Anatomy of an Actor's Reel

An actor's reel is like a video resume of his or her greatest scenes in film and video. If you find yourself wanting to create one prepare yourself, it can be a long process. While the edits are typically just simple cuts, dissolves and transitions, the end result is very personal to the actor being represented, and that means you'd better communicate well before you go making too many changes (for dramatic reasons). Storyboarding the project upfront helps, but simply talking about project works just as well. 

I'd been going back and forth with an edit for actor Tony Becker and he and I talked about what constitutes a good actor's demo reel. "What is it exactly that separates one from another?" 

I didn't begin the first draft until he and I talked about what was expected and why. Becker has spent most of his life in the entertainment business, and so he had years of great moments on film. You might recognize him from shows like The Waltons, Little House on the Praire and Tour of Duty. He has a unique perspective on the edits. I on the other hand, listened, took notes and generally went by gut intuition when it came to editing his scenes. Yet, he and I agreed that the reel needed to be short, and old stuff.

What I didn't realize as I began the edit that there was no real, honest template for an actor's demo reel. Some may tell you there is a standard in Hollywood, but there isn't. You can pretty much insert whatever you feel a producer or director or casting agent wants to see in a performance before he has the actor read live. I didn't know that, I'd always figured you needed to follow an outline like a script. But that isn't the case. I confirmed that with a relative, who directs and produces  feature films and plays. 

The one thing that may hold true is that you never want to insert a scene in your editing timeline that is outdated, you should always use recent material, and you never want to show anything that your actor isn't proud of presenting. Another truism is that your music underscore isn't all that important to a producer or director, after all, they are really just wanting to see the actor's performance, so even if you got Adele to agree to let you use her music it really doesn't matter. In fact, some producers even turn down the volume in an effort to concentrate on the visuals of the scene. 

How long is an actor's reel? I asked around, and what I determined is that actor reels are short. After experimenting I think under 2 or 3 minutes is more than enough material. You can always re-edit the reel every year, or every six months. Another tip is use only the highest resolution material you can get your hands on, that means, stay away from standard definition footage whenever possible. Also, experiment with still head shots too. I did and used them at the end of the reel for Becker and I think it worked well, but don't go crazy, keep it simple. Again, there's no right or wrong way of editing a reel, but it should flow and not confuse. As I learned, "it's not about the editor's skills, it's about the actor!"

As my friend Becker told me half way through this project, the reel should tell a story, it should have a beginning, middle and end, and so when it came to editing his reel, I inserted some voice over he had from Mike Rowe and his show that Becker had appeared on. I tucked just the audio under the black slate at the top of the reel and then paid it off at the end of the reel. Everything in between were highlights of Becker's most recent work. Hope this helps.