PART IV: Putting it Together
It’s All About You. Finally!
As you’re sitting down to begin editing your reel (or you’ve dropped off your scenes and are eagerly awaiting the first draft), here are some things to keep in mind:
- It’s going to take longer than you think. I’ve edited well over two hundred reels to date, and only two of them took fewer than
two hours to finish. Figure at least three hours, and be prepared for five or more hours.
- Start with your strongest material. I can’t stress this enough. If it’s a choice between strong work opposite an unknown, or
mediocre work opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Tommy should come second. As long-time casting director Valerie McCaffrey says, "What I want
from a demo reel is for the first fifteen seconds to be brilliant so I can move on to the next 99 things on my list." Every agent,
manager, casting director, producer, and director has the same list.
To date the only exception I’ve seen to this rule is when a client had three very strong dramatic scenes, and one strong but short comedic scene. Because it’s much easier to make someone sad who is happy than it is to make someone happy who is sad, putting a comedic scene at the tail of three heavy dramatic pieces would make it very hard for the comedy to score. In this case, we decided to put the comedy first so it wouldn’t get overwhelmed by the dramas. Had the comedic piece been longer, or not as strong as it was, it would have had to move to the end, or perhaps even dropped altogether.
- Each scene on your reel should begin and end with your face and your voice, or at the very least your face. This is the ideal, but
there are some instances where you have to go with a less-than-ideal choice:
- If your first line makes no sense without some sort of introduction
- If the camera cuts away to someone else on the punchline of your joke
- If the camera cuts away so quickly at the end of your line that the transition to the next scene is startling or awkward
- Whoever else is in a scene with you should have the least amount of dialogue and screen time possible without the scene becoming a
patchwork of jump cuts. A couple of reaction shots, and a line or two that helps things along, and that should be all. Aside from the
fact that it’s not their reel, if the other person is terrible they’ll drag you down, and if they’re a lot better than you, well, do you
really want a casting director calling you to ask for the name of an actor who was in your reel?
- All things being equal, if it’s a choice between a scene with you and one other actor, and a scene with you and two or more actors,
choose the one with the least distractions.
- Don’t include the lead-in and lead-out parts of the scene. It’s the argument in the doorway that’s interesting, not the moments where
you’re walking up to the door, knocking on it, waiting for the door to open, handing her the flowers, and standing there awkwardly
wondering what to say.
It doesn’t matter to the decision-maker if the scene takes place at a college or a space station, or if this is the big scene in the movie where we find out the star has been dead the entire time. What matters is that we believe you are the grieving daughter, treacherous boss, heroic whistleblower, etc.
- Be prepared to drop one or two of the scenes that made your short list. Maybe the reel is clocking in at five minutes, or you’ve got
two fantastic minutes and one minute of stuff that would otherwise be fine, but isn’t in the same league, or you weren’t quite so
successful in separating your emotional attachments. Whatever the reasons, it’s a rare reel that contains everything a client brings me.
- Be prepared to alter the order you originally mapped out. Sometimes a client will come in with an idea of how they want the reel to
flow, but after we’ve cut out everything that isn’t focused on them, the energy each scene brings to the reel sometimes changes, and as
a result the scene order needs to change as well.
- Save the special effects for your low-budget sci-fi movie. Fancy transitions, "double-snowflake-with-a-newspaper-rollup" fades, and
all of that whiz-bang stuff will push people out of the moment. Simple cuts, dissolves, and fade-outs keep the energy focused on you.
- Lower thirds and chirons: Personally, I’m not a fan. Your resume and your agent/manager talk about what you’ve done. A reel is
about what you can do. If I’ve seen the TV show or movie you were in, the little banner at the bottom of the screen that reads, The
Shield or The Matrix, is a distraction. If I haven’t seen the project you were in, then you’re just pointing out that you were in
something I’ve never heard of.
If you’re going to put them in, though, be consistent. Don’t put the banner in for the famous stuff, and leave it out for everything else. DO NOT, however, put the name of the show on a separate card before the actual scene. All this does is stop the momentum of your reel, and pushes the viewer out of the moment. Keep everything focused on you.
- It should be part of an editor’s job to offer feedback about what he thinks does and doesn’t work, but it’s never our job to browbeat
an actor into doing it our way. If your editor thinks a scene should be cut, or scenes should be put in a different order, he should say
so, but if you disagree, well, it ain’t his reel.
- By all means ask, but if we give you our opinion, and you don’t like it, please don’t keep asking for our opinion. We’ll quickly realize
that all you really want is for us to validate your own opinion, and we will because editors quickly learn not to fight un-winnable battles.
- Consider having some sort of short intro to your reel. Typically, I’ll open a demo with the actor’s name and headshot for five seconds, and then fade into the first scene. This isn’t a necessity, but a short intro can give someone time to hang up the phone, put down the sandwich, sign the contract, and then focus on your reel without missing the first few seconds of your work.
- Your DVDs should be set to autoplay. That is, when the DVD is put into the player, it starts playing. Don’t offer people a choice. If
you give them two buttons to push, and they push the wrong one, you’re the one they’re going to be angry with. NEVER depend on the
technical savvy of your viewer.
- Your DVDs should be DVD-R, unencrypted, and region-free. They don’t have to be $5.00 a copy glass masters, but they shouldn’t be
something the editor picked up out of someone’s trunk either.
Theatrical, commercial, and hosting reels belong on separate theatrical, commercial, and hosting DVDs. The person who hires a host will rarely be the person who hires an actor.
Generally, commercial demo reels are best for getting a commercial agent because theatrical CDs don’t think much of commercial acting, and because commercial CDs cast from your headshot, and then always put you on camera.