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Saturday, January 5, 2013

••◊ Creating a Cinematography Demo Reel

Being a self-declared unseasoned professional in the film making circus means scraping my way along for new jobs.  It is what it is.  A part of that is selling yourself as a professional with the footage to prove it.  Roger Deakins, Jeff Cronenweth, or Rodrigo Prieto don't need a demo reel, but I definitely do.  Maybe the unspoken rule is that if your film wins at least one Oscar you don't need to actually apply for a job anymore.  I'm not anywhere near there yet - have no clue.

So I recently decided that I have a large enough body of work that it was time to create a cinematography demo reel.  My first attempt was a clear disaster.  It was too long, unfocused, and needed much clean up work.  Thanks to some of my friends I was steered in a much better direction.  These are some of the things I learned along the way.

1.  Length matters.  The general rule is that the reel should be from 60 seconds to 5 minutes.  Most people who saw my initial attempt agreed that it should be reduced from 3 minutes to 2 minutes.  I went online to read articles about demo reels and 2 minutes seemed to be a reasonable average from multiple sources.

2.  Focus on one job.  At first I thought I was going to show a DP/director/editor/gaffer/sound guy demo reel.  Nope; bad call.  My primary focus is to get hired as a DP, so I took out anything I didn't personally shoot and concentrated on good camera work.  I'm not interested in being an editor, director, nor sound designer.  I want to create great photography.  That's the job I'm applying for.

3.  Set your audience.  I love thrillers, action, drama, and especially documentary.  One director who reviewed my reel noticed that there were a few shots with fake blood in them and thought those were horror movie shots.  I quickly removed them.  My rules are I don't do horror, porn, or weddings - all (almost equally) bad.  I realize that it's a bit premature for me to be picky, but if your heart isn't in the art it will quickly show.

4.  Pick good but benign music.  Some people turn off the music completely while watching the demo reel.  Make the visual content count, then pick the music. 

5.  Label the demo.  My director friend also recommended that I brand the whole demo reel with text that shows my name, what I do, and what the viewer is looking at including film name and date so the reviewer knows that this is recent work.

6.  Show your contact information.  Use a clear, large font for at least 15 seconds at the end of the reel.  You don't want the reviewer going for a pencil and missing the contact info.

7.  Place your best work first.  Some reviewers only look at the first 10 seconds and make a call of which pile the reel goes into.  Place a great establishing shot and try to renew this every 30-45 seconds to keep the viewer engaged.

8.  Place like work together.  This is my personal opinion, but I find when DP's show their work scattered throughout a reel it looks like they haven't shot much and are trying to fill in the gaps with bits of the films they've already shown.  I chose to keep each project together, label it, and claim these are visual highlights from THIS particular project.  I can then clearly show that I have multiple film projects under my belt and thus a reasonably complete body of work (i.e. this isn't my first/second/third time to the rodeo).

9.  Solicit honest feedback.  Use your friends, the honest ones who aren't afraid to tell you when something sucks.  They will help you see things you'll never see.  I approached my director friends because I knew they were my primary audience.  I asked them, "would you hire me after seeing this?"  "Which parts would make you not hire me?"  The time to get your feelings hurt is NOW, BEFORE the job interview.

Other than that, here are a few links I found useful.
Hope this helps others out there.  I'm still working on my reel, awaiting footage from a director.  Hopefully it gets done in the next few weeks.

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