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Everyone knows how important headshots are in making a first impression, but a high-quality actor demo reel is no less essential. Reels showcase your unique personality, look, and brand. They also document your best on-camera performance to date and display your level of professionalism.

Here are three tips for improving this essential part of an actor’s toolkit.

 

Don’t Be Vague

Actor reels are essentially a commercial promoting yourself as an actor, showcasing your brand. But not everyone is excited by the idea of being labeled. Many like to feel like they can fit into a wide variety of categories at will and through their training. But understanding the kinds of roles you best match can make the difference between working and not working. As casting veteran James Levine puts it, “If you don’t know what [your brand] is, you’re vague. And vague gets you nowhere.” 

But it’s not always easy for actors to figure out their brand or how it changes over time; indeed, many struggle for years in the over-generalized zone, resulting in limited rewards.To create an awesome actor reel, it’s best to really clarify what makes you most marketable. The sooner you zero in on your specific brand and communicate it effectively in your demo reel, the better. 

Not quite sure what your particular brand is? Watch Levine and Charles Carpenter’s fun and informative Bring It! video “What Is Your Brand as an Actor?” which includes an “essence exercise” that is sure to get you thinking. Showcase your range and caliber in a reel that highlights you in that character type, the brand you own.

 

Start with You

A great reel begins with you acting right away. “I want to see your face first and foremost when that demo reel starts or when that scene starts,” casting director Erica Arvold says. “If you’re having a scene opposite, say, Morgan Freeman, and it starts on [his] face and then goes to you, I’m going to think twice about whose demo reel it is. Like literally it needs to be your face first.”

Start with your strongest performance casting professionals often only have a moment to view the first scene of any given reel. Close-ups are beneficial as they focus the attention on you. However, make sure to also show other actors in the scene to give the viewer enough information to understand the scene. 

If you’re new to acting and don’t have much footage to bring to the table yet, create content in which you’re speaking most of the dialogue as well as listening in character. Show two to five scenes displaying your acting range, and keep them moving quickly. As soon as you garner footage from real projects, replace the old with the new.

 

Take the time to do it properly—but get it done.

Demo reels have a whole different technical standard than self taped auditions. While many casting professionals insist that a cellphone camera provides sufficient picture and audio quality for self taped auditions, they clearly call for a far higher bar when it comes to actor demo reels. The content and pace are expected to be engaging, concise, and sharp for a total of one to two minutes. But to achieve this requires planning, time, and investment. Remember, an actor reel is not just a burdensome requirement; it’s an investment into yourself and your career. So, make it a priority to create a demo that wows producers and directors. 

 

Repurpose Content 

Professional footage can be taken from your commercial, TV, or film work. But if you’re new to acting or have limited-to-no footage, try finding work in student films. You may not get paid, but you’re sure to gain valuable on-set experience, and you’ll receive a completed copy of the production that can then be added to your reel. Also, some businesses work with actors to create professional-quality demo reels—some offering acting coaches as well. These companies deal with all the technical aspects, making sure footage is color-corrected and the audio is normalized, which can take a load off of actors. But if you go this route, first make sure you view a number of their completed actor reels to assess if their work meets industry standards. 

 

Shoot New Content

For those who choose to create their own content, consider shooting a scene you love. Casting director Erica Arvold advises, “Just write your own thing and direct your own thing and have actually a crew. Make it professional and have coverage so you can cut into a scene.” That “crew” might be hired professionals or it could be your theater pals who own equipment. Just keep in mind, it’s wise to use a monitor to review the footage as you go along so you don’t get to the end of the day, only to discover faces out of focus, reflections of the lighting equipment in the actor’s eyeglasses, or issues with the sound. 

Another option if you’re low on content is to use one of your best audition performances as a sample of your work, provided it has excellent production value and the owner of the footage permits you to do so. 

And remember, after you’ve created your demo reel, make sure to attach it to your Casting Frontier account so busy casting directors can view it with ease when selecting talent for commercial roles.