The Reel Deal

Landing that dream job may come down to less than three minutes – or even thirty seconds – of what you put together in the ever-so-important demo reel.

Your demo reel is more likely to be a demo DVD, or (I know it’s hard to believe) a demo VHS tape. But the industry likes to call them demo reels, so we’ll oblige. Demo, short for demonstration, is accurate. This short compilation of audio, video and editing (and possibly titles, graphics, animation, etc.), gathered from all the media you have ever produced in your career, must demonstrate your potential to your prospective client or boss. Let’s take a look at the elements of a successful demo reel.

Know Your Audience

We’ll start as we start any project – at the end. Who will be watching this short compilation, and what is it you want to communicate? It is obvious that you want them to think you are the best video professional for the particular job you are seeking. Your DVD will most likely sit in a stack with fifty other applicants’ demo reels. What will make these producers pick yours over all the others?

Are you applying for a cinematographer’s position? Then you need to showcase your camera and lighting skills. If it’s an editing job, you will then need to show a creative variety of artistic and/or skillful cuts. Maybe you are a jack-of-all-trades. The great thing about a menu-driven DVD is its ability to have a menu showing demo reels for all of your skills. But keep it simple. Unless you are applying for a job in DVD authoring, just have one bold, simple opening menu pointing to your individual reels..

How Long is Your Video Producing History?

For many of us, the most difficult step in this process will be finding, reviewing and selecting clips from our long history of video production. This is the first “edit” – the decision to or not to digitize or capture media. Some of us have to weed through hours upon hours of footage to find the 20 to 50 shots that will make up our calling card. For those new to the industry, your problem may be having too little footage. Making your few shots look their best will be your challenge.

And speaking of the best, this is all you want: a demo reel is no place for mediocre work. A producer, needing to review fifty-plus reels, will most likely be sitting in front of the monitor with a finger on the remote control’s eject button. One so-so shot or lukewarm edit may trigger that finger to reject your possibilities with that organization.

A Common Thread

So you have sifted through all of your life’s work, and you have captured/digitized all the shots you wish to use to showcase your abilities. What will be the thread that strings together all of your images? For the majority of demo reels, this will be music. We here at Videomaker are strong advocates for not using copyrighted music in your videos, yet many professionals still use copyrighted music for their demo reel. If you know a musician or a group who can make a strong score for your demo reel, that would be best.

Pick a song that represents the mood and pacing you want for your work. We recommend against using very popular music, as many viewers may already have experiences relating to that tune. Imagine the score you pick is the favorite song of the evaluating person’s ex-mate – could be a bad impression. Most soundtracks for demo reels are usually without lyrics, as the singing will most likely distract from your art. .


Time to Assemble

You have all of your clips in your editing program, and you have your common thread or music bed down on the timeline: time to start assembling the montage. The first thing to consider is the total length. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so forget about the epic ten-minute demo reel. You should be able to represent your skills in two to three minutes. It is rare, but I have seen some reels approach five minutes, and I’ve seen many more successful demo reels of less than one minute.

The truth is, if you haven’t grabbed your viewer’s attention in the first thirty seconds, your DVD will most likely get ejected and your chances for the position rejected. Time is money for these folks, and if you haven’t wowed them in half a minute, they most probably aren’t going to hold on any longer. Remember that stack of fifty reels?

We recommend against a long, elaborate intro title, unless this is a title/graphics reel. You should, however, have your name graphically up front. Now, considering the need to wow ’em in the first thirty seconds, put a good amount of your best work in the first half-minute. Save two or three great clips for the end, as you always want to exit on a good foot, but make sure you give the first thirty seconds your best.

But How Many Clips?

How many clips should you use? If you make a two-minute demo reel, you’ll probably have somewhere between fifteen and forty clips. If you are a total adrenalin junkie and your music is 390 beats-per-second, you could have more. If your cinematography consists mostly of time-lapse pieces that need more than three or four seconds to show their true beauty, you could have fewer. If your average shot is four seconds, you’ll have about thirty clips in a two-minute demo reel.

As you lay your clips on the timeline, aligning them to the rhythm of the sound bed, also keep in mind the relationship of the clips to each other. Do the video segments work well together? Do the motions and colors of a clip complement the one that precedes it, as well as the one that follows? Are there any apparent jump cuts (possible even if the subjects in the two images are different)? How is the overall rhythm? Step back and look at the entire piece as a whole.

From time to time, you may need or want to bring the audio from the source clip into the demo reel. You may need/want to lower the levels of the sound bed as you bring in the source audio, or you may not. Experiment and see what works..

Almost There

Once you’re happy with your montage, and you’ve laid your last pieces (the couple of really good ones you saved to leave your viewers with a great impression of your work), make sure your very last clip is a contact slate. It should include your full name, email, phone number and Web site, if you have one. If you have more than one reel on your DVD, this information should be on your menu page, as the DVD should always return there when the individual reels finish playing.

Assuming the most objective amongst us are not 100% objective with their own work, have trusted others watch and comment. Stress that their critical honesty is vital, as this demo reel needs to be perfect. If one edit is off by a beat or two, it could cost you the job.

One last vital element is a reel breakdown/credit list to accompany your demo reel. Chances are, you are not responsible for all that is on that short group of clips, so make sure the people viewing know exactly what you have done for the demo reel as a whole, as well as for each individual shot. Never try to take responsibility for anyone else’s work. It will burn you when your employer asks you to reproduce that shot or edit, and, in even the biggest cities, the production communities are small. If you are taking credit for someone else’s work, the community will find out.


Signed, Sealed & Delivered

It is acceptable to handwrite your full contact information with permanent marker on the DVD itself. Use your best handwriting, and a blank white disc looks best. If you have access to a DVD printer or LightScribe technology, great, but this is not your number one priority. Having DVDs professionally printed and packaged would look great, but, as many in the industry recommend that you update your demo reel every six to nine months, this seems to be less cost-effective and really not necessary. Use a DVD case that won’t crack in the mail or someone’s rough hands; in other words, use the softer plastic clamshell type, not a hard, brittle jewel case. Just get your work out there. Signature confirmation with the US postal service doesn’t cost much more, and it looks like you care. Or better yet, if appropriate, you can hand-deliver your work. Good luck.

Contributing editor Morgan Paar is a nomadic producer, shooter and editor, making documentaries worldwide.

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