Episode 137 — The Ultimate Guide to Demo Reels

EP. 136 Cover 450
Episode 136 — Scanline FX Sup Ivo Klaus
April 17, 2018
EP. 138 Cover 450
Episode 138 — Allan McKay — Ask Me Anything
May 1, 2018
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Episode 137 — The Ultimate Guide to Demo Reels

EP. 137 Cover 450


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Episode 137 — The Ultimate Guide to Demo Reels 

PART I: 5 Demo Reel Mistakes That are Costing You the Job — and You Don’t Even Know It! 

Hi, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 137! I’m talking about 5 Demo Reel Mistakes that are costing you the job — and you don’t even know it! This is a solo Episode. Your feedback has been that the interviews are great but the ones that you find most useful and actionable are these solo Podcasts. I’m excited to do more of those!

– I have a Demo Reel Guide coming out soon.

– Leading up to that, I will have a couple of solo Episodes on Demo Reels, to help you create an affective reel that can get you the job and even go viral.



[-22:37] I. Another thing I’m excited about is my YouTube Channel which I’ve already kicked off. That will be a hybrid with the Podcast. Other things on it might be completely unique. Here is the link to my YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/AllanFTMcKay/videos

– [-22:04] II. I’m doing a quick but cool project in LA for a week (although I can’t talk about the project yet). After that, I’m flying to Vegas for 5 days. The reason I’m bringing that up is because I’m meeting with one of the directors in Lucas Film and some other directors in Vegas. We are getting together for a 5-day brainstorming with each other. We’re all doing some cool stuff at the moment and it will be cool to help each other out.

We will be live streaming and documenting our sessions. Please find all that on my social media:

– Facebook: www.Facebook.com/allanfmckay

– Instagram: @allanmckayofficial

It’s worthwhile to subscribe to one of these channels. We may do some Q&A Sessions.

The reason I mention all this is because we can all benefit from finding like-minded people in our own industry. They can be your accountability partners or have your back. I have a few people around me to brainstorm or chat about each other’s careers.

[-18:43] III. This year’s Mentorship will be opening in 2 week’s time. I will be posting more information about that to my Inner Circle VIP Mailing List. To sign up, please go to www.allanmckay.com/inside/. I’ve been mailing a lot of valuable information to that List.

[-17:01] IV. Next week, I’ll be doing an Ask Me Anything Episode — or as someone suggested calling it a AAA (Ask Allan Anything). If you’d like to be part of that, please shoot me an email with a subject line “Ask Allan Anything” and post your question. I’ll try to include it in the Podcast.

[-16:19] V. Last night, I recorded an Episode with a designer of Jar-Jar Binks. It was cool to go down that memory lane. That’s one of the Episodes coming up.

[-15:52] VI. I will have new free training coming up as well. You might be familiar with these mega Courses. They will be available exclusively to my Insiders List. Again, please sign up at www.allanmckay.com/inside/.



PART I: Five Demo Reel Mistakes That are Costing You the Job — and You Don’t Even Know It!

The most important thing you have to land your dream job — is a rock-solid demo reel. But all it takes is one bad shot — one unexplained element or any of the other traps that artists fall into every day — to have your reel switched off and have your viewer move onto the next one.

I wanted to share my perspective as someone who has hired artists. I’ve looked through hundreds of reels when hiring for my company CatastrophicFX. I have also reviewed reels inside my Mentorship or Reel Review Webinars. I’ve interviewed dozens of Supervisors, Recruiters and Leads at studios like ILM, Weta, Image Engine and every other big studio on the planet.

And what we all agree on is that almost every artist is oblivious to the fact that one single shot on their reel can:

– Cost them the job;

– Cause for the potential employer to skip over their reel;

– Question if the artists did what they claimed they did because they weren’t clear about their ownership.

– Or: Their reel never got watched because some minor thing got overlooked that instantly caused for their reel to get thrown out.

In this Podcast, you will learn how to avoid these common mistakes and create a reel that lands you the job, builds your brand and even goes viral. So here is it: 5 Demo Reel Mistakes That are Costing You the Job — and You Don’t Even Know It!



[-15:02] The most important thing you have to land your dream job — is a rock-solid demo reel. But all it takes is one bad shot — one unexplained element or any of the other traps that artists fall into every day — to have your reel switched off and have your viewer move onto the next one.



[-14:43] I’ve built dozens of teams, hired hundreds of artists and reviewed thousands of reels over the years, working at ILM, Blur Studio, Activision, Ubisoft and many others, including my own studio CatastrophicFX. I’ve interviewed dozens of Supervisors, Recruiters and Leads at studios like ILM, Weta, Image Engine and every other big studio on the planet.

AND: What we all agree on is that almost every artist is oblivious to the fact that one single shot on their reel — or their contact information, or something else on their application that is so minute — might:

– Cost them the job;

– Cause for [the viewer] to skip over the reel;

– Question if they did what they claimed they did because they weren’t clear about their ownership of a particular project.

– Or, their reel never got watched in the first place because some minor thing got overlooked that instantly caused for their reel to get thrown out.

[-13:52] This isn’t just student reels that are making obvious mistakes of going too long, too cheesy. These are Senior Artists, Leads, Designers, Illustrators, all types of artists making mistakes. The worst part is that they aren’t even aware they’re doing it.

[-13:35] I wanted to discuss this from a perspective of someone who does the hiring, rather than magazines, videos and other sources that typically give a lot of misinformation, or, I feel, sometimes damaging information, from artists who may not have the full perspective of:

– What happens with your reel;

– People that view it;

– The mindsets behind it.

Let’s dive in!


MISTAKE NO 1: “You’ve Gotta End Your Reel on Your Best Piece!”

[-13:07] Recently, I did a Podcast with Kathleen Ruffalo from Framestore’s Crew Manager in LA and Chicago on exactly this same subject. She brought [this mistake] up — and I’ve heard it over and over again: “You’ve gotta end on your best piece!” Meaning: Your best work should be displayed last that way you go out on a high note.

[-11:34] My question is this: If all of your best work is at the end of your reel, who is to say it’s even going to get seen?! Who’s to say the viewer hasn’t moved on to the next reel they need to review because YOUR work wasn’t captivating enough. I review reels all day long sometimes and I’m itching to move on to the next one. WHY? Because I have hundreds of reels on a spreadsheet. Plus, reviewing reels isn’t my main job. It’s one of many things I need to get done that day. So if the work isn’t keeping me glued to your video, I’m going to click on the next one.

[-12:12] This isn’t just me. This is EVERY Supervisor who is trying to staff up their team for their next project.

- You want your best work to be first! 

- You want to set the tone high. 

- You want them to say, “WOW!” — and possibly call up everyone else around them to come over and check out your reel!

Every shot on your reel should be your best work. But you definitely should hit the ground running with mind-blowing work that demonstrates your ability. If you have shots that aren’t strong, that aren’t great — that you aren’t sure if they should be on your reel — THEY SHOULDN’T! There is no room for filler!

[-11:43] Your reel should be your absolute best work — and ONLY your best work! The amount of time I’ve seen artists’ reels get thrown to the side because of one weak shot. That’s all it takes!

[-11:28] I want you to think about this for a moment: Your demo reel, your portfolio, your resume is your namesake. This is what you choose to represent your ability. There is nothing more important than this piece! If you let on subpar work, you’re saying that this is the level of work you’re okay with having represent you. If you’re okay with this filler work represent you, then you’re likely to let subpar work represent you on the job as well. All it takes for one weak shot for the whole reel to collapse! Less is more! You want your viewer to want to see more rather than feel like they’ve seen too much. 



MISTAKE NO. 2: “Your Reel’s Length”.

[-10:49] As I’ve mentioned: Less is more! There seems to be a big misunderstanding that you want your reel to last at least 5 minutes. Now, I look back at the movie Jurassic Park and it has a little over 4 minutes of CGI. It took a year of work from the best artists and minds at ILM. So for one person to go and make a demo reel that’s 5 minutes long — I really question if those 5 minutes are going to be your absolute best work. I’ve interviewed Film Director Ryan Connolly from Film Riot (www.allanmckay.com/133/). You might know him for YouTube. One of the big things we’ve discussed was the most important thing in the filmmaking process. And we both agreed that it’s about making your edit tight.

[-09:55] I made a rule of thumb to try and keep it less than 90 seconds. Anything over 90 seconds — even if you have over decades of experience — is probably going to be overkill. Keep in mind the mindset of the person reviewing your work:

– They have a lot going on.

– They’re managing multiple teams and productions.

– They have a lot of reels to review.

If your reel is over 90 seconds, it’s likely they’ll start skipping over sections and you don’t want some of your best work — that not only showcases what you can do but also helps negotiates your rate — to get overlooked. Even if it’s one of the best reels, I usually save it for later and move on to the next reel. I won’t watch it all.

[-08:59] I’ve mentioned 90 seconds. Kathleen Ruffalo from Framestore recommended as low as 60 seconds. She recommended keeping in mind that the viewer doesn’t have much time. It’s a good idea to keep it at 60-90 seconds. If they need to see more, they’ll come back and ask for it.


MISTAKE NO. 3: “Your Reel Needs to Tell a Story.”

[-08:36] I love this one! It’s typically student reels that always get caught in this trap: that your reel needs to tell a story. The industry that we work in is service-based: wether it’s games, design, film or illustration. It’s easy to forget that even big studios are service based studios: They offer service to moviemakers, clients. This trickles down to you. They’re hiring you to provide a service and an end result — and they need to tick that box before moving on to dozens of other positions.

[-07:30] Here is the thing: There is nothing wrong with story. If you can find a clever way to do it — where it doesn’t disrupt the sole focus of demonstrating your artistic ability — great! But it’s not going to decide whether or not you get the job. A demo reel needs to demonstrate your ability, what service you can perform. I want to know if you can sit down in a chair TOMORROW — and do the work. Your reel needs to communicate that above all else! That’s why keeping your edit tight and short is so important. The more you show — the more likely you are to lose the viewer.

[-06:57] If you want to tell a story what I suggest is making a short film. Take the time and demonstrate your storytelling ability. I’ve interviewed a lot of directors on my Podcast that started out by directing short films and then went into festival circuits or got heads of studios reach out to them with interview invitations:

– Ash Thorp: www.allanmckay.com/66/

– Freddie Wong: www.allanmckay.com/92/

– Victor Navone: www.allanmckay.com/104/

– Ryan Connolly: www.allanmckay.com/133/

If you want to do it — go do it!

[-06:23] But if you’re going to make a reel, with the intention of getting work, then it needs to be just that!

- Demonstrate your ability;

- Keep it tight; 

- Keep the attention focused on qualifying you to work at the studio you’re aiming.


MISTAKE NO. 4: “Go Find a Good Music Track!”

[-06:00] This should be a no-brainer, but no matter now much it gets said: The music on your reel does NOT matter! Instead of spending more nights fishing for a good track, focus on keeping your edit as tight as possible and figure out what you can do to make it laser-focused. 

[-05:37] I have yet to speak to anyone who does the hiring, who watches reels with the music actually turned on. When you have hundreds of reels to view, the last thing anyone wants is to have electronic music blasting through their headphones, while they skip through reels looking for potential candidates. The consensus is always the same: The music does not matter!

[-05:54] I will be the first person to say that there is nothing wrong with music. But keep in mind that when it comes to landing a job, whoever is reviewing the work will not be reviewing it with the sound on. Your time should be spent on making sure your edit is so tight that it keeps their attention until the end. But if you want for your reel to sound cool — for a random viewer on Vimeo or YouTube — there is nothing wrong with having a great track to keep them entertained. The music is for the public! When viewed by a possible employer, it will most likely be viewed with the sound off.

With that information, think about where your time is best spent.


MISTAKE NO. 5: “Filler!”

[-04:03] When doing Portfolio and Reel Reviews on Facebook Live or inside my Mentorship, the most common question I ask is: “Why did you put that piece on your reel?” And the response is usually the same, “I needed some filler.” I keep saying this over and over:

- Less is more!

- Keep your edit tight.

- Don’t worry about telling a story.

- Show only your best work.

- Demonstrate what you can do the work tomorrow.

- There is no room for filler!

[-03:26] We all have that one shot that we love that we’ve bled over and we don’t want to throw it away, or because someone in your family said it was great. Check in with your gut: Does it keep with the professional level at the studio where you’re applying? If it doesn’t, it’s a safe bet to kill it. Less is more!



[-03:03] All it takes is one weak shot for the reel to cost you the job — and you aren’t even aware of it. I wanted to share a perspective of someone who has hired artists. I sit with other Supervisors as we review reels. I’m always blown away to see how cut-throat some of these Sups can be. I’ve seen reels go from top of the list to the bottom because of something like poor presentation of contact information (because it hinted at the level of standard someone is willing to set).

[-02:25] Remember: Your reel is here to demonstrate the level of standard you’re willing to set for the job you’re wanting to get. If you set the bar low — that communicates the low level of effort you’re willing to put in. Even if you get the job, how do you know that these tiny things aren’t costing for your rate to drop? This reel represents you. Remember to set the bar high.

[-02:02] These are the five common mistakes. But what does it take to cut a great reel that others share, or one goes viral or gets it in front of the right people? Sign up on my YouTube channel for these tips and further industry tips: https://www.youtube.com/user/AllanFTMcKay/videos

Finally leave some comments! Thanks for listening!

[-01:03] I hope you’ve enjoyed this Episode. I will be back next week, with Ask Me Anything. Please email me your questions to amckay@allanmckay.com.


I. Sign up for my social media channels.

Facebook: www.Facebook.com/allanfmckay

Instagram: @allanmckayofficial

II. Sign up for my Insiders List for the next training: www.allanmckay.com/inside/


I’ll be back next week. Until then:

Rock on!

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