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Tips For Putting Together Your First Demo Reel

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In today's article I'm going to talk about a few helpful tips to consider when you decide to put together a demo reel. After the positive feedback from my last article on 10 Key Tips To Becoming A Successful Video Freelancer, I thought the topic of one's demo reel might also be applicable. Enjoy!


Introduction

My name is Remington McElhaney and I am a young freelance motion graphic designer. I had several people contact me personally off the site and ask for advice and one of the things I noticed that they all had in common was not very great demo reels. As I’m sure most of us are aware, demo reels are extremely important and a tool most employers will use to evaluate your skills. You’ve got about 15 seconds to grab their attention and 60 seconds total to impress them. That’s not a lot of time! After a year and a half of freelancing I decided I finally needed to put together my demo reel.

I did a huge amount of research before doing so and watched literally hundreds of reels. While doing so I learned quite a bit and hopefully I can pass on some of that knowledge to you and save you some time. I put a lot of thought and effort into my own reel, but no one is more aware then me that it’s not perfect. However I think it’s only fair to share my reel if you’re going to be taking my advice!

Are You Ready?

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is:

Do you really need a demo reel?

Demo reels are a great way to show off the awesome work you’ve done in a short amount of time. They are also pretty much a must have when applying for a job at a studio. However if no one is asking to see your reel you may not need one yet. In my opinion you are better off not having a reel then having a bad reel. If you are having a hard time finding work to put in your demo reel that’s not tutorial based or spec work then you are probably not ready for a reel yet. I waited over a year from when I started freelancing before I finally put together my first demo reel.

I would have preferred to wait even longer but I needed a reel for some job applications at animation studios. You’re going to want to have several strong pieces of work before you consider putting a reel together. While piecing together your reel if you find yourself having a hard time filling up 40-60 seconds with solid work then it may be in your best interest to hold off and wait until you’ve got some more work. When in doubt, wait it out.


Picking The Right Sound Track

...make sure it’s not 100% vital that a viewer has their audio on to understand your reel.

The audio track of a demo reel can have a huge impact on the mood and pacing of your demo reel. You’re going to want to take some time and put some thought into what style of music would benefit your reel the most. Typically people choose upbeat electronic music without a lot of vocals for their reels. However if you do choose a slower paced song or one with vocals it can give your reel a unique feel if your able to pull it off.

It’s important to select a track before you begin piecing your reel together so you can hopefully use the music to your advantage and edit to the beat. I even took it a step further and had one of my 3D animations interact with the music. An important note though is while music is very important in a reel make sure it’s not 100% vital that a viewer has their audio on to understand your reel. As much as we would all love everyone to bump our audio while enjoying our reel unfortunately not everyone will be watching your reel with their sound on, so take that into consideration.


Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

Transitions are a very important piece of your demo reel. Transitions are important between your clips and are also equally important inside of your clips. You should have project files for almost everything in your reel so use that to your advantage and try to come up with some creative transitions between your clips. Transitions are a huge amount of what animators do so when people are watching your reel they are going to be looking for them. Make sure to be highlighting the great transitions in your work! Transitioning your reel on beat with your sound track is also something many people look for in a reel so try to include that as much as possible.

How you arrange your clips is also important. You don’t typically want the same style of work back to back and you also want to try to mix it up with the color scheme. If you’ve got multiple clips of the same tone then try to space them out as much as possible. Transitioning from a dark clip to a light clip can add some nice contrast to your reel. Just remember that how you put together you reel is almost as equally important as your work.


Make It Shorter

I cannot stress enough how important it is too keep your demo reel short, especially if it’s your first reel. Unless you are The Foundry you don’t need a 3 minute reel. I wouldn’t recommend anything over a minute. Short and sweet is almost always the best way to go. I would also recommend starting with some of your strongest work because you only have a few seconds to engage a viewer before they lose interest. I took a gamble and had the “climax” of my demo reel between 30-45 seconds because that was how the music I selected worked out. An awesome piece of advice that I read on Greyscale Gorilla’s blog was:

Take out your worst two clips

Constantly keep combing over your reel and find the weak spots and either remove them or replace them with stronger work. You’re much better off with a short reel filled with amazing work rather than a longer reel with a lot of filler in it. When in doubt, make it shorter.


Size Matters

An important feature to consider when rendering out your first demo reel is… how big do you make the file? Obviously everyone wants to upload their beautiful lossless 5 GB file so the whole world can see how awesome the work is! Unfortunately no one is going to sit around long enough for it too buffer. Choosing the right video codec is an issue that I ran into and ended up encoding quite a few files until I found something I was happy with. You want it to load quickly for people with slower connections but for the ones with blazing fast connections that we all secretly envy; you want them to be able to see the highest quality possible.

Now I don’t want to get too into render setting here because I think it is something everyone does differently and also something you can always improve upon. You could write several articles just on that. However I will share what I ended up using and a few suggestions as well. What I was most concerned about is color accuracy and not desaturated everything when compressing it. I experimented with H.264 QuickTime files (and adjusted the Gamma setting to improve the color) some flash files (F4V, FLV) to get a lower file size, and ultimately ended up going with an H.264 MP4 file. My final file size was around a 150 MB, which I was happy with. So make sure not to neglect this vital portion of putting together your demo reel and make sure to experiment and find a file type that suits your needs best.


Who Are You?

Make sure people know who you are and how to reach you! I know it seems pretty basic but I’ve seen plenty of quality reels where this information is omitted. If you use a hosting site such as Youtube or Vimeo you never know where your reel will end up unless you specifically make sure no one can embed it elsewhere. I’ve seen my videos being embedded pretty weird places before, but as long as its generating views and viewers can tell it’s my own work then I’m okay with it!

Make sure not to overload them with contact information (Email, Telephone, Fax, Address, Facebook, Twitter...) just the bare minimum that you know they will be able to reach you by.


Tutorials

This is a big one! I’m sure most of you saw it coming too. As great as tutorials are for learning it’s important that they stay just tools for learning. Reproducing someone’s work that they were gracious enough to teach you how to do is fine for practice but not if you’re passing it off as your own work in your demo reel. It’s not only just wrong but it’s also going to set you up for failure.

Your client is going to expect you to be able to reproduce work of similar quality/creativity and chances are you’re going to struggle with that if all of your work is tutorial based. Another thing to be aware of is if you are using your reel to apply at a design studio chances are they may know if you ripped off a tutorial in your reel. Once they notice one tutorial then they will be suspicious of all of your work.

...spec work is when you create work for a company that is not paying you

Spec work could also fall into this category. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about spec work is when you create work for a company that is not paying you. In other words if you create a nice MTV logo transition but they never hired you for that work, then it is spec work. It’s pretty typical for college students to be given assignments where they are asked to rebrand a company such as MTV, VH1, Nike, Gatorade, ect… which is a great assignment but unfortunately that work ends up in a lot of students demo reels. It then gives a client watching your reel a false impression that you actually worked for these companies. So unless a company has contracted you to work for them I would avoid putting work with their logos in your reel.


Resources

Here are a few resources that I found very useful when researching demo reels.

GreyScale Gorilla Blog

This blog has tons of excellent information for people looking to learn about demo reels. There are demo reel critiques where he breaks down reels shot for shot and explains what works and what doesn’t. There are also blog posts discussing tips for putting together your reel. Another great feature is he has these fun short 5 second competitions which give you a creative way to come up with more great work for your reel without using spec or tutorial based work. So take a look around and make sure to watch some of the demo reel critiques.

Reel Feedback

This is a site where you can pay a professional to review your reel for you. Now I haven’t personally tried this service yet but I definitely play on it in the future. I’ve read some great reviews on this site and think it’s definitely worth checking out. It may seem a bit pricey for some but if a demo reel is your key to a full time job at a studio, it’s probably worth the investment to make your reel as great as possible. If you’re lucky enough to live close enough to them then they also do free reel reviews that they announce on their site from time to time.

Awesome Animation Demo Reels

I think that watching great demo reels is extremely important when trying to put together your own reels. I’ve watched literally hundreds of reels and thought I’d share some of my favorites. This is a group on Vimeo that I started specifically for this article that hopefully you will find some use from. I’ll keep updating it when I find new reels so if you have an account you may want to join the group so you’ll stay updated on them. Also if there’s some killer reels that I missed (I’m sure there’s tons) then feel free to add them to the group and I’ll take a look at them. I would definitely take the time to go through and watch some if not all of the reels in the group because they are truly amazing examples of what to look for in a reel.


Alright guys! That’s all I’ve got for now. Hopefully you found this article useful and can apply some of the tips to your next demo reel. Like I always say, these are just my opinions and certainly not a “how to” article. Take what you like and leave the rest. Also feel free to drop your reel in the comments and I’ll try to take a look at them and give you my feedback (if you care). If you have any questions or comments then let’s keep this discussion going in the comments!

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