While many actors transition to and from the world of theatre and film, there are many differences between live acting and camera acting. To determine an actor’s presence and ability to perform on camera, producers and casting directors utilize a screen test. The format and content of a screen test can vary. Let’s look into the various uses of a screen test and why they are an essential process during Pre-Production for every project.

What is a screen test in acting?

First, let’s define screen test

With self tape auditions and audition videos becoming more commonplace in the casting process, many newcomers in the film industry might be wondering “What is a screen test in acting?” The term “screen test” has evolved slightly, but still has a fundamental purpose. Let’s define screen tests and discuss what it means for actors and directors in today's industry.

SCREEN TEST DEFINITION

What is a screen test?

A screen test is a filmed audition in which an actor demonstrates their suitability for a role in a film or television show. Generally, actors are given sides, or lines of a script, to perform on camera. Screen tests are also utilized to see how wardrobe, make-up, colors, and other accessories may appear on an already casted actor.

Benefits of Using a Screen Test:

  • Seeing how an actor performs on camera
  • Testing wardrobe, makeup, and other factors
  • Determining the chemistry between two actors
  • Having audition footage to help make decisions later

What is a screen test in acting?

Audition Tapes

Most fundamentally, screen tests serve to record an audition video of an actor on video. Oftentimes, actors may even send a self tape audition that they record themselves. However, before the digital age, auditions were typically held without the camera.

In later phases of casting, those who passed the first rounds of auditions and proved they have the ability to act would be asked to do a screen test to prove that they have a presence on camera.

Check out this video of one of Marlon Brando’s early screen tests that prove just how much of a presence he has on screen.

Famous Actors Screen Test Example  •  Marlon Brando

In the modern era of casting, it is common for all auditions to be recorded as an audition tape. This allows an actor to demonstrate their ability to perform on camera by reading screen test scripts, also known as script sides. 

If you're preparing your next casting session, the process of creating script sides has its own set of considerations to make sure you get exactly what you want out of the actors.

Screen tests can be a big factor for actors auditioning for roles that require a lot of physical acting. For example, this video shows the screen tests for Tom Holland in the role of Spiderman.

Holland’s range of self tape auditions to screen tests with other actors is a masterclass on how to do a screen test.

Famous Actors Screen Test Example  •  Tom Holland

In addition to capturing how actors perform on camera, screen tests also provide audition tapes of potential actors for Producers, Executive Producers, and Directors who do not make an appearance at casting auditions. This is critical when making casting decisions in being able to look back at audition videos and compare the screen tests of two potential casting choices. 

To understand every step of the audition process, here's a breakdown of how to hold an audition from our series Making It.

Film Casting & How to Hold an Audition  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Casting for a film can literally make or break a project. Understanding how screen tests are used in the audition process and learning about casting tips for directors and producers will help you cast better talent for your film and create a better movie.

What is a screen test in acting used for?

Dynamics between actors

As we saw in Tom Holland’s screen test video, screen tests are also used to see how two potential actors perform together on screen. This is especially important for films and television shows that focus around a romantic couple, a group of friends, or as in Guardians of the Galaxy, a team of intergalactic superheroes. Here’s a video of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista doing a screen test.

Chris Pratt and Dave Bautists Screen Test Video

It's easy in retrospect to see how well both actors play off each other, especially comedically. But casting for many productions, what a role needs may not be apparent until an actor brings it to the table.

Likewise, the dynamic of two characters and their relationship may not be totally apparent until two actors who are right for the job bring the dynamic to life. When you hear people say, "Those actors have great chemistry," the screen test is the perfect opportunity to discover that.

What is a screen test in acting used for?

Testing wardrobe and makeup

What is a screen test in acting used for when the talent is already casted? Typically, it’s used to see how things like wardrobe, makeup, colors, and accessories look on an actor. Screen tests also help the Cinematographer and Director see how an actor looks on different types of cameras, with specific types of lenses, or with various lighting techniques.

This can be critical for wardrobe, production design, and cinematography during the Pre-Production process. This was especially critical in the production of the film Joker.

The Joker script follows Arthur, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he descends into madness. With this, Joaquin would undergo many wardrobe and makeup changes.

To determine what would work best for Arthur's costume design, they did a series of screen tests to see how these various looks would appear on screen.

 Joaquin Phoenix Screen Test  •  Joker Behind the scenes

While these screen tests were released as the final looks of Joker, one can only imagine the numerous variations there were in both wardrobe, makeup, and lighting. Using screen tests are extremely helpful to make decisions based on what actually appears on the big screen.

Here's another example from Phantom Threadone of Paul Thomas Anderson's best movies. In this case, multiple elements are being tested at once. Everything from the costumes, make-up, performance, lighting, production design, and even the film stock.

Anderson provides commentary for the test so you can hear exactly what he was looking for in these tests. 

 Phantom Thread Screen Test  •  PT Anderson commentary

You can see how a test like this would be highly economical for getting the most accomplished in one screen test.

To answer the common question “What is a screen test in acting used for?” Truthfully, a lot of things. It all comes down to the needs of your production. Do you need to show audition tapes to executives? Does your film rely heavily on makeup and costume? Or maybe it relies heavily on the dynamic between two actors? All are reasons why using a screen test is an effective Pre-Production tool.

UP NEXT

A Guide to Holding Auditions

Thinking about using screen tests during the casting process of your project? Be sure to hold auditions like a professional by learning the crucial steps to the casting process. Check out our step-by-step guide to holding auditions up next.

Up Next: A Guide to Holding Auditions →

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  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

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