Creating the Perfect Reel
You probably thought it as soon as you saw the title. There is no such thing as a perfect reel. And in a way, you’re right. Each person that sees the reel will have a different perspective on what makes a reel great.
But if you know who is viewing your reel, you can make the perfect reel for them.
First, let’s get this out of the way. When I say reel, I’m talking about work samples, a series of videos, in whole or in significant part. I’m not talking about a director reel, a collection of shots from unrelated projects set to music.
Tailor Your Reel to the Recipient
Unless you’re applying to jobs that are all of the same type, this is going to require you to have multiple reels.
If you have a website, you can achieve this by creating a new page with no inbound links for each reel and linking to the appropriate reel when applying for a particular position. If you use an video hosting service, you can create an album (vimeo) or a playlist (youtube) for each reel. This will leave you with a ‘general’ reel for people who find your work organically.
Discover to Whom You’re Applying
While it might be hard to find exactly who will be viewing your reel, we can make some strong educated guesses.
The three categories of people we might apply to are:
- Producer or Crew Member
- Non-production manager
In production companies or smaller companies that already have a video department, you’re likely applying directly to a producer or other production type.
In companies that don’t already have a video department (if you’re responding to a job listing, it’s probably asking you to be a one man band) you’re likely applying to a non-production manager. This is also often the case in deeply sterile companies (think financial institutions, government, health care) who tend to have ‘video guys’ managed by IT or something equally unrelated rather than a standard production structure.
For large companies of all types, including large media companies, you’re applying to HR first, then the actual manager.
Creating the Reel for the Employer
If you’re applying to a producer or crew member, your instincts on what to include in a reel are probably right on the money. These people know what’s up, so you can pick your best work with no regard to project subject and occasional regard to project type- you want to include things in the same basic category that you plan to be working (documentary style, narrative, sizzle, etc) but it doesn’t have to be a perfect match.
If you’re applying to a non-production manager, forget everything you know about video. You’ll want to include the videos that are most relevant to the position, with little regard for project quality. This is going to hurt you in your bones, but as someone who contracts freelancers out to clients all day, I promise it’s the best tactic. With a limited knowledge of video, people tend to fall back on ‘do they have experience with this thing I want them to do’. You can basically consider your reel another resume.
If you’re applying to an HR manager, you kind of have to split the difference. So find your best work with significant regard for project type. You have to include enough hyper relevant projects to squeak by the HR screening, but enough slick work to impress the hiring manager. If in doubt, err on the side of project relevance. If you don’t get past the HR screen, it’s not going to matter how much you could have impressed the hiring manager.
There are still certain things that are true across the board, regardless of who is looking at your reel.
Samples, NOT Director Reels
In our industry we tend to use the word ‘reel’ to describe both work samples and a director reel. It’s to our discredit, because a director reel is not all that much use to a hiring manager or potential client.
Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a shooter or an animator, it’s totally fine to have a director reel (if you’re an editor and you have this type of reel, you should immediately toss it in a volcano). It does a good job of giving an overview of your work but it gives no context. And in video, context is everything. I’m glad to see you can compose a shot, but how does it support the story? Did you shoot something that cuts? Did you, or someone you worked with, provide good audio? Just about anyone can slap together enough good shots for a half decent reel but I want to see context if I’m considering hiring you.
Number of Videos
There are a lot of factors to consider here. Project type, length, experience level. It’s something for which it’s hard to provide a one size fits all solution.
So here is a formula, totally over simplified, just how you like it: start with 4 videos. For each year of experience you have, add a video. You can stop at 12, but you don’t have to. Ads and other videos that are 30 seconds or under count as half. You can include multiple projects from the same campaign or client, but don’t count these towards your total number.
In general, it’s better to provide more of your work than to leave viewers wanting. I know many creative pros, myself included, like to curate down to the bone because they’re harsh critics of their own work. But viewers will forgive a less than perfect project, assuming a better standard has been shown in other work, more easily than getting to the end of the work with a ‘that’s it’ feeling.
Age of Videos
Generally, I think it’s fine to have older work on a reel, though it should be at least 50% work from the last 3 years and 25% work from the last year. If anything betrays that a project is old, however, you should avoid using it completely.
Including Spec or Personal Projects
Don’t. There are a few exceptions:
- You are applying for a narrative film or TV job and the projects in question are narrative film.
- You are applying for a documentary film or TV job and the projects in question are documentaries.
- This project has won awards from major film festivals or equivalent
- This is, hands down, the best work you’ve ever done
- This is an extremely well produced pilot that, preferably, was purchased by a network even if it was never aired.
- You don’t have any other work
I don’t care if the project looks awful. I don’t care if I just specifically told you not to show it to anyone. Save it. Put it on a drive somewhere. There will come a time when someone will ask to see a project of that type and, terrible project or not, you’ll be glad you have access to it.
If you have a lot of work, concerns about your reel can lead to endless re-tooling. Hopefully I’ve helped you narrow it down, but the important thing is to get it finished and start getting it in front of people.