The Art Of The Demo Reel

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Whenever I do a presentation somewhere or start teaching a new class the subject of demo reel creation always comes up, so I figure it’s high time to write up some pointers.  Be advised that a lot of this information comes from the days when a bunch of animators would gather in a room to review reels.  While the methods of delivering your reel have changed, how you approach creating a reel has not.

The secret to having a solid reel is brevity.  Instinct tells you that if something took a long time to create, you want to put it out there to get that satisfying pat-on-the-back for all your hard work.  As hard as it may be, you have to leave instinct out of the reel creation process and objectively look at your work with no bias.  Contrary to what you may believe, you are not judged by your best animation – you are judged by your worst.

What I sometimes suggest is to create a dummy reel of some of your favorite animations and size up your own reel to it shot for shot – deleting the work you’ve done that doesn’t hit the quality bar or lacks entertainment value.  The reason for this is to pare down your reel to your absolute best work – even if it’s only one shot.  The harsh reality is that when an animator looks at a reel, they can usually tell within the first 5 – 10 seconds if they’re interested.  It sounds soul-crushing, but if you think about how many reels have to be reviewed from potential candidates, it makes sense.  So even if you only have one great shot to show, you would much rather leave them wanting to see more from you (potentially leading to a test), than the alternative of being put in the “not interested” pile.

So you have pared down your reel to only your best work.  What next?  Before you start editing, you have to take your remaining work and tailor the reel based on the company you’re applying to.  For instance, I remember reviewing a reel at Blue Sky Studios years ago that had a Flash animation of Jesus coming down off the cross and killing the Roman soldiers with his nails.  Entertaining?  You bet your ass it was.  Relevant?  Absolutely not.  So in other words, do your research.  Don’t have dialogue with a lot of swearing in it if you’re applying for an animation position for the next Veggie Tales movie.  Don’t send mocap animations to Pixar.  You may laugh at what I’m saying because it seems like common sense, but I’ve seen this happen WAY too often.

Now that you have tailored your absolute best work for the company to you’re applying to, it’s time to put it all together in a nice little presentation.  Here are your guidelines:

– Unless you are applying for a position doing motion graphics, I DO NOT want to see a 30 second intro of your name and title smashing through glass with flames billowing behind it while the camera shakes from the jolt of an off-screen explosion.  Simply cut straight to action.  If the viewer is interested, they will want to find your information – which will be conveniently placed at the end of the reel on a simple title screen.

– The ONLY time a music track is acceptable is when showcasing physical animations with no dialogue.  Choose music that suits your theme and is not annoying.  For instance, I don’t want to see your animations playing to “Barbie Girl”.  It will tarnish your reel regardless of how good it is.

– This is highly debatable, but based on my experience of reviewing hundreds and hundreds of reels over the years, it’s important to hook your viewer VERY quickly.  Based on this, start with your absolute best animation and end the reel with your second best.

– If your reel is all dialogue, simply cut from one shot to the next with a 6-12 frame buffer of black in between.

– In the days of physical media, I can remember seeing these huge, elaborate packages that contained a reel in them with sub-par animations while the best reels were the vhs tapes or dvds with sharpie writing on them. What counts is what’s on on the reel, not what it looks like.  The time they spent on the physical presentation of their reel would’ve been better spent on polishing their animations.  How is this relevant in the all-digital era?  Simple.  A Vimeo or YouTube link will work just fine.  A fancy webpage with bells and whistles doesn’t play a role in whether or not you’re a good animator.

That’s pretty much it.  This isn’t absolute, so if you have any other guidelines you’d like to share, please feel free to comment below.  If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

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