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An Actor’s Guide To Student Films

Before I start I want to say I’m a great believer that where possible actors should only take paid work.  HOWEVER… When starting out or as our casting brackets change we often don’t have enough material for a showreel.  Student films can be a great way to solve this problem just make sure you are aware of what you’re letting yourself in for.

When should I do a student film? 

Student films are fantastic when you want to update or start a showreel, but you need to make sure you are clear about what you are getting and what is expected from you.  Whatever we think about the rights and wrongs of it most film courses do not provide their students with budgets so anything they spend is usually coming out of their own pockets.  As much as I believe this is wrong on the part of the universities there really isn’t much we can do to change this now so if you are going to do student films be aware that at most you can probably expect to receive expenses but some won’t even provide those.

So Why Should I Bother?

Well as I said showreel material can be hard to come by also if you are new to acting student films are a great way to build up confidence on set without the pressure of a professional job.  Be clear about what you want to get. For example;

  • I want a comedy scene for my showreel.
  • I need something that shows my ability to play older than my actual age.
  • I LOVE the genre/script/director/location etc…

Once you have some experience don’t just do something for the sake of it.

An example.

Recently I agreed to do a student film, it wasn’t paying expenses and I would have to travel to get there, so why did I do it?  Firstly it was a student I had acted with before who was writing and directing and I loved the idea for her script.  Secondly it gave me the chance to play a character type I’d not done before and I knew that as an actor herself I wouldn’t have any problems getting the footage.  I also read the script BEFORE saying yes.

So I don’t HAVE to say yes if I read the script and hate it?

Of course not!  Be clear if they offer you the role that your acceptance is dependent on a few things:

  • Reading the script (Don’t be an idiot though, you won’t be able to re-write it and don’t expect feature film quality writing but it is reasonable to expect something that makes sense and will allow you the opportunity to show off your acting)
  • Getting a tutor contact – This is ESSENTIAL, if you have any problems getting footage having a contact for their course tutor means you can ask them to provide you with the footage. Keep in mind though that you may have to wait for it as some courses won’t let students give out footage until it has been marked.
  • Agreeing in advance any expenses/food provision/expectations of costume (yes I did once have a student ask me to bring a Victorian outfit! I politely declined that job)
  • Having agreed dates for shooting and any extra time that might be needed for pickups etc.
  • Having an agreed date you will receive the finished footage.

So I’ve said yes…

Once you agree to do a film you need to make sure you behave in a professional manner.  Students do have to understand that if you get offered a commercial with a £5000 buy out on the same day you’re going to have to let them down but if something like that should occur then let them know as soon as possible and on the rare occasions I’ve been in this position I’ve also tried to find them someone I know who is available and would be great at the part they can contact if they want to.

Be clear about call times, for student films I insist that I’m only available within school hours so I don’t have to pay for childcare, but again I try and be reasonable if they are having problems scheduling.  Behave on set as you would for a paid job;

  • Know your lines.
  • Make clear character choices but work with your director.
  • Be as consistent as you can.

Be aware that often students won’t be very good at working with actors, it’s often just a lack of experience so do ask if they are happy with the way you are doing something or would like you to try it differently.

Expect delays, students can want to over-compensate by making sure they have every single possible shot they can think of and then a few more for safety.  Try to be patient, this is their coursework and their grade depends on getting it right.  Also they may have been given the wrong equipment, not enough batteries and so on which can add extra time.  Being on time or slightly early for your call, ready in make-up and costume as soon as possible after you arrive makes everyone’s life so much simpler.

Ask your fellow actors to run lines before you shoot to get a sense of the scene.  Some directors want you to improvise around the script so this is a good time to play around whilst the crew are setting up.  If you aren’t sure about something ASK.  You want the footage to be as good as it can be.

Sometimes despite all your best efforts you will do a student film, get the footage and it simply isn’t something you can use.  If this happens there isn’t much you can do but chalk it up to experience.   If you have done your preparation though it’s very unlikely this will happen.

Be professional but have fun.  It’s unlikely the director will become the next James Cameron but I have had a tiny part in a feature film because of one student film so it can lead to other work on occasion. Don’t be afraid to push for your footage if the agreed deadline has passed and if necessary contact tutors or the head of department at the university.  I’ve had some AMAZING experiences on student films (as well as one or two not so great ones) and have learnt so much.

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