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Demo Reels – we all know we need one and most of us need multiple versions, but what makes an effective and motivating demo reel? It’s your work but how do you organize it and make it sizzle, jump out and stand above the rest? How do you capture what is unique about you and your video production? Can you do it yourself or do you need an editor?

Define Your Work

First, define what you do and what you have to sell. One demo reel does not fit all needs. Not even close. You want to highlight what you do without alienating anyone viewing your reel. If you’re submitting as a possible director of photography to a director you don’t want to send a reel that highlights what a wonderful and experienced director you are. It might intimidate the director who is making this decision. If you’re a producer, director, director of photography, writer, professional wedding shooter/producer, editor, or any other production position, you should have a reel for each job you do. If you’re submitting to do color correction the entire demo should highlight before and after examples of how you make chicken salad appetizing out of something that didn’t originally look so tasty – not examples of your camera work.

One thing you need to remember, when applying for a position is to show your own skills, not someone else’s. Are you a lighting expert? Showing different light setups and lovely before and after scenes would be a plus – and don’t focus too much on the shooting of the scene, unless you’re applying for cinematographer. If you’re an on-screen talent, you can get away with a video résumé that isn’t edited too tightly, but if you’re applying for a shot at an editor’s gig, you better make sure there are no flashframes unless they’re intentional!

How do you get the material?

You have the right to ask for examples of services you have provided to others in order to make a demo reel. Most production companies or producers understand that you will need examples of the work you’ve done for them. You should offer to provide the medium that you want the examples placed upon by providing blank DVDs, a memory stick or a hard drive. I’m asked for material all the time, and yes, it’s a pain to get the material pulled together, but its part of my responsibility to provide them with a way to find more work. It’s also OK to ask more than once if the material isn’t provided in a reasonable time frame.

How do I organize all this?

You have compiled examples of your work from various sources and now you have to decide what to do with them. Unfortunately, most people viewing your material won’t watch your entire reel. People tend to want to save the best for last, however you really need to catch them in the first few seconds and fight to keep them watching. A producer, director, production coordinator or even a potential client needs to be engaged in the first few moments of viewing. If you’re not a gifted editor you should probably work with one to create these reels. Put your best material first and consider creating an opening that is an edited version of your work set to music.

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If you’re a professional wedding video creator , editing your demo to a dynamic piece of music might well be the way to separate you from the crowd of wedding video producers. A dynamic piece of music with quick cuts of the celebratory elements of different weddings that dissolves into a romantic piece of music which features softer images and highlights of the warm moments from your weddings might be the way to show the range of your work. This might well be a better demo reel for you than putting clip after clip from different weddings you have shot.

If you feel you need to use finished clips on your reel to show the quality of recorded sound, the intensity of the actor’s moments or the finished overall effect of part of a commercial, you can place pieces of your work after a produced lead-in piece but keep the whole demo reel under three minutes in length. If they want more finished work from you afterwards, they will ask for it. Leave them wanting more of you.

Editing and Graphics

Even if you’re not creating an editing reel you want your samples well organized, cleverly edited and impressively presented. Remember, we are fighting for more viewing time from the decision-maker. Spend some time thinking about the best way to present your work and create some kind of opening piece that is engaging and impressive. This opening could be 30 seconds or it could be your entire demo if your work can be displayed most effectively in an edited collage which has pace, tempo, and rhythm possibly set to music with all of your clips appearing as B-roll, (video with the original sound removed, and set to narration or music). Any editing platform you’re using to make your reel will have a graphics package. Use it to create clean, clear graphics throughout your demo reel. Build title graphics for each major section and identify important information about each clip in supporting graphics. If your skills aren’t in titles and graphics, make that a simple, clean task. Nothing screams amateur more than out-dated or unnecessary, over-the-top graphics.

Separating You From the Crowd

Some successful demo reels have the person whose work is featured doing a direct-to-camera opening as part of the reel. The person actually hosts his or her own reel. This can work as long as the interface is well done and the hosted moments are short. It is an opportunity to let them meet you, but your reel is about your work, not you. Editing and graphic effects reels tend to be very creative and cutting edge; not only featuring the work they have done, but putting it in a demo reel which itself is very visual and can be stunning. You get points for being creative but make sure you are always selling your work and not just you.

If you’re going to have elements of humor in your reel they should be truly funny, not semi-funny; and remember, it’s still really about your work. Some people have testimonials on their reel, and if they are short sound bites or if they are from celebrities or terrific titles, that can help; especially if presented as a ‘bonus’ feature on a DVD. Many people have presented their demo reel so that it is very interactive by giving the viewer the opportunity to click on what they want in order to watch what they want. Remember, though, even these reels should have an automatic dynamic opening before you go to the interactive menu.

How to Deliver “The Goods”

We used to send our demo reels on video tape and then on DVDs, but now we’re often presenting online. You should still have DVDs as a means of submitting to production companies or sending out unsolicited demos. They’re a physical reminder to anyone to whom you submit that they have your reel and whenever they encounter the actual DVD it will bring you to their minds. You can post your demo pieces on video sharing sites such as YouTube or Vimeo as a means of sending links to clients and having them view your work quickly on line. Both sites are reliable and easy to manage as you load your work although Vimeo has a more polished, professional look to it. Make sure that you have the rights to post whatever you put on these sites. This includes the music you use in your opening, or anywhere on your demo.

Developing your own website is the best way to control the overall experience for anyone wanting to explore your work. You can sculpt the experience any way you desire as you will be totally in control of how they encounter your work. If you aren’t a Web designer you might want to have a developer work with you. There are, however, many Web-based programs and applications that can help you create your own website. Many video professionals are using social media as a means of driving their careers. They use Facebook and other social sites to not only post their reels, but also to allow their friends to view their work and offer comments. This is a way to get a large group of people to view your work and get feedback regarding how well it is working.

What now?

As you design your demo reel, make sure it is simple to go back in and add new material as you gain it. You should refresh your reel every six months. Keep it dynamic and let it sell your skills. Keep in mind that the decision maker who is looking to hire you is not just looking to just hire talented people, but people they want to collaborate with. Make sure your demo isn’t off-putting or so ego-driven that you seem difficult or elitist. Competent, creative, detail oriented, professional, dynamic – any of these terms are what you’d love your demo reel to say about you.

Randal K. West is an award winning documentary filmmaker who has also directed hundreds of National television commercials. He is currently the Executive Director of the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center and the Artistic Director for the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts.

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