Demo Reel Creation – An Essential Tool for Actors

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In addition to pictures and resumes, the demo reel is a crucial promotional tool for actors. Like your picture and resume, to be considered, some rays of brilliance need to shine though. A DVD holding three to four scenes says more about your capabilities than anything else does. Thus, it should show you in best light, your emotional range, depth of character, and how well you articulate your dramatic choices.

Casting Directors and agents look for performances that stand out and linger long after. They want actors having a sense of promise, an earnestness and directness in their approach to their craft and work. Another measurement is their trajectory, what have they done, are they growing and what is their potential to meet greater challenges. Along with the picture and resume, the demo reel accentuates all these attributes and ties them up in a neat promotional package.

Preparation is the key. The creative distance between a three-minute webisode and blockbuster feature is disappearing especially for the astute and dedicated actor. For those applying their training and craft, the journey is now much shorter. The demo reel is a major test in determining who moves on.

When do you need a demo reel? Not every actor has the credits or screen elements to produce an effective reel. Student actors, for instance, need not spend time and money on a demo reel when their resources could be better spent on education, photos, and submitting for auditions on student films, webisodes, spec commercials and Indie features. Such projects can be an excellent source for reel materials. In addition, these projects can be easily verified as credits are usually posted on IMDb.com. Verifiable credits are a factor in being hired.

As you move up the ladder, you will likely obtain union film credits and have enough materials to create a reel. However, now the bar is raised and your reel must compete against other qualified actors. As such, the quality of your clips and how they are presented requires a more professional touch. By following some simple guidelines, one can create a demo reel that will be accepted and viewed by industry representatives. These guidelines are listed chronologically.

  1. Obtain your clips on the highest quality format as possible. External hard drive or HD DVD offers the best definition. Videotape standard play SP is next. When recording a TV program, use a new tape as tape deteriorates with multiple uses.
  2. Place your best clip first as most casting directors have hundred of demo reels to view and don’t always go through every scene. First impressions count the most. You need clips that look professional, portray you at your best and let people know who you are and what you can do.
  3. Select clips that show you both acting and reacting. Dialogue scenes work best, especially if the editing frames you reacting to the other person.
  4. The ideal length of a demo reel is 3 to 5 minutes with 3 to 4 scenes. Casting directors prefer three-minute length and this length makes postings on places like YouTube or Vimeo more viewer friendly.
  5. Make sure the scenes highlight YOU and not the other actor. This can be accomplished by editing out the other actor’s non-essential dialogue or inserting applicable reactions to their dialogue. If the other actor outshines you or dominates the scene, then your reel will not have the right impact. So in a logical and tasteful way delete footage that doesn’t feature you.
  6. It’s best to select scenes with changes such as realizations, reflections, expectations, reversals, the weighing of options and points of decisions. Changes are what best portray ones acting abilities and display ones capacity for making strong bold articulate choices.
  7. Try to have some variety in the types of scenes presented scenes that show your range of characters and contrasting genres. Avoid using multiple scenes from the same project as this limits expectations.
  8. Avoid adding music, graphics, and montages. Casting directors want to see how well you can act. Adding anything that distracts from your performance decreases your chances of making a good impression. However, if you are looking for a new agent, a montage will give them an overview of your different looks in a short amount of time. Place this montage latter in your reel.
  9. Make remembering you and contacting you as simple as possible. Place your name, photo and telephone number on the DVD. Your editor or the DVD duplication facility can do this. Remember that you are submitting your DVD as part of your resume and headshot package. Avoid using gummed labels as this can mess up a DVD player. Instead, have this information etched or burned into the DVD itself.
  10. In addition to your name, photo and telephone number, place the total running time (TRT: 3:20) on your DVD/VHS labels. This should also go next to your link on the Internet or your website where your reel appears. Knowing the length invites viewers to stay to the end.
  11. Demo reel editor Derrick Boelter suggests considering doing multiple reels, which can be interfaced on a single DVD and accessible from a menu. Let’s say you have credits in drama and comedy plus work on commercials and hosting. Rather than creating four reels, you can compile them by categories and place them on one DVD. It allows the viewer to select from the opening menu showing your picture, name and option categories, then scroll to the internal reel he or she wants to watch. By giving your casting director more options, you improve your chances of being called in.
  12. Consider having chapter markers placed on your demo. This gives the viewer the option to jump to the previous or next scene using the fast foreword or remote rewind keys.
  13. Use footage that looks like you, what you look like now. Some actors select clips that are years old and it’s not a true representation. This upsets industry people and negates your chances of getting work.
  14. Your editor should stick to regular cuts when going from one scene to another. Cheesy transitions distract the viewer from watching you. Cuts such as quick cross fade transition or fade-to-black are acceptable between clips, however most cuts should be straight cuts. Likewise, avoid jump cuts by using a cut-away to separate the two shots and erase the jump affect. This cut-away could be another person in the scene or a related object.
  15. Audio levels should be consistent between clips and the level should be on the high side. However, going too high can distort the soundtrack. Likewise, pops between clips can be taken out with a cross fade transition between the adjoining tracks. In addition, extraneous sounds like air-conditioning can be removed with a filter. Be forewarned that bad audio can take your viewer out of your scene.
  16. Individually test each DVD before sending them out. Do they work in your DVD player? Enclose them in a protective container, one that reveals what’s inside, especially your name on the DVD.
  17. And don’t expect to get your submitted DVDs back. Normally, they get misplaced after viewing. However, you can lower DVD expenses by enclosing a self-addressed pre-stamped DVD mailing envelope (plain cardboard envelope should suffice). Likewise, enclosing a comment card with your DVD may give you valuable feedback.
  18. Snail mail submittals can be costly with DVD replication, pictures, resumes plus envelopes and postage. A quicker more economical way is to email submittals with a link to your reel’s location. This might be on YouTube, Vimeo, or some other video hosting site. Loading your video onto one of these sites may require compressing your DVD to a format that will play on the Internet. In addition, the compress video may have to be cropped to exclude television-timing signals at the bottom of the screen. Your editor can help you with this.
  19. Some recommend having a website to display promotional information. This can be a cumbersome undertaking not only in expenditures but also time and energy. For actors in the early stages of their careers, I suggest using IMDbPro.com, which is a hosting/validating site for industry personnel. At present, the cost is about $15 0/year and allows you to post your resume, photos, resume, bio, news items, and videos. Industry people use this site frequently and are well acquainted how to navigate its content. Sites such as ActorsAccess.com and LACasting.com can also post your demo reel.
  20. Before you meet with your editor, organize your footage. With most editors charging by the hour, you save time by making a list of the clips you want to use, their location, time into the tape or DVD. Before you show up, cue up your VHS footage so needless time isn’t wasted winding tape to the proper location. Most DVD players have a counter that will help locate the start and end of the scene you want and these times should be noted on your list. If you are using clips off a copy protected DVD like a released movie, you will need an editor who knows how to strip away this protection. Check if your editor has that capability.
  21. Back up your source materials on DVDs or an external hard drive along with your edited DVD masters. VHS tape deteriorates over time and by transferring to a better format, you maintain the quality.
  22. In hiring a demo reel editor, be prepared to ask many questions. This article covers most of these. However, one should also ask about the kind of experience the editor has producing demo reels for actors. Is free consultation available and are there samples of his work posted online?

This article gives you an overview of producing an actor’s demo reel. This can be an expensive proposition. The following are some ballpark figures of charges you might incur.

  • 1T External Hard Drive – $90-120
  • DVD-R, recordable blanks (10-Pack) for source materials- $12.00
  • Demo Reel Editor – $70-130/Hr (allow 2-5 hours)
  • Video Master DVD authoring – $60
  • Duplicated DVD reels – $4-8/each, labeling extra (allow minimum 10-25 each)
  • VHS Duplicate reels – $15/each (allow 2-5 each)
  • File of DVD labeling information -$30 (jpg format)
  • DVD sleeves with window, 50 pack – $9.00
  • DVD return mailers, 50 pack – $8.50
  • Convert Video to Internet/Computer formats – $30/each
  • Archive DVD $30
  • IMDbPro 1-year membership $150

The website www.reelsforactors.com has samples of reels by professional actors that follow the guidelines mentioned in this article. (Key samples in menu.) This site offers a wealth of information on this subject.

While actors spend hundreds of dollars on headshots and classes, they should have the same financial commitment to producing the most crucial tool for working actors, their demo reel. How can you get work if no one sees your work?

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