Reel Time

showreel_09I really need to do a show reel. I’m not really sure why – I’ve not been asked for one – yet. But it’s one of those things that we all need. Anyone in the Creative world has a portfolio. A sketchbook. A sampler. A show reel. And cranking one out is difficult.

A show reel can become one of those things that one obsesses over.

It’s not for you. Yes, it’s about you and what you do, but it’s for your clientele. What do they want to see? When I was hiring Graphic Designers, I liked to see the iterations to the final design. The rough sketches and the wild ideas. But some people don’t want to know how the cow was killed, just what the steak tastes like.

Seeing how shots are put together, as layer upon layer of finesse are applied to the same shot, are great for post houses and Motion Graphics folks, but if you’re selling camerawork, you need exquisite photography, images that grab your vision and pull you into the screen by the eyeballs. Soundscapes, music tracks, riffs and reveals.

But how the heck do you get editing? It took Walter Murch 10-15 minutes to demonstrate the tempo and rhythm and ebb and flow of Tetro at the recent FCP SuperMeet. I wanted to ask the question: ‘Could you demonstrate your editing in a 3 minute show reel without assuming people had seen the movies you referenced?’

You see, there’s two schools of Show reel (under the same umbrella law of ‘keep it short’):

[1] wrap little chunks of programmes into a ‘compilation’ which will demonstrate some degree of editing as well as camerawork and general style, but makes for a longer reel. You’re looking at six 30 second chunks for a 3 minute reel and that will feel LONG.

And you’re somewhat at the mercy of the clients’ requirements if you shoot Corporates. Your audience will actually have to identify with the subject matter.

[2] pick some of your favourite (how do we define ‘best’?) shots and sequences, some ‘before’ and ‘after’ (e.g. chromakey or grading) and some motion graphic stuff and beat until stiff with a high energy sound track.

But it’s really a peacock tail. Looks great, probably sounds great, not that you’d want a finished video that actually looks like that.

There’s another danger lurking in the shadows: you’re thumbs up or thumbs down within 30 seconds of your video starting, and yet – cruelly – the first 5-10 seconds will be dead air whilst your audience finally gets your video playing, finds a comfortable position, reaches for the pen and the paper and the beverage that suddenly seems to have disappeared, and the ‘You Have Mail’ symbol on their phone and utterly fails to notice your expensive Motion Graphics intro.

So we sit there making lists of stuff we’ve shot or edited, auditioning sound tracks, maybe even trawling through rushes and old edits to find those gems that got lost on the cutting room floor, and sneaking a peek at on-line show reels, and suddenly you realise that there’s a huge enemy that’s sitting right beside you.

It’s called ‘Better’.

Yes, folks: the enemy of ‘Good’ is ‘Better’ and it will absolutely mash your aspirations of a good reel into the ground.

The unspoken FIRST rule of show reels is ‘show your best work’. Don’t include fillers. Don’t include stuff that you love because you went through hell and back to get it even though it’s a bit disappointing to the untutored eye. Don’t include stuff that doesn’t belong even though you did it and it’s brilliant. Yes, yes, these ‘don’ts’ are flapping all around you, and the hours and the days wheel by as bits are cut out and you search for lost treasure…

… And suddenly the phone rings a year later and somebody asks you for a show reel.

“Yeah, well… My reel isn’t quite finished yet”

You’ve been working on it, on and off, for ages. It’s just a project on a hard disk, not earning you money or getting you exposure, just acting like a millstone round your neck.

Show reels need to be out there, doing things. Waiting to get things perfect may miss you the opportunity to at least tempt somebody asking to see more. You’ve got to be in it to win something, so get good stuff together, and get it out and working for you.

I’ll come clean: I’ve tried one route which, whilst not being catastrophic or damaging in any way, has been spectacularly pathetic in doing what I hoped it to do. Instead of making a show reel, I grouped together some of my work that I liked and put it on the web. “Here’s the kind of stuff I do” in its pure, unadulterated form. Half a dozen (it rapidly swelled to a dozen) little video things for clients to browse from.

Okay, here’s why it didn’t work:

TOO MUCH – imagine feeling thirsty after a stroll and seeing a cafe. You go in, but rather than a cup of tea and a bun, there’s a full waiter service, a big menu in a slightly pretentious language, and when you say ‘just a cup of tea’ you get asked ‘Earl Grey, Lapsang, English Breakfast, Green – or how about our herbal teas, including….’ At which point you’re out the door.

TOO DEMANDING – hey, it’s my store front. I want the best that technology can get. H.264, high bit rate, large video areas, full-on Flash front end. Guess what? My audience doesn’t have the processing power to make H.264 smooth, they don’t have the IT policy that allows them to update Flash, and aren’t allowed to watch streaming video – and hey, they ain’t going to watch it at home.

TOO BROAD – Let’s face it: we are all multifunctional beasties here. You may be able to trick light into making a bottle of ketchup look like the elixir of life, or take a bag full of tapes and pull a heart-wrenching story from its soup. You’ve got an encyclopaedic knowledge of Brassicas, and can write clean C++, but your clients don’t know that – nor do they know about your Cajun cooking skills and deftness with a steam iron and ninja nappy chops. So that’s not going into your visual CV, okay?

You don’t go to a cafe for steak, let alone a car wash.

People who watch show reels want to see something that solves (or at least salves) their current need. Maybe you need two reels. Or seven. Does somebody making studio shows or costume drama want to watch a reel about food? No. But if your reel has food and talking heads and weddings and dogs, then you’re going to find clients who will chuck you into anything. And that may be your bag.

So, where does all this lead us?

  • Make a reel from your best stuff, but don’t try to hone it to perfection at the expense of not finishing it. To paraphrase Guy Kawazaki: ship, then test.
  • Ask people about your reel. Change things (but not necessarily the things somebody doesn’t like) and test again. Rinse. Repeat.
  • Make different versions for different markets.
  • Refresh it often. Your reel is NEVER finished, but it’s out there.
  • Keep it short.
  • Make the audience want more.