The Complete Guide To Acting Showreels
I have been working professionally with acting showreels for many years. I have always found them to be important. When I am casting a film, seeing reel footage is crucial. Especially now – the market for actors is more flooded than ever before. Who has the time to audition 80,000 actors? A CV is important, as is the headshot. But this game is about talent, it’s about what you do on screen.
The showreel is one of the best tools at your disposal for showcasing what you can do. But what should a showreel look like? And how much should you pay? Should you create a reel from scratch?
So many questions and no official answers. I am going to share everything that I have learned over the years as a showreel creator and editor, as well as a director of over twenty short films.
Why Are You Getting A Showreel?
Most actors realise they need a showreel. But so often it’s treated as an afterthought. Something to get to at some point down the road. Projects are seen not as art, but as ‘reel material’, and when reels are finally done they are often hastily edited together by the actors themselves, or by a friend.
I think that the low priority actors often give to their showreels is a huge mistake.
Actors tend to have a curious attitude towards showreels. I find phrases like, “I’m doing the short film because it’s good reel material” to be quite jarring. To think of a showreel as just a thing where you act in a few different scenarios, with a few different emotions, is to really miss the point.
A film, a web-viral, a comedy sketch; whatever it is that you do — your goal as an actor is, surely, to connect with the audience. To have them resonate with who you are and what you do.
That almost never happens when you view projects simply as opportunities for reel material. And likewise, when a showreel is hacked together on iMovie by a non-editor, it often shows a lack of professionalism and interest in your own work.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes people who have no experience of editing put their own reels together, and it works extremely well. But that is a rarity!
So why are you getting a showreel? I think a showreel is about a journey. You as an actor, are at the point you’re at, wherever it is, on the long road to becoming a better artist. Your showreel is evidence of who you are at this moment in time. It shows us where you’ve come from, what you’ve achieved — and of course, what you look and sound like!
So what does a showreel need? The simple answer: Good acting.
The more experience I’ve had working with showreels, the more I have aimed for simplicity. My approach is to show the actor acting well in as many ways as I possibly can, in the shortest amount of time.
A short amount of time, because people’s attention spans are short, especially for showreels. People just want to glimpse. They want to click on random bits of your reel and see what you’re doing. Wherever they click, it needs to be good acting.
Montages are generally perceived to be a thing of the past, and should only be used in rare circumstances, if you think you have a valid reason for having one. But generally, people don’t want to see you walking in and out of different shots while a Justin Timberlake song plays — they want to see you act.
I have always worked to keep showreels under 3 minutes. I am beginning to work closer to 2 minutes. I think the more you can do to keep it short, the better.
A mistake that many showreels make, is to start with the newest material, or the one that has them acting alongside big name actors; and then they progressively get older and older material as the reel goes on. This is a HUGE mistake! People don’t want showreels in a linear fashion — they skip through them, they click on random bits. If there’s something from five years ago, that you’re not particularly proud of, it shouldn’t be on your reel.
Just like with a movie, there’s a mystical thing you need to make a showreel work. You can never guarantee them, but for me, these two ingredients are crucial.
We have to feel like we know the actor. That we care about them. Even if they are mostly playing evil characters. When we are casting for a role, we are also hoping to find a human being who we will get along with. Not only that but, as an actor; we want to relate to and empathise with your characters. If you can achieve this, we sense your quality as an actor.
On the one hand, a showreel is just a mixture of clips. And that works just fine, but I think the best showreels reach another level.
The human brain is programmed to enjoy stories. There’s no reason why a showreel shouldn’t aim to satisfy that need.
How you do this, I can’t precisely explain. When I edit showreels, I try to weave them together in a way that gives the viewer a sense of rhythm and continuity. This may be through repetition — be it through music or returning to the same film later in the reel.
Your showreel is your story. Wherever you’re at as an actor, your reel should show how you got there.
Should You Hire An Editor, Or Get Your Friend To Do It?
You could hire me to paint your house. And sure, how hard can it be — I put paint on the brush, then start painting, right? We could get away with it, maybe.
And editing — it’s just putting videos together and changing the order around, right? You could get away with that too probably?
It’s up to you. You may indeed get away with it. But do you want to ‘get away with it’, or do you want a professional to create the best reel possible?
I’ve been invested in this world for a long time, and I care about it. I am good with the storytelling aspects, with decision making, and with making things flow. Different editors will bring different qualities to your reel, but make sure you do your research before committing to anything.
I’d definitely recommend hiring someone with a proven track record, whose reels you have seen examples of and are impressed by.
It’s like anything else, there will always be people who are cheaper and people who are more experienced. You could get a film student to shoot your wedding, and he’s doing it practically for free — but twenty years from now, when you look back, maybe you’ll wish you’d hired the guy who remembered to film the wedding ring moment, and who knew how to position himself in the right place for the first dance, who could shoot it at the right angle.
Everyone has their price. Everyone is worth a certain value. I am very exact about what I charge and provide many examples to show what you’ll get. I’m not saying you should hire me, but it’s certainly worth hiring a person or service who can provide precisely what you need, at a fair price.
Should You Film Showreel Scenes From Scratch?
There are many services that do this badly. That is precisely why I was able to find a niche as a showreel creator. My background as a writer, director and editor; and my emphasis on fresh and unique content, it gave me an angle where I was able to do good work.
But I think you need to think very carefully before committing to a showreel from scratch.
Most of the well known services out there use material from films that have already been made (i.e. Casualty, Closer, etc), or perhaps from plays. This is risky for many reasons.
Not so much because of copyright. I doubt Warner Brothers care what somebody is doing on a showreel — but creatively. If you try to do the Morgan Freeman role from Shawshank, you’re either imitating him, or trying to do your own thing. And really? You think you can do better than Morgan Freeman?
I think it is ESSENTIAL that you insist on ORIGINAL and UNIQUE content for your showreel. You want to work on material that has been written FOR YOU. That’s the only reason you should do a showreel from scratch; because someone or a service is genuinely interested in doing what is best for you.
Another problem with from-scratch-reels, is that they’re often filmed in film schools and studios; where nothing looks real. The sets look cheap, the background sound is hacked on; and you’re left with a pretty embarrassing scene. I won’t provide samples, because I think nearly every actor reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about.
The scenes in a showreel should feel like they come from real projects. Authenticity is such a key thing. I shoot showreel scenes in the same way and with the same care and attention that I would a comedy sketch or film project. If you get a showreel created, you need personal access to the director, you need to feel valued. You don’t just want to be shuffled onto a film set with a camera pointed at you.
So, should you get a showreel-from-scratch? Maybe. Look at different services. Find as many examples as you can and ask for references.
I’m sure there is much more I could say about showreels, but this is what came to mind at the particular time I say down to write this. If you have any questions, need any advice, or are interested in hiring my to work on your reel, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me on Twitter, @danieljohnsonuk