Showreels: What They Are, and Tips on How to Make Them

Every once in a while someone who reads my articles shoots me an email and asks if I’ll watch their showreel and critique it. This can be quite hard, because most of these reels just aren’t ready for prime time yet. They’ll probably get their owner some work, or at least more projects to shoot as it’s sometimes enough for people to see that you’ve shot -something-, but most need some work.

I’ve been making showreels and websites for a LONG time. Early in my career I wanted to see what I was up against, so I asked a friend of mine who worked for a commercial production company to scoop up about 30 reels for a marathon viewing session. We watched the first couple all the way through, but as time dragged on we started picking and choosing which ones we were going watch at all, typically based on the first 30 seconds of content.

That was a very interesting lesson, as that’s how directors and producers watch reels. They start with a big stack, and as they have limited time they will decide very quickly whose reel they will watch and whose they won’t. That’s why it’s painfully important to put your best work up front.

I’m going to start off talking about narrative reels, as these still tend to be watched in the traditional way: long clips, in sequence, on a DVD or website. (Most reels are now on websites. I haven’t sent out, or even made, a DVD showreel in years. Prospective clients told me not to send them as they’d be watched once and then recycled, and they’d rather be pointed toward a website instead.)

Most narrative reels start off with a “sizzle” montage of stunning images, but this should probably not last a long time as narrative directors want to see actual scenes. The problem for those who are starting out is that most of what they have to show is, well, crap: even if the cinematography is gorgeous the acting, writing, editing and directing might be atrocious, and directors can’t judge your work alone. They see it all as a whole, and their focus is generally performance above all else, so the odds that they’ll be able to watch your cinematography alone and ignore the bad acting are slim to none. It’s just not going to happen. That’s why so many young reels are simply clips edited to music, which is better than nothing and at least keeps the viewer focused on the images.

Or on the music.

You really have to be careful when selecting montage music. It may be simply awesome to your ears but not everyone has your tastes. I’ve seen reels that I had to stop watching because the music was just not my thing. The music should definitely represent your tastes and your perspective, but the more out of the mainstream it is the greater the odds that it will turn a lot of people off.

Montages should be as short as possible and should show your best work up front. My early montage reels were 3-4 minutes, but that turned out to be too long. On the few occasions I’d get tapes back (yes, tapes, VHS tapes, you’ve probably seen them in museums) I’d pop them into my VCR and see where they had been stopped, as viewers almost never bothered to rewind them. They almost always stopped between 2-3 minutes, so that’s what I aimed for.

The fact that producers and directors have limited time works to your advantage, because now you really can show only your very best stuff. The shorter your reel is the better: it’s really just a calling card to get your foot in the door. If you don’t have a lot of great stuff to show, just show the great stuff: you are literally only as good as the worst shot on your reel, because that’s the one they’ll remember.

Reels don’t exist to get your work. They exist to keep you from being excluded from work. Potential employers are always looking for one thing: a good reason not to hire you.

The next step is to show entire scenes, or at least excerpts of scenes. Anyone can make pretty pictures in a vacuum; it’s how they cut together that really matters. That’s what narrative directors and producers want to see: can you shoot a scene with consistent lighting, appropriate camera angles, and without crossing the 180-degree line? Once again, though, you must have scenes to show that are worth watching. If the acting is marginal or the writing is awful think twice about showing it, because–fairly or not–you are judged on the entire thing.

This kind of reel generally has 30-60 seconds of “sizzle” montage and then several minutes of scenes. Scenes take time to play out so it’s natural for them to take up a fair bit of space on a reel but do make sure your very best work is up front. People who watch reels generally look at a lot of them at once, and they are looking for solid reasons to stop watching yours so they can get to the next one. Don’t give them that excuse.

For commercial work directors and agencies really want to see full spots. Once again, a typical reel on DVD might run three minutes and contain 2-8 spots, depending on their length. Once again, only show your very best stuff. When in doubt, leave them wanting more.

What’s more typical now is to create your reel on a website, where anyone can stumble across your work and take a peek. The same rules apply as people generally don’t want to spend a lot of time in one place on the Internet if they don’t have to, so make sure that whatever you show is strong up front. This especially applies to narrative work. Commercials are a bit different, as the style now is to offer each spot on its own and let the viewer choose which one they want to view based on the thumbnail or the client. The trick is to make sure that no matter which program they click on you’re showing them something amazing.

There’s an old story about an ad agency that created a commercial campaign with chickens in it, so they spent an inordinate amount of time looking for DP reels that contained shots of live chickens. They plowed through dozens of reels shot by exceptional cinematographer but settled on one really mediocre DP who had one shot whose background contained a chicken. This is an extreme example, but it teaches us a good lesson: people are always looking for their next project on your reel. If you’ve already shot it then there’s a good chance you can shoot it again, and when someone has a lot of money and a client relationship on the line they want the sure thing.

When I lived in LA I cut my reels at a small post facility that was owned by a car commercial director. The walls were lined with tapes. Every time a new car campaign came along he pulled down tapes with suitable footage and cut a reel specifically for that campaign, showing similar cars in similar environments to the boards provided by the agency. If he didn’t have anything appropriate he would he would get his hands on that model of car for a weekend and take it up to Tahoe where he’d spend $20,000 of his own money shooting the car on winding roads and snow-covered peaks, even renting helicopter time to get the shots he needed to land the account. He nearly always got it.

That’s an extreme example, but it teaches another interesting lesson: show the work that you want to do. If you want to shoot narrative but you have a great commercial reel, you’re going to get a lot of commercial work. The inverse is true: a great feature reel will get you feature work but not so much commercial work… depending on whether you’ve shot any really hot features lately. (If your feature takes off commercially you’ll find yourself suddenly very popular in the commercial world.)

My website isn’t exactly scattered but I’m not sure you’d be able to pin me down to a style. That’s both good and bad: it’s good because I have a better chance of showing work that is similar to a wider range of projects, but it’s bad because people like to categorize you so they know that hiring you is a safe bet for certain things. If you show a lot of comedy work then you’re going to get a lot of comedy work, because you can clearly shoot comedy. The same thing happens for shooting food, kids, animals, cars, etc., and happens in the narrative world as much as in the commercial world. There are some DPs that are only hired to shoot comedies, and they’ll do so for their entire career.

I show a certain amount of visual effects work, and I make people look really good, so those are the kinds of jobs I get. I don’t shoot much product or tabletop work, even though I can do it pretty well, because I don’t have a lot of it to show–and most directors and agencies would rather hire a “product” or “food” specialist to do that kind of thing because it feels safer. I can’t really blame them.

Presentation is everything. Spend some money on it. You don’t have to spend much these days as there are numerous website hosts that provide you with slick templates upon which you can build your online presence. Most of these require you to host your video files elsewhere, and seems to be the popular place. Vimeo can serve to a wide variety of platforms and mobile devices, so it’s nice to know that a potential viewer isn’t going to be stymied by the image of a broken icon when they try to watch your work. (Don’t skimp on Vimeo, either: buy a professional subscription. This allows you to turn of everything but the play bar and the volume icon. Leaving all the other icons on your video, such as the “share” icon, is bad form and just makes you look cheap.)

I remember spending hundreds of dollars for editing time and tape duplication, and trying to save money by designing my own DVD menus. That’s all gone now, yay! It’s not expensive creating a polished online portfolio… as long as you have the material to put in it.


About The Author

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects.   When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. His clients have included Sony, Arri, Canon, Tiffen, Schneider Optics, PRG, Cineo Lighting, Element Labs, Sound Devices and DSC Labs.   His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE.

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