The Path to Demo Reel Awesomeness

Wall*E, image credit: Pixar

Demo reels are the Rubik’s Cube of filmmaking; comprised of brilliant, albeit oft-times disparate images, a wondrous collection of all that’s right in the world of filmmaking brought to the world though your efforts as the  ( insert director/ cinematographer, animator, etc, here ). This multi-faceted cube represents your Particular Brand of Awesome.

Beyond all it takes to get make great content to populate your reel, you’ve got to edit and present your best work in a way that’s engaging, informative, shows your range, your style, your ability and keeps the viewer’s attention from beginning to the end. It’s like making a great film from footage you’ve found, only it’s all your footage, YOUR work. Here’s a few tried and true pointers to help you get from zero to hero in the demo reel department.

Start Strong.

Stack all the very best of your stuff on the front end of the reel, the first half. If your potential client/ employer see’s only ten seconds of your reel, be sure they’ve seen the best 10 seconds you’ve got. Not surprisingly, that first few seconds is going to decide wether they stick around for the whole thing, or even a minute more. Make a bombastically amazing first impression with your best stuff, right off the top.

Tell a story.

This reel is brilliant in that it shows Mike’s skill as a storyteller, demonstrating that he gets ‘the whole picture’ as a Director of Photography. Nicely done– music, images, stories all come together, engaging the viewer. I wound up watching this one several times. Have a look-

Make Every Single Shot Count.

Every shot on your reel should be reflective of your skill/ work capacity in which you seek to be employed; director, animator, cinematographer, etc. Every shot should show off your ability and professionalism unquestionably. Experience is great, but if you’re short there, push hard on what you have done; show, don’t tell. Be ready to back up every thing on your reel– your thought process, your role in achieving the shot/ scene, etc. Good idea not to borrow someone else’s stuff here. Stick to your own stuff, even if there’s little. Just make it great.

Analyze every shot.

Once you’ve got a reel assembled, but not finalized, try this: turn off the sound and watch from head to tail. No music, no narrative, etc. Get a feel look and feel without the sound? Music can make or break your reel– carefully select that which won’t turn off your potential employer, or client; your reel is for them, in the end. Personalize your reel (as it reflects you), as a professional. In that, choose suitable musical tracks for your intended audience. It’s not good to have the viewer diving for the remote during your reel intro, they’re not being a fan of thrash metal… (seen it happen too often, not pretty).

Lose everything but the very best you have to show.

No kidding. Be brutally honest; your potential employer will be (even if they don’t say so). If you’re reel is :30 seconds long, show off the best :30 seconds you’ve got.  Best foot forward always, without hesitation. If you’re on-the-post about a clip, opt out of including the piece. You have to believe without a doubt what you’re showing off is the best stuff you’ve produced. Not much to show? Get to work! don’t stop filling up your reel until you’ve got a couple minutes of great stuff, wether it was a job or your own projects. Make them all count.

Show Off Your Individuality.

Be yourself! We’ve all heard this and it rings true in creative endeavors like nowhere else. Be creative but market savvy. Be different by making your reel truly yours. Be inspired with the best of what other’s have done, and go off on your own path. You’ll get noticed.

Demo reels reflect the type of work you seek. 

Cater to the clientelle you want to do work for– your demo should aim at particular niches you want to be working in– ‘one size does not fit all’. Used to be, the idea of a Generalist was the trick to employment Nirvana. Then all the rage was to be a Specialist in some arcane niche… to get the jobs. In the end, who knows what the situation will be, as it’s really subjective to time, studio, location, community, etc. One way to get into a job is to focus on your strengths. Become a specialist in the area you really rock it, and you’ll pick up work doing that stuff, eventually. Learn other stuff that supports your niche. your specialty– never stop learning. As your other stuff gets better, add those things to your reel and resume, as well. The more you know, the more your skill set broadens, the more of the market you’re able to land in. That’s always good for business.

In that, hone your demo reel to the particular needs of your potential client/ employer; they’re interested in what you can do for them, based on their needs at the moment- it’s all about how you may help them accomplish their goals. Demonstrate how your work fits their particular niche, and blow ’em away with your super best stuff! It’s all about the clients. Aim your stuff with laser focus at their targets. Remember, they need to hire folks they won’t need to train– so be up to speed when you land a spot at the table. When opportunity knocks, be ready to launch.

Keep your demo reel short.

Really. People are busy, they don’t have much time, and your reel may be one of hundreds (as in the case of Pixar, thousands) to be screened. Think of your demo as an ‘elevator pitch’ for yourself–  a quick, impressive introduction to your talents. Best stuff at the front, keep it within 2-3 minutes, tops. Lengthy intro’s not so handy, unless it’s truly awesome and relevant to your skills– get right to the work, but keep your contact info easily found on the package, email, web link, etc.

Don’t even think of using someone else’s work in YOUR reel.

This is A Big Deal: If you worked with a team on a shot/ sequence/ film, be explicit about your role in the process. Show off ONLY what YOU were responsible for, if at all possible. If you can’t readily recreate the work because you’ve not actually created it in the first place, don’t add it because you think you can create it  (given time, money, etc). This is the place for what you have accomplished, not what you think you can accomplish when you’re being paid.

Aside from that, using another person’s work is just bad juju. Happened with me on several occasion’s; the other folks lost out every time, that stuff hounding them still. Don’t be the one to get busted selling someone else’s work as your own. Word will get around, and will likely impact your opportunities.

gentlemanghostSeek Out Honest Feedback.

Get your reel in front of someone whom you respect as an artist, or identifier of good work. Ideally, someone in the industry who you respect, and with whom you may have a relationship. Ask that person for an unadulterated, honest review of your reel. Constructive criticism is the aim, here. Don’t defend your babies / shots; if it’s not getting a good response, use what you’ve learned from the feedback, incorporate that into a better shot. Be careful not to find yourself defending mediocre work.

Keep your Reel Fresh. 

Updating your reel is a great idea! Some folks I know do this once a year, other’s quarterly… whatever feels best to you. Of course, it takes new work to update your reel, so collect the best stuff you’ve been doing (archiving the highest quality versions you can get your hands on) and pile it into your next reel edit. Don’t wait for paid gigs to supply you with new stuff! If you’re not working, make something to add to your demo!  Find a way to create new work, pushing your skills and keep growing.

Vimeo. Word.

Vimeo is  is great place to find inspiration. Behance is another hot spot for amazing demo reels. There are hubs all over– Google the term, specifically for the area of your interest, and see what other’s have done, how they present themselves. Go off on your own tangent from there!

Here a a few other places to get Demo Reel Know How from some top folks in the film biz:

Shane Hurlbut – Hurlbut Visuals

10 Must See Demo Reels- Creating a Demo Reel

Ken Stone: Notes on a Demo Reel

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