Write and Shoot Your Own Demo

Imagine having a professional demo reel with great-looking-and-sounding scenes that are specifically designed to show you off at your best.

With the wealth of inexpensive, high-quality equipment available today, there’s no reason to wait to get cast in somebody else’s project. You can have a great, professional-looking demo reel in no time at all.

Here are some of the advantages you’ll enjoy when you shoot your own material:

1. Progress vs. Action
Does this math sound familiar? You get called in for, at best, 10% of the projects you submit for. You get cast in maybe 10% of the projects you get called in for. And finally, you get worthwhile footage for 10% of the projects you work on.

Even if the percentages are better for you it can still take a year or more for all but the luckiest or most zealous actors to finally amass enough scenes for a reel.

Chasing Hollywood may be a marathon, but you still need to get stuff done sooner rather than later.

2. Shoot for your brand.
Leading man. Kooky best friend. Villain. Snarky sidekick. We all have characters we’re perfect for if only someone would cast us! If you’ve ever taken a branding workshop you’ll know the importance of presenting the “right” you to casting.

3. The Write Stuff
Ever been in a project where the writing just wasn’t there? Maybe it was outright bad or simply needed some punching up; regardless, you knew it wasn’t going to be your best work because there’s only so much an actor can do with poor dialogue.

Shooting your own scenes means you can get feedback, rewrite, workshop it, and do whatever you need to get the writing in top shape before you shoot.

4. Final Cut
If I had a dollar for every time a client asked, “Why did they use that take?” I would have many, many handfuls of dollars.

Generally, your less-than-best takes get used for a couple of reasons:

  • You weren’t the focus of the scene and they needed your takes to match whoever was.
  • Your best work didn’t match in the coverage and they had to prioritize continuity over performance.

When you shoot your own scenes everything gets cut around you. As for continuity, well, nothing teaches an actor the importance of matching actions faster than when they’re working on their own material.

5. Save Money
In your quest to get material for a reel, how much do you think you spend in a year on gas to drive to auditions, days you skip work to shoot something, clothes or props you might buy, upload fees for submitting an incrementally better reel every few months, etc.?

Sure, you’ll still be doing all of that after you’ve got a great reel, but you won’t be doing it just to get a reel. You can start to be selective. If the script is just another iteration of “Hitman Who Wants Out” you can pass. If it’s shooting in the Palmdale desert in July you can wish them well from the comfort of an air-conditioned bar.

6. Stop Wasting Your Passion
There’s only so many times you can get your heart broken working on projects that never get finished, don’t turn out that great, or were never great to start with (but you told yourself they were a chance to network and get set experience).

Eventually, you’re just going to burn out, stop submitting, and end up in the same rut that tens of thousands of others fall into every year (and sometimes don’t get out of until they give up and move back home).

Maybe your first time at bat won’t be much better than anyone else’s, but all that means is you’re in the perfect position to figure out what went wrong and fix it your second time out (and then fix those mistakes your third time out, and so on).

7. The Power of Creation
Instead of wasting your passion, nurture it. Take your ideas for scenes and characters and make them a reality.

Giving your creativity an outlet makes you even more creative which results in better scenes, a better reel, and a better actor.

8. Take Control of Your Career
Before the digital/internet revolutions, actors were some of the most powerless people in Hollywood.

Script, director, production team, crew, locations… all of these had to be in place before one frame of your acting could be recorded. “Low budget” productions still routinely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And even if you shot something amazing, nobody would see it if the producers couldn’t find distribution via the few people who controlled the relatively small number of venues available.

Today, you don’t have to wait for anyone. Got a great character you can play? Write it. Got an idea for a scene? Shoot it. You can film half a dozen scenes in a weekend.

The rooms of your home and your car can be your sets, all of your gear can rented for a few hundred dollars, you can edit from your laptop, and there are hundreds of Internet sites with no barrier to entry that offer a literally global reach.

Shooting your own scenes is incredibly empowering. To know at the end of the day that if you want to make something you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval.

When you’re in charge, you’re never too tall or short or old or blonde. There are no gatekeepers. You’ll never have to hear, “We decided to go in a different direction.” You can just create.

It’s why you came to Hollywood, right?

What Should You Shoot

If you like comedy and drama start with one 30-second-ish scene of each. If you prefer one over the other, still shoot two scenes but make them, say, low comedy and high comedy, or sad drama and angry drama.

If you already have a demo reel, your scenes should either:

  • Show a character or emotional state that’s not already on your reel.
  • Replace a lower-quality scene with the same character or emotional state.

Some Notes:

  1. Enter as late into the scene as possible, hit the climax within 30 seconds, and find your out as soon as possible.
  2. Keep it to you and one other actor. A third speaker will require too much coverage and extra time and take the focus even more from you.

    You can have non-speaking extras if you want to make the scene more “cinematic”.

  3. Your co-star doesn’t have to be in more than 10 seconds of a 30-second scene.
  4. Skip the establishing shot. Limit your coverage to a two-person “master”, mediums, over-the-shoulders, and close ups.
  5. Don’t re-shoot famous scenes! Even if it’s from some obscure movie no one’s ever heard of, change the dialogue—names, dates, relationships—to make it as unidentifiable as possible.

    Remember the first rule of musical theater: Never audition with any song sung by Barbra Streisand. It doesn’t matter how fabulous you are, you’re going to come up short when they compare you to Babs.

  6. Memorize. Don’t improvise. An ad lib here or there is fine, but if one or the both of you are “winging it” I guarantee you the scene won’t be nearly as strong as if it was memorized, and it might not be usable at all.
  7. Your location has to be quiet and your mics have to be separate from the camera. Sound is more than half your picture and bad—even mediocre—sound is the hallmark of amateurs.

    If some noise does make its way in it either has to be consistent throughout the scene (e.g., someone mowing a lawn), or start and stop within the same cut (e.g., a clock chiming).

  8. Actors, crew, and gear can take up a lot of space. Don’t think you’ll be able to shoot in a closet or a tiny kitchen.
  9. The light has to be controllable and consistent. If you’re shooting natural light it needs to look the same at the end of the shoot as it did at the beginning.If you can knock a scene out in an hour or two on either side of high noon, or if you’re in the shadow of a tall building, great. Otherwise, you’re going to be spending a long time in post trying to match light levels.
  10. Don’t worry about creating intricately complex characters with massive backstories. Simple, straightforward stakes and objectives. “I’m angry because you cheated on me.” vs. “I’m angry you cheated on me with my sister with whom I’ve had a complicated relationship ever since our dying mother told me I’m her favorite and also my sister is one of my split personalities.”

The Benefits of Hiring a Team

Producing your own material is incredibly satisfying, but it’s also really hard.

Even when it’s just a scene for your reel shot with friends in your own living room things go wrong, compromises have to be made. It’s as Hollywood as awards shows and age discrimination.

And then there’s the issue of quality equipment and a crew that knows how to use it. A talented DP may be able to get the most out of the cheapest set of lights, but do you know such a DP? Who will work for free or cheap? And be available when you need them to be?

What about a boom operator? Camera operator? Director? Editor? Do you know someone who can write really well?

Can you do it for the three or four scenes you’ll need for your reel? And what about the other people you’re working with? Are you trading them favor-for-favor or scene-for-scene?

Money. Time. Energy.

You may find that it’s worth it to hire a team that shoots reels for actors because it’s less work and you get a better-looking product even faster.

Of course, not every production company is created equal so you’ll need to do your homework, but on average a demo reel company should have access to:

  • Higher-quality equipment
  • Professional writers
  • Professional editors
  • Sets or locations that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive or outright unavailable
  • Lower costs overall (if you don’t want to end up owning a bunch of equipment)
  • Easier scheduling
  • The peace of mind of just being an actor when it comes time to shoot your scene(s)

Beyond the Valley of the Demo Reel

So, let’s say you and a few others have gone in on either renting or buying all of the gear to shoot, light, and mic your demo reel scenes.

Why stop there?

Many very successful YouTube channels have been devoted to sub-60 second “films”. Some of my early sketches on Tales from Apartment 8 were one-shots on my couch that clocked in under 2 minutes. They weren’t my best stuff by far, but who cares. When you’re just starting out no one’s watching anyway.

Once you’ve got your reel, you should consider starting a sketch channel or beginning a Web series. A 5-minute short film isn’t that much more challenging than shooting a 30-second scene.

You’ll already have experience as a filmmaker so you may as well make use of it.

Remember, no one is ever going to care as much about your success as you.

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