In this era of social media, instant messaging, and blogs, it might seem quaint to spend time creating a "demo reel" — a short video that showcases your video editing and motion graphics talents. As it turns out, demo reels are still important.
This tutorial series is intended to help you build your best demo reel ever. I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of best practices that successful demo reels follow. I hope they will inspire you to create a dynamic and engaging demo reel that showcases your best work.
Underpinning this tutorial is a sample demo reel that I created using professionally produced video clips from a fictitious agency called Adobe Studio. Watch the demo reel now; the articles that follow (see links at bottom) show you how I built this sample reel. Each article demonstrates a part of the process.
Whether you are trying to land a dream job at a major movie studio or impress potential clients as a freelancer, you need a great demo reel to show them what you can do. Demo reels are your primary sales tool for landing good work that pays well.
The best demo reels not only show what you can do but also who you are. By displaying a bit of your personality, demo reels convey to your audience why you are the person they want to hire and work with on important projects.
Answer the following questions honestly:
- Is the work you’re showing the result of your creative efforts or those of a lesson in class or an online tutorial? Assets and tutorial content from learning sites like Lynda.com or Video Copilot are easily recognized by professionals in the industry.
- Are you proud of the work you’ve done? Every clip and every frame that you include in your demo reel must present your very best work.
- Do you have enough different, short clips to last 60 seconds?
If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then you’re ready to build your reel. If not, don’t worry. Take the time to build a body of work that you’d be proud to show to strangers — not just your friends and family. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Many pros will tell you that it’s better to not have a demo reel than to present an amateurish one.
Scene-based reels usually contain 15–20 sec. segments showcasing a technique or specific theme. These reels are best for showing off one’s cinematography, documentary, or narrative work.
The scene-based reel example shown here is by the visual effects company Stargate Studios and shows the extensive effects work they did on the TNT series, "Mob City."
Collage-style reels are cut to music and contain many short clips of your best work. These reels are best for showcasing short-form commercial work, also known as "spot work." This tutorial series focuses on assembling a collage-style demo reel.
The collage-style reel example shown here is by the production company Coyote Post and highlights the studio’s commercial, music video, promo, and VFX work.
One could debate what goes into a successful demo reel until the proverbial cows come home, but here are some tips that I always follow:
- Keep it short. A successful demo reel does not show all your work but rather highlights your best work. Most employers agree that one to two minutes is enough for them to determine whether your reel is what they’re looking for. Indeed, many professional editors feel that 90 seconds is the sweet spot for a great demo reel.
- Grab the viewer’s attention from the start. Sometimes a first impression is all you get with potential clients or employers. Because of the number of submissions they review, you may have their full attention only for the first 20 seconds.
- Show your most recent work first. No one wants to see what you worked on five years ago. Show them what you’re working on now.
- Include only your best current work. Replace clips that show an older style or are not as strong as your later efforts. Include only those clips that showcase a modern style and make a strong, professional impression.
- Express your personality. Whether you are serious or a prankster, laid back or hyperactive, let it show through in your reel. You may have just the personality the client or employer is looking for.
- Show some emotion. Let people see what you’re passionate about.
- Add a musical soundtrack. Pick music that complements your professional, or personal, brand and then cut your reel to that beat.
- Show a variety of work. The more the merrier — and the better chance you’ll have of showing something that interests others.
- Focus your reel on the type of work you’d most like to be doing. If you’re really excited about editing music videos, cut a reel that focuses primarily on that type of editing. If you don’t have much content of that type, then go out and create it!
Assembling a successful demo reel is an art. The following tips will help you stand out from the others:
- Open with your name or company logo. Let people know who you are up front. A cool intro with your name or company logo is a great way to grab the viewer’s attention.
- Close with your contact information. This is your call to action. Include your full name, phone number, website, and professional e-mail address — that is, one with your full name, not a quirky or forgettable nickname, unless that’s part of your professional brand. Your reel is worthless if people don’t know how to contact you.
- Cut to the beat of your music if it lends itself to this treatment. This will separate you from novice editors who just plop any old audio clip onto their timeline. It also shows that you pay attention to detail and that you know how to present visuals in a professional manner.
- Highlight work you’ve done for recognizable brands. If relevant, give a little extra screen time to logos that people will recognize. The more people who recognize the companies you’ve done work for, the better.
- Show "before" and "after" clips. This is especially true if you are a matte painter, colorist, or similar specialist.
- Show sequence shots. This is particularly important if you build visuals in stages, like 3D modelers or compositors do.
- Handle aspect ratios professionally. Frame your 4×3 footage with stylized sidebars when they appear in a 16×9 frame to show not just a level of added professionalism but also an awareness of how to handle different aspect ratios.
Mistakes will happen, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. Take time to review (and re-review) your reel so that errors don’t slip in; they will be noticed.
- Don’t use unlicensed, copyrighted music. Not only is it illegal, but it demonstrates recklessness — or at least a lack of awareness of the issue. After all, if people can’t trust your reel, they won’t trust you with their project.
- Don’t take credit for work you didn’t do. Clearly label any clips in your reel for which you only did part of the work. Adding a text overlay to the clip that simply says "Premiere Pro editor," "3D modeler," or "responsible for motion tracking" goes a long way toward clearing up any confusion and speaks volumes of your character.
- Don’t repeat any footage. It gives the impression that you haven’t done enough work to fill a reel. Make your demo shorter instead.
- Don’t include errors! You would be amazed at how many demo reels contain spelling errors, audio glitches, clips with squeezed-looking aspect ratios, and so on. Nothing loses work opportunities faster than errors on your demo reel.
Ask someone for a critique, and then ask someone else. Get as many opinions as you can from mentors and colleagues whose opinions you trust. Ask them questions: Is the reel is too long? Is there any clip included that doesn’t represent me well? What would you like to see more of? Would you hire me based on this reel?
As with all lists, there are always exceptions. While this article lists best practices for creating your best demo reel, there are niches in our industry that have their own specifications and qualifications to be met.
For example, if you're seeking a job as a technical director or animator at Pixar, you’ll need to prioritize their recommendations over any rules I’ve listed here. As they explain in Creating a demo reel on their website, they prefer that demo reels not have any audio and not be in the collage style. Also, they will consider reels up to four minutes in length.
Know what needs your clients or potential employers have, what they want to see, and how they want to see it. Most working professionals create several versions of their best demo reel to cater to different clients successfully.
The following articles show you how I built the sample demo reel presented at the beginning of this article.
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Rod is an industry veteran with 25 years’ experience as an author, educator, trainer, videographer, animator, multimedia artist, and Adobe software addict. He speaks at industry conferences and trains for such organizations as Adobe, NAB, Future Media Concepts, Wedding and Events Videographers Association, and NAPP, among others. See more of his work at RodHarlan.com and follow him @RodHarlan.