Last week, I was lucky to hear a lecture by Kevin Koch at the FMX in Germany about what you should do and not do in a demoreel. In this article I will try to summarize some very helpful tips from his lecture and from around the web.

First of all: The reel is more important for animators than you think. For normal jobs, the interview, connections and the resume matter a real lot. But animators are mainly selected because of their demo reel. Your future employer is only interested in your animation skills. A director won’t have the time to look at your paperwork in advance (or at all). So if your reel doesn’t impress, a good resume or nicely designed application folder won’t help you. Keep in mind that the employers are watching dozens of reels in a casting. They don’t bother with a second look, so put a lot of thoughts and energy into your reel.

Obviously: Don’t show someone else’s work. Include a shotlist saying what exactly was done by you. If you have to show someone else’s animation (because it is in the same shot, at the same time), you should have according subtitles like “Crowd only”, “Character on the left only”.

However, I often find it distracting to have to look for what an animator actually did. If it becomes too complicated, an employer might just even skip your reel. Ideally, try to only include animations that were done by you, so you can show a title “responsible for all character animations in this reel” at the beginning. This way the viewers don’t have to look for written text and can enjoy the animation. So, if you only did background characters, try to get a render of the shot without the main characters. If someone else animated a second character in a shot/reverse shot pattern, you could replace the material of the counterpart with the storyboard drawings.

Don’t use mediocre work. People might assume that your really good shots are only good because someone helped you a lot. Also, no matter how proud you are of your first floaty CGI shots – they only belong in your archive, not in a “best of.”

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Generally, a reel should be 1 – 2 minutes long. But don’t stretch it. If you just finished studying and you only have 20 seconds of really great animation, it’s much better to show just that, than to include anything that is sub-par.

Think about the order of the shots a lot. Usually, you would start with your best work (the employers might not watch the whole thing). Ideally, you should try to create a flow from shot to shot. If action is taking place in the upper left corner in one shot, it might be pleasant to have the movement in the next shot begin there as well.

If the viewer’s eyes have to jump from one side of the screen to the other, they need a couple of frames more. If two shots in a row have a significantly different timing/dynamic, consider seperating them with a couple of black frames (don’t overdo this).

As an animator, you are an entertainer. Make your reel entertaining and pleasant to watch. Don’t be boring! Some shots together can suddenly be funny. Sometimes it could be fun to split up longer shots (action sequences) and cut back to them.

The absolute most important point: Get feedback from other animators you trust and listen to them. If a shot is not good enough, boring or somehow doesn’t fit, it must be cut out. Force them to be honest and merciless. You are biased because you put so much work into every shot and forgive a lot of flaws – a possible employer won’t.

“Professional” shots might not be your best ones. You don’t get to explain that the budget was low, time was running out, the director forced stupid acting choices, the rigger was incompetent, the art director had no taste, etc. If professional shots suck, don’t use them, it doesn’t matter that they aired on TV or whatever.

(Especially for CG animators:) Unless you are very talented, don’t show still-drawings or sketches. There are probably a lot of amazing drawing talents already employed, who you don’t want to be in competition with. You are applying as an animator, and if you do drawing exercises, life studies etc. they can see that in your animation. If you ARE very skilled at drawing, a few still frames to show an additional resource you bring to the table is a good idea.

No special design. Logos are often just ridiculous. Keep it simple. If you spend too many hours selecting fonts and design elements, one might wonder why you don’t spend this time animating.

Don’t add music – emphasis on the words “add” and “music”. During a casting of hundreds of reels, continuous music is just distracting and annoying. They might just cut the sound off immediately, and when your acting scenes come up, they don’t find the remote quick enough to hear the dialogue. However, it is nice to have the original soundtrack from a shot (which all real projects will eventually have anyway), and for your animation tests, it might be nice to add little sound effects. What is a continuous music track supposed to say anyway? That all your different animations follow the same beat and are just one big blend? Nah!

Constantly update your reel. Check if new shots are good to include and if some old shots no longer reflect your skill level.

You should consider changing the reel for every application. One company might have a totally different approach than another. One might appreciate flat jokes, another might consider it too cheap.

Make different reels when you apply as a rigger or modeler. If you mention that you can rig, you might end up working as a rigger instead of as an animator, so only mention it if you really want to do that too. However, for little companies that look for generalists, those skills might be a huge plus.

At the beginning of a reel, show a title screen with your name and your desired position – if possible and true, followed by “Responsible for all character animation in this reel”. In the end, you can show a screen with your contact information. No need to animate anything here (like a character pushing in the letters), because for the viewers, it doesn’t feel like part of your showcase.

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Test your DVDs or digital files on different computers. For downloads, use common codecs like H.264.

Sometimes you might like to include shots that haven’t been released yet. If you’ve animated something for a big company, this can be a dilemma – because if you ask to use it, they probably won’t allow you to. On the other hand, if you don’t ask, and they find the unreleased material on the web, you’ll get fired. So, be careful with that! 

You don’t have a project at the moment? Great! Do animation tests that you can use for your reel. A funny weight test, a little acting scene you always wanted to do… Go ahead and do it, those things can really spice up a reel!

Small plots stay in mind. A thief trying to steal a safe and failing in an entertaining way – brilliant weight test. A show-off Tarzan getting tangled up in vines – could be a hilarious action sequence. Those scenes tend to stay in mind more than awesome, subtle acting.

Look for repetitions in your poses. Are your acting shots always just two people sitting at a table? Are your characters always pointing? Try something different next time. Such repetitions and habits are painfully visible in a reel.

Secondary action is great to show some real skills. This means that you occupy your character with two things at once. For example, let a character try to pick spinach out of his teeth, as he talks to his crush. The resulting contrast between being embarrassed and trying to impress should be fun to watch, as well as to animate. The secondary action often adds a deeper dimension to the acting.

And last but not least: You should always try to create things that are good enough to include in your reel. If you start working in the industry, you might end up animating stuff that is simply not good, not entertaining and not “giving” something to you or the audience. If you ever find yourself working on something you are too ashamed of to show in a reel, you should try to quit doing it.

If you have tips to add to this list, please let us know in the comments!

[Picture in the header (c) Oliver Haja  /]

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