It’s easy to compare reels to resumés. It’s a make-or-break career moment, an opportunity to get your foot in the door by showing your skills to employers. But, there is one key difference between the two: a reel gives you nothing to hide behind. No pretty cover letter. No “proficient in Microsoft Word.” It’s your creative work out in the open, a fully exposed moment when you put your best foot forward and hope it works.
In other words, it can be scary as hell. And that’s just the creative half of it. From a business standpoint, it needs to be effective so clients will want to hire you, so you can put food on the table. Creative vulnerability aside, not getting paid is a fundamental fear anyone can relate to.
So, we’ve established that a reel is important. Great. Now let’s talk about what you can do about it. With your free account, we’re giving you a free song for your reel — no purchase necessary. That’s an important first step towards a better reel that you can take right now, risk-free. Beyond the music, though, we compiled a quick guide to making a great reel. It turns out this make-or-break moment can be a little less terrifying when you have a few good tips under your belt.
Think like an advertiser.
You need to think like an advertiser because at this moment you are an advertiser. Attention spans are short and time is valuable. We could probably write up an entire blog post about this, but essentially it boils to this: If you can get them to the end of your reel, you’ve won.
This means you need to hook them early and keep their attention. Generally, you’ve got around six seconds to grab someone’s attention before they move on. So, front load your reel with your best, biggest, and brightest. It doesn’t matter how great your work is if it’s hidden at the end. We’ve seen a lot of filmmakers take the chronological approach, starting at the beginning and ending with the latest — don’t.
At this point, don’t overthink it. Make your reel big and bold from the very beginning. Also, it doesn’t need to be lengthy. At all. In fact, one minute is plenty of time to know whether or not a potential employer is going to take the conversation further. Your reel is a chance to show what you’ve got and if we’ve learned one thing from the advertising world, it’s that you have to make the most out of a very short amount of time.
Know the goal.
Sometimes there’s a temptation to go overboard with a reel. Maybe a little too creative. But it’s important to remember what the overall goal for your reel is — to get you clients and get your work noticed so you can keep making this creative work. So, leave the short films to the short films and use a reel for its intention.
Even further, though, your reel needs to reflect your strengths. If you’re a DP, show off your lighting skills, how you frame a scene, etc. If you’re an editor, you can break the one-minute rule we just talked about and show how you can put scenes together, thread a narrative. If you’re a director, maybe it’ll be a mix of both. The point is, there needs to be thought behind how you cut a reel. Play to your strengths.
Get outside perspective.
Your footage is your baby, right? That means you might have the worst perspective on what needs to be included and what needs to be cut. William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” What he’s trying to say is that just because you’re emotionally attached to something doesn’t mean it needs to be kept. The same goes for your work.
You’re the only person who knows how much effort or emotion went into a particular shot — and maybe the only person who cares.
It may sound harsh, but it’s true. You need to be ready to cut mercilessly and sometimes it’s easier to just hand someone else the knife. Bring in someone to give you an honest perspective on what stays and what goes. And, if you’re not an especially talented editor, maybe get someone to look at the cut itself, to see how it flows and how you can make it stronger. Critique is one of the most important, painful, and helpful parts of any creative process, particularly in filmmaking.
Good is good.
The beauty of a reel is that good work speaks for itself. It doesn’t matter how you got there, what your budget was, or how many ‘likes’ it got on YouTube. There are no politics. It’s the survival of the fittest and for talented filmmakers, this can be the great equalizer.
All of this is to say that if the work is good, put it in there. Spec work? Sure. Don’t mislead people to believe you’ve worked for brands that you haven’t, but if you can light a car commercial to look like a BMW spot, that’s a great proof of your talent.
Even if the brand isn’t the sexiest, the skills may apply. A dog chow commercial may not be as cool as a Nike campaign, but if it shows you can frame a scene as an editor, then throw it in there. In filmmaking, the proof is in the work.
Trends are not a bad thing. They may be fleeting, but they can show you have style and relevance. It’s dangerous, however, when trends slip into the realm of copycatting. We see it all the time: a reel looks dangerously familiar because we actually have seen it before, just from another filmmaker.
We’ve talked at length about the difference between stealing and being inspired. It can be a fine line, but these rules from Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist can definitely help:
- Good theft honors while bad theft degrades.
- Good theft studies; bad theft skims.
- Good theft steals from many sources; bad theft steals from one.
- Good theft credits the source; bad theft plagiarizes.
- Good theft transforms; bad theft imitates.
- Good theft remixes; bad theft rips off.
Employers are looking for your own personal style. If they wanted John Doe to shoot their ad, then wouldn’t they just be watching John Doe’s reel? Be inspired. Follow trends. Watch other reels. Then push all of that to the back of your mind and put together your reel. No one else’s.
Simple enough, right? We know, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but the last tip we have is to just get started on it. Until you put your work out there, you won’t know how people will respond to it. So, take the leap and get to work on your own reel.
We think a great first step is listening to music. As we said before, you can get a free song for your reel — it’s a full-on license you can use forever! So why not start there? Our team has curated dozens of playlists just for filmmakers and there’s a song in there that represents your personal brand and will get you noticed.
Also, if you need help tracking something down, you can contact our Music Specialists and they’ll hunt down your perfect song for free. A new reel is a great step forward for any career and we’re here to help you every step of the way. Good luck.