Demo Reels—An Education

Video Creative Director
Published 5/7/14
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A videographer or editor’s equivalent to the artist’s portfolio, the sacred demo reel has served to provide potential clients with a means of evaluating past work and experience. In the artistic field, a simple resume cannot articulate the skills of the individual and how their abilities and aesthetics would work with a client’s overall vision for a video. As the old adage goes, the proof is in the pudding.

Old school and new school videography is constantly at odds for what the present status quo should be in supplying examples of work and there are definitely some common faux pas out there no matter what school you come from. Having just undergone a review of potential candidates, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief education.

Lesson 1 If your demo reel contains any kind of overplayed pop music or, worse, pop music that is behind the times, I will stop playing it pretty much immediately. Aside from the obvious ASCAP infringements, choosing a backing track with a song I’ve heard a bajillion times (not by choice) is just plain aural torture. Don’t do it.

Lesson 2 Your demo reel should include examples of your work; it does not serve to showcase every transition or graphic that Premiere or Final Cut comes with. The mantra of my first editing professor was, “crap in, crap out.” Overuse of fancy transitions and graphics have a tendency to make it seem as if you’re “putting lipstick on a pig,” in a manner of speaking. If the footage is bad, no amount of motion graphics will fix that.*

[*However, an artfully executed star swipe will always be taken into consideration, both due to your audacity and to my love of video clichés used in an unconventional way—it’s the hipster equivalent of wearing circa-1981 giant plastic glasses with a Calvin Klein suit. Just wrong enough to be fashionable.]

Overuse of fancy transitions and graphics have a tendency to make it seem as if you’re “putting lipstick on a pig.”

Lesson 3 SD footage. Really? You should have just handed me a beta deck of your reel, at least then I’d have something to smash with a bat. SD footage dates back to a simpler time, before HD, 1080p and all those other fancy words we now associate with quality footage. If you’re not keeping up with the trends in your field or, at the very least, what’s considered the industry standard, you’re not doing your job. I think that statement can be true for virtually any field that utilizes technology to some degree. Vintage jewelry is cool; vintage technology, not so much. Don’t even THINK about mixing HD and SD footage in the same reel! Oh, the horrors.

Lesson 4 Common sense. If you’re applying for a job as an editor, don’t send a reel that showcases your extraordinary motion graphic work. While it’s certainly a great skill to have, pay attention to how you’re marketing yourself versus what the job calls for. Along those same lines, long gone are the days when videography was a tiny niche inhabited by a small group of professionals with a skillset almost no one had. With the advances in technology and the availability of easy-to-understand editing software, almost anyone can claim to be an editor or procure the skills needed without professional training. Drop the ‘tude.

Lesson 5 Why are we even bothering with demo reels anymore anyway? YouTube, Vimeo and even the creation of your own website are by far the most convenient way to display work and provide excellent details on what you contributed specifically to each project. Heck, a URL fits on a business card! It’s bad enough if someone physically hands me a copy of their reel on disc—you mean I have to play this on a DVD?? I’m not even sure I have a functioning DVD drive!—when there’s a perfectly good Internet out there that I can access at my fingertips with whatever device I happen to have on hand. Give your client the gift of accessibility, to choose what they want to watch, and easily keep it up-to-date with recent work.