Tips & Tutorials: Top Tips to perfect your showreel with Stephen J Nelson

We spoke to Stephen J Nelson, a cinematographer from London for some wisdom when creating showreels. Here are his top tips on perfecting your showreel..

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Whether you’re a Director, Producer, Cinematographer or Artist, if you’re working in a visual medium then you need to be able to show people your work easily. That’s where the humble ‘showreel’ (or ‘reel’ for short) comes in. Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules yet you’ll find wildly differing views on their use and execution.

Some feel that showreels are deceptive and that you should only present full clips to show everything in the context of its production. Others argue the opposite, that you need to keep it short and sweet and yet others try to produce reels that are longer and include more context. I have a bit more of an all-encompassing approach.

The issues with the above are fairly obvious: 

If you have to show full clips, how do you direct the viewer to the most impressive parts? 

If you’re only showing snippets of information, how can the viewer have any insight in your ability to shoot any more than a few cool shots? 

If your reel is 6 minutes long, how do expect people to hang on til the end?

My approach is to use all 3 optoins and it works like this:

1./ I have a 1 minute showreel ‘Teaser’ – this is an advert for the cool stuff to draw people in and leave them wanting more. A 6 minute reel will bore the pants off people!

2./ I have 2 more ‘extended’ reels that split my work into Drama/Narrative and Promo/Commercial. I think it’s obvious that these creative ‘worlds’ are pretty different and therefore it allows me to show a more in-depth look at some of the work I’m proud of in those areas. These don’t go much past 2 minutes in length either.

3./ I have a website which has the full project videos/clips in their entirety with some helpful blurb about the production/crew etc. 

The 1 minute teaser is simply there to draw people to your website and then from there onwards you can direct them into individual content. Producers have notoriously short attention spans so with a 1 minute reel you’re in with a chance they’ll watch to the end!

So here are some points on how to get going on your reel:

1./ Be objective  - asses your work coldly as if watched for the first time by a stranger. Hold it up against what is out there in the market today. 

2./ Be Ruthless – don’t show more than you need to. If the shot makes you ask the question “is it good enough” then you probably need to put it to one side and look for something stronger.

3./ Use trailer music – unless you have a composer friend willing to help you out. You need something that runs for 1 minute. I’m a believer that it should build up to a huge point and leave people wanting more (as I’ve said before). My 2 other reels use longer more flowing music to lead people through. My go to music is ‘Two steps from Hell”, “Trailerhead” or “Brand X” trailer music. I’m not up on the copyright of things like this – your reel isn’t for profit so I’m sure that there can’t be too much of a problem but still, it’s best to credit the composer (while typing this I’m hurriedly scribbling a reminder to myself that I need to add a music credit!)

4./  Cherry pick the best bits of your work – break down each project into best clips and create a separate timeline in your edit software for each project. Call it “{project} best bits”. This will help you keep your ‘reel edit timeline’ clear and help you go backwards and forwards between projects easily. This helps with trying different edits out too.

5./ Break up your reel according to the music – it’s story telling. You introduce, you expand, you conclude. Simple 3 act structure. 

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My teaser reel breaks down like this:

1./ Introduction – slow, considered, stylish, iconic shots. Recogniseable faces.

[music punctuation]

2./ Flowing images from Ads building up into dance and action. Flowing cuts

3./ Action building up to high peak. Faster cutting.

[music cuts down quiet again]

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6./  Keep it flowing – don’t get hung up on trying to tell a project’s story this is the story of you! Use strong imagery to draw people in and through to the end.

7./ Don’t repeat – when you’re starting out you may have a small or limited body of work. There can be a temptation to pad out your reel to make it seem like you have more work than you do. This can mean going back to similar images/shots later in the reel or even that you’re repeating shots from earlier. I’ve been there, don’t do it. Keep all the images from one project together.

8./  Re-editing older work – I’ve just been here recently when I updated my teaser reel. It’s the first 2 points again [objectivity and ruthlessness]. Your older work has to hold up in the current market or it’s not relevant. It’s no good trying to show where you’ve come from or what you’ve learned over the years. People are only interested in what you can do now.

9./ Test your reel out – find honest friends who will tell you bluntly if it’s any good. Heck, email it to me and I’ll tell you! 

10./ Market yourself – I’m laughing while typing this because this is my weakest point. Get your reel in front of people. Network. I’m still trying to figure this one out. If any of you have any ideas please let me know!

Now that you have a good reel make sure your website is linked to it. I’m currently updating mine from a static portfolio page (which requires the visitor to make the decision on what they want to watch) to a one-page site that leads the visitor down the page and through the clips they saw in the reels. It’s something worth thinking about while you’re editing…

Good luck!

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Check out our interview with Stephen back in 2014 here.

Tweet him with your finished showreel and any questions you may have at @StephenJNelson. 

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