You already got a killer headshot, an up-to-date résumé, enough experience, perhaps a few nominations or awards here and there, and a demo reel. Great job! But how come you’re not getting more and better roles from a wider scope of casting directors? What could you have done wrong?
A demo reel alone can get an actor cast for a lot of roles, but a poor one can do the exact opposite. A demo reel or acting reel is a video and/or audio presentation designed to showcase your talents to a potential casting agent. The idea is to let the casting agent see what you are capable of, based on the examples you have supplied. However, it is important to note that casting directors, agents, and managers may have a very limited amount of time to review reels, and they will likely only want to see reels that match the character they are hiring for.
Because of the increasing availability of editing technology, you may have taken it upon yourself to edit the demo reel. If you’re not getting the opportunities you expected, you may have done the reel wrong. Here are the mistakes you should avoid.
Here’s the challenge: You only have the ideal duration of 1 to 2 minutes to present your best works. As previously said, casting directors, agents, and managers may have a very limited amount of time to review reels, and they will likely only want to see examples that pertain to the position they are hiring for. The goal is to leave them a taste and leave them wanting more. Most scenes should definitely be edited for the reel to under 30 seconds. The moment a scene feels repetitive, it is time to edit the scene down.
If you don’t have much knowledge on professional video editing, leave it to the experienced professionals. You don’t want to risk spending so much time and effort on something that might end up looking amateurish. A lot of actors hire real editors to ensure uniformity of aspect ratios, color harmony of text, usage of the best fonts, audio equalization, and many other technicalities.
Do not ever use copyrighted music, or else you’ll run into some unnecessary issues. Not only will it possibly end up in a lawsuit, it will also likely turn off potential employers. Instead, use royalty-free music, or if you’re a recording artist at the same time, use the best mix you have that will complement your reel.
An acting reel is not a music video where the same person keeps reappearing but with different clothes and hairstyles. An acting reel is where you show scenes of you acting. Montages do not highlight acting skills, which is what the casting director needs to see. Instead, montages are nothing more than a fast-paced video scrapbook, showing off a variety of brief moments from various projects. Submitting a montage-like reel showcases your editor’s skills, not yours.
Returning to a character previously seen in the same demo reel is not ideal, but can be effective in some circumstances such as when a character has two distinct emotions in the film, but perhaps does not arc within a single clip. Time is of the utmost importance in a demo reel and demonstrating versatility as an actor is key. It must be considered that a given character may not be what the casting director is looking for; therefore, repeating more of the character portrayal would only reinforce a negative image.
Ever worked with Tom Hanks? Casting directors won’t care. They hire actors based on talent, not whom they have shared screen time with. An actor’s reel moments should highlight their own performance, not highlight a famous co-star’s. A celebrity’s presence only helps elevate a demo reel when your performance in the clip is significant. If you did not have any lines or were off-screen most of the time during the scene with the star, why include it in a demo reel?
Enjoyed a gorgeous or flattering close-up in a box office hit? Even if you enjoyed three minutes of screen time on a Hollywood movie as a clerk, background work does not go on a reel. Casting directors expect to see how good you act, not how good you handed change to Brad Pitt. Similarly, even if you killed it in a stage production of Hamlet, clips of your theater performances, despite it being taken from the official coverage of a videographer hired by the production, do not belong in an acting reel. Such footage is naturally taken from far away and has poor sound quality. Acting reels should strictly contain only high-definition footage from your films.
Just like any résumé, actors need to highlight their most recent accomplishments. Casting directors want to see what you’re capable of right now because they’re looking for actors they can work with right now. Like your headshot, your reel should reflect your current on-camera appearance and abilities. The casting director has a character in mind, and if they contact you because of your reel and you show up looking like a different person, it will have been a complete waste of their time.
No casting director would ever say “I really enjoyed your montage of various headshots and production stills!” It is against industry standards to put a headshot in an acting reel. By the time a casting director watches your demo reel, they have obviously seen your headshot(s) already and reviewed your résumé. When you don’t have much experience and footage to work with, avoid the temptation of filling the reel with footage that doesn’t serve any purpose other than to make it longer. If you add fillers to your reel, it pretty much screams “I don’t have a lot of footage!”
A one-minute demo reel with two or three projects is perfectly fine! In fact, as we have mentioned above, reels are ideally a minute or two long.
Good luck and strive to do better!