In Depth: The Ultimate Guide to Building a Great Demo Reel

In Depth: The Ultimate Guide to Building a Great Demo Reel


A demo reel, sometimes called a show reel, is a 1-2 minute video commercial designed to sell your skills to a potential client or employer. It should show your best work, your style, and your diversity in skills…. however, it's not quite that simple to make something that will get attention and get you the work.

Demo reels, show reels, and VFX breakdown reels they serve similar but different purposes. A show reel is usually a demo reel for a studio or a school and includes content from several artists. This is just semantics and I've seen the words used interchangeably, so if you'd rather call your work a show reel, don't sweat it. VFX breakdowns  show, in layers or stages, how effects were created and usually consist of a single film or project.

Let's take a step back about how this topic came up. I am the on the board of the GVSU Film and Video Alumni chapter and last month we held a résumé and demo reel workshop. I was on the panel talking along with several other professionals about the do's and don't's of producing your demo reel. During the initial planning meeting, I talked to Suzanne Zack, who is the secretary of the Film & Video Alumni chapter and also an Affiliate Professor of Film and Video in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University. She sent over a document that she hands out to her students about preparing a demo reel and instead of being straight forward with the technical details, it gets more into the analytical reasons behind choosing demo reel content.  

I am also in an admin in the After Effects Portal, a group on Facebook that is very busy and full of smart After Effects users. To prepare for the panel, I asked the group what they thought and they mainly gave technical details on length, music, getting permission, etc. Between the input from Suzanne Zack and the After Effects Portal, plus what I know from my own experience, this should be the ultimate guide to creating a demo reel. 

The Planning Stages

Choosing and Preparing Content

Suzanne from GVSU sent me a worksheet that she gives to her Digital Post Production class about preparing reels. Her worksheet did not get into the details of a reel (duration, music, etc.) but instead focused on the content. She told me that the purpose of the worksheet questions are what help students think about the content and the goal of the reel.

Below are the worksheet questions that she hands out to her students, along with my own comments.

Use this worksheet to guide the production of your reel. Write or think through the answers to the following questions before editing. Thinking this through will help you design a more effective reel.

1. What kind of work do you want to pursue?

I take this one as sort of a “dress for the job that you want, not the job you have”. If you've been shooting weddings for the past 5 years and that is mainly the content that you have for your reel, but you want to be a 3D modeler, you need to have work on your reel that shows 3D modeling, not weddings. If you have a variety of work that you'd like to pursue, whether it be, corporate, commercial, motion graphics, Director of Photography, colorist, etc., consider creating separate reels for each type of content. 

2. What strengths do you have in the type of work you want to pursue?

Make sure you include work that shows off your skills and strengths. List your strengths and make sure they are represented in work on your reel. Then, go through your work for the past year or two and find clips of the most captivating and interesting work. Include work for recognizable clients. It doesn't hurt to show that you've worked with big clients. You will probably want to show a variety of styles to show your versatility, as long as it fits your audience and the focus of your reel. 

3. In one sentence, describe the message you want viewers to get from your demo reel.

Of course, it's “hire me” but what else do you want them to know about you? Does your work have lots of variety? Who is your audience? You will need to do is decide what you would like to include in your reel and also decide who your audience will be. Are you creating an editors reel for a director? Are you creating a character rigging reel for Pixar? Consider your audience when choosing the content of your reel.

4. List all the clips you have to include in your reel. Order the clips from strongest to weakest.

This one is self-explanatory.

5. Describe the structure you plan to use for your reel (i.e.. – scene based or collage style)

You'll need to view other reels to get a feel for what will work best for your reel. It will depend on the type of work you're trying to obtain and the work that you're showing. 

6. Why do you think this structure will be an effective way to communicate your message (answer to question 4) to communicate to your intended audience (answer to question 2)?

So, what else should you consider when collecting your work for your reel?

Get Permission from Clients – If you have your contract set up so that you can use any creative work on your reel, you're probably all set. It's nice to ask clients for permission, though. It shows that you are conscientious and it gives you an excuse to get in touch with a client who you may not have talked to lately. When I was at Postworks, we would sometimes have clients who had content that was for internal use only, even if it had high production value, and that was content that couldn't be put on our reel. You don't want to piss off a former client for the purpose of getting new work. Perhaps that piece that you can't include can be modified to not give the client or content away, and then there is no question.

Include only YOUR Work – What do I mean by only YOUR work? I hear about reels that contain the results of Video Copilot and Greyscalegorilla tutorials. Michael Christophersson of scratch/post says it loud and clear, “for the love of god, take out anything that's basically a VCP / GSG rip off.” Those are excellent learning resources, but don't use the project files on your demo reel! I talked to a girl at a user group meeting a few years ago who was passed over for a promotion by someone who brought in a reel full of great Video Copilot stuff. She recognized it, but the guy still got hired. She said he was incapable of doing the work on his own.

I've also heard of people using templates in their reel and passing it off as their own work. I am not saying that you should never use templates. They have their place in the world. I'm saying that you should never put work that was generated with a template on your demo reel.

Don't include obviously old work. If the fashion in the piece screams 1990's and it's not a retro piece, you will probably want to skip it. Just like clothes, motion graphics and design have styles. If your work was done 15 years ago and looks like it was, even if it is great work, consider updating it or skipping it entirely. Also, if a lot of work on your reel is HD, except for a couple of SD projects, that's a dead giveaway that the work is old and may make a potential client think that you haven't been working much recently. 

Viewing other reels

In number 3 above I mentioned that you should watch demo reels, and there are many on Vimeo and YouTube. Watching other artists reels will help you to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. “Research,” says Michael Foucault of Foucault Design, based in Brookfield, Wisconsin. “Spend time watching demo reels. If you skip it think of why. Remember what you like and what you don't.”

Note that there are a couple of types of reels that you'll see on YouTube and Vimeo: 

Vimeo is a great place to see reels. Here are a couple of examples.

I thought it might be fun to look at a few really good demo reels and point out what's good about them. 

Oliver Sin Reel 2015

Great work. It definitely shows that Oliver Sin has style and a sense of humor. The music choice works well with the examples. If you click on the link for the Vimeo page, you'll see a breakdown of where each piece is from, which is very handy. The length is about right. 

Animation Show Reel by Brad Silby

The work is amazing and is very focused on character animation. This reel walks the line between a VFX breakdown and a traditional collage reel. I think the music (Richat by Mark Petrie) works really well with the content. His contact information is very clear. It feels a bit long, so if there's anything I might change, I would shorten some of the shots.

Gerry Curtis, Colorist Reel

Beautiful work and a variety of it, all targeted to colorist work. The music adds to the imagery and is non-intrusive. On his older reels, Gerry Curtis showed side by sides or wipes of before and after. It's interesting to see how the shot was modified. I would not say that it's absolutely necessary and this perhaps shows the work better than showing the differences, so this is more of an observation than something I would change.

Jeff Briant Reel 2015

The work is fantastic and diverse. There's a nice breakdown by time naming each project shown on the Vimeo page. The music is interesting and works will with the edit. 

Choosing music

Avoid copy written music unless you have permission. Rob Neal, Director at Rob Neal Creative Media in North-East London, England says, “Whatever music you use, ensure you have the full rights for its use. Don't just go slapping any bit of music you like as the chances are someone, somewhere will sue your bum off.” Others don't agree with this and will tell you to use anything you like. There is a LOT of music out there and you will find something that is Creative Commons, quality stock music, or independent musicians who would be happy to let you use their music.

You will be judged by your music choice.  Pixar is pretty harsh about your music choice for their applicants. “Nobody cares about music/soundtrack. We turn off the sound. But sometimes we listen to it and get really annoyed if we don't like your taste in music. Keep it basic or leave it off.”  I watched a show reel just yesterday from a very well known motion graphics school. The work was excellent. The music was an obnoxious and grating dub step track. Show some personality in your music choice. Dub step and bland electronica show no personality, in my opinion. Choose something that suits your work, perhaps with a bit of quirk if it works for your content. 

Editing your Reel

Music will set the pace. “Cutting to the beat is pretty restricting and results in a very mechanical edit,” says Philip De Wandeleir aka Pixel Phil. “Just cut to the flow of the music, don't be afraid of the off-beat cut if it feels/looks alright.” Here's Philip's Motion graphics / VFX Demo reel 2012-2013. Very nice! 

Length –  The consensus is to keep your reel about a minute long, and no longer than two minutes. Why so short? Short attention spans. People tend to stop watching after about 30 seconds. Check out this study from Wistia about the viewing duration. Expect an employer to make the decision to contact you or not within 30 seconds. You need to impress a client fast so edit out as much as you can, leaving only the best content.

Best work first – To go along with the last point, show your best work first, in case they switch it off. 

Second (or third) best work last – Frank Collins says, “try to end on a high note. Like I was told with a portfolio years ago, best in front, maybe your third best at the end.” 

Anatomy of a Demo Reel - length best piece first

Don't repeat footage – It'll look like you're trying to pad your reel.

Title cards – Put your name, email and phone number at the beginning and end of the reel, but keep it simple. Michael Christophersson explains, “Avoid 'showy' intros with your name unless you can make it really classy and fast. A sad truth being you are not as important as what you can do.” 

Title your work – If it works with your reel, add lower-third titles about each of the projects on the demo reel, such as the name of the project and your role. If it doesn’t work with your content, you can include this information in a shot breakdown list with your reel, either on paper if you’re mailing it, or in the description on YouTube or Vimeo.

Jordan Allen- VFX Reel 2015

Here's an example of a VFX reel that includes titles in the lower left corner about the work in the shot.

Shot Breakdown List: Frank Collins suggests, “a shot breakdown on the back of your resume is a good idea, especially if you worked on layers/parts of the shot.” Many artists do this on Vimeo and YouTube and it's very useful information. Include the title of the piece, what time it occurs on the reel, and the part that you played in the production.

Double and triple check for spelling errors.

Mixing resolutions – Be mindful when mixing different aspect ratios and resolutions. A reel that has bars on the left and right and then letterbox layout can distract from the work. Michael Foucault has a solution on how to work with mixed resolutions. “When I worked in the news industry as an animator and we had SD content come in for HD broadcasts, we would scale the SD footage up and blur it out, then overlay the footage in SD over the top so it all played and moved together and wasn't overly distracting. I would try something like that.”

Boris Continuum Complete has a plug-in called BCC Reframe that is designed to reformat and stylize “vertical cell phone” video footage into a standard 16×9 aspect for broadcast. You could try this for lower quality video. 

There are several uprezzing plug-ins out there too. Boris Continuum Complete BCC UpRez and Red Giant Magic Bullet Instant 4K are two you might want to check out. Uprezzing can also be done in your host application. Read more here.

Cut out the junk – Dorian Heller, a motion design freelancer, explains, “Look at your reel once you've cut it and take out the worst thing about it”.

Get Feedback from others in the Industry

After editing your reel, you'll want to get feedback. There are loads of groups on Facebook and LinkedIn if you don't know anyone personally. In fact, someone that you don't know personally may find it easier to be more honest with you. 

After getting feedback, re-cut your reel as needed. 

Other Random Reel Advice

Applying to the same company twice? Frank Collins says, “Something I heard a long time ago at SIGGRAPH is if you're applying to the same company twice, make sure your second reel is ALL new. In other words, if you apply to a company again, later on, use a new reel.”

Do a film short instead of a montage? PremiumBeat has an article with Show Reel Tips points out the Yodo 2011 Show Reel. The work is really good but I find it hard to watch. 

YODO 2011 show reel

VFX Breakdowns

If you’ve done some intricate or really good visual effects, you can include a VFX breakdown to show how something was composited. I’ve seen this included in the reel as quick wipes between different stages of work or 3D pieces falling into place into the composite. I’ve also seen this as a separate video file or following a demo reel and only including VFX breakdowns. VFX breakdowns usually include a single project instead of a body of work. Here are a few examples.

Dhoom 3 VFX Breakdowns HD

Michael Leves Reel

This is a nice mix between a demo reel and a VFX breakdown.

CGI VFX Breakdowns “Taylor Swift – Bad Blood” – Ingenuity Studios (Engine)

VFX Breakdowns HD: “A Million Ways to Die in The West” – by iloura

Posted by Michele Yamazaki