The Campaign for Real Reels

A Brief Guide to How to Make a Good Showreel ☛

There are a lot of good actors, directors and HoDs out there with bad showreels – let’s put that right.

Showreels used to be the reserve of those who could afford to have one edited. Now anyone with a laptop can make a reel and, with the explosion of online video content, the industry expects to be able to see your work at the touch of a button. Without a reel these days you’re at a real disadvantage.

Director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) spots new talent

Content

Simple basic rule – only your best work. How do you know what is your best work? Get whoever’s cutting your reel or someone you trust in the business to give an opinion. Remember you don’t have an objective eye on your own work. If you’re not sure of the virtue of a particular piece, leave it out. Showreels should be no more than 3-5 mins long. In fact there’s a good chance that a busy viewer won’t watch more than the first 2 mins, so put your very best material first. If you don’t even have that much good material to show, don’t worry – everyone in the business has been at the point where they have only one item to put on their reel, we don’t think any the worse of you for it. Only do a showreel if you’ve got something that will show you in a good light.

It’s not quite that simple however, if you have multiple clips to present you also need to show the range of your talent. If you’re a director and all you best work features dialogue-heavy scenes, then you may need to slip in a bit of visual storytelling, even if it isn’t your favourite material. Actors are well advised to show both drama and comedy material. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but if your one comedy clip just isn’t good enough, leave it out. The last thing you want to include is material that suggests you can’t do something!

Conversely, if you are talented across more than one discipline make a different reel for that. Filmmakers have no interest in an actor’s skill as a continuity announcer (unless they’re casting you to play a continuity announcer). I once interviewed an actress for a role in a drama who had been recommended by a friend. The producer and I watched her reel, which covered both her skills as a dramatic actress and a porn star. Too much information.

It may sound shallow, but many directors and producers will be swayed if you can show that you’ve worked on a TV show they’ve seen or with recognizable stars. People tend to invest in talent in whom respected people have already demonstrated some faith. Not a great reason for hiring someone but a fact of life. As before, however, if you’re showing a scene you’ve shot with Johnnie Depp and you screwed it up, leave it out.

As for your less prestigious material, doesn’t matter if it was shot on Mini-DV by an idiot; if you rose above the circumstances and did great work, we want to see it. That being said, if the technical quality is so low that we can’t really see or hear what’s going on, I’m afraid it’s of no use to you.

Presentation.

Less important than you might think. I cast Jalaal Hartley in Missed on the basis of a VHS tape that someone at his agents had edited tape-to-tape, bad edits, dropout, the lot. Didn’t matter. Admittedly expectations of a well-presented reel might have risen a little since then, but not by much. No need to go to town or spend a fortune on flashy graphics. Keep it simple.

Most actors reels start with a montage of shots showing the range of roles in which they’ve been cast. I think these have become standard because actors want to make some use out of the one useable shot in an otherwise embarrassing short film, and editors who cut montages want to show off their skill. Unfortunately no one thought to ask the people who watch showreels if we were interested in seeing a montage. I’ve checked, I asked a number of directors and producers of my acquaintance, and it’s official: we’re not. We know what you look like from the clips and we’ve seen your resume. We’re looking at your reel in order to see meaty scenes and if you don’t have one of those we want to see anything that might give us a rough idea if you can act and how you might come across on screen. We also have a dozen other reels to watch, and not much time. Cut, as they say, to the chase.

I’d also encourage directors and editors not to include montages in your reels’ – your work tends to be best judged in continuous scenes. It does not apply to DPs, designers, costume designers or make-up artists however – those are purely visual disciplines and elements of their work can be judged from individual shots.

There are better ways than this to get a producer to watch your reel

Distribution

So you’ve made your reel, what do you do with it? Up until recently DVD was the best home for showreels. They allow you to present an edited reel together with the original films from which the clips were taken, in case people wanted to see more. However DVDs are starting to fall out of favour – they have compatibility issues and if a director and producer are based in different places they have to arrange to pass the disc over. It’s still worth getting a few DVDs made in case someone asks for one, but online is where it’s at.

A website – which for actors includes a gallery of headshots, a resume and your reel – is well-worth having. A place that’s ‘you central’. If you’re a cameraman it might put up your documentary reel and your drama reel. If you can afford to get a website built, great! But they aren’t cheap these days. If you have an agent who puts their client’s work up on their website, that’s even better – nothing beats a respectable shop window. If neither of these apply to you, don’t despair. Put your reel up on IMDB, Spotlight, Casting Call Pro, YouTube, Vimeo… if fact pretty much anywhere and everywhere. The key is accessibility; make it as easy as possible for people to find your work. The aim is that if someone types your name and your job into a search engine, your reel should come up in the first page of results.

One thing of which to be cautious. You may have been given a DVD of your work before the film or show hits public view (unusual, but it happens). In this case don’t add the material to a reel you’re putting on public view, or you could end up with an angry phone call from the producer. Instead you could add that material to a reel which you keep on a password protected site or a Spotlight page that can only be seen by subscribers or people to whom you’ve given your PIN. If in doubt ask the producer if they mind.

Last but not least don’t delay. If I had a pound for each actor who told me that they haven’t got an up to date reel, they’ve been meaning to get around to it, I could afford to make quite a nice little film. If you’ve got your work in digital form and the means to put it on the web, what are you waiting for? That reminds me, I must update my own reel…

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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Comments
7 Responses to “The Campaign for Real Reels”
  1. Gavin Boyter says:

    Makes a lot of sense. I see you’ve changed your mind on the value of a montage (to actors, writers or directors). I always used to find myself fast-forwarding through them (in the days of VHS) or skipping back to the main menu in search of the real meat. I don’t need to know how good a director or actor’s editor buddy is.

    • guyducker says:

      I don’t recall ever being in favour of montages for actors, although it’s only when I was called to cut an actors reel that I realised how pointless they were.

      • Brian Barnes says:

        A lot of sound ideas in this, Guy. However, many casting directors I have spoken to say they will only watch a 2min reel and that some of them are so lazy they will only watch the opening montage, so if you haven’t got a montage, they “next” you. To be honest, in my experience, I reckon 99 per cent of the “people in the biz” neither know what to put into a reel nor how to spot a good reel when they see one. Also, a well-cut reel can LIE! I know this from my own bitter experience – having cast an actor based on the reel that *I* cut for him myself. He turned out to be rather double-plus-ungood, despite his cracking reel. Surely some mistake.

        • guyducker says:

          Brian, thanks for those comments – interesting to hear. You’re absolutely right about people’s attention spans; I’m going to add a line to the article to cover that. A good point, well made. I would find it hard to believe, however, that anyone would skip a reel because it doesn’t start with a montage. I’ve done a lot of research on this and I’ve not found one person who defends opening montages. Most people consider them a waste of their time – you learn nothing useful about a performer from them.
          As for reels lying – certainly they do. Such is advertising. However my article is written more for people making reels than for those who watch them. How to view a reel is a different story and must be told another time.

  2. Robbie Byrne says:

    I am an actor living in London. I came across your article “The Campaign for Real Reels” as I was updating my showreel. I cut my montage based on your advise in the article. Then I sent it out to some casting directors. One of them replied “Thanks for no montage”

    So thanks for writing the article.

    Robbie

  3. Dan says:

    I like the article Guy; well written, informative and sympathetic. Great stuff I will look at my reel again! Best Dan

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