logistical questions they may have forgotten to ask.

Once the actors were done, our check-in staff turned their green “Here” to a blue “Done” in the spreadsheet which helped us in the audition room know where we were in our day.

So make sure your check-in staff have a FAQ or cheat-sheet to answers, and know how to let the actors leave on a good, friendly note.

5. Ending the audition day
At the end of the day, you want to have one of the check-in staff go and collect any and all signs posted for directions to the auditions. Meanwhile, the auditors check and make sure all the actor headshots are properly marked and sorted and the videographer does a spot check of the footage.

Then, all of you can go around the audition area and make sure you’re leaving the space nicer than you found it, Scout-style.

If you’re coming back the following day and you have a place to store materials securely, by all means do so. In our experience, we’ve always needed to pack up everything.

Breaks
From the schedule discussed in Part 8, you can potentially have breaks every half hour, but the truth is you both won’t want to and you won’t have time. You will be running over from time to time and you’ll use that buffer time to get back on track.

However, occasionally for sanity or basic biology, you can and should take a break –and any of the auditors should feel free to heed the call of nature whenever the need arises. You can easily inform the check-in staff you’re in a holding pattern and everyone will be happier in the audition room because of it.

For lunch, as mentioned in the last article, even if you’re eating in the audition venue (which you probably will due to time constraints) being able to sit someplace else in the venue other than the audition room has a great psychological benefit. Just do it out of potential earshot of any actors wandering upon you as the temptation to discuss some of the auditions of the day thus far is only natural: this is indeed an integral part of the lunch break.

Speaking of breaks, filmmakers can now take a break as we switch our attention to the actors for next article and go into what they should be planning for and doing on audition day.

 ###

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FOOTNOTE #1: As we’ll discuss in Part #17, being able to offer actors a part and hearing them accept is very much fun.


FOOTNOTE #2: By the way, for any of you just popping into this article now, ignoring the previous installments, you really should at least skim some of the other articles. There’s a reason conducting the auditions is Part # 11 and not Part # 1 or even Part # 2. Neither the captains of industry nor the generals of the battlefield have your back. Most of them agree that plans are often worthless, but planning is essential. There’s plenty of planning discussed between Part 1 and now.


FOOTNOTE #3: For example, if one of your check-in staff hung the signs yesterday, have them walk with the other person to hang the signs today. Now you have two people who know where it works to hang signs (assuming there’s a third day of auditions). Is your director going to be very particular about lighting? Have them work with your videographer to get that squared away on the first day so the videographer knows for future days. When it comes to delegation, there’s empowerment and there’s dumping — and for whatever reason, I see more dumping than there should be within the film industry. Much of the devilish details mentioned in this article and others in this series are dependent on filmmakers not embracing hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake.


FOOTNOTE #4: It was mentioned in Part 8, but I’ll mention it again now: we scheduled people to be 5 per half hour, but doing it again, we’d probably try 4 per half hour. Perhaps we’d do 5 for the first half hour and 4 for the second half-hour, hoping the 9 total for the hour would balance out. The trick is to find a manageable balance. As you’ll see as you go through all the nitty-gritty details of the audition itself, you’ll know some actors will not work quickly, others you won’t be sure, others you’ll want to spend more time with (hint: you can with callbacks!). Usually, it all averages out.


FOOTNOTE #5: For Broken Continent, we had many actors who didn’t connect with the material — perhaps because it’s something of a heightened fantasy world. Nevertheless, we were able to find our requisite number of actors we were excited to call back.


FOOTNOTE #6: As it happens, I rarely see check-in staff be pro-active and try and answer actors’ questions, for the reason that many times, the check-in staff, while capable, are last-minute additions: they really don’t know the information. In the case of the Broken Continent, I had worked with many of the staff before — and we also had created a FAQ about the project that we had sent to actors. We had a printout of that for the check-in staff. If you have any print-out, where your staff can check what is actually written down, you should certainly see if they can answer any questions. And remember, your check-in staff should always feel comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “That’d probably best be answered by the [casting director/director/producer].


FOOTNOTE #7: In some cases, especially with callbacks, you may want an actor to read with other actors, or read for additional characters. So, you do the initial audition, but ask them to wait for a follow-up audition or read that day. While we didn’t do that for The Broken Continent, it is a common enough occurrence and an excellent reason to use the computer-based/check-in system. Just remember, you shouldn’t leave the actor hanging out all day.


FOOTNOTE #8: Just in case we had battery failure or WiFi problems, we did have a printout of the audition call sheets, so if we needed to go manual, we could.


FOOTNOTE #9: I have heard this repeated in many different venues, from courses in directing theater to books on directing theater and film to Hollywood directors saying how they like to cast. Even where an audition is part of the overall job interview, they find simply talking with the actor for a few minutes is just as valuable to know if the actor will be a good fit. In fact, I’ve heard some actors and directors saying they just prefer a 10-15 minute conversation as the job interview for casting rather than the auditions. The directors often are interviewing an actor they feel can do the job and are just confirming fit –and the actors, especially established character actors– often feel that they’re a known-enough quality and being called in for a reason, so do ya wanna use ’em or not? I won’t discount this methodology, but I will suggest it might not work as well for the indie projects indicated in this case study, as you may not have a surplus of character actor veterans with 20-30 years’ experience and the budget to pay their fees. In addition, as I’ll explain in later articles, I have had parts which I wrote with specific actors in mind — and they didn’t connect with the material. So for me personally, I always like to have even my favorite actors audition. Nevertheless, you should feel free to have that conversation (I always want to have that too).


FOOTNOTE #10: Believe me: You’ll pick up on red flags or even if something feels “off” even if the actor doesn’t. It could be subtle, but their attitude towards you, the material, or the questions they ask may raise a flag that you recognize means this will not be the best fit.


FOOTNOTE #11: This “Do you have any questions about the script?” inquiry is all the more important if you’re doing something set in a fantasy or sci-fi world or otherwise looking for an unconventional tone.


FOOTNOTE #12: If you don’t have that moment for the character: you write it. For a web series, it makes sense that you may not have it, because you haven’t written the episode where the character in question had their reveal or whatever. In that case, write that scene. I’ve done this for a couple projects now: writing scenes for characters even though I wasn’t going to shoot those scenes anytime soon. But it helped me cast the right people for when we did have those scenes. If you’re doing a feature and you don’t have a scene that really illustrates the character, ask yourself: why is the character in that script? (Note: it’s perfectly acceptable to cast ‘one line day-players’ without creating needless backstory and scenework for them. Just know what your test and criteria are).


FOOTNOTE #13: If the director knows the actor and has the rapport, they may feel free to ask, “How did that feel to you?” or perhaps “Okay… you didn’t seem comfortable [at this point]. Do you want to try that again?” but in this case, it’s because the director and the actor have trust and have that rapport. This is something that is far easier to do on set because you’re not in a job interview situation. When you’re in an audition, the director and other auditors are automatically in an unequivocal power position. Yes, a power position is arguably (and almost always legally) the case when an actor is on set — and yet the ability to have that franker dialogue is always easier there. So look to the questions above: even there, being franker with an actor you know, you’re still engaging them in a dialogue, you’re both working on a solution together. If you’re looking at the audition as a test to pass or fail, you won’t have a chance to create an atmosphere of trust. Because it’s so hard to get that stronger atmosphere of trust with a complete stranger (i.e., the actor who’s just walked in the door), that’s why you don’t force the issue. There will be time to judge in Step I. For now, their read is what it is.


FOOTNOTE #14: There’s another reason I personally always love to give actors adjustments and generally play during auditions: I’m in it for the long game. Any actor I see audition now might be an actor I want to work with as director down the road — or might be a great actor to call in through my role as casting director for another feature. There are always friendly, inventive, excellent actors I encounter who simply don’t happen to be the right fit for the character we’re calling in here and now. I’m doing both them and myself a disservice by not taking this opportunity of working with them, if only for a couple minutes.


FOOTNOTE #15: Both for the Broken Continent and other projects, I have had an actor say they really wanted to read for a part that we didn’t call them in for. For the Broken Continent and at least one other project, they got that part. Be humble and know that an actor may have really hooked into what makes a given character tick. After all, there are some things that don’t occur to you when you’re reviewing an actor’s headshot and resume — even when you know the actor.


FOOTNOTE #16: Remember, you haven’t sealed the deal yet. Especially if they’re new actors you know you want to call back and are pretty sure you want to cast, the wooing isn’t done.

Casting Notes #10: Organizing the Audition Space (For Filmmakers)

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.


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Organizing the Audition Space

Okay, so you’ve gone through the pain and suffering of finding an audition space that not only meets your logistical needs, but won’t break your budget.

Now that you’re probably at the stage where you’ve been figuring out who to call in, you need to make sure your audition space is ready. This isn’t rocket science, and many decisions may only be made the first day of auditions, but here are the things you should be doing prior to actors walking through the door:

  1. Confirm your staff and staffing needs
  2. Do a “Walk toward/walk around/walk through” of the audition space
  3. Check the waiting area
  4. Check the audition space proper
  5. Decide on food for you and your staff

As you may realize, some of these considerations you were at least subconsciously assessing as you were trying to find the right audition space. Whether you did already or not, it’s time to tackle these issues now: a well-organized audition space is key in setting the right tone with actors. [1]

1. Confirm your staff and staffing needs

Understanding the case study we’re working under, that of an indie film or web series looking to cast many roles, the production team is likely wearing multiple hats already.

For the auditions, you need people to wear the hats of auditors, a videographer, and check-in staff.

Your auditors should at least include the director and the casting director. For the Broken Continent, all three of us producers were there because all three of us were invested in the creative direction of the series — and the casting decisions made here could potentially impact our team. You don’t want to have too many people in that room, but you do want the people whom the actors will report to. By having the three of us there, we covered the writer, director, and casting director hats — and on a wider level anyone who should be making hiring decisions for the project.

Having stated that you should look to limit how many people are in the audition room proper, you may want to consider having a separate videographer. The reason for this is they can just focus on the technical aspects of the audition: is the audio and video good? For the Broken Continent, one of Francis long-time collaborators and accomplished camera wranglers was happy to volunteer his time. It’s very possible for your given project, you might already have a crew member who is willing to do this task whether for the promise of free food or part of their overall fee. [2]

If you don’t have a separate videographer, you don’t need to fret: just have your steps down for starting and stopping the camera. Otherwise, the one audition you really wanted to review will be the one you forgot to record.

Check-in staff, on the other hand, are both critical and can’t really be the auditors (though I, as the casting director, would come out and get the next actor during Broken Continent auditions). I’m sure you’ve heard many a tale of good, bad, and ugly customer service. Now you’re providing a form of customer service with the check-in process. Don’t you want to make a good first impression? With that in mind, pick your check-in staff carefully. I’ve seen family and friends often employed in this capacity and that’s fine, just don’t discount their importance in setting the tone you want. Here’s some things your check-in staff should do.

  • Be the calm in storm. This is Above All: even if they’re not the most chipper, extroverted soul, they should be friendly and exclude a “don’t panic” vibe
  • Have answers to common questions like where the bathroom is as well as the basic stats of the project (who the production company is, who’s the director and writer, when you’re shooting, etc.)
  • Feel comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I can check.”
  • Be the voice on the other end of the phone. In other words, if you’ve provided a phone number for the auditions, they should have that phone [3]

Besides their invaluable role in being able to empathize with actors without authorizing things, they take care of whatever process you’ve created to check people in. Sometimes they’re taking the headshots and resumes to take to the auditors before the actor comes in. Sometimes, they’re simply making sure the actor has the requisite number of headshots and resumes to provide to the auditors.

Often, the check-in staff have actors fill out an additional information sheet. Given the electronic tools at our disposal these days, I would strongly encourage using a web form — even one developed in Google Drive or a similar resource. For Broken Continent, we used a modified version of the sorting spreadsheet described and shown in Part 7. It worked wonderfully, though in the future, I might see how much Stonehenge can do — at the very least I’ll have the check-in staff ask them if their availability is up-to-date in Stonehenge. We’ll talk more about what the check-in staff do in the next article.

2. Do a “Walk toward/walk around/walk through” of the audition space

Ideally, your hard work has resulted in a space that is accessible by Metro, has decent parking, or both.

Whatever the case, one or two of you should walk toward and then around the building where your audition is, thinking of where the actors may be coming from (e.g., if the Metro stop or bus stop is one block north on Elm Street, look at the approach from Elm Street). Place your signs at intervals where nervous actors can see the next signs — and make sure to draw the all-important arrows in the right direction or have enough signs with printed arrows going in both directions. Do this all the way into the building and to your waiting area. You might even want a bathroom direction sign, though your check-in stuff should be able to handle that. Remember, wherever the Metro or parking is, someone will come from the opposite direction for reasons you will never understand. That’s where you post “[Name] Auditions – Entrance on other side of building” or whatnot and make some stressed actor that much more relieved.

Did you catch that the signs should be printed, not just be some piece of copy paper with some message scrawled on by marker? As you probably guessed, we advocate spending that time, even if you find you need to use the aforementioned marker to get the arrow direction correct for a couple signs. We did this for Broken Continent and several actors were thankful for it. Even if it’s subconscious, you’re telling actors you are prepared and this project will have a level of attention to detail they’ve found sorely acting on other projects they’ve had the misfortune to work on.

You certainly can do this the walk-around as late as the first day of the auditions. After all, we recommend only posting the signs the day of and taking them down after the auditions that day. Especially if you haven’t cased the building first, print at least two more signs than you think you need — and make sure you have duct tape as well as masking tape (duct tape will be overkill and potentially obnoxious on glass doors, but will be very necessary on stone or masonry).

Incidentally, you may be concerned that all these signs might lead some curious passersby wandering into your audition check-in area, perhaps hoping it’s an open call they can audition for — or perhaps even worse, “they’ve always been interested in movies” or “have this great idea for a movie.” Well, that is a risk. Bear in mind, this recommendation is based on the Broken Continent case study. If you have a known audition location (e.g. you’re doing casting for a series over the course of a season or seasons and actors know or should learn where you are) OR if you have a very small group of people you’re seeing (possibly for a smaller project or for callbacks), then perhaps you have few if any signs. However, remember that the trade-off with fewer signs will be that your check-in staff will get more calls.[4]

 3. Check the Waiting Area 

This is more of a checklist. Before the day of the auditions –or at least on ‘the day of’ before the facilities manager disappears to deal with other matters– make sure you have these questions answered:

  • How do you control the lights?
  • Can you control the temperature? If so, how do you do it? (And if not, what if it’s too hot or cold?)
  • Where are the outlets for your laptop or tablet or recharging your phone? [5]
  • Speaking of the phone, do you have cell phone reception here?
  • While it’s not expected, if there’s WiFi, how do you log onto that?
  • Do you have a table/desk for check-in or do you need to bring one in? [6]
  • Are there enough chairs?
  • Bonus: Is there a place to get water? Either a water fountain or sink? [7]
  • Bonus: How do you get to the bathroom from the waiting area? Do you need signs or is it simple?

As stated above, it isn’t rocket science, but it’s all good to know.

 4. Check the Audition Space proper 

This is markedly similar to number 3 above. Many of the questions are similar, but make sure to answer them too:

  • How do you control the lights?
  • Can you control the temperature? If so, how do you do it? (And if not, what if it’s too hot or cold?)
  • Where are the outlets for your laptops/tablets and camera and lighting?
  • Do you have enough outlets for your camera and lighting without tripping the circuit breaker?
  • Do you have tables and desks for the auditors?
  • How are you going to mark the floor so actors can hit their mark for the camera?

For The Broken Continent, our audition room was one of those classrooms that had two entrances and a partition — so we found we needed to explicitly mark the exit door lest nervous actors got confused at the end of their audition.

 5. Decide on food for you and your staff 

Even with the format of regular half-hour breaks, most likely you’ll find the day is packed, so you’ll want some snack food and drink on hand for all your staff.

Team J’s default is usually some variant of Cliff bars, fruit such as apples, bananas or grapes, and the wonderful combination of protein and sugar that is Peanut M&Ms. It’s easy to overdo it on the carbs though, so be mindful. We just go with water on the hydration side.

Also, in maximizing your audition time, you might not want to go out for lunch. That means you have to decide whether it’s best to figure out delivery or if one of the staff will go (the auditors probably can’t). One advantage of the classroom with the partition was we were able to have a meal on the other half of the classroom. Even if you can’t exit the venue, switching up the scenery from the audition room is surprisingly energizing (well, at least until the mid-afternoon slump).

So there you have it. Compared to the travails required to find an audition space, organizing the audition space itself is not earth-shattering. However, you’ll be glad you did — and it will leave you that more focused on our next topic: conducting the auditions themselves.

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FOOTNOTE #1: Yet again, I will happily point out that an audition is a job interview and a job interview works both ways. The actors you most want to woo will notice the effort you put into a well-organized audition.


FOOTNOTE #2: We have no problem with people being paid, though I understand if producers are being thrifty in this pre-production phase. Still, there’s a reason that them thar money stuff is commonly used in exchange for people’s time, so consider that when you’re considering your pre-production budget. And if audition staff are volunteering their time, do make sure their food and parking/travel expenses are met so all they’re donating is their time.


FOOTNOTE #3: Invariably, some actor is going to be late because of traffic, the hunt for a parking space, or some stranger circumstance. The phone number in this case is an escape valve and here your check-in staff serves their role as the empathetic “don’t panic” person admirably. It doesn’t disrupt the auditions you’re running, and they can update you during a break before the next audition.


FOOTNOTE #4: This is probably an opportune time to mention your check-in staff should be comfortable being friendly, but firm with any passersby. It’s a private event and it’s closed to “walk-ins.” That language alone usually shuts down discussion (needing a headshot and resume usually blunts things too). They may be disappointed, but I’ve never seen anyone become hostile — and if they seem to want to linger, the facilities manager –who’s probably on hand wherever your renting the space from– may also be useful as backup. By the way, if you are planning ahead, you can make the signs a bit more vague and let actors know exactly what the phrasing is. However, then you’ll still deal with that actor that didn’t pay close enough attention. And you can never eliminate the curious.


FOOTNOTE #5: And hey, an actor might have a laptop or need to recharge their phone. Think of good customer service, people!


FOOTNOTE #6: Team J invested in several roll-up camp tables that are roughly 3 foot square when unfolded. They travel easily and have proven to be invaluable investments for our auditions and for film shoots.


FOOTNOTE #7: As mentioned elsewhere, our audition space had a sink/kitchenette space within the waiting area which was really quite nice. As an added bonus to the actors, I made sure to provide little paper cups for water. I had the option of the more expensive Dixie cups or the cheaper, but just as good store brand. Plus, the store brand had dinosaurs on them. As a casting rule I just made up, you don’t want to hire any actor who doesn’t appreciate a dinosaur cup. We went with the dinosaurs (and received complements).

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