Putting Your Best Work in Your Reel: Guidelines for Five Types of Demo Reels by Jeff Deel

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, January 2007. Putting Your Best Work in Your Reel: Guidelines for Five Types of Demo Reels by Jeff Deel. Pages 46 – 48.

For many people who are starting out in the film industry, one of the most powerful tools is the demo reel. Initially, the concept sounds simple enough: take some of your best work, put it together, and presto – you have yourself a demo that’ll have the film community clamoring to hire you. If only it were really that simple. In reality, creating a demo piece, especially for yourself, can be a very stressful activity.

There are some general, immutable rules that apply to just about every type of demo. The first, and arguably one of the most important, is the length of the reel. There’s a common phrase I like to tell everyone I do a reel for before I get started: “Leave them wanting more.” In the world of demos, less is almost always more. It’s important to remember that most of the people who matter that are going to be seeing this have dozens of other reels besides yours to go through, so show what you can do and cut it. Your reel should almost never exceed five minutes and most of the time – be three minutes or less. With that in mind, making a solid impact within the first thirty seconds is crucial. I like to structure the reels that I edit almost like a very short movie and apply a three act structure. Start out with strong, compelling material, then in the middle you can let it breathe a (very) little bit, and then if they’re still watching by the end, leave them with a strong last impression with a similar energy to the opening thirty seconds.
Probably one of the most common questions is what to put in a reel? The answer is quite simple – your best work. But there is more to it than that. What you choose to include in your demo should reflect your skills and what you are capable of bringing as a potential employee. Whether you’re an actor, editor, director, or anyone else who’s in need of a demo, use work that accurately represents the type of job you’re after. Also, names sell, meaning that if you’ve been hired to do a commercial, be sure to include a part of the commercial with the name of your client. What this does is show potential employers that other companies have trusted you with their brand and therefore adds credibility to your name.

Another issue is that of what not to use. First and foremost, never misrepresent yourself in your reel. If you’re creating a director’s reel, and you’re using a piece that someone else directed and you did lighting for, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. I know it sounds like common sense, but I’ve had friends bring me reels with content in them that I know they played a much lesser role in creating than their reel implies. Even if “behind the scenes” you really were running the show, what matters is what’s in the credits, and the last thing you want is someone checking up on your credentials and find you’re fudging them. Something else to be wary of is including “racy” content. You might love that steamy bedroom scene or that brilliant bloody shootout you put together, but scenes like those could harm your chances with certain potential employers. Unless you’re customizing your reel to a particular client, it’s generally best to play it somewhat safe with what content you include.

An issue that comes up quite often in reel creation is that of music. I know it’s tempting to grab that latest Gnarls Barkley track and put some of your clips to it, but rather than adding production value, all that tells potential givers of work is that copyright laws aren’t really that big of a deal to you. I’ve been through this many times and have heard the “but it’s only for me… I mean, I won’t be selling it so what’s the big deal?” …And the “what if I use some lesser known underground artist?” arguments. In the end, unless you have the express written permission of the label or the band (if they’re independent), it’s a no-go. So what’s an eager reel creator to do? The good news is that you still have a lot of options. There are a variety of software packages on the market today that allow you to create custom, royalty-free music for your work. Another way to go is stock music that’s available from a variety of online sources. You’ll generally pay a one time fee for the track and use it with no additional fees. Something I’ve done in the past to get music is tracking down bands who aren’t signed to a label and approaching them directly to get permission. This can be a hit or miss approach, but you never know when a small band will be more than happy to help you out. Finally, check online resources for websites that have information and links to artists who will allow their work to be used for commercial purposes free of charge.

Reel creation is not something that should be done in a panic. It’s a good idea to put one together before it’s actually needed. It can be quite embarrassing getting a call from a potential employer – or meeting a potential employer – and when they ask for a reel, you have to tell them, “Umm, well, I’m working on putting one together right now…” Working on putting together a reel doesn’t get you work – ever.

The previous guidelines apply generally to every type of reel, but there are specific nuances that go into creating reels for various professions. Five common types of people who need demo reels: Actors, Cinematographers, Editors, Compositors/3D Animators, and Directors.

Actors. The first thing to determine is whether you’ll be making a film acting reel or a commercial reel. A commercial reel is the easier of the two to arrange. A rough outline would be a headshot and title card up front, then four to five thirty-second spots, followed by an ending head shot and title card. I find that if they’re traditional thirty-second commercial spots, it’s generally a good idea to include the full commercial rather than chopping bits and pieces out of each one. If you have some longer form industrial work, rather than increasing the length of the reel, cut one of the
commercials and include a snippet from the industrial piece. A film acting reel requires a more delicate approach. There’s no specific right or wrong way to craft an acting reel as every actor is going to have different types of performances, so this is where editing skill comes into play. Your task is to take brief performances from
a variety of films and show the range of an actor. One thing you should never do is open a reel with an audition slate.
Cinematographers. A cinematography demo should show variety and versatility. Unless you’re making a reel  specializing in a specific field (i.e., nature, wedding, etc.), include as wide of a variety as you can. This includes well composed tripod shots, jib, hand held, and Steady Cam if you have it. Try to avoid using talking head shots unless, a) it’s with someone particularly notable or famous, or b) there’s something particularly interesting about the
shot such as the background or the lighting. In the end, keep it lively and interesting, but be careful not to go over the top.

Editors. An editing reel can be one of the most difficult types to create since the skill of an editor is generally seen more in how they craft full scenes together. However, what’s most widely accepted is to start out your reel with a short montage (one to two minutes), then include a couple of choice scenes in longer form. If the potential employer is intrigued by the montage, chances are they’ll spend the time to watch more. With DVD, this gets even easier as
you can have your montage play as soon as the disc is played, then offer a menu with full length cuts of your work.
Compositors/3D Animators. Much like a cinematography reel, the key here is variety. Every animator has a walking biped and a nice landscape in their reel, so try to be unique. If you’re in need of content, feel free to create clips specifically for your reel. Try to avoid bringing clips from the same piece of work back again and again. This is a dead giveaway that you don’t have a lot of material to work with, so you’re milking what you do have. You’re better off
with a shorter, tighter reel than one that screams inexperience.

Directors. A director’s reel blends elements from all of the other reels. Chosen clips should have great acting, good camera work, and solid editing. It is also one of the few places where you can get away with using slightly longer clips than you would normally use, as long as the performance and the content of the clips justifies the added length. Like an editing reel, it’s a good idea to include at least a couple full length spots on your DVD since an employer is more likely to spend the extra time in making a decision on a director than they are for below the line crew. Once you have a solid reel put together, the next step is getting it out to people. The two most common (and best) ways to distribute your reel is via DVD and the web. Be sure to keep your DVD very simple. Even if you have the ability to make glorious flashy intros and awesome transitions between menus, don’t. Again, most people who are going to be viewing your reel want to see what you can do in the least amount of time. You don’t want to put any roadblocks
between your potential employer and your reel. Another avenue to take in getting your reel out there is to have a web site. You don’t necessarily need anything flashy, but a simple site that has your résumé and your reel in a web format is an easy form of self promotion. Just remember that if a potential employer wants a copy of your reel, send them a physical copy of it, and don’t just direct them to your website. The last, and these days most un-common way to get your reel out is VHS. Not more than a couple years ago, VHS was the way to go, but now most everyone has a DVD player.

If you get a specific request for VHS, have a couple of copies of your reel on tape handy just in case. Also remember to include your contact information in as many places as you can. On the DVD cover, on the top of the DVD itself, and on the DVD menu are all good places to put your info. If someone wants to contact you, they shouldn’t have to look very far for the info to do it.

In the end, creating a demo is a delicate balance between being individual and different, yet also being the same. Watch as many reels from other people as you can. What impresses you and what screams “amateur” to you? You’ll find a lot of similarities among reels, but what makes those special ones stand out so well? Always remember that your goal with a reel is to earn an interview with it, not the job itself. So keep it brief, show what you can do, and send
it out to anyone you think might have work. In noti me you’ll be polishing up your good shoes and heading out for an interview.

Best of luck to you!

Jeff Deel owns and operates a post production house (www.xdissolve.com) based out of Denver, Colorado. In addition to post, Jeff also does location sound and has just completed working as director of photography on the documentary film, “Do It For Johnny,” wherein he traveled around the country documenting a group of filmmakers as they attempted to deliver a custom built guitar to Johnny Depp. Jeff can be contacted at jeff@xdissolve.com.

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