Ten Tips for Making a Great Demo Reel

(adapted from an article I wrote in 2015)


When you’re trying to get a job with an animation studio, you’ve gotta show them what you’re capable of.  The industry is exciting and fast-paced, so there’s not a lot of room for slacking.  You’ve got to show that you have what it takes!  Behind all the fun, it’s a demanding job.  But once you have that job, you won’t trade it for all the tea in China.


Use these tips to help you show yourself at your best.

Animators will benefit the most from these tips.  Technical Directors will too.  Editorial positions are a little different, and their reels will differ too.  Sound and music will play a bigger part, and Editorial reels are usually longer than others.

Number 1 – Five Parts
There’s five parts to any demo reel submission.  Those are:
  • Cover letter
  • Resume
  • Demo Reel Breakdown
  • Demo Reel
  • Online application, which includes your Reel Submission Agreement
The cover letter should be clear, concise, to the point.  Just like for a “normal job.”


The resume should detail information like where you’ve worked before, what you accomplished, and any recent coursework you’ve completed.  It should also show what tools you know, along with systems, languages and major programs you have at least working knowledge of.


The DRB, or Demo Reel Breakdown is important, but more on that later.  Be sure to include it, as no one is going to want to break their flow to see a necessary bit somewhere else.  Besides, looking at your awesome website would be important if you wanted to be a web designer.


Number 2 – What you show should prove your knowledge
When you complete your best work, you should have something to show for it.  Maybe you wrote a Maya plugin that creates better bump maps.  Write a title card that says this, then show your plugin in action.  We’re not programmers, so please don’t show screen captures of C++ code.  Don’t just show pictures of happy people using the thing you created.  Show what your creation does!


Maybe you’ve done some awesome shading.  Then show the first basic color pass, then procedural shading, then your painting, and lastly the fully lit version.  For large projects and sequences that you’ve done work on, show a few stages of production.


Number 3 – Keep it short
Demo reels should be short and to the point, exactly like resumes and cover letters.  A good rule of thumb is four minutes, preferably less.  Maybe you’ll be allowed a little more if you happen to be a CEO or senator or something.  If you have an overabundance of terrific stuff to show off, and can’t cut it down to 4 scant minutes, then make a 4 minute reel anyway.  Put the additional material onto a DVD and refer to it in your reel.
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Don’t show a “collage” of your work.  Random clippings from everything you’ve done doesn’t provide any clue about what’s going on.  Your audience needs to have at least a little context, a little explanation.  Show only your best pieces, and above all, keep it simple.


Number 4 –  No unapproved work.
Don’t even think about it.  If you want to show finished work from studios other than the one you’re applying to, then get permission first.  No one wants to look at work that can’t be considered “yours.”


Number 5 –  The DRB
Without a Demo Reel Breakdown, no one is going to know what you did, to whom, and how much.  You might show a monkey juggling three balls, and you might have done a really good job – but what did you do on this reel, anyway?  Did you animate the model someone else created?  Did you shade it?  Maybe you modeled it?  Or you could have rendered the monkey, or lit it all, or storyboarded it.  Or perhaps you were executive producer for the animation?


If there’s no DRB to tell a recruiter what you did, what part you played, and what tools you used to do it, they will dump your reel.  Promise.


Pack your DRB with info.  “Group project.  Used Maya, Blender and Renderman” is not a helpful entry.


“Juggling Monkey:  Group Project (August 2017).  I used Maya to shade and render the monkey model” is a much better entry.


Recruiters often lag behind when read a DRB, so do them a favor and put the entry on before the sequence.  Put the same information in your DRB.  If there are a lot of entries, number them and put the same numbers on the actual reel too.  The difference might be obvious to you, but your average Joe might not be able to differentiate “Juggling Monkey” from “Weasel With Balls.”


Number 6 – Put Your Best Stuff Up Front
It is absolutely true that recruiters don’t watch the entire reel.  They’ll look at the first minute or so, watching for something to grab them.  If they see that, then they’ll watch the next few minutes.  If nothing does grab them, then they’ll move on to the next reel.


Put your best work first, your most impressive stuff.  This should be the sort of thing you’d be doing in the job you’re applying for.  Note which position you’re applying for on all your materials.  Don’t simply change labels since the company is hiring Background Animators.  Show what you’re best at doing, and be sure to tell the recruiter as well.


Number 7 – Soundtrack?  Don’t bother.
To be perfectly honest, no one cares about sound.  In fact, recruiters usually turn it off.  Sometimes we’ll leave it on, though, so if that recruiter doesn’t like your taste in music, you’re sunk.  Keep it basic, or just leave it off entirely.


Number 8 – Polish obsessively.
ONce you’re done with your reel, take some time to check it out as if you were seeing it for the first time.  Have some rough spots?  Polish them out.  Then repeat until your reel is flawless.  Don’t look at it for a week, then take it out and polish some more.


There’s no joking involved (this time!)  This is how you get a job in the industry.  Sweat the small details, for the devil is in them.  And he will get noticed.


It is accurate to say that many people are in such a rush to get their reels done.  People often go so fast as to push out inferior products.  The market is flooded with inferior products.  Make sure you don’t present one of them.
This is a visual industry.  Your reel needs to look super good in order to impress.


Match those colors properly.  Anti-alias your shaders.  Use fonts sparingly (no more than two or three), and make sure they look good together.  Make sure your lights aren’t blown out too bright, or too dark.


Number 9 – Title Cards
Be sure to create a title card for your reel.  It should appear for a short time at the beginning, and should be the last thing on your reel.  Make sure it’s neat and tidy, including information like your name, address, phone number, email address, shoe size and IQ – everything a good recruiter needs to know.  It’s a great idea to include the title of the position you’re after, too.  It’s a much worse idea to make people frantically search for the remote to get your name and phone number which has already disappeared from the screen.


Number 10 – Make sure you have a reel.
Don’t fake it if you don’t actually have material to make a reel out of.  Sometimes it’s better to make a strong presentation out of still images that you’ve worked up.  This can be just as effective as rolling balls or juggling monkeys.


Number 11 (bonus tip):  Show your reel before you send it off.
Another excellent idea is to have additional sets of eyes look at your reel before you send it to the recruiter.  When doing this, it’s more important to get feedback on how you present your work.  If you have animator friends that won’t get jealous, getting opinions on the work itself is good too.  The most important thing, though, is for your entire reel to make sense.


And if you have a few friends who are slaving away over their reels too, have a Reel Party one night!


Lastly, you probably want to apply online.  No one wants to fuss around with physical media that’s been mailed in.  Go over the job posting with a fine tooth comb to understand the submission process, and do that.  Different companies have different ways they want you to present your work.
Good luck with that demo reel!



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