Regardless if your video production work is for broadcasting, commercial clients or the web, before getting hired somebody will want to see what you're capable of doing. The difference between getting or not geting the job most likely will come down to what's on your demo reel.
For the last five years in addition to my regular assignments work I have also become a crewer. It wasn’t my choice, it just happened. My regular clients had problems finding qualified crews so they kept asking if I knew anyone in my territory that can be trusted to do a good job and and that’s how I became a crewer. Please note that I do this strictly as a service to my good clients. Initially most of the requests I was getting were for multi-cameras shoot where I was the main camera but slowly they started asking me if I could also crew other jobs when I was already booked and couldn’t do it myself. Last year was one of the busiest, I hired over 100 crews days, that BTW is over $200K worth of business. I have a number of skilled crews that I hire regularly, many I trained myself to make sure they meet my client’s needs. The workshops I’m presently conducting are actually an offshoot of informal training sessions I gave to the crews I was hiring. The request from shooters to participate in those training session grew and that’s how the workshops were born, out of cameraman's own needs to better themselves in order to serve better paying clients.
As the news got around that I hire crews as expected I started getting inundated with calls from cameramen looking for work. I’m always looking for that someone who stands out above the rest. I try to follow up on every call I get, but the volume often can get overwhelming so I learned how to detect in the first few seconds those who are worth taking a longer look. The first thing I look at is their demo reel, and usually also the last thing I look, if I don’t like what I see in the first ten seconds I move-on to the next reel.
So based on my experiences here are some personal observations on demo reels.
The demo reel is your marketing tool, you have to show that you can handle assignments and what you’re capable of doing. It’s your first and often the only chance to impress that client, like the old say goes “you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression”. Demo reels should not be an ego booster but unfortunately most reel I see are just that. They say “Look what I can do” rather than “look what I can do for my clients”, major difference. I look for marketable skills, if you don't have those then it only means that you are not marketable, you don't have what clients need. You might very well possess those skills but you have to let people know that you have them, the only way to do it is to show them, in your demo reel. Nobody will pay you to see what you can do.
Enough with concerts and music videos, over half of the demo reels I see have mostly music videos or concerts. I don’t even give those ten seconds of my time. That’s not a business anymore, Craiglist and the overabundance of videographers looking for work and willing to work for nothing just to get into the concert for free and for bragging rights have pretty much killed that portion of the industry. Those concerts and music videos also don’t tell me anything about the skills of the videographer, everybody with a little of knowledge can point the camera and do funky moves, those are not marketable skills.
The same goes for those “dynamic” demo reel that are mostly made-up of one second or shorter cuts. That doesn’t tell me anything about the shooter either. I bet that even on the worst five minutes long video ever produced I can come up with several excellent one second long clips.
So, what am I looking for in a demo reel?
I want to see the best skill that shooter has to offer and most important I want to see real clients, I need to see that somebody else already trusted and hired this shooter. Why is this so important? It’s easy for somebody to shoot whatever he/she likes and within the confine of his skills, if he doesn’t know how to do it he will just not do it. But when a client or producer ask him to do something he either does it or if he doesn’t know how he’ll get fired. We are not in business to serve ourselves, we are here to serve paying clients, the better we are the better the clients and the higher the paycheck. Simple formula. This is why continuous training is so important for creating a decent standard of living. Never forget that there are thousand like you out there all after the same clients and the same money. Only those who stand out above the rest will get to those clients, but in order to stand out you have to be better and the only way to get better is to never stop learning.
I understand that many are just starting out and don’t have real clients yet, but if one can work for free on a concert or music video perhaps he could also offer to work for free with a producer or other shooters who serve commercial account in exchange of using the material for your reel. An industrial video of a manufacturing plant might not be as glamorous as a rock band but there’s a much greater demand for industrial videos, and those pay real money.
I look for diversity and each segment in that videos should demonstrate the variety of skill that the shooter is capable of doing. I would also like to see a full sequence not just a composite of one second clips. I want to see how he or she told a story with video, the different shots and how they are linked together.
I look for composition, depth, separation, the use of natural light and most important the lighting skills. I look for discipline in camera moves and the purpose of that move. Today I see cameras moving all over the place for no apparent reason, that’s bad and distracting.
I would like to see a variety of subjects such as architectural both exteriors and well lit interiors. Close ups and well lit products such as food shots or cosmetics, jewelry, etc. Plenty of interviews and how the subject, background/ambience and lighting was done. Some nature shots, every day activities, industrial and corporate work, action sports, human interests stories, etc. In few words the more diverse the better.
Customize you reel for each type of client. Doing this today is easy and might make the difference between getting or not getting the gig. So spending an hour customizing your reel with a better chance to land a $5K or better gig might be worthwhile.
If you know that a corporate client is asking for your reel he will surely want to see corporate work. Don’t have him look at rock concerts, flea markets and high school reunion in order to get to the corporate work, move that segment in front, if he likes what he sees he will want to keep looking at your reel to see what else you’re capable of doing.
When I look at a demo reel and I like what I see my second step will be to look at the entire videos where those segments came from in the first place. With web sites and Youtube this shouldn’t be a problem. The better web sites that I get to see are those that have a composite demo reel I call it a teaser, plus there are the complete videos often categorized as per subject.
Avoid repeat and similar subjects. Don’t waste the potential client’s time. If you feel you have to use repeat subjects use those of interest to that particular client’s needs and make sure you have a variety of cuts that are different form each other. If he is interested he will want to see the entire video. Get his attention first.
If you get a call from a particular business and type of business be and go prepared. Look at what his competitors and others in the same industry do with videos and see how those compare to what you are about to show. You better believe that your target client knows what his competitors and other in his industry do and is looking for you do to one better. It doesn’t have to be of the same industry but if at least you have nothing similar to show you’ll both will be wasting each other’s time. Be assured that some of your competitors will have something the clients is hoping to see on his reel. This is why I stress diversity and customize your reel to the occasion.
Lastly, know the overall composition of your immediate market and make sure your demo reel represent that market. If my potential market is in the desert and my reel show a lot of boating activities chances are that those looking at my reel will get the impression that I have nothing to offer to meet their needs, get the point?