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Summer Approacheth: Time to find a job!
Demo Reels

By Bill Barrett

We had a fresh-faced Young Graduate come to us for an entry level editor's job, and on the phone and by her resume, she seemed very pleasant, and well worth meeting. She brought her tape.

(I am serious here...)

It was fifteen minutes of no-identifiable story running around in random directions and screaming in a graveyard at night with terror music. (Done day-for-night with heavy blue gel on a VHS camera. I love the way people get all squinty at night in bright blue moonlight...)

(I am serious here...)

The sound track was an assortment of 60-cycle buzz, and terror music apparently recorded with a microphone held close to a cassette deck playback--oh, yes--and the screaming. (Guess there was shortage of patch cords...)

(I am serious here...)

The girl being chased is ultimately killed with a big knife into her eye-socket, and the show ends with Alfred Hitchcock's "Skreek--skreek--skreek" music from "Psycho" as we fade to black with a bloody close-up of her fatally stabbed face.

(We do corporate programs and some regional commercials here. She knew that in advance.)

Very rarely am I caught with nothing to say.


Do not do this.

First, decide just who the audience is. This might consider such factors as: are you pitching to a corporation, positioning yourself as a producer; or are you seeking work as a producer's assistant--or whatever. Often, people discover they probably better make more than one reel. We did. We have three. Special Effects, Ultimatte, and Commercials. When you carry your reel to a meeting, bring VHS, 3/4, and Beta copies. Be prepared to happily leave your VHS copy behind if they want to keep it. (This gives you a reason to call them again in a few weeks or months and offer to "update" your reel for them.) Do some cover artwork, and put it in a nice plastic library hard case. Get a bright color for the case.

When you send it, use ONLY FedEx. Even just cross-town. This is not only for speed reasons. (They have an economy 2-day service that's pennies more than the The Post Office.) In our experience, the Post Office destroys about 10 percent of the tapes we've ever sent. It's not a packaging issue, we pack stuff well. It's evil Postal Karma. FedEx has never destroyed a tape in our many years of using them.

The other reason is that FedEx always arrives with a lot of importance and immediacy. Everybody treats it like it's snakebite antitoxin being rushed in to save a life. (Even if it's on a 2-day!) They don't EVER get lost. The cost is unimportant. You've already invested many virtual dollars of your precious time in fulfilling the shipment. The chump change difference in cost of shipping methods can easily waste more than it saves...

As to the reel itself, decide what is your very, very best work
--> O * N * L * Y <--,
and show only that. Sometimes this means a very short reel. But one 30 second commercial, excellently done, excellently positioned, in either a personal meeting or sent by mail, will have more impact than a large mass of less-excellent material.

Personally, I would not show student stuff unless it was absolutely up to the highest standards you expect to be pitching. No one should be able to tell it's student project material unless you tell ‘em--and don't tell 'em unless they specifically ask. If they ask, tell 'em straight ahead all they want to know. This is only because most people on the verge of hiring you will perceive student material introduced as such in a lesser light. They're wrong, of course, but that's the way they are. (And if the material is so good that they can't tell, then they can't tell. Why red-flag it?)

When you make your reel's presentation, explain nothing, apologize for nothing, say nothing --till the reel's ended. When you speak, people will naturally turn from the screen to look at you, and they'll miss stuff. Explain later, and you'll find you'll explain a lot less. (Better still, put nothing in that needs any explaining.) Put a lot of extra black on the end of the reel, so you don't have to rush up to the VCR and punch it out. Many TV's in conference rooms will go to a BIG ROAR OF DEAD STATIC as soon as the tape is stopped. Breaks the favorable mood you've just busted your butt to create.

Likewise, bring a SEPARATE bars and tone test reel. Be sure their damn TV has the sound on and set before you waste the first few precious seconds of your reel with the client fiddling with the zapper, and missing THE POINT.

Don't try to do these bars on your own reel. The explanations for the video-uninitiated will just muddy the waters. The long blank space between the bars and the show will lay on the conference table like an eternal stink of dead fish. Your job, as a communicator is to put people at ease by smoothly and professionally communicating. Fred Astaire made it look so easy, by working so hard in preparation.

The most frequent mistake we see is reels that are far too long. Most people in the business will size up your "level" in about fifteen seconds. It's a cruel, fast, and judgemental business. Reels longer than absolutely necessary to make your point only risk boring your audience, and give you an increased opportunity to shoot yourself in the foot. Our "Ultimatte" reel is three and a half, our "Commercials" is four, and our "Special Effects" is two and a half. We've been doing this eighteen years. Imagine how much we left out! Here's a bb-ism you might enjoy, "We don't do Television by the pound. We say what we have to say, and we shut up."

Finally, no reel or collection of reels will please everybody. You simply will not connect with some folks. This is why there are so many stations on the radio dial.... If you make your reel bland to not offend anyone, it won't excite anyone either. Pitch toward what you want to do, and don't try to please all possible markets and people.

Identify and stake out the territory you want, and attack it singlemindedly, and you'll win. Make a memorable total identity package out of yourself, and pitch that. It must be focused--not all things to all people. You are a product.

Thus armed, sally forth, and swing a mighty sword.

Bill Barrett is with Studio One in Ridgefield CT, (203) 438-3117,,

Posted: March 1998
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor