Building a better reel

This is a featured post I wrote on Gamasutra.com a few years ago. Still holds true today!

In most professions, a resume is the most important piece for displaying how much we know to complete strangers. For artists, our demo reels are what set us apart from one another. Just like a resume, how we choose to convey our skills to others matters a lot. In an artist’s reel, bad editing or glaring aesthetic mistakes are equal to typos and improper formatting in a resume. There certainly is no formula to create the perfect demo reel, but I do find myself repeating the same advice over and over to aspiring artists of all kinds. If you’re having trouble getting your foot in the door, landing a more enjoyable job, or just looking for a way to improve the way you display your work to others, I’d like to take a moment to share some tactics for constructing and distributing demo reels I’ve learned over the years.

Get to the point

An artist has about ten seconds before an art director or lead has formed an opinion on the reel and either moved on, or decided to keep on watching (sad, but very true). This may not seem fair, but if you think about all the critiques, meetings, emails, and god forbid, actual artwork a professional in a lead role has to juggle in a given day; there really isn’t much time left over to sift through dozens of full length demo reels. Padding a reel with a drawn out intro or starting off with anything other than your best pieces might mean that sweet animation or creature you slaved over for weeks is getting completely overlooked. Keep your intro short and sweet, simply display your name and contact info and dive right into the meat of your work.

Don’t be a jack of all trades

The artist’s/animator’s reel should reflect the position they are applying for. Sending a generalist reel in for a cinematic animator position is like trying to wield a samurai sword while simultaneously firing off a Beretta and a rocket launcher…in other words, it’s hard to compete with those who choose to specialize in a given field. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic to be an animator and have modeling, texturing, and rigging experience, but try to leave that extra information to the resume, and use it as something to pull out of the back pocket during an interview. If it’s too difficult to decide on which pillar of CG to master, reach out to peers and online communities like cgscosiety.org and 11secondclub.com to get a second opinion on the matter.

Ask for help. Early and often

Even animators and artists who have been honing their craft for many years need a fresh eye to catch glaring mistakes. Again, because we are so close to our creations it’s easy for us to overlook imperfections. Our minds tune out, and suddenly something that was just “ok”, is now “pretty good” in our minds; yet we still can’t seem to figure what the real problem is. This is the moment where any creative professional should get someone who hasn’t been staring at a piece of work for hours on end to offer a critique. The best part is, we don’t even have to get another artist’s opinion – anyone will do! Nothing will humble an artist faster than someone who’s not even an artist pointing out an obvious problem almost immediately upon viewing a piece of work.

Nothing is too sacred

Throwing our work away sounds counterproductive right? As professionals we need to be brutally honest with ourselves; often packing a reel with lesser quality work just to satisfy time requirements will do more harm than good. With a job that requires such an immense amount of passion, it’s easy to get attached to the projects we create. Remember that quality is always number one (I have yet to see art director impressed by the quantity of work displayed before them). As a rule of thumb, try to keep the reel to two minutes in length at most. If there are worries that the length is too short, rest assured this isn’t the end of the world. Almost every lead would take a minute long reel with all great work over a two minute long reel with some great work.

Keep up to date

Employers find comfort knowing an artist’s skills aren’t rusty, and that they can get up to speed with their studio’s pipeline rather quickly. I’m not saying to you have to update your reel all the time or anything, but if you’re still shopping around a demo from 2008, it’ll most likely get passed over. A new reel once a year is ideal, and two years is pushing it. If three years have gone by without an update, it’s about time to dust off the art tools and get crack’n! If there’s newer and better work to showcase, but not enough for an entire reel, do not wait! Just insert those bad boys right into the beginning of an old reel and maybe take something out that wasn’t so hot (I once hired someone who did this)!

Be creative dammit!

As creative professionals we are expected to be creative, and our reels should reflect our creativity. A portfolio that invokes real emotion and presents something outside the box will look better in contrast to a reel that plays it safe by simply recreating reference material. I’ve often been surprised when an animation I’ve done may be more poorly executed, but ends up resonating with people the most solely because the concept itself was funny. Instead of fighting an uphill battle trying to recreate something that has already been done many times before, take a stab at something new or add some new elements to a character/scene. You’d be surprised what studio leads will overlook when they see great creative potential, opposed to someone who only shows they can perfectly copy what’s already in front of them.

Presentation matters too

Bad presentation can be a killer to demo reels. An artist may have the best reel in the world, but it may never be seen if it’s presented a way that looks like it’s straight from the 90’s. Everything encompassing our reels (the website, any logos, even the font) is open for critique and will be used to judge our artistic abilities. If there’s no time to make a decent looking website, don’t! There are so many website templates out there; while it will score points to have a custom website, no one’s going to care if a template is used to present the portfolio. Having a nice looking site that looks similar to others is much better than having a site that stands out for being terrible. There are also other distribution channels such as Vimeo and Youtube that work perfectly fine for displaying work. Keep in mind that the same rules that apply to demo reel presentation also apply to resumes or any other materials. Just keep it simple, and that way whoever is looking at our work is left to judge we’re actually good at.

Lower the barrier to entry

There’s nothing like going look at a portfolio, and then waiting for a page to load, or a video to buffer, or get stuck with a lengthy download, or simply not have a compatible device in hand. For streaming videos, I’ve found Vimeo has the best buffering and compression quality, and it’s also free. For a downloadable demo, I would try to keep the video 50mb or less, and if you’re doing a custom streaming player I wouldn’t go above 25mb in download size. Also, in this day and age where mobile is becoming more important, always make sure a reel can be viewed from any type of smartphone. Because of the incompatibility with iOS, I would stay away from flash players and opt for HTML5 compatible players (Vimeo, Youtube, or a custom HTML5 player).

 

If you can think of any other must have’s for a demo reel please do comment with them. Thanks for reading, and good luck out there!

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