How to Pick the Best Scenes for Your Demo Reel

That’s the tough question, right?

You’re finally starting to get footage from the many projects you’ve worked on, but how do you know what makes for a good scene to use for your reel?

The best clips for your demo reel are ones that 1) focus on you 2) last no more than about 30 seconds 3) have a clear beginning, middle, and end and 4) have high production values (especially audio).

And you can narrow the list down even further. As I wrote in a previous blog, you also want to look for scenes which 1) show stakes and relationships, and 2) could typify a character breakdown.

So a scene where you’re just giving directions (“Turn left at the 7-Eleven”), or cleaning a rifle (“Pass me the gun oil”) won’t do much for you.

Why? Nothing’s going on, dramatically speaking. You’ve got no stake in the discussion and your relationship is just normal day-to-day stuff. The breakdowns would read: “DAUGHTER, talking on the phone, 1 line.” And “SOLDIER, cleaning his weapon, 1 line.”

These kinds of roles are cast more on you look than your talent, and I’m willing to bet that, like m, you want to land the roles where we get to do fun stuff like, “SOLDIER, no longer trusts her teammates and is becoming paranoid for her safety,” or “ SON, desperate to keep his mother from learning he has cancer.”

Of course, even though identifying scenes with stakes and relationships helps narrow the field, there’s still a lot of room for interpretation.

To really help you identify the strongest scenes for your reel, I’ve found it best to switch the focus and list the reasons why you DON’T want to include a scene in your reel.

One quick note: Don’t worry if your best scene is a couple of minutes—or more—in length. Everything that isn’t about you, or absolutely necessary to keep the scene flowing, will get cut.

The Don’t List

DON’T add a scene to your reel when:

1) You’re an extra (featured or otherwise).
It doesn’t matter if someone famous is in the scene, too. Agents, managers, casting directors—pretty much everyone—needs to see what you can do with dialogue.

2) It’s just a quick cut to your face and/or you’re just delivering a line or two of—probably forgettable—exposition.

“Second door on the left.”
“Detectives? The wife is waiting in the kitchen.”
“One double-shot of espresso, coming up.”

This restates my example above. Yes, it’s awesome that you booked the role , but essentially it’s only one step above being an extra.

If you have nothing else, then yeah, use clips like these. But as soon as you have anything with more substance swap them in. Adding quick cuts and one-liners will just dilute your brand.

3) It’s MOS/Non-sync sound.
Driving. Staring out the window. Running. Collapsing to your knees and sobbing.
Without context self-contained clips of action or emotion do nothing to sell you, and are, to be honest, boring to watch.

4) It’s, well, not very good.
This might be because of low production values—especially if the sound is bad—or your co-stars are chewing scenery like they’re starving goats, or maybe it just wasn’t your best day on set.

If the scene is not good then you don’t want to add it. “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression” and all that.

5) You’re in full-on “sell mode” in a commercial.
Extolling the virtues of the latest Chevy or the advantages of Tylenol over Advil demonstrate skills that are different from “theatrical” acting. (Not better or worse—no judgment here—just different.)

If the commercial is more theatrical, and you’re telling a story? If it’s something weird and funny like the old Snickers, “You’re being a diva” spots? Maybe. The final “Yes” or “No” will depend on other factors, but spots like these are not automatic rejections. You’ll want to get a second opinion from your reps or your editor.

6) You hated every minute of the shoot and the work’s just okay, but you’ll be damned if you’re not going to get something useful from the experience.

Your reel is about scenes that will work hard for you, not scenes you worked hard on.

This point is actually one of the main advantages of working with an editor. We’re not emotionally attached to your work so we can approach it with a dispassionate eye.

7) We’ve already seen the character.
If your first clips are “angry mom,” “brave soldier,” and “conniving politician” we don’t need to see those characters again.

Very important: once you’ve demonstrated your ability to play a character, move on to the next character as soon as possible.

The exception to this is if you’re assembling a “character” reel. E.g., a bunch of clips of you just playing a judge or a doctor.

8) The clip is more of a “look” than a scene.
“Looks,” “moments,” “takes,” and “reaction shots” are useless for your reel without the context of a scene.

We have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing for it to mean anything. Without context, these things are just confusing flashes of you.

9) Your back (or most of it) is to the camera.
There’s some gray area with this one, but in most cases if we can’t see at least most of one eye, we can’t make an emotional connection to you. If we can’t make an emotional connection we won’t care about your character.

10) It’s from a stage play, sketch show, or stand-up.
These all involve separate skills from on-camera acting and should be part of their own reels or stand-alone clips.

Your demo reel should consist of TV and film projects because that’s what casting directors will be using them for.

11) It’s a filmed audition or in-class work.
The lighting and sound are typically awful and if your reader or scene partner is terrible, or even just mediocre, that will reflect even more poorly on you.

One of the messages demo reels convey is, “When time, money, and talent were on the line this is what I brought to the project, and by extension what I’ll bring to yours.” Taped auditions and in-class work can’t demonstrate either.

12) It’s from a while ago.
Your scenes need to reflect what you look like right now. Otherwise, the casting director is going to be royally pissed at the 35-year-old with the dad bod who shows up in her session when she was expected the 25-year-old hunk with the six-pack abs that was on the demo reel.

For example: is your footage in the old, 4×3, standard definition format? If so, then it’s too old to include.

13) It goes against your type.
This is a tricky one and touches on what will be it’s own post in the future.
However, it’s vitally important for you to know how you’re perceived by others and that your demo reel reflects those perceptions.

Of course, it’s our nature as human beings to be able to play a wide variety of roles on-camera and off, but most of the time—at least in Hollywood’s view—we fall into a narrower range of possibilities.

If your demo scenes are all over the place in terms of characters you’ve played it may send the message, “I got range by the truckload.” But more likely it will be interpreted as you either don’t know who you are or aren’t comfortable with that knowledge.

Be Careful with These Scenes

Many strong demo reels have one or two of the following elements, but it’s a very narrow line that is all too easy to cross.

1) Scenes in a foreign language if you’re thinking of putting it first (even if it’s sub-titled).
Being multi-lingual is a hugely useful skill, especially today, but you don’t want your English-speaking decision maker to worry that hiring you also means hiring a translator, or spending extra—and expensive—time trying to bridge a language/culture gap.

Also, even if your “American” accent is flawless, people will always think they can detect your “real” accent if you start out in your native language. Weird, but true.

2) Monologues to the camera. If the director is breaking the fourth wall, á la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, okay, but the production values—sound, lighting, etc.—will definitely need to be there.
Sadly, most beginners and people who have no clue how Hollywood works think all they have to do is slap a—heavily emoted—monologue together, aim it at the camera, and call it a day. As such, monologues to camera have become red flags for people who are amateurs or otherwise dangerously ill-equipped to be on a professional set.

3) “Special skills” clips.
If you’re a Lindy Hop dancer or a gymnast, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to end your reel with a fun clip of you doing something interesting, but keep the clip short, make sure the footage is very high quality, and it’s just you in the frame.

Special skills clips, like stage work and stand-up gigs, should be their own file.

Don’t Be a Mind Reader and Don’t Assume They Can Read Yours

A lot of the time my clients will say things like, “But what if the CD is looking for…” or “I want them to see I can…” The fact is, 99% of the time people watching your reel want to know three things only:

1) That you look like your headshot.

2) That you can act.

3) That you’re a good fit for the project they’re casting or the empty slot in their roster at that moment.

“Is she unafraid of guns?” “Does he have dance experience?” And pretty much all of the other worries and insecurities actors bring to their demos just aren’t on the minds of the people who will actually watch them.

“Will I look like a hero to my director or the producers if I put her on tape?” “How many different ways will he make me money?” These are the questions people need answers to.

Have more questions about demo reels? Feel free to contact us.