"Little or no use to actors, she says? Is it possible that not all footage is equal?" Sadly, it's true. To understand this topic fully, we first have to look at what the actor's demo reel is, and what it is used for.
Demo reels are a compilations of film/TV clips that highlight the skill set of an actor. The reel is typically between 1-4 minutes in length, and showcases the actor's best work. The reel acts as a representation of the actor so that directors, producers, casting directors, and agents can determine the actor's value for a particular project or partnership without first meeting them in person.
Reels can be compiled for many purposes, but actors typically put together a reel so that they can pursue Legit / Theatrical work in Principal, Original roles On-Camera. Let take some time to define what these areas are:
1) Legit / theatrical work is narrative work (ie: storytelling) in TV, film and theater which is unrelated to educating an audience or selling a product. Typically, these projects are works of fiction, or are fictional re-tellings based on actual events. Legit / theatrical projects include prime time television dramas, sitcoms, soap operas, feature length or short film dramas / comedies, as well as live theater. This can refer to professional, student, and/or amateur projects. WORK THAT IS NOT CONSIDERED LEGIT/THEATRICAL: Documentaries, reality shows, commercials, industrials, hosting, or any other form of non-narrative work.
2) Principal roles are defined by a principal contract being given to an actor for a particular project, for which they typically have lines to deliver. There are rare occasions where an actor may be given a principal contract for a pivotal non-speaking part. But in most cases, principal roles are limited to speaking parts. WORK THAT IS NOT CONSIDERED PRINCIPAL: Background work, Music Videos (even if you are acting opposite the musician.)
3) Original roles are defined as roles that have been played by no one else. Now, obviously in theater the name of the game is playing a role that has been played before. But for film/TV, the focus is almost always on performing in an original role, one that has never been done by another actor. WORK THAT IS NOT CONSIDERED ORIGINAL: Revivals of old films & TV shows, particularly those being done in a classroom setting.
4) On-Camera work means that the actor is seen on-screen delivering their lines. WORK THAT IS NOT CONSIDERED ON-CAMERA: Voiceover Narration, stand-in work.
Now that these three aspects of work have been defined, let’s apply what we have learned to the actor’s demo reel. If reels are used to pursue principal work on-camera in the legit/theatrical world, it stands to reason that footage from this world is the only thing that should be placed on an actor’s reel. Thus, here are some things that actors should avoid placing on demo reels: Non-speaking roles, Off-Camera roles, and / or Non-Legit / Theatrical roles. They should also avoid placing live theater on their reel, since the demo reel is used in the pursuit of on-camera work.
An actor should also avoid using footage that has been recreated from a previously released movie. This is a typical project by a student filmmakers, which is a wonderful exercise for the director and provides a great opportunity for an actor to work on material that is well written. But because the script is so strongly tied to the star who played the role, it is not in the actor’s best interest to include that on their reel.
Finally, an actor should put the most professional footage as possible on their reel. Often, this means that footage should be from projects that the actor has actually shot, as opposed to monologues or scenes that have been shot for the express purpose of having reel footage. You may shoot footage yourself, or hire someone to do it for you, but make sure that the production values (sound, lighting, editing, set dressing, costumes, makeup, etc) are high quality and professional in appearance.
To help you understand these concepts more clearly, here are a couple of audition postings I have found recently. Using the criteria above, these projects should not be used in a demo reel:
(...) I am looking for a mid twenty year old looking actor and actress for a short scene From the movie “Cruel Intentions” Re-created For one of my film classes. The Shoot will take place over one day. You will get credit for the scene as well as a copy to use on your reel. Food will be provided the day of the shoot, as well as compensation for your transportation (...)• In the above project, the filmmaker is re-shooting a scene from a well known movie. This does not match the requirement that the project provide original roles.
(...) Looking for HD, broadcast quality material to spice up your reel? A documentary style medical series now entering its 9th season on Discovery Health and TLC, seeks mid-late 20's athletic, red or light brown haired caucasian male actors for a recreation shoot TOMORROW MORNING. The shoot will be held at our office in Chelsea and will be about a half day in duration. This is a role on a widely watched cable show and will provide great high definition, broadcast quality material for a reel. Lunch, credit and a copy of program provided (...)• The above project is a reality based program shot documentary style, which does not match the requirements for Legit / Theatrical footage.
(...) [Name redacted] is looking for women interested in competing for a consultation with a celebrity hair stylist and to appear on [name redacted]’s website! There is no pay but if you win you get a free consultation with a celebrity hair stylist, possibly some hair care products and for added incentive I am PERSONALLY throwing in a FREE Commercial Career Workshop. If you win the consultation, it will be shot from your home via webcam on May 26. There is also a possibility you will be receiving free hair care products as well (we are working on that for you!). This is a great opportunity for people looking for more commercial experience and/or video footage for building an actor reel. (...)• This one made me laugh a little, because they are saying it is great for people who want footage, but the actor is actually responsible for shooting said footage via their personal webcam! This definitely does not match the requirements for being professional quality footage.
So, there you have it! This has been a crash course in what goes into a good demo reel, and what should be kept out. There are lots of other bits of advice I could put into this article, but I would rather hear from you - What kinds of questions do you have about making demo reels? Leave me a comment at the end of this blog, or send me an email at email@example.com and I will answer your questions as soon as possible.
Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out http://www.theactorsenterprise.org.