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The Art of the Showreel

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Your showreel is one of the most important things you have as an upcoming artist. It’s often seen before you are, so you need it to give the best representation of you that you can. For a fair few artists little thought is put into their showreel, as it seems simple compared to the art in which it contains.

This is true, everyone can put together clips and breakdowns in Premiere and add text to a start and end card. However why not tailor every attribute of your showreel to get you the job. Think of your showreel as an advert for you. Every part of an advert is aimed at getting you to buy the product, from the upbeat music to the flow of shots, this is how you need to think. Everything in your showreel needs to have been done to sell yourself. This subtle attention to detail can help differentiate two artists whose level of work is the same.

VFX Compositing & Roto/Prep Summer Reel 2013 from Josh Parks

What I've learnt working in the industry

Employers only have your showreel to build up a picture of what you are like as a person.

The look of your title card,  spelling, music used, what your email address is eg. Coolguy56@hotmail.com (not professional), colours used, order of shots, as the first and last shots are generally your best pieces, why does the artist think these are their best pieces?

These all contribute to the picture that is built of you, so you need to be aware of this when creating your showreel. As well as being aware of the picture that you are trying to convey of yourself. Something else to bear in mind is that due to the busy nature of the vfx industry there's often no time to watch a showreel more than once.

Know where your skills stand compared to other artists and learn from their mistakes

It is massively important to know where you stand in the vast talent pool of artists. If you know that you stand near the top end of work that you've seen, then you'll be more confident giving a day rate that is closer to what you want, however get this wrong and you can be undercut by another artist. This also allows you to judge your realistic chances of getting a job.

Constantly watch showreels at different skill levels of both artists and companies. Really analyse what pieces work well, what doesn't, and whether the editing/timing of shots work? Be aware that other artists will be doing the same to you. Knowing your worth is an important part of being an artist that comes with experience, it can be hard to not be biased towards your own work so you need to really be honest with yourself, as this will help you improve quicker.

Music on Showreels

My personal preference is to have music on my showreels. My reasoning is that it gives you something to edit to and if done well, gives a nice flow to your showreel. Even with the accompanying sound turned off, the showreel will still flow and have a nice natural pace to it, which will give the showreel a more professional feel.

Another reason for using music to accompany your work is that you want your showreel to be a completely rounded piece.  You wouldn't see an advert without music that has been added to enhance the products appeal, your reel is no different to this. It's an advert that sells you, the product. Music has the potential to enhance the feeling someone gets towards a piece of work, however it can also have the opposite effect. I've seen this first hand at companies before, in which full screamo has been used to accompany an artists work. This results in the showreel instantly being turned off.

If you choose to accompany your work with music, an easy way of editing to it, is by using beat markers. Here's how to create them in Adobe Premiere

Beat Markers

Step 1

First import your music into Premiere, by Right Clicking in the left hand side.

Step 2

Now to get our audio into our timeline, click and drag it down to the audio section.

Step 3

To lay down our editing beat markers we can play through our audio and hit the * key on the num pad. So it’s just a case of listening through and tapping the * key to the beat of the song.

Step 4

Once your beat markers are laid down, your imported video can be snapped to the markers.

Be Nosey

As suggested above, watching other artists showreels is useful to see how the artists who are getting hired are presenting their work. It is also useful in the fact that it may introduce you to a new technique or way of tackling a problem (breakdowns with brief descriptions are best for this). If you do spot something that you couldn't create, find out how it was done, as this is something that another artist is offering, that you aren’t.  

First do all the Googling you can until you hit a wall, then email the artist. Not only will this introduce you to a new technique improving your skill, but it also doubles up as an excuse to network. You now have a valid reason to email an artist as another artist, which differentiates you from the other upcoming artists who email asking whether they can be given a job. This shows that you are professional in your thinking and working. Again this builds towards the image that people will have of you

Q & A with Some of the Industry's Best

MPC Film Reel 2014 from MPC

Showreels are a very subjective entity. In order to give you a rounded view of the area, I put some of the questions that had been put forward to me, to some high up artists at MPC and a lecturer at one of the best VFX/Game Art universities. These are the people within the company who have the final decision on whether you get the job within their department. Below are their answers.

MPC are currently hiring at all their studios. You can find all the info here: http://www.moving-picture.com/join-us/

Doug Larmour

MPC Compositing Global HOD

Is a showreel with two pieces in it too short?

Not if you have nothing else you are proud of. Ideally you will show about two mins worth of your best material, but if you only have two pieces which are good, don't flesh it out with bad stuff.

What's too long for a showreel?

I won't watch for longer than 4 minutes, so don't put your best shot at the end, stick it right at the front.

Do you want to see render passes or is it all about the final outcome?

From a comp point of view, I want to see the final output and ideally the original plate - and a couple of layers in between isn't awful, but if you don't have access to those, then the final output on its own will do. We're fairly good at recognising what you've done.

What's the most common mistake you feel that artists make with showreels?

They don't specialise it enough. At a place like MPC we need people to be 100% focused on one area, so as we can get the best out of it. So when hiring a comper, I have no need to see how well you model, so tailor make the showreel to the job you are going for. Don't send a generalist showreel for a comp specific job. Also - don't show work which you think is bad on your showreel just to show that you are able to do something. Putting something on your showreel is stating that you think it's good or the best you can do, so make sure it is.

Do you watch showreels on mute?

Always - we don't do sound. The visuals have to stand on their own.

When hiring how much is down to the showreel and how much is down to the interview in whether an artist gets the job?

Its the whole combination. If you have a great showreel but then can't back it up in an interview, then I am left asking how much of the showreel was your work. Similarly if you do a great interview but your showreel doesn't show me anything of what you have said, then it looks like you talk a good game but don't necessarily back that up with actions (it might show that you are a little lazy) - so the awful truth is that if you want a job you have to have both, a good showreel and do a good interview too. It isn't easy.

David Mayhew

MPC Groom Global HOD

Is a showreel with two pieces in it too short?

Not at all. I would rather see a nice polished single project done really well than two average pieces.

What's too long for a showreel?

Generally 2 minutes maximum, again just focus on the best bits related to the role you are applying for. That way it looks like you are really keen on that particular aspect of vfx.

Do you want to see render passes or is it all about the final outcome?

More important for a lighting/compositing role. For a groom role, I like to see turntables as well as final shots. It's important to clearly state which aspects of the shot you have worked on if it was a large group project.

What's the most common mistake you feel that artists make with showreels?

Adding to much substandard work. Putting on lots of final shots and not stating which parts of the shot they were responsible for.

Do you watch showreels on mute?

Occasionally, yes.

When hiring how much is down to the showreel and how much is down to the interview in whether an artist gets the job?

The showreel is important. Only if I see potential on the reel will I request an interview

Benjamin Bratt

Roto-Prep Lead at MPC

Is a showreel with two pieces in it too short?

The number of shots isn't really the focus of a demo reel. If you've only got a couple shots that you're confident enough to put on your reel, make sure those shots are kick ass enough to get you noticed. You don't want to clutter up your reel with filler, just so you've got a couple extra seconds tacked on. Mediocre shots will detract from your stronger shots. Also, if you've only got a couple of shots, it will give you a chance to create an in-depth break down (assuming you've got all the layers/before/after components) to showcase how much work was done to the shot.

What's too long for a showreel?

3-4 minutes would be pushing it. Streamline your reel so we see the good stuff right away

Do you want to see render passes or is it all about the final outcome?

Breakdowns are a huge plus. Half the things we do are invisible, and even if you've included a written breakdown saying "removed thing X", it isn't as impressive as seeing that thing disappear from the plate.

What's the most common mistake you feel that artists make with showreels?

I've noticed that artists can sometimes become too attached to particular shots. They've taken it from start to finish, reworked all the major and minor details, and are intimately aware of every half pixel problem. After putting so much of your heart into something, it's hard to separate yourself from an objective viewpoint. I'd say the most common mistake is not getting enough objective, outside feedback. Put your reel in front of knowledgeable people that don't know you and have no idea about what went into the shot. And when these relative strangers give you their feedback, listen to them; take in what they say and try see their point.  A fresh set of eyes might hurt, initially, but the end result will be greater.

Do you watch showreels on mute?

Yup.

When hiring how much is down to the showreel and how much is down to the interview in whether an artist gets the job?

50-50 with a +/- variable of 18.  If an artist has a spectacular showreel, but isn't the best when it comes to the social/communication aspects of our job, the viability of that artist in the workplace has dropped a bit. On the other side, if a showreel is average, a positive attitude and willingness to engage during the interview process will absolutely increase the chances of a call back. Also, know the difference between appropriately knowledgeable and obscenely over confident. If you don't know something, express a willingness to learn it.

Richard Baillie

Roto-Prep Global HOD

What's too long for a showreel?

You want a showreel of about 2-5 minutes (and 5 minutes is probably pushing it) keep it relevant and varied.

Do you want to see render passes or is it all about the final outcome?

For roto/prep we don't really have render passes. It's always nice to see the plate before prep and after, and then the comp. If you can put in alpha mattes that's always nice. If you can only put the comp on make sure you know exactly what you did in the shot and make sure you can talk about what you did, and how you did it, if asked in the interview.

What's the most common mistake you feel that artists make with showreels?

Rushing through the passes leading up to the comp. If you've included them, allow the viewer to see them. Also as I see a lot of showreels straight out of uni, I see a lot of stock footage used in the same way. Try and make it stand out somehow from your classmates.

Do you watch showreels on mute?

Yes.

When hiring how much is down to the showreel and how much is down to the interview in whether an artist gets the job?

The showreel gives a good indication of the final products that someone can make. But only the interview gives an indication of their thought processes and them as a person.

A showreel won't show how long something took to make. It gives a good basis to conduct the interview on, it gives a reference point if I want to talk about the shot. I would consider an interview because a showreel is average or outstanding. A great interview will save a mediocre showreel, but an outstanding showreel will not fix a dreadful interview. The interview will give me some idea of what that person will be like on a day to day basis and with other people.

Mark Wallman

Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire

Is a showreel with two pieces in it too short ?

If a showreel had just one piece of work in it, but the work was amazing, that would be enough. It is always quality over quantity.

Do you want to see render passes or is it all about the final outcome?

Seeing render passes is very useful.  As deadlines get smaller and smaller for commercial projects the ability to alter things after render is a must.  As well as the usual passes (reflection/spec/occl) it is good to see relighting passes/ lots of layers for dust. If your film has dust in it they are sometimes used.

Do you watch showreels on mute?

Yes, unless there is a lip sync in there.

What's the most common mistake you feel artists make with showreels?

Adding old/bad pieces of work to show "how much they have progressed". Also make it very clear what parts of the shot you worked on. Adding subtitles can be useful.

When new students apply how much is down to the showreel and how much is down to the interview in whether an artist gets the job?

A good showreel is your foot in the door. When I have done interviews, it is to find out a bit more about the person, what their passions are, are they going to play well within the team, etc.

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