The Art of Creating Compelling Showreel Scenes

I’m going to share exactly what you need to do to create a compelling showreel scene. I am going to lay out what makes a scene work, in terms of structure and content, and many of the things you need to avoid. When you are paying money to get showreel content created, it is imperative that you know what you are getting into and what should be expected.

I am going to do this through answering the most common questions I get asked – the type of things I answer in meetings and when I’ve been a guest on podcasts. These are the elements that will help you create a strong showreel scene.

How does a showreel scene differ from a scene in a movie or TV show?

A scene in a film is telling the story of the story. A showreel scene is telling the story of the actor.

Now of course, you still need to tell a well-crafted story, and it needs to be done in a believable and interesting way, that will in many ways mimic what you see on TV or in a film, but it’s different. I have a feeling the next question will help me explain why.

How cinematic should a showreel scene be?

The point of a showreel is to show how you act. To show how you handle the nuance of character and a story arc. It needs to be as cinematic as it needs to be in order to showcase your acting, and no more than that.

What I mean is, if your scene begins with a twenty second wide shot of you walking up a hill, or if there’s a ten second drone shot of an abandoned building, all before the dialogue where your character breaks up with their boyfriend, then you’ve wasted prime showreel real estate. The best thing your reel can do is start on your character immediately and get to the story.

It could be a close-up of you at a crucial moment. Or it could be a medium-shot that shows how your character carries themselves body-wise and clothing-wise, or maybe it’s a wide shot showing their environment — what’s important is how it tells the story. Too many actors have made the mistake of paying for a showreel that ‘pretends to be a Hollywood movie’.

The route to getting into a big movie is not to pretend that your showreel scene is a big movie.

Should you use a script from TV or Film?

Absolutely not! Firstly, if money is changing hands and you’re filming and publishing material that you don’t have the rights to, you’re breaking the law.

That being said, it’s unlikely DreamWorks are going to take the time to sue you, so you could get away with it, but you still shouldn’t.

It’s different when you’re at drama school and you’re doing things in an educational setting. When you’re out there in the world, it looks amateur if you’re recreating your favourite scene from ‘Closer’ or whatever Kate Winslet film you love.

It also doesn’t work because it fundamentally misses the point of what a showreel is.

What is a showreel scene, then?

It’s an opportunity! It’s the chance for you to handle a simple piece of drama. To grasp the character and what they go through and to act authentically.

How complex and ambitious should a showreel scene be? 

If you talk to different showreel creators you’re going to get different answers, but I’m going to say you should aim for simplicity. Why? Because it’s the hardest thing to do!

If you have a scene where you’re chasing someone down the street, flipping over a wall, and then telling someone you’re going to kill them, it might be fun to shoot, it might even be pretty cool to watch; but it’s unlikely it will really show us how you can act.

complicated film set

The hardest, yet most impressive thing for an actor to achieve, is vulnerability. To sit there on screen and portray a moment of realness. That doesn’t come from stunts and drone shots. It comes from two characters sharing a moment, bringing something real and relatable to the screen.

So my question would be, what does ambitious look like? You want to show casting directors you can act, right? I guarantee you, most of the time they want to see you in simple scenarios, handling something truthfully. Your character receives bad news, or your character gives bad news. Simple human conflict.

What is the difference between a well-written and badly written script?

I’ve been doing this for well over a decade, so not only have I witnessed good scenes and bad scenes but I’ve also written many of both!

Besides the obvious, like wanting to avoid cliches and have originality, the main thing that makes a showreel scene bad is when it doesn’t have a strong dramatic reason to exist.

What I mean is, too many scenes are just two slightly quirky people hanging out having a conversation. There’s no real drama or conflict to it. Even if you want to do a light comedic scene, it needs something strong driving it. You need one character who is absolutely ADAMANT about something.

I recently wrote a scene where a bridesmaid is determined to sing Elton John at her friend’s wedding, and the Bride is refusing to let it happen. They both believe in their task and they both believe it is crucial. This is what makes a scene come alive, when both characters are determined and resolute about their goal.

The bad version of that idea is two characters sitting around, coming up with quirky ideas for the wedding, but either of them could roll over any second because the matter isn’t life and death.

Matters should always be life and death (in the moment, to the characters). Conflict is the motor that drives showreel scenes, just like scenes in a movie.

Why is a duologue better than a monologue?

For the most part, it’s best to have you with another actor. How you relate to another person is a crucial part of acting. When you do it on screen, you see humanity in all its magic and complexity.

Don’t get me wrong, a solo piece can have its place, but so often that ends up just being a character ‘explaining’ things, or ‘telling a story’. Having another character across from you completely changes the dynamic and keeps things alive! During Covid I did a lot of online scenes with a drama school. The scenes were fine, they were a good way to be creative during the lockdown, but they lacked the interplay of characters facing a conflict together.

What are the most common mistakes you see in a showreel scene?

When an actor tries to achieve too much.

A good scene has a simple arc.

Mark refuses to acknowledge that his wife is dying / Mark comes to acknowledge that his wife is dying.
Sarah decides she’ll never date someone under 6ft / Sarah realises true love can come in any size.
Anita naively believes her employer is wonderful / Anita becomes suspicious her employer is doing something illegal.

Whether it’s drama or comedy, simplicity of approach is what makes for a strong scene.

What sometimes happens with a reel is that the actor wants to show they can do everything. “I know let’s have a scene where I am both strong and weak but also with a hilarious moment and I want to show that I can do period-style and also that I am good as a gangster but with a soft side and maybe my hair could change colour as I jump off the tractor at the end.”

That’s not how drama works, it’s not how scenes work, and it’s not how your showreel should work.

How can I ensure my showreel scene stands out and leaves a lasting impression on casting directors?

We see great acting in the small moments, not the big. One of my all time favourite moments from cinema is when Forrest Gump finds out he’s a father. Without any words, we just see him looking at this small boy, coming to the realisation it’s his son. Eventually, he’s able to say, ‘is he smart?’ – and it’s heartbreaking and moving.

Now, first of all, to revisit a question from earlier, here’s a perfect reason why you can’t just recreate that scene from Forrest Gump (aside from the copyright issues). The context of the line, “is he smart?” is powerful because of what we’ve learned about Forrest’s character over the previous two hours. To film that scene as a ‘showreel’ piece would lose the power of context. Another reason is, original scenes enable you to discover something genuine and real. If you recreate Forrest Gump, it’s going to be mimicry, you’ll be joining a cover band.

Anyways, I’m meant to be answering a different question. How to make your scene stand out?

Good, natural acting, is tough. You don’t need to scream and shout. You don’t need to go method and live the life of the character.

to show a showreel screenshot

You just need a well-written script, with a believable yet powerful conflict, and it needs to be filmed in a simple yet professional way that captures the nuances of the material and the performances. If you do that, you’ve got something that’s more powerful than 99% of the scenes out there.


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