Acting Demo Reel FAQs: Put Your Best Face Forward
A lot of actors are starting to think about what comes after the lockdown. Perhaps it's finally time to get an agent. Or even if one has an agent, it is an opportune moment to maximize potential to be put forward for future projects. Maybe you just want to show off your skills to the world. Whatever the reason, an acting reel is often an integral part of the process.
I get a lot of questions about making reels and what goes into them. Here are some of the most common questions I get and the best answers I have based on my experience and research:
What is an acting reel?
An acting reel is a compilation of video clips, edited together to efficiently illustrate your experience and capabilities to a potential agent, casting director, producer, and/or director in a more tangible way than a paper resume.
Do I need an acting reel?
I would define reels, in most cases, as 'nice to haves' rather than 'must haves.' However, it is the most efficient and effective way to convey your abilities, your look, and your experience all in one package. So while it is generally not mandatory, it is strongly encouraged.
How long should an acting reel be?
There is a bit of debate on this point. Some say 90 seconds; Some say 2 minutes; But pretty much everyone says no longer than 3 minutes. Personally, I base the length off of how much footage there is. If there is a lot of great footage, then I simply try to keep the reel under 3min. However, if there are only 2-3 clips, then it is much more feasible and makes sense to make the reel much shorter. The main idea is that this should be immensely digestible to the viewer. In the same way one's resume should not run 3-5 pages long, this is the same idea in video form.
I personally appreciate the time limit because it forces me to constantly evaluate the most efficient and effective method to convey the actor's abilities. The scarcity of time forces a type of creativity that often, in my opinion, leads to better results than if there was an infinite amount of time to work with. Difficult choices need to be made between clips, about shaving down dialogue, about manipulating the pauses in a given moment. All of these things have to be done with great care. And that level of care is only necessitated because of the limitations created by a time limit.
Does an actor need separate reels for each genre?
Not usually. If an actor just has so many great clips that there are enough to break into two categories then it's something to consider. Or if an actor is often going out for very specific genres and wants to isolate that type of work.
Should an actor dictate what clips are included?
This is mostly up to the actor. However, I personally lean toward 'no.' Some actors know themselves very well and know exactly what should be pulled from a given film or commercial. However, even the most seasoned actor still cannot see their work from a fully objective point of view.
It is certainly helpful for an actor to point out the one scene in an hour long film that they are showcased in. But I prefer to be the one to select the best moment to use from within that scene. This is where the process of creating a reel transcends simple video editing. A person who is good at creating an acting reel is a person who is skilled at selecting the best possible examples of someone's work, ensuring the examples cover the full breadth of an actor's capability, and to place them in an order that best tells that actor's story and keeps the attention of the viewer.
How do you make an acting reel stand out?
If a demo reel provider is offering all kinds of animations, transitions, and accompanying music, RUN IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. They are trying to up-sell you on a bunch of stuff that will, at best, have absolutely no positive impact on your chances, and at worst, distract and annoy the person considering casting you.
A reel shines by showing an actor's standout moments with no frills and no distractions. The only thing that should draw the viewer's attention is the actor's work. Again, this is where a good reel maker earns their fee. In the deliberate and careful selection of clips and construction of the showcase. Not in making your name and headshot fly onto the screen like a 90's power point.
OK, we get it. This is a very ephemeral, specialized process, but what are some best practices?
Put your best work first - assume you will lose 50% of viewers after each subsequent clip
Show face - If your clips are all in darkness or of your back, then you're not really conveying much to the viewer
Don't illustrate the same skill twice - if possible, try to show as much diversity as possible
Use clips from the same medium - if you have to mix and match stage and on-camera work it's not the end of the world, but it won't appear quite as professional
Tell us what we're looking at - Is this a webseries? A national commercial? Provide a lower third that conveys that information at the start of each clip
Don't worry too much about context - a reel is not about immersing the viewer in the plot so don't prioiritize context over length or number of clips^
Don't forget to slate - include at least your name and contact information (or your agent's if you have one) and an optional headshot for a few seconds at the beginning and end of the reel
Sound balance - if your volume is not balanced between clips it will be distracting and could lead to the viewer simply turning off the reel entirely
Use common sense - it's better to have fewer clips than to include something graphic or offensive that could turn off the viewer
^ This is another time when an objective reel editor is an asset. They don't have context for the clips so they can make better choices about what is or isn't necessary to include for baseline clarity
If you work with me then it's pretty simple. You send me your headshot and slate info, your clips and their details and then I get to work.
I first watch everything in its entirety. I then do a second pass and start to pull scenes that I think have potential. I do an inventory of the pulled scenes, assessing them for quality, length, and variety. I choose the best selection from each piece and edit them down to their essence. Finally I add the slates, sound balance the clips, and do a final watch to ensure everything looks and sounds good.
This can take hours or days depending on the selection process. Sometimes I'll create 2-3 different possible reels with different combinations of clips so I can compare them in totality. Occasionally I'll ask the client if they have a preference between two clips from the same piece.
You can visit my Creative Services Page to see work samples and read client testimonials.