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How To Cut A Demo Reel That Will Land You High Quality Work

Noam Kroll

A killer demo reel is the biggest asset you have when trying to pick up work in the film industry. Unfortunately though, many talented directors, DPs and editors don’t understand what it takes to cut a great reel, and end up losing work because of it.

[Above image from BlackmagicDesign]

To producers, or anyone else that may be looking to hire you, your demo reel is just about the only thing that matters. It may not matter how many jobs you’ve done or how many awesome producers may be able to vouch for you, if you don’t have a good reel, the chances that you’re going to get hired on any given job diminish severely. Most filmmakers understand this, yet they still don’t seem to put in the time or effort that they should in order to ensure they are putting their best foot forward.

If you’re serious about getting quality work, and landing it consistently then read on to pick up on my top 3 tips for cutting a powerful demo reel.

Demo Reel Editing

Make Multiple Reels

If you’re part of the newer generation of filmmakers, chances are you are a jack of all trades to some extent. In other words, you may be a director at heart, but probably also DP or edit on the side for supplementary income. In theory, there’s nothing at all wrong with taking this approach to the craft (especially early on in your career), but in reality it can mean that you are missing out on potential work opportunities as many producers want to hire a freelancer that specializes. For this reason, you may need to create multiple demo reels.

When I need to hire a crew member (let’s say a DP) if I see a whole lot of motion graphics and directorial work on his or her reel, chances are I am very quickly going to move on to the next submission. The fact is that I want to know if I am hiring a DP, I am going to get someone who at least has enough material to cut together a proper cinematography reel, and is able to represent those skills without fluffing it up with irrelevant work samples that don’t at all pertain to my needs. 

With all this said, if you are talented in multiple areas, you need to go the extra mile and cut together separate reels for everything you do. If you color correct, DP, and edit, you should have three separate reels – at least. There’s nothing wrong with having a fourth reel too, that showcases everything (in the rare instance where that might work for you), but 9 times out of ten you will benefit far more from being able to send a targeted reel to the producer/production company that is looking to hire you.

Don’t Showcase All Your Great Material Too Early

Probably the biggest mistake that I constantly encounter when reviewing demo reels, is that all the good material is placed up front. It’s so common to start watching through a demo reel, and after the first 45 seconds or so the quality level drops immensely. There is nothing more disappointing to me when watching a reel then seeing some really promising work up front but then having the quality slowly get worse and worse as it goes on. I’m not quite sure why so many people choose to cut their reels this way (perhaps they think no one’s actually watching all the way through?), but in any case, you need to pace yourself. If you have three really strong projects, and four or five mediocre projects (that are still worthy of being on the reel), place one of your strong projects at the beginning, another in the middle, and the final one at the end. That way, you mitigate the risk of losing your audience and are able to end things on a high note.

I’m not quite sure why so many people choose to cut their reels this way (perhaps they think no one’s actually watching all the way through?), but in any case, you need to pace yourself. If you have three really strong projects, and four or five mediocre projects (that are still worthy of being on the reel), place one of your strong projects at the beginning, another in the middle, and the final one at the end. That way, you mitigate the risk of losing your audience and are able to end things on a high note.

Keep it Short

It’s pretty well guaranteed that whoever is watching your demo reel is doing so on their computer, iPhone or tablet. Gone are the days where you might submit a reel to a production company or agency and they would watch it in a proper viewing environment, so you need to be very aware of this fact when considering the length of your reel. Anyone that has the power to hire you, typically doesn’t have much time in their day. If you want to make the biggest impact possible, keep your reel short and sweet. This notion applies whether you have a ton of amazing material, or only a handful of decent material for your reel. While there may not be any hard and fast rules with regards to runtimes, I would personally recommend that you keep your reel length between two and three minutes, unless you are showcasing full scenes for a directorial reel in which case it can run on slightly longer.

While there may not be any hard and fast rules with regards to runtimes, I would personally recommend that you keep your reel length between two and three minutes, unless you are showcasing full scenes for a directorial reel in which case it can run on slightly longer.

Don’t Cut a Reel Until You’re Ready

Depending on where you’re at in your career, you may be tempted to cut a demo reel before you are actually ready to. And no, I’m not referring to your skills as an editor, I’m referring to the amount of material that you have under your belt. If you don’t currently have enough strong footage to put together an amazing reel, then go out and get that footage so you will be able to put your best foot forward when you are approaching prospective clients or collaborators.

Nothing would be worse than sending a poor demo reel to a great producer, and then having that same producer not want to look at your next demo reel down the road (which would likely be much stronger), because they’ve already written you off. Do whatever you need to do to get your reel up to snuff, even if it means volunteering or shooting on spec. Just don’t waste your time cutting a reel until you have the material to back it up!

Want more demo reel tips? Check out our popular post: 20 Tips for Creating a Successful Demo Reel

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