How to cut a demo reel that sizzles

A résumé can be helpful to anyone working in professional video, but more important is a good demo reel. And just like with any project, there should be an intentional plan for every shot and cut that makes it into the final edit.

Although you’re working for yourself in assembling a demo reel, you’re making it to influence someone else. The audience of your demo reel should be whoever is going to look at it and decide they want you to do work for them. The best way to determine that audience is to understand what you’re capable of creating, who would pay you for that kind of work, and what work you would like to do. The client who stands at the intersection of your past, present, and future is the audience for your demo reel. Begin working on your reel by thinking about what will impress your audience and what they want to see.

A reel for all occasions?

Once you have your audience in mind and you know what you want to tell them, it’s time to put together your reel. What type of reel you assemble depends on who you are and what you want to tell your audience. A cinematographer’s reel will be different than an editor’s reel, just as a colorist’s reel will be different from a motion designer’s reel. You might end up having multiple reels to showcase different talents.

What type of reel you assemble depends on who you are and what you want to tell your audience.

One thing to note is the use of audio in a demo reel. Reels are often cut to a music bed that sets the pace and says something about its producer’s talent and personality. For most video professionals, this works out well. However, editors may want to consider using the audio from their source sequences because it’s an inherent part of their storytelling process.

Putting it all together

When it’s time to edit your reel, you want to collect footage that highlights what you’re trying to show your audience and sells you as a professional video talent.

The reel should start off with a hook. Your audience is always going to see your opening shot; there’s no guarantee they’ll watch the entire reel. With that in mind, you want the opening shot to convince them that what follows is going to be worth their time.

After the tone of the reel is established with the first couple of shots, it’s time to tell a story. This is your professional story. Make sure that each shot flows naturally from one shot to the next, building upon what was previously done. Be careful not to be redundant, once you’ve shown the audience enough evidence of one particular talent or skillset, move on to the next. In the middle of the reel, you want your audience to know that you are a master of your craft and that you consistently deliver high-quality work.

The end of your reel is the big payoff, so finish strong. This is where your audience will make their final impression of your work. Use your last clip to send them out with a bang. You want them to be in awe and as the old adage goes, always leave them wanting more. One of the best ways to do this is to limit the size of your reel. There’s no need to put a clip from everything you’ve ever worked on in there. Keep the total time of the reel under two minutes. You can always show the client more work upon request.

What gets left behind

What doesn’t go into a reel is just as important as what goes into it. There shouldn’t be anything in a reel that takes away from your work. A demo reel is an exhibit of your work, don’t claim someone else’s work as your own. If you’re making a cinematography reel, don’t put in work that was shot by someone else. Likewise, don’t put in pieces that are stock content, made with presets, a completed tutorial or a derivative of such a piece. If called out, it will push a client away faster than mediocre quality work.

Remember context is king, don’t put in any clips that when viewed out of context are mediocre or subpar. There are a lot of great shots and sequences that work because of the original video they’re in, but when removed from their original edit and juxtaposed in a demo reel, the clip loses its polish and becomes humdrum. Always consider the context of every shot and edit in your reel.

Show it off

When it comes to making a demo reel, you are your own client. You’re selling your ability to make great video, you’re the product. Be critical of yourself and think objectively about how you can win over your clients. Most importantly, get your reel exposure. A reel won’t do you any good if it’s sitting in your timeline or by itself on a webpage. Invite people to see your reel and put it in front of your audience. If you’ve done the hard work, your audience will be in awe of a reel that sizzles.

Watch: 3 Tips for a Better Demo Reel


Chris “Ace” Gates is a four-time Emmy Award-winning writer and video producer.