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Learn The 4 Phases of TV Pilot Testing

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By Marci Liroff

In my Audition Bootcamp classes I take my students through what it’s like to test at the network level. It usually scares the crap out of them. They sit there, agog – their faces in a state of shock and fear. I’m one of those people that like to know everything about an upcoming situation before I jump into it – typical type-A personality. I figure if I have all the Intel, I can deal with it easier. It seems to take a lot of the “what if” anxiety out of the equation. I hope this exploration of what testing for a pilot helps you too when you get the opportunity.

The Preread
First, you read for me. No one meets the creative team (producers, director, studio and network executives) unless I know their work or I’ve auditioned them before. If I like what you did in this audition, I’ll bring you back to read for the producers and the director.

The Callback
If I like what you did in the preread, I’ll bring you in to read for the producers and director. First, though, I’ll have worked with you and given you notes based on my meetings with them (and with the network and studio) to ascertain what we’re looking for. If you do well in this audition, we’ll test you.

Testing for the Studio
Most pilots are produced by a production company (the studio) and aired on the network. First, you test for the studio. (Some studios are also networks, such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.)

Since we want you to succeed we usually schedule a “work session” with our creative team to go through the scenes and make sure you’re ready.

Meanwhile, business affairs will be negotiating with your agent. For the test, the contract states that you are on “hold” with the studio and network for the next seven to 10 days until we either release you or pick up your option. This puts you in “first position” with our pilot; you can’t test for other projects because most networks won’t let you test in second position.

Speaking of signing a deal, when you get to the studio test location you’ll be met by a business affairs executive and about four pounds of paperwork (your contract) that you’ll need to sign before testing. You’ll be in a waiting area with three to four other people also testing for your role. It’s all nice and congenial and there’s a thick fog of tension in the air. While you’re meant to be prepping for your big opportunity you have to sign your life away (well, only the next five years!).

You’re asked to come into a small theater (think small screening room) or a conference room where the 20 or so executives are assembled to watch your audition. I’ll be sitting at the front of the room to read with you. Or, the actor you’re playing opposite will be there to read with you so we can see your chemistry. Even though these people want you to get the role, don’t expect a lot of warmth emanating from them.

At this point you’ll probably feel as if you’ve left your body and are looking down at your puny self. Resist this at all costs.

Remember what I told you about nervousness having the same physical sensation as excitement? Check out Jack Plotnick’s superb video on YouTube to get back on track.

You read, you say thank you, and you return to the waiting room and your fellow actors. At this point I may stick my head out of the room and say, “Hey, Johnny, we’d like you to come back in again. And you two can leave.” Yeah—it’s that blunt. But don’t overanalyze it. We might have loved what you did and want to see if Johnny can lighten up in the scene.

Testing for the Network
After your studio test, we narrow it down again. It’s a similar situation—a different room plus even more executives. You need to stay calm, not choke, and do exactly what you did for the studio test. From this point we have however many days your agent negotiated to pick up your option.

Some TV networks and studios are taping their tests, which I think is better and less stressful for all concerned. Instead of coming in and testing live in the room at the studio and network, we’ll tape your work session, get the perfect audition and take that in to the executives on a DVD. This way it’s comparing apples to apples. We tend to do this for single camera shows, and still do live auditions for multi-cam shows.

If you make it to any of these tests and don’t get the part, know you did your best and move on to your next audition. Pat yourself on the back that you got this far. It truly is amazing.

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My New Year Prayer For You

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By Marci Liroff

Here comes that time of year again. New Year’s Day brings with it a time of reflection on the past year. For many, it’s a time to restart programs, habits, exercise, and things we let slide during the last several months. It’s time to take stock of our lives and plan anew.

For an actor it’s a great time to reassess what’s working for you and what’s not. If you’ve been keeping a daily diary or spreadsheet of your auditions and meetings this year (as I suggested in my article “How Keeping a Diary Can Help You Book the Job”) you’ll be able to see your progress in black and white. This little trick will show you that this year you had 25–30 auditions and last year you had only 15. You’ll be able to track your callbacks and feedback.

Perhaps it’s time to let go of old precepts and thoughts and shift your mindset. I always come back to this. Your perception is the one thing you have control of in this business.

So much is out of your control (how you look, you’re too old or young, you remind the director of his ex-wife), but after you’ve sufficiently trained and prepped for the role you are the only one who can control how you’re going to let it affect you. You have the choice of how you’re going to view your audition and how you view it thereafter. Are you going to kick yourself time and time again after each audition when you didn’t do what you wanted to do? Or are you going to learn from it — specifically what went wrong or what sent you off the rails? Are you going to continue to let that voice inside your head say, “I’m not right for this. I always screw up in comedy — I’m no good,” or are you going to master that voice and banish it not only from the room, but your head forever? You have this choice.

You also learn from what you did right — those times when you feel comfortable in your own skin and you come ready to play. You’re prepared, you’re flexible in those moments when you get a director who wants to work with you in the room. You’re there to have fun and get the job done. You come in as a collaborator rather than someone who just needs to book a job. Once again, it’s your mindset. We pick up on the energy you bring into the room.

Reflection can also take another path. In my article “Why Do You Act?,” I talked about Will Smith being asked by Jimmy Fallon if fame can ever be scary. His reply was right on the money. Smith replied that it could be, especially now that his kids are coming into the business. “But I tell them…keep loving people. The thing is to make sure with your art that it is a gift to people to help their lives be better and brighter. What happens a lot of times when you see people fail in this business is that they’re in it for their ego, and they start doing it for them. It’s like, no, you’re trying to help people get through a day.”

As this new year begins, I urge you to keep loving, be mindful, be good to yourselves, and be of service to those around you. You are artists and you have a story to tell.

Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

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How To Sound Like A Pro On A Movie Set

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By Marci Liroff

FADE IN: The A.D. squawks, “OK, this is the Martini! You need to walk in on a banana and clear the frame. Make sure you cheat toward the camera. Then I need first team back to one.” What crazy talk is this? In case you don’t know it, you are on a tv or movie set. Many of these terms are throwbacks to another era and have survived many generations of filmmakers. If you don’t know them you’re going to feel like you’ve dropped into another country and don’t speak the language. The lingo can be somewhat daunting if you don’t have a glossary handy. As always, I’m here to help.

After my last article referenced filming plenty of “heads and tails” when filming an audition, I thought it’s time to write an article detailing the language that goes on in the audition room and on-set. Kudos to my friend, director/producer/actor Tony Bill for his amazing book “Movie Speak – How to Talk Like You belong on a Film Set”. This book not only has an informative glossary, it gives the etymology of the word or expression in the film world along with stories from his years of being in the biz. Truly priceless.

Here are some of my favorite technical words and expressions.

The Abby Singer or “The Abby” named after the famous production manager who, as an A.D., realized that a few extra shots could be squeezed out of the busy shooting schedule if the crew began packing up and moving to the next location before a company move took place. This saved the production both time and money. This is typically the second to last shot of the day. It usually brings a quiet happy dance by much of the crew.

The Martini – the last shot of the day – meaning “the last shot is in the glass”!

The Jonesy – a new and bittersweet term on sets. This is the first shot of the day and honors assistant camerawoman Sarah Jones who lost her life on the set of the film Midnight Runner.

A.D. Assistant director. The A.D. runs the set. Next to the director, possibly the busiest person on the set. If you have a question, it might be better to go to the 2nd A.D. because the 1st A.D. is crazy busy.

P.A. – production assistant. It is probably the lowest on the food chain of the filmmaking community. This is one of the hardest jobs on the set as you will be responsible to deliver the exact coffee order to delivering meals to running lines with actors. You can also be the “eyes and ears” on-set and experience everything. Are you just starting out? This might be perfect your job. You will barely get paid but what you’ll see and learn is utterly priceless.

Room tone – is the “silence” recorded at a location or space when no dialogue is spoken. Every location has a distinct presence created by the position of the microphone in relation to the space boundaries. You are meant to stand still and not make a sound. Make sure your phone is turned off. Don’t be “that guy”.

M.O.S. – without sound. When the scene is shot without sound.

A.D.R./looping – Automated Dialogue Replacement, also called looping. During the editing process the actor is called back to re-record their voice. In a sound studio the scene is played back for the actor who re-records their lines sometimes due to outside sound such as an airplane overhead or to get a better performance. Sometimes entire performances are looped – Andie MacDowall’s performance in Tarzan was looped entirely by Glenn Close.

Banana – when walking through a scene you’ll do a slight curve, rather than a straight path, like a banana. You can do a right banana or a left banana. It helps the camera department to get the shot they need – rather than re-setting the shot and repositioning the camera. A “cashew” is a shorter banana.

Blocking – this is when the actors are on the actual shooting set and their movements are set up. The actors run the scene along with all their movements (from walking across the room, to picking up and drinking a cup of coffee). The director, A.D., D.P., lighting crew and script supervisor observe the blocking process so they’ll know where they need to put their equipment and how to light the scene. You’ll notice the camera crew throwing down little “bean bags” as markers whenever you move to different locations in the room. You also might find some directors block your audition scene. This is another reason why you need to be totally off-book when you arrive on-set or for your audition as you’ll be adding another layer of tasks to remember in a specific order. If you don’t know your lines perfectly, this next step will vex you. You need to do these movements exactly the same in each take for continuity.

Video village – this didn’t even exist 20 years ago. The encampment on the set, around the video monitor(s) so that all can view the action on set – and not actually be on the set. Several director chairs are set up in a silent pecking order -sometimes it’s in a covered tent. Here you can find the producers, writer, director, D.P., executives and any visiting guests. You don’t belong here unless you’re asked. Only the top tier of actors are welcome.

First team – you’ll hear the A.D. calling for “first team” when all the lighting is done and they’re ready to shoot. That’s you if you’re one of the actors (and not background/extras). Second team are the stand-ins and doubles.

Four-banger – a large trailer with four dressing rooms. You might be very excited to arrive on set and hear that you have a dressing room until you reach your single – which is coffin-like! There are also double and triple bangers and so on.

Gaffer – an electrician who is responsible for the execution, and sometimes the design, of the lighting plan.

Grip – the person who sets up the rigging for the lights and camera equipment.

Per Diem – Latin for “per day” or “for each day” – this is the money you get while shooting on location to pay for expenses (excluding housing and travel expenses). The various unions have minimum rates for per diem and can be found on their websites.

Sides – Sides are a few scenes from the script – usually used at the audition. Once you have the job and are on the set, the A.D. will give you your sides for the day – usually shrunken down to comfortably fit in your pocket. I’m still shocked when actors I’m coaching send me sides and call them the script.

Turnaround – The off-time hours guaranteed to actors and crewmembers between shooting days. A minimum time is guaranteed by the various union agreements. Many crewmembers aren’t guaranteed enough time to wrap, drive home after a long day of shooting, get the sleep they need, and get back to set the next day. See the famous D.P. Haskell Wexler’s important documentary, “Who Needs Sleep” for more info on the excessive work hours and the tragic results.

“Turnaround” also refers to the camera crew when they reset their cameras to shoot the other side of the conversation and turnaround to the other actor.

Stage left/right – In theater, stage left and right, at least in British and North American theatre, refer to the actor’s left and right when facing the audience.

Up-stage/Down-stage – the rear of the stage is considered up-stage. The front of the stage, nearest the audience, is down-stage.

Camera left/right – this is from the perspective of the camera. If you’re the actor and facing the camera, it’ll be your opposite view – looking at the camera, camera left will be YOUR right.

C-47 – One legend has it that an accountant, tired (or afraid) of explaining the purchase of a large quantity of clothespins, called them C-47s on the purchase order. Another story is that since they are often tossed from one crewmember to another, they were named after the WWII military version of the DC-3.

10-1 – the A.D.s usually use this term instead of saying the cast or crewmember is in the bathroom.

Honeywagon – Sounds kind of sexy. It’s not. It’s the bathroom.

Cowboy – this is a camera term from the days of westerns. The camera will frame “holstered guns-up level”, or waste/hips up. “Tight cowboy” would be above guns.

Sticks – the tripod

Lunch – It’s the meal served half-way through the shooting day. This one seems self-explanatory but on a film set you could have lunch at 3 in the morning – it’s still called lunch.

Magic hour/Golden hour – This is the D.P.’s delight. It is a period shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which daylight is redder and softer compared to when the Sun is higher in the sky. It’s been told that Terrence Malick shot Days of Heaven entirely during magic hour.

Golden time – when a crew is working past 16 hours. Everybody is exhausted, pissed off, and earning triple time!

Groucho – When an actor needs to crouch a bit as you approach the camera because they can’t tilt up. You can also do a “banana Groucho”

Pay or play – referring to an actor/director/writer getting paid whether the project is made or not. You either get paid or you’ll be “playing/acting” in the project. It’s the best kind of deal you can make.

Walk into frame – the frame is what the camera sees. You might be asked by a director on-set or in the audition room to walk into frame and hit your mark.

Cheat toward the camera – when you are having a conversation with someone you naturally face them. Sometimes when filming or auditioning, we’ll ask you to slightly turn more toward the camera so that we can see your expressions – hence “cheating” toward the camera.

Kill the baby! – I know filmmaking can be relentless but nobody is actually killing a child. This is when they turn off the baby Fresnel light.

Flying in – not actually flying like in a plane. When a request is made from a department head for a piece of equipment or a prop, the person who is retrieving it usually announces it’s “flying in” to the crew.

“We’re on the wrong set!” – No, you’re not actually on the wrong set – it’s what the A.D. says to signify a company move to the next set or location.

“Watch your back/Hot Points!” – you’ll hear the crew yelling this as they move equipment. Invariably, there’s always an intense discussion going on between the filmmakers directly in the path of the crew. This is their nice way of telling you to move your ass!

Hot set – A film set in which furniture, props (and sometimes food) are positioned for an imminent shoot – so labeled to prevent those items from being moved and thus compromising continuity in the finished product. You never want to mess with anything on a set, nor should you sit on the furniture unless you’re in the middle of the scene and told to do so.

Last looks – just before they start shooting the A.D. calls “last looks” so that the hair/make-up/prop people can make sure that the actors and the set looks exactly as it should before the camera rolls.

Back to one – if you think of your beginning position in a scene as one, that’s where you need to go back to when they call cut and start the scene again.

Checking the gate – no, they’re not going outside to see if the gate is open. The gate is a slot in the camera through which the film passes. On the completion of the filming of every scene, the A.D. orders that the gate be checked for any impurities such as lint or hair. If it’s not clear, images are spoiled and everything taken on that reel will have to be re-shot. These days so many productions aren’t using actual film and shoot digitally so you don’t hear it as often.

“What’s your 20?” – Usually spoken by crewmembers over their walkies (walkie-talkie) but is a corrupted phrase from the original “10-20” used by U.S. law enforcement to verbally encode their radio transmissions so that non-police listeners would not easily discover police operations.

Big eyes – when the AC (assistant cameraman) is focusing for a CU (close-up), he will usually ask the actor for “big eyes” and you want to do exactly that, without blinking or looking away, until focus is set.

What terms or expressions have you heard that you can share?

Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

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