How to Make a Demo Reel

It's the most important part of your production arsenal, and one of the most asked-about subjects in the industry. Learn why you need a demo reel, and where to start.

How to Make a Demo Reel

People ask me all the time about that one little super-important thing that every production or post-production person should have, and since I’m not one to turn people away when they’re curious about the world’s best profession – ahem – I wanted to address the basics of the demo reel.

Seriously, though, this is for you because I love talking to people about the process. Even if you already have a reel, I’ll discuss different tips and tricks to take your reel to the next level. So keep your eyes peeled and your Avids primed, here’s how to create a killer reel.

What is a demo reel?

A demo reel, reel, sizzle reel, show reel, or whatever else you’d like to call it, is essentially a moving portfolio of your film/video/graphics/animation work. Traditional artists and painters are expected to have a portfolio, and digital artists and filmmakers are no different. Your demo reel is your personal commercial for the work you’ve done. In short, it’s a trailer for about you.

Employers, production companies, agents, and other parties interested in using your services often ask to see what you can do. This is your chance to show them.

A reel should not be confused for a portfolio, which is different. A portfolio is a collection of many pieces of work you’ve created. A demo reel is one piece of work composed of the best bits from all of your projects.

Why do you need a reel?

You need a demo reel because no one believes you when you say “I’m a really good filmmaker/editor/animator/whatever”. Rule numero uno about the production world is, “show don’t tell”, and that’s exactly what a demo reel should do. In order to show future employers, clients, or jealous friends how good you are at your particular skill (directing, producing, editing, graphic design, animation, even acting), you need a reel that displays your work. Many employers won’t even consider candidates without a reel of some kind, and consider it just as important – if not moreso – than your resume.

How do you make one?

There are millions of ways to imagine and compose a demo reel. No two reels are alike, just like no two editors are alike. That being said, in order to make an effective demo reel there are a few guidelines to stick to. The most basic way is to select clips from pieces of your work, edit them together into a montage, and pair them with music. Essentially, you make a music video out of your best shots. That’s only the bare minimum, however, and no one likes it when you only do the bare minimum.

 Don’t get me wrong; the bare minimum can be extremely effective, especially if you know what you’re doing. Simple is almost always better, and with the minimalistic design of iEverything, simplicity is “in” right now. So don’t clutter up your reel with cheesy filters and those awful transitions and star wipes. No, keep it simple. Edit to the music. Select your best shots. Let your work speak for itself. Briefly.

Which brings us to the next point.

How long should it be?

Everyone has an opinion about this; my opinion just so happens to be correct. A good demo reel should be absolutely, unequivocally no longer than 3 minutes*. I promise you don’t have any more perfect shots than that. If you do, you don’t need a reel to get a job, because you’ve worked on so many projects you should already have a solid network of people who know your work.

I recommend making your reel well short of 3 minutes, in fact. Between 1:00 and 2:00 is about where you want to be. Keeping your reel short is extremely important, and not just for the reasons you think.

Sure, you might want to keep it short because you don’t have that much work to show off; and that’s true. No matter how great you think your work is, it simply isn’t that good. But brevity is also key because part of what people judge about your demo reel is how precise and discerning you are. An important part of being a pro is knowing where to cut the fat, and how to keep things moving. If you can’t keep your reel under 3 minutes, how are you going to advertise for a television episode in ten seconds? Or 3 seconds? Yes, you may be editing 3-second commercials.

It’s also important to keep that timer low in order to avoid pissing off the viewer. If someone’s considering you for a job, most likely you’re not the only person who applied. The sad truth is you’re probably one of hundreds of applicants. If you don’t impress them very quickly, they’re only going to dislike you more for wasting their time with a long demo reel. Or they simply won’t look at it at all.

*(unless it is for a very specific purpose, such as a government contract or proposal)

What should it include?

Your demo reel should include only your best work. Nothing else. Nothing. It really is that simple. And it is vital to understand; not all of your work is your best work. Have some humility and cut out that shot you love from your student film. It’s really not as good as you think.

Your reel should also include work that’s recent and relevant to what you do. If you claim to be a 3D animator, then keep that footage you shot of a beautiful sunset out of your reel. Show me your 3D animation. C’mon.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you should also try to include some personality (flare?) in the execution of your demo reel. Text, graphics, music, dialogue, even narration can work like wind on the coals of the fire. Your work just might glow. This should be done with extreme caution, however. Watching an otherwise good reel that’s been ruined by unnecessary ‘personality’ is as much fun as having someone shove staples in your corneas.

But if you can do it right, maybe you end up with something fresh and distinct. Maybe you do something completely different, like this trailer for the Blacklist:

What if I don’t have enough work?

Although it’s important to keep your reel brief, you should also show off a wide variety of work. And you should have enough, even if you’re a student or a newb. For instance, if you’re a cinematographer who wants to film car commercials, I would expect your reel to have some excellent shots of, you know, cars.

If you’re just starting out, haven’t been on that many shoots, or want to change niches and find your portfolio lacking, you might think you’re hosed. But the nice thing about a demo reel is that you don’t need a whole project to add shots to the reel. You just need the shots.

For instance, when I started as a producer at Sprocket Media Works, we were a brand-new production company. In order to show clients what we could do, we needed a reel. But we hadn’t officially opened the doors yet, and thus had very few things to show off.

That didn’t stop us. We went out to shoot, talked to people, made deals, worked for free, filmed products, attended events, and just, well, sort of made it up as we went along. We ended up with what you see above.

Want to film sports cars? Then go out and film some sports cars. Pull some strings, meet some people, or even ‘steal the shot’ using guerrilla tactics. Want to direct talent? Make a few spec commercials. Just because you’re not getting paid to shoot it doesn’t mean it can’t go on your demo reel.

Just as there’s no excuse for not creating a website, with today’s very attainable technological advances, there’s no excuse for not having enough on your reel. You can literally make it up.

Don’t lie, don’t steal from others, and don’t be lazy, either. This is a competitive industry. If you really want to succeed, you’re going to have to go after some of those shots with a little bit of tenacity.

Where should I put it?

Show off your demo reel. That means put it up where people can see it, link to it, and send it out. The usual suspects are Youtube, Instagram, VimeoLinkedInFacebook, and most importantly your website. If you don’t have a website, make one. It’s free, and if you don’t have a website, there’s very little chance anyone will take your reel seriously.

In addition to that, see if you can find creative places to show it off. For instance, if you’re writing a blog entry about demo reels, you should link to yours in that article. 😉

Things to avoid or include.

The term “demo reel” is so broad that you could really include just about anything if it accomplished your goal. Here are a few things that the typical demo reel could either stand to lose, or benefit from adding.

Avoid

  • Avoid making your reel too long
  • Don’t use work that isn’t yours.
  • Don’t use offensive music, and be careful with lyrics – make sure they match the theme of your reel.
  • Don’t make lazy edits. Every cut should count, every shot should be useful.
  • Don’t put it out there without letting someone else critique it first.
  • don’t use too many shots from student films. Unless your actress is famous now. Some version of your college short film has appeared on everyone’s reel when they first started out, but true professionals put client work or work with real adults on their reels. Having too many student-looking people on your reel screams inexperienced.
  • Don’t make things up, including awards for fictitious film festivals. In fact, unless it’s a well-known award, avoid it. Put it on your resume or website instead.
  • Use your website and resume for text. Let the reel speak for itself.
  • Don’t colorize your footage too much or make it too dark. Filtered or over-contrasty footage is an indicator of poor quality/inexperience and it’s hard to see on some monitors.
  • Don’t ever imply a previous employer, filmmaker, or associate of yours was unprofessional or dislikable in any way. This includes cutting in embarrassing footage or potentially damaging images of someone you’re associated with. Trying to harm or make fun of another person or company’s reputation can immediately discredit you and potentially land you in court for libel, copyright infringement, or plain old jackassery.
  • Don’t forget to keep updating! Reels go out of date at least every two years. I recommend a new reel every year if you’re an individual. there’s no excuse for your reel to still have box-within-a-box shots from the 80s.

Include

  • Include a pacing that makes your heart pound or leaves you wanting more.
  • Include only your best work.
  • Music is vital. In fact, it’s almost more important than the footage. It drives the soul and can leave people with a feeling you’ve designed. Choose a song that is unique and relevant to your work.
  • You can get creative with form. Try adding a graphic look, combining footage, using dialogue or soundbites to tell the story, using narration, or even explaining what it is you do on camera. This is your chance to show off your creativity, so do it.
  • Listen to what others think of it. Particularly other people in your field. Get peer reviews, but also get reviews from professionals who are you better than you are (yes, there’s always someone better than you). Maybe you’ll even find a mentor our of the process, who knows?
  • Try to include recent, important shots. This includes brands, actors, or films that are recognizeable, or things that show off your knowledge of a particular niche. For instance, if you want to film for the Bird Channel, include shots of rare birds to show you know what they are.
  • When you’re still in school, it’s okay to include shots from student films. But try to get client footage to replace it as soon as possible.
  • Include text or graphic elements in a creative, visually appealing way. Remember that the viewer wants to see the work, not the words.
  • Have different versions of your reel. In the same way you tailor your resume to the job, so should you tailor your reel.
  • Make sure the editing is advanced. Even if you’re not necessarily an editor. Maybe get a friend to edit the reel if you know that’s your weakness. Good editing makes the difference between a mediocre, forgettable reel and an incredible experience.
  • Treat your reel like a project in and of itself, not just a collection of other projects.

Last Thoughts?

Be creative. I can’t give you all of the answers! A good place to find an in-depth run-down on tips to make your reel better is this article on Premium Beat. They also have some cool reels you can learn from.

Have any other suggestions for how and why to make a reel? Start a conversation in the comments. If you like the way I write, or want to get a deep dive into how to make book trailers, check out my books page.

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