Producing a Demo Video

I can jump out of a speeding car, do a triple-twisted flip through the air and then land safely on my feet. What does this outlandish claim have to do with making a great video demo reel? More than you might think. Whether you’re a hobbyist or a working pro, simply telling friends or potential paying clients that you know how to shoot and edit top-notch videos isn’t enough. You’ve got to show them.

A demo reel (short for demonstration reel) is a tool used by film and video professionals to highlight their best work. Simply put, it’s your calling card and a possible ticket to your next paying shoot. This article will help you determine whether you are in need of a demo reel and will outline some essential steps for building an effective demo to suit your needs.

Why and Who

Are you hoping to tap into the commercial, corporate or industrial video market? Do you want to build a successful wedding video business or do you simply want a compilation of some of your best work to show family and friends? All of these are perfectly good reasons for building a demo reel. Each requires a markedly different approach, however.

If you’re compiling a reel of your best work to show family and friends, it’s safe to say that just about anything goes. Producing a demo for the professional market is usually not any more technically challenging, but it is a bit more involved. It requires that you have some experience with or knowledge about the needs of the market you want to serve. For example, if you’re looking to produce industrial videos, it doesn’t mean you need to become an expert in the complexities of the mass production of widgets. It will work to your advantage when you provide examples of your ability to shoot visually interesting material in the confines of a warehouse or an industrial plant. It lets your future clients know that you’re experienced working in that type of environment.

Maximizing Your Material

Although it helps to have a few professional productions to your credit, you can still make a big impression without them. I once worked with two guys who left their full-time jobs and formed a commercial production company. While they had produced a fair amount of work for past employers, they didn’t have anything they felt comfortable calling their own. So they gathered a few friends, a bit of cash and, in three days, produced a 120-second video comprised of a loosely knit story line, some fantastic visuals and a catchy piece of music. That reel brought the company more than $100,000 of business in just one year. This approach may or may not be right for you, but the point is that if you lack a large body of professional work it shouldn’t stop you from having a professional demo reel.


Formatting for Flow

Like an interesting article, your demo reel should start with a title that introduces the work. In this case, that title is your personal or company name and logo. It’s a way to introduce yourself visually as well as to let your viewer know that you are truly the one represented by the reel. White font on black works fine but to be honest, it’s boring. This is your chance to spice things up. Choose an eye-popping digital effect married with an attention-grabbing sound effect or piece of music to introduce yourself. You can also employ an interesting background over which to place your font. Just make sure the information is easy to read and that it’s visible for seven to 10 seconds. (For tips on creating effective video titles see Titling Tips in Videomaker‘s August 2003 issue.)

Along with your personal or company introduction, add your contact information (your e-mail address and telephone number). If you change your e-mail or other contact information in the future, you could be stuck with an armful of outdated dubs, so it might be safer if you supply any additional contact information on the label of the tape or DVD. Changing a label is much less expensive and time consuming than re-editing your reel.

So you’ve introduced yourself. Now what? You could dive right into the body of your work or you could engage the viewer with a piece of what’s commonly known as "eye-candy." A lot of professional demos open this way. Edit together some visually interesting shots from your past productions for a short (between 30 to 45 seconds in length), but punchy music video-style opening. If you’ve had a difficult time narrowing the number of selections to include in the body of your demo, a short piece of "eye-candy" is a great way to incorporate shots from some of those favorite productions that for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut.

A Great Body

Keeping in mind that the final length of your reel shouldn’t exceed more than five minutes. You have a very limited amount of time to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Assuming you’ve spent close to the first minute on your introduction and eye-candy, you’re now into the body of your reel with roughly three to four minutes left to make your point. Make those minutes count.

If you’ve produced commercial work for television you could easily string together a few of your best 30-second spots to highlight your abilities. However, if the bulk of your library is comprised of longer format work you may find that you have to cut and paste. Remember the last time you saw a preview for a blockbuster movie? The same principles apply to your demo reel. A piece that was once ten minutes in length can be edited down to a sixty-second clip for demo purposes. Like making a movie trailer, simply choose the parts that you think will interest your audience. Be sure to stay away from long, static interview segments that will slow your pace and possibly confuse the viewer.

In the End

Since your time is limited, keep your ending short and sweet. A safe bet is to close your reel the same way it began, with 7 to 10 seconds of your name and, if you so choose, your contact information on screen. Don’t include any comical or heartfelt pleas for work. It’s a turn off and a sure sign that you don’t know what you’re doing. Keep it short, keep it clean and keep it fun. Remember, your demo reel has a job to do. Employing these useful hints will help keep your reel both effective and fun.

Sidebar: Demo Checklist

When developing your demo, keep this checklist nearby.

Do:

  • Keep it short, no more than four to five minutes in length.
  • Start strong.
  • End strong.
  • Include your name or company name and logo at the beginning and end of the reel.
  • Choose pieces that highlight specific abilities: flashy camera work, great editing, solid directing and storytelling ability.
  • Include all pertinent contact information on your demo label.
  • Edit so your reel is easy to watch. There should be no tape hits or extreme differences in audio levels between featured pieces.


Don’t:

  • Use work that isn’t yours.
  • Use student projects or home videos.
  • Include personal pleas for business.
  • Include shots of yourself or anyone else giving testimonials about your work. Let the work speak for itself.

Sidebar: Helpful Tips

Watch Your Watch

The one thing all of us have in common is that we have only 24 hours in our day. Keeping your reel short is as much about common courtesy as it is about professional humility. Four to five minutes in length is what people will expect. It’s also the extent of time that most viewers are willing to invest.

Choose Wisely

If you’re looking to market yourself as a pro, make sure to leave home videos, student projects and the like on the cutting room floor, no matter how well shot or relevant you think they might be.

VHS or DVD

While VHS tape is still a widely acceptable format, the world of video is changing and competition is increasingly stiff. If you’re able, send your finished reel to potential clients on DVD. It may give you an extra edge today, but it’ll probably be the standard by tomorrow.

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