AN ACTOR’S GUIDE TO DEMO REELS
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
First things first: It’s okay not to have a reel.
The good news is, everyone starts here. At the early stages of our careers we are focusing on learning the craft and building our body of work. Much like joining the union, or moving to LA or submitting to an agent, until you’ve done the leg work of training, building a resume, and developing your process-- worrying about a reel is a bit premature. New surgeons practice sutures, they intern, they learn under an attending; they don't focus on getting published by a medical journal straight out of med school. If you don't yet know how to act, you still struggle with memorizing, and don't have a full toolkit of technique to perform consistently, training should be your first priority. As much as you might want a reel, it’s totally okay to not have one.
And believe it or not, it's actually far better to have no reel-- than to be using cobbled together footage that doesn't serve you.
WHAT IS A REEL
Completed footage* of Film/TV productions you auditioned for, booked, and shot. Ideally it’s all completed footage that aired and was distributed somewhere. It’s been produced by a studio, edited, with foley, and color graded, and then edited by your reel editor to showcase your strongest moments. It is a trailer of only your best work and it shows us the type of roles that are in your wheelhouse.
*Please note: This is why we never include self-taped footage in a reel. Those high quality acting clips can serve you in other ways, but are not footage that can be used in the making of a reel*
MAKING A STRONG REEL:
As you continue to build your collection of footage, these tips can be used to rank each clip, so that as your footage grows, you know which clips to remove / replace, and which clips hold up.
WHAT TO INCLUDE:
Close ups of you, in dialogue
Highest quality footage (footage is in focus, well lit, edited, color graded. sound is well-mixed, clear, and doesn’t distract from your work as an actor)
Characters you play well (and fit within your brand / most playable types)
Scenes with heightened objectives and your strongest acting
Clips that are between 15-25 seconds long (internal edits are ok)
Footage that shows us you right now (your skill level and current look)
Footage from the highest tier work you’ve done (projects that have aired/ are streaming)
WHAT TO LEAVE OUT: (or use sparingly)
Wide / Establishing shots where your face takes up less than half the frame
Sections where your face is obstructed or both eyes aren’t visible
Scenes without Dialogue, Montages, long action sequences (exception: snippet of fight sequence or a special skill. We'll cover that later.)
Scenes where the lighting is too dark / low quality to distinguish you in them
Scenes that feel auxiliary (where you aren’t pursuing active intention)
Footage in black and white or with other distracting filters
Footage that is too quiet or that has distracting underscoring
Long stretches of other actors being seen / speaking (cut them out, come back to you)
Moments where you can see your acting isn’t at its best
Footage of you playing a role you probably would never be cast in again
Footage of you that is from so long ago, you don’t look the same and/or your acting has grown significantly
Scenes longer than 30 seconds
Front title cards (more on this later)
Non-Film/TV work: music videos, voiceover, hosting, commercials, trailers, live theatre, singing, any non-principal/ background roles
Notice: the list of what to include in your reel, is much shorter than the list of what to leave off. This is intentional. We should set the bar high for what footage will serve us in our careers. Because everyone starts out not having a reel, there is more understanding for being in that place in your career, than there is patience to sit through a reel that is too long, too distracting, too low quality, and does not show us strong acting.
If your reel is made up of 40% or more of things from that 'what leave out' list, it likely means that you just don't have strong enough footage to make a reel yet. Its just not serving us to throw together problematic footage out of desperation to have something.
The reality is, even with this list, you the actor, might not be the best judge as to whether or not this particular footage is helping or hurting you. This is why it is so essential to get an editor and get input from your coaches and agents and industry professionals.
BEST PRACTICES ON CREATING A STRONG REEL:
Those first 10-20 seconds are crucial. Cut out that title card, and open your reel with a close up of YOUR face. (If you want to use a title card, put it at the end). Ideally, each clip should start and end on your face in dialogue. In a sea of reels, you want it to be obvious whose reel it is. Put your strongest acting first. Many casting offices won’t have time to watch your whole reel. So don’t bury the lede by placing your strongest acting anywhere but the front of your reel. Ideally, you’d like your first clip to be your strongest acting AND a character that’s on brand for you AND be of the highest tier production value – but when you are starting out, aim for what showcases YOU the best.
LESS IS MORE
Shorter is better. Leave them wanting more. Actors have a few versions of their reel: a 1-minute reel, a 90-second reel, and a 2-minute reel (and sometimes a more comprehensive 3-minute reel). But each one of these has to be used with intention, and when appropriate for the project/audience. Bottom Line: When in doubt, keep it short. Avoid keeping in footage out of desperation, or the need to have "something." This is a marketing tool, lean into quality over quantity. I’d rather watch a 60-second reel and be left wanting to see more of your work, than start watching and 30 seconds in realize... woof this thing is 5 min long.
Remember to get specific. When you’ve really built up a significant body of work, you will have category specific reels: a Comedic Reel and a Dramatic Reel. If you are a big commercial booker, you might also have a Commercial Reel. Don’t make a commercial Casting Director sit through 2 minutes of dramatic acting. And don't use 3 minutes of commercial footage for your episodic submission.
Get an editor. If you feel like, 'hey I’ve invested in good editing software, have spent hours looking at actor reels to notice trends, and have mastered editing as a skill I’ve practiced daily,' — knock yourself out. Otherwise, hire a professional.
An experienced editor will know how to cut the footage to keep the focus on you. It’s not just about sandwiching clips side by side and inserting cross fades in between. This is an art. And your primary marketing tool, it should be met with more care. A good editor can create internal cuts to scenes, and remove wide shots, or cut other characters' dialogue. They can feature you at your strongest moments, change the pacing, edit out sound distractions, color grade, and even rearrange lines of dialogue. All to help us as an audience really see you, at your best, most active work without distraction.
The title of a reel should be: YOUR NAME Demo Reel.[MOV or MP4]. If streaming on Vimeo or YouTube, the caption of that video should include your contact information (even if you’ve got a title card at the end). Make it easy for folks to book you!
Make sure that the cover image is a strong screen grab or your headshot with your name. If you end up sharing this video on social media from YouTube/Vimeo, you want that frozen image to be a strong one, right? Take the time to set that cover image to one you WANT your buyers to see.
Make it public. If you are sharing this file in emails and across social media, you don't want to create unnecessary obstacles for casting to see your work by password protecting it. Once it's done, make that puppy one-click away.
Have some major skills? (Like sword fighting, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, speaking another language?) Make a separate skills clip and upload to Actors Access and/or your website. If you feel like you’ve got a 40-second reel AND that this particular skill set is super relevant to your brand and main sort of character you play, you can include a brief clip of that skill within your reel. But truly, it is to be used sparingly. Ideally, a skills clip will live outside of your main reel. Your reel is the trailer to get your buyer interested in your work. And your skills clip, is an additional clip to supplement that WHEN the role you are submitting for requires it. That’s it.
Will your first reel be able to do everything for you? Will it hit every single checkbox in our list? Probably not. And that is okay. We all start somewhere. But the good news is that your reel is like your other marketing tools: it is a living document. It’s going to grow and change and evolve as your career blossoms. Can you include some footage from the do-not list on your reel? Sure. Very sparingly, you can. The idea is that we are always submitting to projects to level up our reels. We use what we have, we do our best to represent our work, leaning into those clips that are on that What to Include list and try to use the stuff from the What to Leave Out list as sparingly as possible. And the moment we get new footage and have the chance to swap out that less-than-ideal stuff, we DO it! (for more information on how to rank / organize your footage check out Bonnie Gillespie’s piece here and here.) If we are sure to start strong, we will easily be able to trim footage by cutting from the bottom.
Finally, remember that you, the actor, will very rarely be able to be impartial when it comes to editing and selecting footage. Lean into the expertise of your editor and your coaches and agents. They will be best able to help determine what clips are useful and what footage might be doing more harm than good.
Clare Lopez is an Actress and Director of Education and Outreach at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. She is deeply passionate about supporting fellow actors in their craft, and loves using storytelling to educate, elevate, and empower others. Email Clare