Part 1: Guidelines for Creating a Demo Reel That Builds a Career You Want
It was 2001 and I was unhappy with the direction of my career
I had done a ton of high-profile work. But it was short-form. Network Promos, IDs, image campaigns. My body of work was strong in digital compositing. Except – I didn’t like doing any of it.
And in looking back at my Demo Reel from that time, I now see – almost 15 years later – that my Demo Reel wasn’t doing me any favors.
For the rest of this Insight, let’s talk about what a Demo Reel should be doing for you and how it can help move your career forward or hold your career back. Here’s what we’re going to cover in Part 1 of this series:
- Examples of early Demo Reels that put me on my wrong career path
- Why should you create a Demo Reel?
- How do you build a Demo Reel and what are the mistakes to avoid?
- What are the ‘genres’ of Demo Reels and which should you choose to create?
- Who are you creating the Demo Reel for? Specifically?
In Part 2 of this series I’ll share my latest Demo Reel, released in October 2015. I’ll talk about how it was designed, show you the version I threw away, discuss why I threw it away and some of decisions I made for the final Reel.
Let’s start by examining a Demo Reel that did its job getting me work… only it was the wrong type of work!
Here’s my Demo Reel from 2001: Watch it and ask yourself, “What type of talent are you hiring, based on this Reel?”
What mistakes do I see with that Demo Reel?
First – it feels like two different Reels in one. One Reel is for a digital compositor, the other is for a short-form editor. Normally I’d call that a mistake but it’s not. At the time I was shopping that reel around to the big New York City post-production houses as a freelance Finisher. Avid Symphony and Smoke were my strong points and this Reel was relatively successful getting me hired for broadcast work.
But it was utter failure because it emphasized where I had come from – not where I wanted to go.
My 2001 Demo Reel is about my past body of work—which, for me, was a fatal mistake
Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the work I did, of my clients and their end-clients. But this Demo Reel wasn’t getting me the work I wanted.
This Demo Reel is a look backwards, not an Attractor of the work I wanted for my future.
What did I want out of my career at that time? To stop doing short form work and move into long-form narrative storytelling. I wanted to have an influence on performance and emotion with a plot that reveals itself over time.
This Demo Reel didn’t do anything to help me find those kinds of work – not at all!
Before we start talking about how to build a Demo Reel that builds the career you want, we have to answer the question, “Why bother?”
The First Question: Why bother creating and promoting yourself with a Demo Reel?
Early in my career, I missed the whole point of a Reel. If I could go back in time and give myself one tip about the purpose of a Demo Reel, it would be this:
Demo Reels are about the concept of: Attraction
I treated my Demo Reel the same way I thought about a Resumé—I treated it as a sample of my past work. I thought it was about telling others about what made me who I am today. I was dead wrong and it set me back years of career development time. Demo Reels are nothing about your past.
Demo Reels are about finding the work you want to do, in the future
Demo Reels are about attracting the kind of work you want to be doing in the next week, month and year.
Your job when creating a Demo Reel is finding those tidbits of your past work that reflect the future you want for yourself.
Some of you are lucky—you dropped directly into your career path. Your past work perfectly represents your future direction as you see it today. For the rest of us, we have to build our future based on fragments of our past. And that’s what a well-designed Demo Reel does for us, it lays out our roadmap in a way our future clients can see.
It can take a few years to grab together enough fragments of past work to build a Demo Reel
During the few years before you have enough material for a solid Demo Reel—pay attention! If you love some particular element of a job that in *any* way represents the future you want to build for yourself… SAVE THAT FOOTAGE. It’ll take time to pull together the fragments of the ‘Future You’ Demo Reel and twice as long if you don’t bother saving those fragments for later inclusion in a Reel.
Once I decided to build it, my first color correction Demo Reel took nearly 2 years to create!
Until then, I didn’t have enough fragments. I hadn’t saved off enough of my early color work. And the work I did save off, I didn’t have the Before / After to properly teach my clients what I could do for them (and we’ll be getting into why I think a Before / After Reel is the first Reel a journeyman colorist should build).
UPDATE: Jump-start your Reel by shooting the images you want to color correct
In the comments below, Mixing Light member Patrick Taylor outlines how he built up his Reel using footage he shot himself. By leveraging the amazing quality of today’s affordable cameras, he was able to put together a Reel that helped sell his skill. It’s a good idea – especially if you’re good with a camera (or have a friend who is).
Once you’ve got enough fragments to build a Reel, what’s next?
The Second Question: Who are you building the Reel for?
Seriously, who is your audience?
Or better yet: Who is NOT your audience!
You’re not building your Reel for other colorists or editors! You’re building your Reel for the people who hire colorists or editors. You can largely ignore Reel advice from other professionals who do what you do. The advice you don’t ignore is advice from your boss (if you’re on staff) and from clients that represent where you want to go.
Yes – the clients that represent your desired career path are your best sources of Demo Reel advice!
Depending on your career path, it could be one or more of the following people:
- The Producer: The people in control of the money are frequently the ones with the final hiring decision. What are they looking for? Two words: Production Value. They want to see a Reel that seems to maximize every dollar spent during the shoot and editorial.
- The Director / DP: These two people care deeply about the visual impact of the final image. In your Reel they want to see strong images and a consistency to your work.
- The Corporate Client: It sounds shallow but they want to know, “Will you make my boss look good?” Because when their boss looks good, they look good. If you want to attract a lot of corporate work, solid treatments of real-life people is essential.
- The Post-production Manager: If you want to get hired to work at a post production facility, your Reel answers the question, “How will I sell this person to my clients?”
Just remember, when soliciting advice from clients who do the work you want to attract in the future – try to solicit advice from a client you actually want to work with! Getting advice from a client who drives you nuts and doesn’t help you do your best work? Don’t do that. In my experience, you’re better off going with your gut otherwise you’ll attract clients who do what you want to do but drive you insane! That’s not a long-term career building strategy.
Finally: How Do You Build a Color Correction Demo Reel?
Once you understand the purpose of a Demo Reel and who you’re building the Reel for (so you can solicit early feedback on its effectiveness)- how do you go about the process?
You start by asking: Which genre of Demo Reel am I building?
There are all sorts of ways to demonstrate to your future clients the types of work you want to attract. Here are a few:
- The Breakdown Reel Montage: Otherwise known as the Before and After Reel (my 6-year-old Before / After Reel is embedded at the end of Insight). Essentially, you show the camera original and then you show the final image. If you want to get fancy, you may also show some intermediate builds as well. This Reel is usually set against music and edited as a Montage, rather than letting scenes play out in full.
The Breakdown Reel is the easiest Reel to build. It takes less footage to fill the length of a reel since you’ll sometimes repeat a shot or freeze a shot to show the Before and After states. It’s also amazingly effective for those clients not schooled in the potential of color grading.
This Reel gets frowned upon by the ‘Big Boy’ colorists—but the clients willing to pay those ‘Big Boy’ rates already know the value of color grading and don’t need convincing.
The Breakdown Reel is how you educate your future stable of clients—while building the career you want for yourself
- The Beauty Reel: This Reel is perfect for commercial colorists or those who want to do music videos. This Reel can be a montage or it can be longer samples of your best, most amazing work—or a combination of both.
You can also combine the Beauty Reel with the Breakdown Reel by sandwiching one type of reel with the other type.
The combo Beauty / Breakdown Reel is useful if you can’t get otherwise get your Reel to the 2-minute mark
- The Sample Reel: It’s a Beauty Reel – but not all the images are beautiful. I make this distinction since not every client wants beautiful, rich, silky images. And calling your Reel a Beauty Reel while it contains lots of distressed, super-grainy, 16mm samples? That’ll lead to confusion. You build this Reel just like a Beauty Reel – but call it a Sample Reel.
- Project-based Reels: This is a Reel you don’t widely distribute. Maybe the client would never allow it to be seen publicly – but it contains some of your best work. If you want more of this type of work, create a shorter Beauty / Breakdown Reel of this Project and only hand it out to the clients specifically doing this type of work.
Project-based Reels can just be longer samples edited together or once specific project as a Breakdown Reel. What are some genres you could build around this idea? Corporate talking heads; show opens and credit sequences; DSLR-style image campaigns or any other type of work you want to attract but may not be appropriate in a general, public Demo Reel
You should consider building several types of Project Reels that are tightly focused and to be shared only with a very specific type of client you want to attract, at the point of first contact
What are some common Color Correction Demo Reel mistakes (and their solutions)?
- It’s too darn long: A 5-minute demo reel for color correction? No one will ever watch it to the end. My latest Reel is 3 minutes long, and that’s pushing the outer boundary.
- It’s too darn short: If your Reel is under 90 seconds, it suggests your body of work is weak. You’re better off having a series of short Project-based Reels. When a potential job walks in the door, once you have a sense of the style of work, send them links to the individual Project Reels that’s specific to their needs.
- It’s too darn cutty: Let your images play out. Remember – a good colorist not only controls the eye and visual emotion of an shot but maintains it over a series of consecutive shots. A super-cutty Color Reel could be interpreted as trying to hide a weakness in shot matching.
- No lower thirds: For a long time I didn’t put lower-thirds in my demo reels. I’d hand you my Reel plus a shot-by-shot rundown sheet. In this day of embedded videos – forgetaboutit! Put in lower thirds! Tell clients what your work is and who you worked with. In a Breakdown Reel, don’t make them guess which image is the Before and which is the After!
- Images are too average: Your Demo Reel needs to have ONLY the best of your best work. Nothing kills a Reel more than images that aren’t impactful. Only put in work you would put up against anyone.
The rule about not using ‘average images’ can definitely be broken:
- If your Reel is dominated by Looks: I have this problem in my Sample Reel with all the Horror work I’ve done. Most of it has some very strong Looks – so I demonstrate range by showing average images that are only slightly different from the original. In fact, I’ve had clients tell me it was those shots that sold me as being the ‘real thing’, since anyone can apply a preset. But not everyone can slightly tweak a shot and suddenly focus an otherwise okay shot.
- If you have recognizable talent to put in your Reel: My latest Sample Reel (covered in Part 2) has some average images in it. Some of them are only there because I wanted to get the Director’s or DP’s name in or show the face of a well-known actor! Trust me, if you’ve worked with famous talent, you must to showcase them—it’ll help pull in new clients.
What’s my best advice on building a super-impressive Color Grading Demo Reel?
It will take years to build a Demo Reel that is filled with nothing but amazing-looking images (whether beautiful or distressed). To do that you will need to follow these two simple rules:
- Set a hard-cap on the length of your Demo Reel – A journeyman will set that cap to 90 seconds (after all, they’re still building up their Reel). An established talent will set that cap somewhere between 2-3 minutes. Whatever you decide: Never ever exceed the hard cap! And NEVER exceed 3 minutes.
- Once you hit the hard-cap: New shots go in only if they’re replacing existing shots – THIS is how you ‘build up’ your Reel. If you’ve got a new project you want to add to your Demo Reel and your Reel is at your hard cap limit… then the only way that project goes in is if something else comes out!
Follow this advice for a few years and your Reel will be amazing
Your Reel will be constantly improving rather than getting longer and longer. Don’t let your Reel get overly long, with amazing images pulled down by the merely good or adequate. Most of us start from the same place… the good and adequate. That’s okay for a start but it’s not okay long-term.
Always be upgrading your Reel – ideally with the type of work you want to attract.
Summary: How to build a Demo Reel that builds the career you want
First: Your Demo Reel is about your future—not your past
What if you have no idea what you want your future to look like? Then your Demo Reel will probably will get you more of what you’ve been doing—since that’s what you’ll be showing.
But if you know you need to ‘jump tracks’ or more ‘finely tune’ where you want to go with your career—then you need to find snippets of your future in your past body of work… and prominently feature just those elements. And it may take a few years to get enough of those snippets to fill out a ‘proper’ Demo Reel.
Second: You’re Building a Reel for your clients, not your peers
It’s fine to solicit advice from your peers – but as I’ll discuss in Part 2, it’s the clients your REALLY want to listen to. They watch your Reel completely differently than your peers do.
Third: If you’re just starting out – the Breakdown Reel will be the first you’ll create
The simple truth is that Breakdown Reels are the easiest to create if you don’t have many snippets of the type of work you want to attract. As an example of a Breakdown Reel, here’s the one I’ve been using for almost 6 years now (and I’ll be updating in early 2016):
Coming in Part 2
In Part 2 we’ll breakdown my latest ‘Features, Documentary and Shorts Sample Reel‘; who my target market is, look at various iterations, how it’s structured and whose advice I listened to when making revisions.