PART II: Preparing Material for a Demo Reel
So you finally have a collection of work that you’re willing to show to more than just close friends and people who owe you money. What now?
First, determine exactly what you have to work with. Go through all of your tapes and discs and catalogue all of the scenes you’re one-hundred percent certain that you want in your reel, and also the scenes you think might be worth including, but you’re not completely sure. Write down when each scene begins and ends, and include a brief description. Something like this:
DVD – Attila the Hun in Paris 12:14-20:20 On the bus having an argument
YouTube Link – Psychic Detective 30:10-30:35 Wearing a red hat and telling a joke
The reason for this list is to save you money, sometimes a lot of money, when you’re actually editing your reel. If you don’t have start and stop times written down, then what might have been a three-hour job will turn into five hours or more as you search back and forth for the scene "you could have sworn was right in the middle." At $30-$80 per hour for an editor, that mistake will get quite expensive.
As you’re assembling your scenes, however, don’t think about how much material you have, or how long the scenes are, or how long you want your reel to be (unless you have strict instructions from your agent or manager). Your reel should only be as long as your material is good. Adding less-than-strong material to meet some magic one-, two-, or three-minute mark will only drag down the strong scenes you have. Strong material never elevates weak material. Weak material always drags strong material down.
A long list of "don’ts" and "maybes" follow, but in general a scene becomes weak–that is, it fails to reassure and convey your abilities as a professional actor–when it leaves the viewer room to go do anything other than watch your reel. If the lighting, sound, acting, or editing are all so bad they’re drawing attention away from you, the scene becomes weak.
A couple of "howevers" to this:
- How you look does not automatically make a scene weak. Just because you don’t like the weird face you made, or the way you laughed, or you’re obsessing over your jiggling triceps doesn’t mean anybody else will notice or even care. As difficult at it may be, actors have to step away from body obsessiveness.
- Bad writing does not automatically make a scene weak. Lots of great actors get stuck with less than stellar scripts. If you demonstrate that you can make something from nearly nothing, that may actually make the scene stronger at selling you as a pro. Obviously, if the script is just downright awful there’s not much you can do except hope that the editor can cut away as much bad dialogue as possible to find the best parts of the scene (which we frequently can).
Some things to consider as you’re assembling your list of scenes:
- What roles do you currently go out for? What’s your bread and butter? If playing the thug is getting you in the door, don’t knock it. Remember, the second word in "typecast" is "cast".
- What roles do you–or your agent/manager–want you to go out for, or move up to? Are you ready to shift from being the co-star to guest star, or guest-star to series regular? Are you ready to step up from the "funny best friend" role, to the lead that has a funny best friend?
- Don’t automatically disregard commercials. If you remove the beginnings and endings–where the product placement typically goes–they’re frequently indistinguishable from a feature or TV show. Obviously, if it’s all-dancing, all-singing, all-selling all the time, then that’s a pass for your theatrical reel. However, if this is the case, it can be a great choice for a commercial reel.
From here, it should be a matter of simply choosing the scenes which show you at your best, but too often I see scenes chosen for... well, questionable reasons. I don’t like demonstrating from the negative, but experience has shown that the following list of don’ts is the most effective way to separate your strongest work from the not-so-strong.
AGENT/MANAGER TRUMP CARD
None of what follows takes precedence over what your agent or manager wants. If they disagree with every other point that follows, assemble your reel according to their instructions. They won’t send out a reel that they hate. If you really disagree with their choices, make a second reel that you like, and send that out on your own.
What doesn’t make for a good scene: The DON’T list
- Don't include scenes just because you're opposite someone famous. Your demo reel is about what you can do, not who you've done it with.
Yes, having stars in your reel can show that you're higher up the food chain, but this is true only if you're actually doing something other
than just watching the star.
- Don't include scenes where you're just looking out a window, or sitting at a table. Shocking, but true: watching someone look out a
window is boring. Watching someone look out a window in tear-filled, stunned disbelief as their beautiful city of Dresden is firebombed
into the Stone Age... now that's entertainment.
Along these lines, be very cautious when considering any project that is "non-sync sound". That is, there’s no dialogue or the dialogue is limited to voiceover only. Unfortunately, it’s all too rare that these projects have a strong enough story–or strong enough director–that you will end up with anything that can be used in your demo reel.
- Don't include a scene because you have fond memories of the shoot, or you had a crush on your co-star, or the day was so hellish you
just have to salvage something from the torment. Separating your emotional attachment to a scene is tough, but your reel has to be about
scenes that will work hard for you, not scenes you worked hard on. (This is an advantage to working with an editor. Our only concern is
assembling your strongest work into the most effective marketing tool we can.)
- Don't worry about "lots of short scenes vs. carrying one or two longer scenes." Some casting directors have a preference, but
this is one of those situations where no matter which choice you make someone's not going to like it, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Choose your best scenes regardless of number or length.
- Don't show the same scene again and again. If your clips can be described as "angry mom in a green sweater," "angry
girlfriend in the car," and "angry woman in a boardroom," pick one, 'cause that's all you really have. Show the same scene
again and again, and you leave people thinking you have no range as an actor.
- Don't worry if your best scene is 10 minutes long. Everything that isn't about you, or absolutely necessary to keep the scene flowing,
will get cut. 10–even 20–minutes gets whittled down to 30 seconds really quickly this way. REMEMBER: you’re not telling the movie’s
story, you’re telling your story. Get in, show off what you can do, get out, and move on to the next clip.
- Don't think of your reel as a work of art. You're not hand-crafting a beautiful, touching story. You're assembling clips that show what
an awesome actor you are. I know one woman who told me she spent over 80 hours working on her–at the time yet unfinished–reel,
and it still clocked in at nine minutes. That's at least 70 hours too many, and 6 minutes too long.
- Don't worry about source footage in VHS format. Never accept your copy of any new work on a VHS tape, but if all you have of past work
is VHS–and you look in the tape the way you look now–fine. Every year I say this is the year I’ll tell my clients not to use
anything from a VHS tape, but then someone will bring in something that still looks fine. Obviously, if the tape is so old your tropical
beach scene looks like it’s taking place in a snow storm, it’s no good.
- Don't include a clip that just flashes on your face. There is no absolute minimum, but if your "scene" would be more at
home in a music video, it's not going to do anything to sell you as an actor. A director isn’t going to risk her chance at getting the
best table at The Ivy just because you have a funny two-second reaction shot to someone’s pratfall.
A small exception to this is what I call "taglines." These are three to five second clips that have a self-contained piece of dialogue, such as "And that’s a short history of glue!" or "Are you kidding me? He’s so far in the closet he’s practically in Narnia!" These clips can be a fun way to end a demo reel, and very occasionally, serve as a bridge between two longer comedic scenes.
- Don’t confuse a "look" with a scene. Just because you look good in a cowboy hat doesn’t mean you can play a cowboy.
In fact, and I know this is going to sound harsh, completely erase from your mind all thoughts of "looks," "moments," and "reactions". They’re completely–and I mean completely–worthless unless you have a complete scene to wrap around them. A two-second look, a one-second reaction shot, or three-second moment DOES ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to sell you as an actor. But if you have a reel that is filled with any combination of the above it does everything to mark you as a clueless amateur.
- Don't include scenes where your back is to the camera; not even Marlon Brando could act with the back of his head. There is no
absolute yes/no angle, but if we can’t see at least a good part of one eye for more than a few seconds, we can’t make an emotional connection
to you, and it’s all about the emotional connection. (That’s why the aliens in the Star Trek shows always have "human" eyes.)
- Don't include scenes where the viewer has to search for you. Your reel is not an animated version of "Where’s Waldo?" If you're a
non-speaking part of a group, well, to be brutally honest, you're an extra, and extras don't need demo reels.
- Don't add scenes just to lengthen your reel. It bears repeating: adding mediocre material to reach some magic one/two/three minute mark
will only drag down the great stuff that came before it.
- Don’t include any stage work unless you have absolutely nothing else, and your agent/manager wants it in. You may be the greatest Hedda
Gabler or Willie Loman in the last 50 years, but stage work is not on-camera work. They have similarities, but they require many very
There are a few very exceptions to this:
- If your performance was filmed at, say, an American Playhouse or Broadway Presents level. That is, high-caliber lighting, cameras,
and sound; the cameras are close up on you (not necessarily "in" close-up, though); and you’re not trying to sell it to the cheap seats.
- If you’re a member of a well-known sketch comedy troupe (which would be listed on your resume), and your footage is from a main
stage appearance. In Los Angeles that would mean something like The Groundlings, or the Upright Citizens Brigade.
- If you’re in a band, and you’ve got footage of you in a music video, on a talk show, or at a first-rate venue that is specifically
lighting and mic’ing you for the camera, and the footage is all about you doing your thing, and not you tucked away in the back on the
drums while the lead guitarist is shredding away.
Please note, however, that while these are exceptions they are not a license to fill your reel with nothing but stage work. One, maybe two instances of each are the most you should consider.
- If your performance was filmed at, say, an American Playhouse or Broadway Presents level. That is, high-caliber lighting, cameras, and sound; the cameras are close up on you (not necessarily "in" close-up, though); and you’re not trying to sell it to the cheap seats.
- Don’t include any in-class work unless you have absolutely nothing else, and your agent/manager wants it in. Aside from the typically
awful lighting and sound, if it’s just you on camera, it comes off as a glorified audition. More importantly, though, in-class scene
work is for you to practice on–to take risks, make mistakes and learn from–not for others to judge you on.
- Don't include scenes from 5, 10, or 20 years ago if you don't look pretty much exactly like you looked 5, 10, or 20 years ago. As
already stated, your headshot is supposed to show what you look like right now, and your demo reel serves as confirmation. If you used
to be the hip, 20-something single girl in the city, but now you’re the cool, 30-something partner in a law firm, you want to show the
director, A) you're a professional, and you know what your type is, and B) what you can do as the cool, 30-something that your headshot
shows you to be.
And most importantly...
- Don't include a bunch of scenes where you play against your type. Remember that in Part One I wrote that the purpose of a demo reel
is to lessen fear. A pro knows who he is, and how he's perceived. Amateurs insist that they can do anything and everything, and few
things scare a professional more than the thought of putting their success in the hands of an amateur.
I always tell my clients that, Yes, it is your nature as human beings to encompass everything from Ophelia’s madness or Hamlet’s anguish, to Lucille Ball’s "Veeta-vita-vegemin" lunacy or a Jerry Lewis pratfall, but notice that neither Lucy nor Jerry ever did Shakespeare.
It’s true that everyone from Danny DeVito to Clint Eastwood to Burt Reynolds have been told, "you’ll never make it in show business!" Their success should be an inspiration to all of us, but if you base your entire "attack" on Hollywood on being the exception that proved ‘em wrong, you’re going to have a tough, tough time of it. The time to change their idea of what’s right and wrong for you is after you’re at the top.
The "Be Leery" list
The following lie somewhere between "Do" and "Don’t". I have edited many strong demo reels that had some of the following elements, but it’s a very narrow line that is all too easy to cross.
- Be leery of scenes that feature you with someone who looks just like you, especially if you’re thinking of putting it first. Every
once in a while a client will bring me a clip where the director has cast an actor that looks just like him or her. Even though my client
is sitting two feet from me, I have trouble telling which is which. Don’t make it difficult for the decision-maker to know who she’s
supposed to be paying attention to.
- Be leery of scenes in a foreign language, sub-titled or no, especially if you’re thinking of putting it first. Bilingualism is a very
useful skill for an actor, but you don’t want your English-speaking decision maker to think that hiring you also means hiring a translator,
or spending extra–extremely expensive–hours trying to bridge a language gap. Also, even if your "American" accent is flawless,
people always think they can detect your "real" accent if you start out in your native language or dialect.
- Be leery of monologues to the camera. If the director wants to break the fourth wall, á la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, okay, but the
production values will need to be there–sound, lighting, etc. Otherwise, it looks like you just stuck a camera in front of your
face and started talking away, and that always comes off as desperation on the actor’s part.
If it’s something you’re putting together on your own, then a better choice would be to turn the "monologue" into a "scene" by looking just to the left or right of the lens, or even better, grabbing a friend for some over-the-shoulder and reversal shots–you could even give her a word or two for you to play off of. You should also grab one or two cutaway shots, and have some sort of music to play underneath. All of these will contribute to making your "scene" looking like it came from an actual movie.
- Be leery of stand-up footage. Stand-up comedy chops are a great thing to have, and a lot of decision-makers like to know you’ve got
‘em, but if you’re going to include stand-up footage make sure it’s both your funniest bit, and it’s concise. If it’s a long, rambling
three-minute digression–even if the punchline is hilarious–nobody’s going to wait. As with high-quality stage or sketch work,
you can go to this well once, maybe twice, but that’s it. Obviously, the better the sound and lighting, the stronger the scene.
- Be leery of "special skills" clips. If you’re, say a Lindy Hop dancer, or a gymnast, it’s not a bad thing to show off your abilities,
but the clip should really be the last thing on your reel, and then only if the footage is very good quality, and it’s just you in the
frame. If you’re part of a big group of dancers, the focus won’t be on you.
Showing a special skill can be a very fun way to exit a reel, but in general it’s more useful on a commercial reel–which itself is really only useful for getting a commercial agent–than on a theatrical reel. Theatrically, people with special skills are generally used as featured extras. If your character has to play the guitar, it can certainly help to show that you can actually play, but if you can’t and they want you for the role, they’ll either teach you or cut around you while you fake it.
A Few, Brief, Highly Opinionated Views on Montages
- They suck.
- They do NOT equal range. Watching a bunch of quick clips of an actor doing a lot of random jumping, kissing, laughing, running, etc.
does nothing to show you can believably convey a character’s emotional life.
- Photo montages don’t demonstrate your skills. Just because there’s a picture of you with a sword, doesn’t mean you can fence. (And
if you’re getting an award for something athletic, the Olympic banner had better be in the background.)
- There’s no way for the viewer to know how long they are. If you’re a casting director and you’ve got to look through 100 demo reels
for two different roles, and each of them have just a 15-second montage, that’s 25 minutes wasted. Multiply that by 10 more roles per
project, and 10 projects a year, and that’s 2500 minutes down the drain. Show the CD you’re a professional who respects her time, and
leave the montage out.
- One of the most infuriating things about montages is they frequently consist of clips from scenes that will be shown during the reel
itself. This is the equivalent of handing in a 10-page term paper with 2-inch margins all around, double-spacing, and 16-point Helvetica
type. Have you ever met an English teacher who wasn’t wise to this trick?
- They are an obvious attempt to steal the energy of the band, or song, and transfer it onto you. I often wonder if the actors who put
a montage in their reel think that somehow, even though they’re completely wrong for the part, the director will hire them solely because
she remembers seeing Tori Amos or Led Zeppelin or Garth Brooks in concert. I call it trying to sell the sizzle, and not the steak. The
problem is, you’re trying to sell the sizzle to people whose job it is to sell sizzle.
- They implicitly state: I have nothing worth watching, so I’m going to try to delay you from seeing my work as long as possible.
If you absolutely have to have a montage, I strongly suggest putting it at the end. That way if the viewer doesn’t want to watch it, they can hit stop, and they won’t miss seeing any of your actual work.
I can think of only two exceptions to the no-montage-(at-least-in-front) rule: The first is if you are a high-energy action or fitness host. In this case, it can be appropriate to put a short montage in the front of your reel, because you are frequently going to be presented in such a style, and it can be helpful to show the decision-maker what you look like in a series of quick cuts.
The second exception is if you are always being cast as the "whacky" manic character that shows up for one or two scenes, and does or says a bunch of whacky stuff. (Note that I am not talking about the "hears-voices" type of whacky.) In this case, because your characters are generally going to be used for one or two brief scenes, and are also generally used to deliver some sort of verbal or physical punchline, a 15- or 20-second montage of quick silly bits may be useful.