Episode 256 — Rules of the Demo Reel
Episode 256 — Rules of the Demo Reel
Just because you send in your demo reel doesn’t mean that it’s going to be seen by anybody. Even if it does, who says it will be watched all the way through? Most reels are skipped over just because there is one wrong thing on there. We don’t realize that the people reviewing the reels at first may not know much about your industry, or discipline, or the talents you have. They just enter your reel into a database, and when it’s time to hire specific talent, they load up hundreds of reels and forward them to those people who are going to review them. This means that it’s critical to rise above the noise, make your reel stand out and be able to demonstrate that you have the talent above everyone else on that spreadsheet.
When your reel gets to the decision makers, it comes down to this: They have little information to go by and have lots of reels to review. So there are multiple reasons why your reel could be skipped over. People who are in disbelief about this have their own resistance. But for those of us who actually want to get a job, we have to know the situation and put in the work.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay goes over the anatomy of a killer reel — from which shots should be on your reel to how long it should be, which crucial information should be included and which items are of little importance — everything that will help you get that first job as a VFX artist.
[05:40] How reel reviews work — and how to use that in your favor?
[09:22] Should your reel have a title?
[12:40] Where on your reel should you put your best shot?
[14:18] How long should your reel be?
[17:39] Which contact info should you include — and where?
[18:54] Should you mention your location?
[20:06] Should you mention your software?
[22:04] How much time should you spend on choosing your music?
[22:57] Should you password-protect your reel?
[26:40] Should you include work that’s under an NDA?
EPISODE 256 — RULES OF THE DEMO REEL
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 256! I wanted to talk about the do’s and don’ts of making a demo reel. Whether you’re in design, games, tv or film — this applies to you!
This is a question I get all the time, but I keep seeing mistakes when I look at reels. This is me being really honest with you. What it comes down to is: The person reviewing your reel — the decision makers — have little information to go by and have lots of reels to review. So there are multiple reasons why your reel could be skipped over. People who are in disbelief about this have their own resistance. But for those of us who actually want to get a job, we have to know the situation and put in the work.
There is a lot of talent out there. The people who are reviewing the reels don’t have a lot of time or information. You aren’t alone in this. Lots of people are making these same mistakes. Lock and load — and let’s make that killer demo reel!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:50] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[33:16] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
RULES OF THE DEMO REEL
[05:40] First I want you to understand something that may shock you: Just because you send in your demo reel doesn’t mean that it’s going to be seen by anybody. Even if it does, who says it will be watched all the way through? Most reels are skipped over just because there is one wrong thing on there. We spend so much time on our demo reel, we naturally think that if it’s good — we will naturally get the job. We don’t realize that the people reviewing the reels at first may not know much about your industry, or discipline, or the talents you have. They just enter your reel into a database, and when it’s time to hire specific talent, they load up hundreds of reels and forward them to those people who are going to review them.
[06:37] What we, the decision makers, get is a bunch of names, email addresses and links to their corresponding reels in a spreadsheet. Just because you have your reel on it doesn’t mean it will get the attention it deserves. As supervisors, we are looking over projects, bidding on other projects. Hiring talent is yet another thing on our list. While we’re reviewing reels, our attention may be on everything else. Not only do you have multiple reels to compete with, but to compete for the attention of the people reviewing them. [07:23] This means that it’s critical to rise above the noise, make your reel stand out and be able to demonstrate that you have the talent above everyone else on that spreadsheet. Because if your reel isn’t the best, it’s going to end up in a big pile of reels.
[07:50] Now, I’ve been in this industry for almost 25 years, working for studios like ILM, Blur, Ubisoft and many others. I’ve worked on projects like Transformers, Star Trek, Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty, Game of Thrones. I’ve also run my own studio and hired hundreds of artists. I’ve also interviewed industry leaders on their hiring. This is my resume and it’s important to state here because there is so much bad advice out there. The person who does the hiring, in my opinion, should be best qualified to give this advice. If we listened to everyone’s advice, we’d end up with 5-minute reels focused on telling a story with lots of subpar and other damaging stuff on it that would cost us the job.
[09:13] I don’t want to be too direct, but I do want to give you the best advice focused on getting you the job. Let’s talk about what should and shouldn’t go on your demo reel.
SHOULD YOU ADD A TITLE?
[09:22] Let’s go over the anatomy of what makes a great reel. I want to talk about the title because a lot of us think it deserves a lot of attention. It takes up a lot of our time. I’ve seen reels skipped over because someone had spent 20 seconds just on introducing their names. So I want to go over all the do’s and don’ts.
[09:55] One thing to keep in mind is that the person reviewing your reel may not have any other context. They may not have your resume or cover letter. If you don’t have that information in the title, they don’t know where to place you. By mentioning something like, “Your Name, FX TD” — it allows them to look at the reel within that context. Otherwise, they have no idea what they should be looking at. This sounds so trivial but it’s such an important aspect. I recommend putting your name and the discipline you’re applying for. You can mention software but you can also leave that until the end. The main thing — is to set the context of what they’re about to watch and get to the reel as quickly as you can. Now you can do cool visuals here, but if they’re not up to par, it can cost you the job. I’ve witnessed someone at the top of my list end up at the end of another supervisor just because of the title. So keep it simple. Just the text is enough. If you want to do something extra, keep in mind that you will be judged for it.
[12:02] There may be a few people out there saying, “Yeah, right! That wouldn’t happen!” I’ve read that in the comments to my videos. When I mention this, I speak on behalf of people doing the hiring: If one shot sucks, we’re clicking forward!
WHERE ON THE REEL SHOULD YOU PUT YOUR BEST SHOT?
[12:40] Rule number one: Put your best shot first! I hear other people say, “End with your strongest shot.” The problem with that is we may not get to your last shot if we haven’t been captivated. The first shot is what sets the tone and makes us excited. What you want is for someone to pause your reel and call everyone over so they can watch your reel together. So put your best two shots upfront and your third best shot at the end. It’s okay to end strong but don’t expect people to watch your entire reel to get to it. There is no guarantee they may ever see it. Please also keep in mind that we’re often doing other stuff [while watching reels]. So put your best shot first! You’re always fighting to keep our attention.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR REEL BE?
[14:18] So we’ve established the head and the tail. The best shot goes in the beginning. What about the middle? This is where we put filler, right? That’s how reels become 5-minutes long. If my reel is only 20 seconds long but it guarantees that I’m the best person, that’s all it needs to be. However, if there is one bad shot on the reel, it gives the decision makers an excuse to skip over. [14:46] There is no room for filler — ever! You can keep your extra stuff on reserve, in case they come back and want to see more stuff. If the shot is not going to validate that you’re the best person for the job, then throw it out! Do not put filler in your reel. You want them ending your reel and saying, “Wow! I want to see more!” The weakest shot on your reel will actually be the one representing the quality you’re willing to put out there. I’ve had discussions with studio owners and supervisors; and they all agree that your weakest shot — is what you’re going to let slip. This is the level of quality you are willing to find acceptable. So, quality over quantity — always!
[16:08] I recently sat down with Lon Molnar, the Founder of MARZ, a Toronto-based VFX Studio (www.allanmckay.com/234). What we both agreed on is that you’re judged on your weakest shot because it’s what you could find subpar. So avoid weak shots!
[16:36] So, the typical structure would start with your title and the two strongest shots. Then it would be your other shots to give aome variety and then you end with another strong shot. So your reel could be 30- or 60- or 90-seconds long; but only if you have the best stuff. If your reel is 3-minutes long, there is probably a strong reel hiding inside there. Don’t make a 3-minute reel just because you feel you need to. I would not do that these days, as an artist. My reel as a studio or an FX TD may be longer because I’m showing variety for producers / studios. When you’re applying to do freelance work, you don’t need a long reel.
WHAT CONTACT INFO SHOULD YOU INCLUDE?
[17:39] The other aspect I’ll mention is contact information. This part gets messed up because people assume that their resume will accompany the reel. There’ve been so many times when I wanted to hire someone but their reel got separated from the reel and we no longer have a way to contact this person. What your reel should have is:
- Your name and title — again;
- Your phone number;
- Your email address.
[18:20] Countless times, I’ve gone to hire someone and I’ve emailed them. By the time they’ve responded, we’ve already hired someone because that other person had their phone number listed on the reel. I’ve told that story because. It’s critical to be accessible!
SHOULD YOU MENTION YOUR LOCATION?
[18:54] Another thing you should consider is whether to include your current city and country. If we want to hire someone but we don’t automatically assume that the person is in the same country. If you’re applying for an international job, it may be better to leave that information off. You want them to invest in you first. You want them to be interested in speaking to you about hiring you, and only then finding out you aren’t in the same city. You can then start having the longer conversation. This is more about strategy. You might be more favorable because you’re in the same city.
SHOULD YOU MENTION THE SOFTWARE?
[20:06] The same goes for software. You may be using the same software that the studio does. That can solidify you as the perfect hire. But if you do use different software, it may not be the best idea. In the days when Maya was king and I was using 3DS Max, I would wait to bring that up once we’d be having a chat. I’d say, “By the way, I know a bit of Maya. But I know a lot of Max.” That’s when we can have the conversation. These days, I know most of the software. That happened over time, however. In the beginning, I had to be strategic. I wanted people to judge me on my work first.
[21:39] Sometimes, when they’re looking to hire, they aren’t sure if the person is even available, where they are located or what software they use. When you do put these things on the reel, you’re being proactive.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT MUSIC?
[22:04] I know a lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about what kind of music to put on their reel. The utter truth is that 99% of the time, no one is listening to the music. The person reviewing your reel most likely will have their headphones on doing something else, while watching your reel on mute. Keep in mind that the music is not for that person! Music is just for fun when you post your reel on Vimeo or YouTube. To waste your time on selecting the right music is just another reason to procrastinate.
SHOULD YOU DO A BREAKDOWN OF SHOTS?
[22:57] Let’s talk about shots breakdown. In the past, you’d send a paper description of shots. “At 52-seconds, I did the lighting on the shot. All the other stuff was done by other artists.” Or, “I did everything in this shot, expect for the animation.” This gets dangerous: If you don’t specify what you did, there is an assumption you did everything. And you aren’t there to defend yourself. This could lead you to getting blacklisted. I’ve gotten emails before asking if I worked on a certain shot on another person’s reel. The more specific you can get, the less of such an assumption (that you’re stealing someone’s work) can happen.
[24:27] These days, it’s handy that most shots that we do are going to be 16X9 — widescreen — so you can put your specifications underneath. It’s pretty common that people take credit for the work they didn’t do. It’s worse when you didn’t take credit but there is an assumption that you did. I’ve had it happen where I got mailed my own reel and the artist was passing it as his own.
SHOULD YOU SEND A PASSWORD PROTECTED REEL?
[25:22] Another thing to discuss is password protecting your reel. I’ve always felt like unless there is a good reason for it, it makes me question why an artist would do that. Some people who do that don’t want others to see that they’re taking credit for someone else’s work. That’s how these email chains happen. Keep that in mind and make sure to mention what your motifs are: Maybe you worked on a film and the film isn’t released yet; so you do password protect your reel because the material is still under an NDA.
SHOULD YOU INCLUDE WORK THAT’S NOT PUBLIC YET?
[26:40] I’ve heard different advice on that but none of it is good. If I’m hiring you, anything you do right now, I’m going to assume you will do that on my job as well. If you are showing sensitive stuff that you aren’t allowed to show yet, then it’s likely you will do with me. I’ve seen this first-hand where a client will make an angry call because a shot got leaked because someone included it on their reel. Just because you password-protect your reel, it doesn’t mean the content won’t get leaked. There are so many scenarios where it can happen. So just don’t do it! Trust me: I’ve worked on projects that never saw the light of day! I’d be waiting and the project would get canceled. At the end of the day, it’s not your material, you don’t have ownership of it! If you do show this work regardless, it makes you a liability.
[30:13] I’ve gone over this bare bones stuff. I’ve also written a book on this (www.allanmckay.com/myreel). It’s the definitive guide. Please check it out! And also, please let me know if you have any comments: [email protected].
[31:18] A lot of the time, we think that demo reels are black and white. But it’s something that could easily cost you your job. You want to increase your chances. All it takes is one opportunity that will create your entire career. My goal is to help you get the success you deserve. As much as we love what we do, it is a business. I want to help you make your art — your business!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Feel free to reach out to me. Get the Ultimate Demo Reel Guide as well. Thank you for listening!
I will be back next week. Until then —
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