Reel Talk


When you meet people, don’t you wish you could only show them the best parts of you? Too bad. This is real life. At some point, someone’s going to discover your concerning love for Lord of the Rings (who could I be talking about?!) However, there is also reel life – a weird dimension in the industry where you put your best foot forward in a succinct manner. The problem is, where do you even start to build your reel? How long should it be; what kind of music do you use; what are producers looking for in a reel; these are all questions that plague filmmakers who wish to create their very first reel.

Fear not! One of the greatest parts of working in this industry is that you get to surround yourself with other amazing, knowledgeable creators. I’ve asked four of those amazing, knowledgeable creators to spill their secrets when it comes to compelling reels. We’ll get a rounded answer from the perspective of the creator and the person who watches your reel and determine your hireability. Let’s get reel! (Are you reel sick of these jokes, yet?)


In your opinion, how long should a reel be? And how does that influence the effectiveness of the reel?

Sean: It’s all relative based on how much and what type work you’ve done, but I think short and sweet is always better. Mine’s a minute, minute thirty. The point of a reel isn’t to show everything you’ve done, but it’s a quick idea of what you’ve done, what you can do, and what you might be able to do in the future. Ideally, someone who watches the reel can love the teaser of your work that they see, then go and watch your individual projects in full.

Riggs: It depends on the person. Most reels are about a minute, minute and a half. I think if it’s for an individual person and not a production company, I usually try to make it a minute and half to two minutes. The reason is that, you take all the projects that you’ve done, and you grab the best shots, the best movements, the best looks, and the most popular people you’ve shot. If you grab everything that you think is worthy, usually that comes to a minute to a minute and half long. Of course, you have people that have gorgeous shots that linger, and that will make your reel longer. Let that drama unfold and breathe without cutting away – there’s something beautiful about that, too. When I cut a reel for someone else, I always look at their best work, and my favorite thing to do is to hook you at the beginning and leave you in awe at the end. I want to make you push play, and within the first five shots make you say, “Man, what is this?!” I want to hook you and keep you long enough to stay til the end.

Zach: I try to keep them to a minute. But I think the key for me is to not let it be boring. The moment that it becomes boring or stale the audience would dart somewhere else, that’s when I end it. They’re tough because you have to make a lot of things work on their own to be meshed together and work together. Not convoluted. But cohesive. The better reels that I’ve seen or cut are the shorter ones. The longer you get, it’s a little too self-serving.

Randy: To me, it’s not about the time of the reel, or how long it should be, but it’s about choosing the best of the best. People make the mistake of showing everything they’ve done and that’s not the best way to do it. You need to have awareness of where you are, and I’d rather see a short reel that has the best two things rather than 10 things where 4 of them are good, but the other 6 are not that great. You may have something that isn’t up to date, but it’s in HD and still some of your best work. It’s not about when it’s done (unless it’s too dated in look), but if it’s still great work, you should include it.

How do you pick out shots for the reel? Is it more commercially-minded, or is it simply the most beautiful shots?

Sean: It’s different for every director, but in my space I try to display what I think is my best work. I try to pick the shots that sum up each project in the best way. Whether that means it shows the artist well, something unique visually, something that may spark the viewer’s interest to watch more. From a business standpoint, you’re putting in the work that hints the kind of work that you’re looking for. For example, if you’re not interested in documentary filmmaking then don’t put it in there. If you have varied interests maybe your reel includes all kinds of projects.

Riggs: You pick out the best of the very best. Usually the creatives will tell me which shots they love. If you’re cutting someone else’s reel, this is critical: what kind of work are they in? Are they a director, editor, etc.? If you’re a director, have sequences in that reel that have deep emotion, laughter, or some action that shows you can do choreography. Anything that shows that you can do anything across the board. For an editing reel, it’s showing how capable you are at doing all kinds of stuff and understanding how editing language works – what kind of shots flow together nicely. Also there are shots that cut quickly, and there are shots that need to breathe. If you’re a VFX artist, find the coolest images that were the hardest to make. If you don’t showcase your most awesome stuff, then they won’t hire you to do those creatively difficult things.

Zach: There’s two schools of thought: one is you pick the shot that goes well with the adjacent shots with it. The other, and my advice would be, is to throw out everything that isn’t the best of the best. There’s one chance for a client to see your work for the first time, and hopefully not the last time. Get rid of the fluff and the fat, and only showcase the things that are incredible. You want to showcase your abilities, whether you’re an editor, director, or cinematographer. Showcase the best clients, and the best versions of your skill sets. I will say, though, to try and focus on the things that you want to do instead of the stuff you’ve already done. Try to make your reel focus on those types of things. You want to be hired for the things that you want to be hired for. Make it a good representation of what you’ve done, but also what you want to do in the future.

Randy: I think it’s important if you have a large body of work, and you’re fortunate to have music videos or commercials, that you have a variety of styles. Know the audience that you’re sending it to. In other words, one reel does not fit everyone’s taste. It’s best to have different niches. If I know you have that versatility, then I’d put you up for different projects. It all depends on who you’re sending it to. So hook them right away! You may have put your best shot at the end, and I may not have seen it because you didn’t hook me right away. Feel confident that if you have a short reel, it’s better to have that then a long reel of not-so-great stuff. Be okay with that! It’s better to put out the best of who you are, what you’re about, and clients you’ve worked with. Don’t feel like you have to be the best director who’s ever lived right from the get go.

How do you choose the music for the reel, and how does it operate within the reel?

Sean: That’s the one I struggle with every time. I choose music that moves the visuals in a nice way, and I can cut on the beats. If you want something more quick paced, then you’ll want more upbeat, frenetic music. Directors that have more lingering, mellow shots will have more subdued music to reflect that.

Riggs: There’s something beautiful about the slow song that allows you to sink into those images to make you feel like you were there. Whereas, some reels are very quick, and that depends on the song. It’s ultimately about feeling, the images, and how creative you want to be with your music. Does it reflect you? Does it reflect the work that you have for that reel? If I’m an introvert, and i choose an upbeat song, that may not reflect me very well.

Zach: That’s the fun part, for me! I grew up around music, so my reels all center around that aspect. It will set the tone, pace, style, and mood that you’re going to convey. If I’m cutting reels for someone else, I’ll try and pick music that matches their style, in my eyes. If I’m cutting for myself I pick stuff that speaks to me, somehow. If you’re going for a high paced reel, a style that has more energy is going to be good. If you want dialogue to flow a little bit, or more cinematic or emotional moments, then you’ll want a song for that as well. Music Bed is a great resource for this because they have great curation and filter features. The reels I’ve cut over the years have drastically changed because of where I was in life. When you’re out in the world, you’ll hear a great song and you’ll think, “Man, that’s a great song for a reel!” It’s whatever speaks to me in that moment and I try to match that style.

Ultimately, what are the most key elements in a reel that impress you? And what advice would you have for creators trying to build their first reels?

Randy: I think people want to see someone who can execute (whether at a high budget level or lower budget level) the story. To me, is this person a good storyteller? Can this person make something that I haven’t seen a million times, and do they have a unique, artistic eye. Can I see he or she is diversifying their creativity based on the music or story. I love to find people who are not doing what everyone else is doing. I look for what this person does and it represents who they are and sets them apart. I love to have a diverse group of artists that can tell different stories.