Demo reels are tough, especially when you’re first starting out. Here’s my advice on how to get through the first few iterations. My first showreel was awful.
Well, actually it wasn’t that bad considering where I was in my career at the time. I’d only been out of film school for a couple of years and I was shooting in between camera assisting gigs. For about six months I shot for a company that made karaoke laser discs for overseas distribution, and during that time we cranked out a lot of videos. The shoots were intense: a 28-song laser disc had either a nine or twelve day schedule, depending on how high profile it was. We shot straight through with no days off, and we had to get three videos in the can every day. Usually one was okay, one was awful, and one looked pretty good.
My first showreel consisted of a montage of the “best” of those videos, along with some second unit operating work for a TV movie in which a nun rolls a van down a hillside while holding the antichrist in her lap. Awesome stuff.
I didn’t get a lot of work out of this, but I got enough. The next round was slightly better, and the next slightly better yet. Showreels were more expensive back then as editing time cost money in someone else’s facility, and then the final product had to be duplicated onto video tape and mailed out. Now all I have to do is upload my material to a website, which is a lot easier.
The fundamentals of the presentation, however, remain the same.
The Montage Reel
We all start out here. The montage reel shows off the best of what we’ve done and hides the worst of what everyone else has done. It’s impossible for a prospective director or producer to ignore bad acting, dialogue and direction and separate it from your cinematography work; if you show a gorgeously lit film with bad acting the only thing the viewer will remember is the bad acting. You are judged on the whole of the project. This is unavoidable.
The montage method hides the dialogue, conceals a certain amount of bad acting, and lets you cut around bad direction and a weak script. By putting images to music you distract the viewer from everything but the music and the images. As long as your editing groups similar looks from similar projects together you’ll be in reasonable shape. If your looks are scattered throughout the montage it will feel chaotic, which gives the viewer the sense that you can’t be consistent in your work. Those who work in long form hate this.
As music plays a huge roll in the motion picture experience it’s important to pick something catchy that will also appeal to the widest audience possible. It shouldn’t be a song that’s so popular that its popularity will distract from the images, but it also can’t be so obscure that it requires very specific tastes to appreciate. You can’t predict who your audience will be or what their tastes in music will be like, and you want them to hire you for your pictures and not because you’re a musical eccentric.
What the viewer won’t see in a montage reel is how well you frame shots that cut together into scenes, and how consistent your lighting is within a single project. These are important things to see for someone who is hiring for a feature or long dramatic project.
The total length of this reel should be two minutes or less. That’s about the longest anyone will sit and watch a reel on the Internet, and–honestly–it was about the maximum amount of time anyone would watch a physical reel in older times.
Show only your very best work. Don’t show work that was amazingly hard to achieve but looks only so-so. The viewer has no idea that you ran a dolly track across a swimming pool to get a shot, they only know that it looks okay but not great. That’s not the impression you want to leave them with.
You are literally only as good as the worst shot in your montage. That’s what they’ll remember the most. A lot of great shots followed by an okay shot tells them that you don’t always deliver amazing work, and that’s cause for concern.
The Scene Reel
This is what feature film and TV directors and producers really want to see. This usually starts out with a montage, or “sizzle” sequence, that gets the viewer hooked. It’s tougher for a viewer to sit through scenes as they last longer, plus they are dropped into the middle of a story whose beginning and ending they don’t know, so it’s important to show them up front that you do the kind of work that’s worth watching. The sizzle section should last no more than about thirty seconds.
The scene reel requires you to show work where all the elements fall into place and work well. The acting must be good, the dialogue must be good, the directing must be good, your work must be good… everything has to work. There’s no need to show really long scenes, or even entire scenes; just show enough to demonstrate that you know how to shoot shots that work together. Lead with your best work, and only show enough of the scene to leave the viewer with a favorable impression without letting them get bored. You’ll probably want to show one minute sections, tops, unless you’ve got a longer scene that’s really amazing.
There’s really no limit on how many scenes you include as long as they are all your very best work. The Web allows viewers to choose what they watch, so label your work with keywords that help them find what they want to see. (“Horror,” “comedy,” “family drama,” etc.) The viewer wants to find their next project on your reel, so make it hard for them to miss.
The Compilation Reel
For short form projects the trend is to show entire pieces. A montage of shots from commercials doesn’t make much sense when what the viewer really wants to see are the entire spots, so show them the spots. Just make sure they have an idea what they’ll see in each spot. I label mine: “kids,” “vfx,” “product,” etc.
If you shoot a lot of several kinds of projects, like fashion and comedy, separate those so viewers can see exactly what they want to see. Someone who’s hiring for a comedic spot doesn’t want to waste time watching clothing ads.
Words to Remember
To reiterate several important pieces of advice:
- The viewer wants to see their next project on your reel.
- You’re only as good as your worst shot. The viewer is looking for a reason to stop watching. Don’t give them one.
- Show only your very best work. Your best work is what looks the best, not what you worked the hardest to achieve.
If you want to see how a director or producer will watch your work, sit down in front of your computer and commit to looking at 30 DP websites. Choose a role for yourself–pretend you’re producing a horror film–and look through those websites for a couple of viable candidates. By the time you get to website #15 you’ll be looking at their work the way someone else is going to look at yours. Plan accordingly.
About the Author
Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After spending his teenage years shooting short films on 8mm film he ventured to Los Angeles where he earned a degree in film production and then worked on feature films, TV series, commercials and music videos as a camera assistant, operator, and DP.
Art now lives in his native San Francisco Bay Area where he shoots commercials, visual effects, virals, web banners, mobile, interactive and special venue projects. He is a regular consultant to, and trainer for, DSC Labs, and has periodically consulted for Sony, Arri, Element Labs, PRG, Aastro and Cineo Lighting. His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of SMPTE and the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC.
Director of Photography