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What Makes a Great Reel?

A reel is your creative expression and a very powerful tool to showcase unique talent. It is what producers, directors, ad agency creatives, and agents look at before making a final decision. How are you marketing and representing yourself?

Shane and I have so often sent links to reels with requests for feedback. See the spectacular example below from director Ringan Ledwidge because of the story, composition, and music. He and Shane recently collaborated on the Prudential commercial.

reel

I do business strategy and marketing for HV and don’t have a cinematographer’s trained eye in terms of nuances in color, skin tone and lighting. However, I have been intimately involved in the film business for as many years as Shane has been shooting, watched his growth as a cinematographer and have given feedback on every one of his reels. Over the years, we have tried many different options. One year, we even did an A, B, C, D, and E version of his reel with varying names. It is a very competitive business and if the Ad Agency is shooting a toaster commercial, then they want to see toasters on your reel. Obviously, this is impossible, but absolutely true in every way. The mindset is sometimes closed, jaded and judgmental. They are going for who is hot and not necessarily who is the most talented cinematographer. Do whatever it takes to get fresh eyes on your work and individualize it depending on the project: one for commercials, the other for features.

Here is what has worked well in our experience.

If you are just starting out as a cinematographer, a montage is very powerful. Shane edited his first reel of music videos to yoga chanting music and that is how he gained his first agent, Stacy Cheriff. It is much more about using the one amazing shot in a piece that is mediocre than showing that whole mediocre piece. So, pull an amazing shot into your montage. Try not to use shots where people are talking or singing; this tends to distract. Range and potential is what you need to capitalize upon.

Once you get to a certain place and have established yourself a bit more, your body of work begins to speak for itself. Then, the strategy changes to include: STORY, music, composition, mood, lighting, and camera movement. Less is more. In the commercial world, the first spot matters most. Open with something that will “Wow!” Music is equally powerful. Be sure to pick a musical piece that will not detract from the visuals.

Here is a great example reel from Kris Kachikis who used to gaff for Shane years ago and is a talented cinematographer.

reel

Eric Schmidt’s reel is another great example of a gifted cinematographer.

The feature world is determined by your latest film. Be picky and aware of your intention for every project. If you have the financial ability to pass, do so and wait for the amazing script. Shane has passed on many features and we have made lifestyle choices based on those decisions to let it be about the creativity and the story.

Author: Lydia

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34 Comments

  1. Feedback is an important point. My wife and I have a similar relationship (she’s a producer). I have her critique nearly everything I do. She’s brutally honest with me and (don’t tell her I said this but) she’s usually right. Either way she pushes me to step back and truly be objective.

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  2. One quick question: You mention not to show people talking. Most of my work is documentary or stories that involve people telling stories. Is your intent just to say not to have the music and the flow of the reel to stop to have someone say something or to never have a talking head shot in the reel? BTW, I don’t have a reel. Have tried putting one together but always found myself getting lost in the message I am trying to portray.

    Thanks for the info.

    dave

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    • Dave,
      Great question. Documentaries need to go under a Narrative section because the power is in the content and what the person is saying. The montage is for non-narrative. You are correct that you don’t want to interrupt flow and music in a montage. Hope that helps and good luck constructing your reel.

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  3. Thank you for your thoughts, very helpful to those of us in the stages of putting together a reel, or even those of us refining a previous reel. You’re right that you’re only as good as your last project. Saying no is just as important as saying yes. Practical tips like not using talking or singing are very helpful- you’re both turning into a kind of specialised online film school, which is quite amazing, thank you.

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    • Oli,
      Thank-you so much for your kind words. I’m glad you found the tips practical.
      Shane and I both love teaching and giving back.

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  4. Matt,
    Your are right with objectivity and feedback. When you have been editing for a while and looked at the footage over and over, an trusted opinion is invaluable.
    Know that it is tricky to give a brutally honest feedback. Shane has always listened, even if he didn’t like or agree with what I had to say!

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  5. Hey Shane and company. I was looking for a more direct way to send a link of my reel to you guys for feedback. It’s funny you made this post, I just recently within the last few months have completed mine. It’s my first one. Please give me any pointers. Always trying to get better. I’ve got a mixer of different cameras and compressions in there. I don’t like the older footage on there because of the compression problems, but I like the shots and compositions of them. Should I nix them or keep them? Is youtube ok to send to clients, vim, or should I invest in a website even if I’m just starting out?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Row_n5f8cqw

    Also, I had a question about pricing? I’m looked at most of your posts on here but can’t remember reading anything about how much to charge. I live in a small town, even smaller now (Joplin MO) and it’s been hard for me to price like when I’ve lived in a bigger city (KC). I have two 7ds, a 5d, EX1, crane, two mac pros, etc, all the gear I’d need. My friends all say I’m undercharging. Do you have any advice on the financial end?

    Thanks. Love your work Shane, your site, and your heart and willingness to help others.

    Derek

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    • Derek, you are one talented cinematographer. Love the reel, I have some suggestions that I feel will take it to the next level. Please email me and we can go over it. Beautiful imagery, great instincts. We will get into pricing as well.

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      • Hey Shane! Thanks so much. I really appreciate it and think it’s amazing you take the time for people. I looked all over the site for your email address and couldn’t find one direct to you, so here’s mine. Thanks again.

        derek_hammeke@hotmail.com

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  6. shane I have just read of the distribution deal for Act of Valour, fantastic! you and your collegues deserve it. Once again you’ve proved you “are the man” in the dslr world.
    All of us down under are proud of you guys…Rod Hardinge

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    • rod hardinge, thank you so much for your support my friend. Yes we are pushing the DSLR limits. The trailer will be released soon. Stay tuned!!!

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  7. Though this informative post bums me out I’m glad to have read through it. My reel suffers from the problems highlighted. Thanks for sharing, I’m definitely taking notes!

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    • Michael,
      Don’t be discouraged. Reels go through many transitions and changes. You will find what grabs people. Hang in there!

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  8. Hi Shane and Co

    Not a long time ago I found your blog and since then I keep visiting your site almost every day. Thank you so much for your great effort and contribution!

    I am a Swiss based (self-taught) commercial photographer since early 2008 and I am slowly making a transition to video/film as well. I started my first video project back in the end of 2009. So far I have produced a music video (showcased at MTV South Africa), one commercial, one corporate, two short features (trailers available).
    I would be very keen in getting your honest opinion on my video work. Basically for all my video work I wrote the script, directed and operated the camera as well. All videos were shot with the Canon 5DII.

    Here is the link to my website: http://www.thaichristen.com (check section movies, music videos)

    Best regards from Switzerland

    Thai

    Post a Reply
    • Thai,
      Shane and I will look at your reel when we have time in July as we are traveling just now. Thanks for your patience.

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      • Thai,
        I forgot to thank-you for your support. Best of luck as you transition and we promise to give you feedback soon.

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  9. Shane and Lydia,
    In an effort to avoid being redundant, it is so awesome that you guys are offering the notes to up and coming cameramen. It’s tough out there… I have been shooting for years while gaffing and humping cable 728 style :). I feel that each new project shows my growth as an artist, yet I’m finding it difficult to find any new contacts. Any advice to break in the initial door? When you have time, please check out my reel at http://www.davemcgrory.com some notes would be amazing. Thanks so much for your valuable time.

    Best

    dave

    Post a Reply
    • Dave,
      Shane and I would love to check out your reel but are currently traveling. We appreciate your patience with our response. In terms of finding new contacts, call people that you have worked with and let them know what you are currently doing. It is important not to assume anything. It is easy for people to remember you as a gaffer and they may not realize that you have made the jump to director of photography. Get out there and spread the word!

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  10. Shane , You and Lydia I hope are having quite a great summer and making lots of money . I am a video producer, editor, and videographer now using the HDSLR new technology. The competitors here in Tyler Texas that I have to deal with think I am crazy for using a Canon 60D for HD video production. The so called video folks in this small market town don’t have a clue of what is going on much less how the picture got in there HD television. Please confirm that if done right using a HDSLR for video production like, television commercials and internet web site video is the best way to go for quality. The people I deal with here in Tyler don’t have a clue of today’s new technology. MOst of them have never seen a HDSLR till I started using the two that I have. PLease advise me that I am on the right track. Please keep up the great instruction and great work. You guys are the best.

    One of your Fans in Tyler, Texas

    Ron Whitting / A.F. Productions
    Tyler, Texas
    Canon T2i, 60D, and a 5DMKII and 7D coming soon.

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    • Ron Whitting, keep on fueling this revolution Ron, of course this HDSLR can hold up on a 60″ Plasma as well as a 60′ Cinema screen. Shoot with DSLR and forget ever uttering the word RED. These small little cameras blow that technology out of the water. You are doing everything right. Keep on keeping on.

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      • Shane,
        Thank you for your reply. I will do just exactly what you said. I will keep on with HDSLR. I am enjoying it so much it is so refreshing to see the HD quality on a 14 Ft X 10 Ft Wide screen and say did I really shoot that. IF you see or talk to Vincent Lafore anytime soon tell him Hi dor me. I talk with him on the phone in LA one day last week. When I get my current project finished I will mail you a copy of it on Blu-ray so you can see what I am doing with my 60D. I am also going to be trying to get funding for a full set of Zeis lens for the HDSLR cameras I have. They are a bit pricy but well worth the money. Have a great week and talk to you again soon. You have a great web site . Jerry Ward from Canon said to say HELLO. He is a friend on mine from the Canon Office in Dallas, Texas.

        Ron / Tyler, Texas
        903-597-4289
        A.F. Productions
        http://www.afproductionsonline.com
        A.F.Produtions

        Post a Reply
        • Ron,
          We appreciate your support and we would love to see your project and what you are capturing with the 60D.
          Thanks for the website kudos. Ryan (web developer and our friend), Shane and I have gone through many iterations and feel it is always a work in process.
          Tell Jerry from Canon hi back from us.
          Have a great summer. Lydia

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  11. Hi Shane and Lydia, thanks for your informing and inspiring post! I’m a 24 year old DOP from Brighton, England, and I have a short film with no dialogue acting as my reel because it is way ahead of my older work. I’m completely self taught and I feel that I have reached a good standard so far but I need to reach the next level. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to give me some feedback and any opinions of what kind of work I could market myself for based on it:

    Here it is: http://youtu.be/YUBLGGxwWO0

    I was recently the DOP on a feature with the Sony F3, that I got from showing them that film, but I was a bit daunted by some of the aspects of the job, it was a small location and more lights than I normally use and I thought to myself that the director wants me to use to many lights and the F3 is massive compared to the canon. I thought that I could get something better with a 10th the amount of lights and a Canon 7D. I’m self taught, I light a lot with practicals and to much lighting can get tricky!

    Thank you guys! Your the best ;)

    Post a Reply
    • Leo Mumford, you are so welcome and thank you for your kind words of support. Keep shooting, lighting and composing. I went to school for film, but I learned to be a DP by just observing and experimenting. Also just getting out their and failing a lot. I had three mentors that took me under their wing and I sucked their artistry up like a sponge.

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      • Thanks for all your shared information and help! I have some cinematographers I can ask their opinion on my work but I will be more proactive about getting a few solid mentors! Take care Shane and thanks for the advice.

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  12. Currently in the process of reel building when I stumbled upon this blog and website! I must say, I’m so glad you guys chose to share all your knowledge with the world. I went to a very theoretical program it was hard find a mentor like figure… until this blog :P

    Initially started with shooting with messing around with shooting sports and just wishing that I had a video camera that allowed me the settings and manual controls that I’d always wanted. Needless to say, when I first discovered the 7D, I jumped ship from all the Nikon and switched over while constantly experimenting with all the random to my hearts content.

    I’d say I’m completely self taught or I guess internet taught, choosing to light with a bunch of practicals and working with low light settings but I’m excited to work on my first reel. Thanks again for all your help to Shane and the team and for all the procrastination that I do everyday on this blog ;)

    Would love to get some feed back and tips for my next project before putting all the goodies in!

    -Jack

    Post a Reply
    • Jack Yan Chen, I will take a look at it. Thanks for your support.

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  13. Hi Shane, Lydia,

    Love the blog! Would love to have feedback for my most recent demo reel: https://vimeo.com/47201481 I’m trying to showcase my cinematography more than anything else but also show that I can edit too! Let me know what you think! I really appreciate your time! Thanks!!!

    Brandon

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    • also… this may be on a different topic but I recently moved to the LA area from Colorado to pursue more opportunities in the production industry. I’d really appreciate your advice as to how to network and get noticed in such a big city like LA. I’m really just seeking great experiences so I can learn and advance my skills! Thanks so much for your time, and for this blog. I’ve really learned a lot since I started following you!

      Post a Reply
      • Brandon Lied, Thank you so much for your kind words and support. Yes LA is a big town to get noticed in. Reach out to anne@hurlbutvisuals.com to be considered for our internship program. It is very much like the Panavision program that has helped network and infuse people into the business in LA. We have one intern that is already working on a feature and he landed at our studio in late JUne. We are looking for passion, hard work ethic, intelligence, and never say die attitude with a smile.

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        • Thanks Shane, I’ve emailed Anne. Looking forward to hearing about the internship program! Thanks for the heads up!

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          • Brandon Lied, that is great. thanks

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