Getting your First Showreel from Scratch Made

The idea of creating a showreel from scratch can be a daunting idea for an actor. Whether you’re new to acting, just graduated from drama school, or are a working actor who has focused primarily on theatre work, there can be many reasons why you might feel some hesitation before committing to creating a reel from scratch. However, you wouldn’t be reading this unless you were interested in creating one, so I will use this blog post to demystify the process and to help you get comfortable with the idea of putting yourself on screen.

First, I’ll focus on a few of the basics. Then I’ll focus on many of the questions you’ll likely have about developing your first acting showreel.

screenshot of showreel filming

What is a showreel from scratch?

A showreel from scratch is a custom made, bespoke collection of scenes; focused on you as an actor. Each showreel creation company will have a different way of approaching the task of building your reel. The key and crucial thing is that the material should be original, and it should be focused on you and your strengths. What you do not want to do; is recreate scenes from a movie you like. This is not playing to your strengths, and if anyone recognises the material, they’ll be comparing you to the famous actor who played the character. Sure, you may perform ‘The Departed’ better than Jack Nicholson, but do you even want to take that chance?

How many scenes should I create when building a reel from scratch?

For me, the sweet spot is three scenes. Anything more feels like too much for the viewer to take in. Any less comes with limitations. What do I mean by that?

If you have one scene only, you are showing the viewer your acting skills in a very specific way.  It can be good to start with one scene, but the likelihood is you want to show the viewer a bit more of what you can do. The problem with having two scenes, is that they become opposites. Let’s say; a drama scene and a comedy scene. Or, a strong character, and a weak character. There’s nothing wrong with this as such, but for me the sweet spot is three scenes. With three scenes you can play with different ideas, show nuance, give the person viewing (likely a casting director or agent), a really good sense of what you can do.

What if I’m nervous about acting on camera?

It’s natural to be nervous when you contemplate creating a showreel from scratch. Make sure you work with an experienced director, someone who will make you feel comfortable on set, who will be able to give you actionable support which will help you do your best work on the day. It’s important to know that; nerves are natural. It means you care about it. To do your best work on camera requires you to be vulnerable, to put yourself out there; so it’s not surprising the idea fills you with a little dread.

That’s why it’s crucial to work with someone you trust. Someone who is invested in creating the reel with you. When you work with someone you trust, you are able to let go of your nerves and insecurity, because you know you are in safe hands. You know you are working with someone who has done this before, who knows how to get the best out of you.

Nerves can manifest in many ways; forgetting lines, panicking about an upcoming shoot, worrying about over-acting. Just remember, these things are normal. And there’s only one way to overcome the fear; it’s to turn up and do your reel.

Will I overact when I am filming my showreel?

If you lack experience acting on camera – if you’re used to working in the theatre, then I totally understand the concern. To be blunt – it’s very likely you’ll have moments of ‘doing too much’ on camera. That’s why it’s crucial that you collaborate with a director you trust, somebody who has the tools and experience to help you through the experience.

One of the most important things to learn as a professional actor is how to be natural and believable on camera. It often surprises actors how little they need to do on screen. If your character has to say ‘I hate you’ to another character, it’s unlikely they need to put the emotion of hate into the performance – the words themselves are usually enough. Or as I heard it put recently, ‘your job isn’t to cry, it’s to make the viewer cry’.

One of the tricky parts about developing a reel is that you, as the client, are the one paying to do the process. Naturally, you want it to be as good as it can possibly be. Therefore, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying too hard, of trying to ‘give’ the best performance. But of course, acting on screen is not about trying to force anything, it’s about becoming a believable, real-character. That’s where the trust comes in. You have to trust the director, as they’re the one behind the camera, and you have to trust yourself. You have to get to the point where you know that what you’re doing on screen is enough.

Often, a take where you feel you ‘nailed it’ won’t be the one that works on screen. And another take where you’re convinced you blew it, will be the best piece of material you have. That’s why you need a director you believe in, because if you’re left to self-directing, to managing every element of your own performance, then you’re likely to second-guess yourself, to never be happy.

When you’re comfortable, when you love the script, and when you know what’s expected of you; you’ll be in a position to deliver high quality performances on screen.

What makes a good showreel from scratch scene?

I’ve written about this in a lot of detail over the past ten years, and dedicated a lot of space to it in my book ‘How to Build a Great Acting Showreel’. But to give a succinct answer;

Your scene needs to have a conflict between two people. The higher the stakes, the more powerful the scene.

That doesn’t mean the characters need to be screaming and shouting. What it means is; the situation needs to mean a lot to the character. They have to really want and need something; and if there’s the possibility of them losing something, even better.

A lot about what makes a great scene is indescribable. You just know it when you read it. That being said, don’t treat the writing part like it’s irrelevant. You can’t polish a turd. No matter how good you’re acting is, if the script is terrible, it won’t do your acting justice. With my showreel service, I write every single scene; so if you like what I do then you know the quality you’re getting with the writing. If you work with another company, be sure to see their writing examples. When you read their work, it’s not enough to think ‘yeah this is okay,’ you need to feel excited, inspired; you need to feel like the scripts will be a vehicle in which to show your ability as an actor.

Shall I Just Do Some Student Films Instead of Paying for a Showreel?

In theory this is a great idea. When I started in the industry, it was a norm to build showreel material through being in student films. But in those days (I’m showing my age) there were a lot less actors coming through. These days, it’s likely you have a lot of competition. Or at least, it feels like competition.

But the truth is – there is only one you. But if nobody knows who you are, if nobody has seen you act on screen, how will they know to cast you?

Waiting for short films to cast you is a tricky one because, first of all, those roles may go to actors who already have a reel. But even if you do get cast, there’s no guarantee the footage will be useable for a professional showreel. Student filmmakers are learning their craft – learning how to direct, how to record sound, how to work with actors. Sometimes, you get magic, but more than likely you’ll have a disjointed film that you don’t feel confident putting on your reel.

Also, the storyline and style of a student film may not bring you the kind of roles that will stand out on a showreel.

By all means, try the student film route. But after a while, if you don’t have the material you need to better your career, you may want to take more proactive action and get material created that is tailor made specifically for you.

Why Get a Showreel from Scratch?

It’s an investment in you. It’s a video that you can utilise to show people what you can do. A strong showreel can cement your casting types and give people a strong indication of how to cast you. It is a tool which can help you get that much coveted TV/Film role.

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Daniel Johnson
Writer, Director, Author