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Create a winning demo reel that people will actually watch

John DeMaio on March 3, 2010 - 9:50 am in Featured, General

In order to get hired, you need to be able to show your potential clients how well you can do the things that you say you can do.  The way we accomplish this is through the use of a demo reel.  If you’re like me, you have probably spent a little time worrying about your demo reel – and you’ve probably made several versions in order to get it “just right.”  Well, look no further.  I am going to give you a few tips that will capture the eye of any production company or future employer – without driving them to reach for the scotch in the drawer.  Listen up and take some notes.

Let’s start with the basics.  What you should include with a demo reel?

  1. A cover letter
  2. Your resume
  3. Reel breakdown – this is a table of contents outlining the work on your reel and what aspects you did for each shot.
  4. The reel itself!

As always, you want to stand out from all the rest and be unique – remember that yours isn’t the only reel that will be seen. Chances are, the person doing the hiring is going to watch hundreds of reels a week when selecting someone for a job – this is your chance to either win them over or have your reel tossed into the trash.

If you follow the tips below, you will have a much better chance of getting your reel to stand out from the rest.

Know your audience and tailor your reel

Think about your audience and create something tailored just for them. For example, if you know that you are applying for a job that shoots primarily interviews – give them a reel of interviews. Your client wants to see how you will fit into their environment. If you make them guess how well you will do something, they will probably guess wrong.

It’s ok to have multiple reels, and sometimes it can make all the difference in the world. The key to remember is to know your audience.

Choose the right music

Music is one thing that can help your reel and just as easily turn people off.  You might think that you are trying to “express yourself” by your choice of music, but you have to remember your audience may not appreciate the type of music that you enjoy.  Just remember to play it safe and shy away from the Death Metal and hardcore rap.  Music with lyrics is generally not a good idea, as it can easily become distracting. If you do decide to use lyrics, no cursing or foul language! You would think that I wouldn’t have to mention that but you would be surprised. Seriously, I’ve seen it all.

Also remember that many places will turn the sound off completely when watching reels, so while music is important, don’t spend too much time with it, as your work itself is what they are after.

Keep it short, with your best work first

Clients don’t want to see everything you ever shot because they don’t have the time. Your demo reel typically has about :30 to capture someone’s attention. Pick your best examples (maybe 10 or so) and showcase them in a concise way with your very best work first. Your reel should generally be no longer than 3-4 minutes.

Include a Title Slate at the beginning and end

You always want to start off your real with a title slate giving your name, basic contact info and what your title is. (editor, camera operator, gaffer, etc.) You should end your reel with the same information and have it last for at least 15 seconds. People are not going to want to rush to find the pause button in order to write down your email. Also try to get a professional email address for the work that you do.  Here’s where I comment about using curse words again.  Seriously.  I’ve seen not one but two email addresses with four letter words in them.  Be sensible, please.

Avoid extremely long intros.

You can get creative with titles and graphics but don’t let it linger. Make it quick – then get into your actual work. If you are applying for a graphics position, this doesn’t apply.  If you are looking to become a DP, your work is more important than how your name animates onto the screen.

Show your reel to others for feedback

Ask colleagues and friends for HONEST opinions and listen to what they have to say.  Now is not the time to get your feelings hurt – you are trying to get a job.  Listen to what people have to say and make adjustments. This business is about collaboration.  If you can’t take constructive criticism, now’s the time to get out.

Eliminate the shaky footage

If you are trying to get a job based on your skills as a camera operator, you have to prove that you can compose nice steady images. Concentrate on your composition, exposure and nice smooth steady moves – leave the shaky stuff out.   It’s okay to include some handheld footage but keep it to a minimum and highlight the fact that you know how to compose a nice steady shot.

Never use work straight from tutorials

This primarily applies to those working on a motion-graphics reel. You might have just learned how to do a really cool effect on your favorite tutorial site, but simply reproducing the tutorial is not going to get you anywhere. Chances are the person viewing your reel has seen the same tutorial, and all it tells them is that you know how to follow instructions and copy a tutorial.

This doesn’t mean you should not use tutorials! Simply take what techniques you learned from that tutorial and create an entirely new piece that is original, creative, and shows off that awesome new effect in your own way.

My experience with demo reels

When I started in this business, everything was recorded on BetaSP tapes and editing rooms cost about $150 – $250 an hour to use. If I wanted to create a demo reel, I had to sneak into the edit suite after hours and create my single master piece. Now there is no excuse. If you’re in the film/video community, I’m sure that you know someone with a computer editing system. You may even have one yourself. Use it! This is your one and only calling card – especially if you’re starting out. Get creative and show that you know what you’re doing.

Something that I struggled with in the past when creating my reels is that I happen to be both a DP and an editor. So how do I showcase multiple talents in one reel?  The answer is that I don’t. I have multiple reels created, just like I mentioned above, because my DP clients don’t care about my editing skills and vice versa. But how do you create an editing reel that is concise? There is no easy answer to this. In short, you need to create something that matches the description of the hiring company. For example, if I were looking to get a job at a company that created commercial spots – I would probably put together a reel of my five best commercials. If I was looking to get hired by a company that was mainly long format production (TV shows, infomercials, etc.) I would take excerpts of my long format shows and put a few examples together – as well as giving a sample of an entire show.  Now keep in mind that you might not have what they’re looking for because you’re new to the industry – that’s ok.  If you can’t supply them with examples that match the job description, simply put in your best work and let it speak for itself. You will always have a cover letter that accompanies your reel – make sure that you explain this in the cover letter. An editing reel is a little more forgiving than a shooting reel because it requires a bit more attention from the people doing the hiring.  Just keep it concise, put your best examples up front and let your hard work speak for itself.

Further Reading and examples

Adrenaline Films has a great set of examples for demo reels. Right on the home page there are several demo reels highlighting many different aspects of production. (See what I mean about tailoring your reel?)  Take a look at their samples and get some ideas on how to showcase your own work.

The “Demo Reels” forum at Creative Cow is a great place to get some advice and criticism for your own reel. Remember that you are asking for opinions. Part of this business is being able to take criticism from your peers and using it to your advantage. Yelling back at people on forums or within comments rarely helps your situation and only fuels their anger.

Did I leave something out?  Please let me know so I can keep this post current for everyone! Comment below with your thought on creating a winning demo reel.

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