Back before the internet became a streaming hub, (cue creaking/old age sound effects,) a demo reel was comprised of work that casting directors would easily recognize. Footage from TV shows, (with only four networks doing scripted television, it was easy to know of every show on the air,) and features (before indies became hip,) populated reels. If an actor didn’t have those kinds of scenes, they just didn’t have a demo reel.
Today, it’s the norm for a reel to be filled with two minutes of material that Casting has never seen nor heard of. It’s made up of indies, short films, web series, or even scenes shot specifically for the actor’s reel. The good news is that as long as the material sells you, (and looks/sounds professional,) it truly doesn’t matter where it comes from.
Here are a few rules of thumb when creating material SPECIFICALLY for your reel, (and not for any other purpose):
- Make it look like it’s from a real project. Don’t shoot a scene with the camera ONLY on you. Sure, it’s YOUR reel, but if you don’t show your scene partner/the setting you’re in, it feels more like a taped audition than something that’s been produced. (And PLEASE use more than just a medium shot. No director in their right mind shoots an entire scene from one focal length.)
- Spend the time/money to make it look and sound good. Use a quality camera, real lights and mics and then edit carefully and make sure you mix your sound. Nothing screams “FAKE SCENE” more than one of these elements being subpar.
- Make sure your scene partner is a real actor, and be thoughtful about who you choose. These people will have a role on YOUR reel. They need to be solid and giving, not drawing all of the attention.
- Choose or write a scene that highlights YOUR character. This should be common sense, but I’ve seen many a clip where the actor clearly wanted to play a specific character or moment and didn’t pay attention to the other elements in the scene, namely that the other character had the better arc. Again, if too much attention is focused on your scene partner(s), then this activity is moot.
- If you choose to write a scene, be VERY honest with yourself about your writing skills. An original scene is the best choice when shooting material for your reel. However not everyone can write dialogue. If you are the scribe, get feedback from your peers before filming your work. If you’re questioning your writing abilities, try to partner with a writer to craft a scene for you.
- Also… Edit. Edit. EDIT. Of all the original scenes I’ve watched, (if you follow me you know I’ve seen A LOT,) 98% of them could use a good edit. Less is more.
- If you are choosing previously produced material, do not choose any famous or well known scenes. Sure, Robin Williams’ monologue from GOOD WILL HUNTING is magnificent, but do you REALLY want to be compared to Robin Williams? Obscurity is your friend here. Dig deep for something that won’t warrant a juxtaposition.
The long and the short of it is this: if you are going to create content for your reel, take time and spend some effort (and if needed, some cash,) to do it right.