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The Power of a Short and Sweet Demo Reel

In December, I had the pleasure of meeting and collaborating with hundreds of filmmakers in Austin, Texas at Masters in Motion. It was an amazing event with an incredible list of educators. I am looking forward to next year.

One of the seminars presented by Vincent Laforet was “Deconstructing The Demo: How to Stand Out in a Saturated Market.” I heard from many people who took their reels down for scrutiny. Vincent was honest in his feedback and gave great advice. You have to be brutally honest. I had Lydia, my agent and the editor as my feedback team, and their advice about order and which spots to include was hard to hear. So much of what you create is held close to your heart. You want to show everything, but short and sweet is simply the best advice I can give.

I am writing this post in response to your questions about your demo reels. Please DO NOT send requests for reel reviews, as I just don’t have the time. If you would like this to be part of our next educational bootcamp in the fall, please email Anne Gaither at anne@hurlbutvisuals.com.

Now here is my progression as a budding cinematographer. I am going to dig into my vault to do this. Most of the reels are on tape. Did you say “TAPE?” Yes, I have been around for a while!
 

“The Montage”

This is essential until you get enough content so that the content can stand alone. It took me about three years to lose the montage and move on to just showing commercials and features.
• Making a good montage starts with the music. You need something that assists your visuals, not too powerful to over shadow, but like a good soundtrack to a film.
• I would suggest that the montage is not more than three minutes long. Pick your most cinematic shots, best composition. Movement is huge.
• It is best not to have people talking, if possible. This can be distracting. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but do your best. If you are trying to show how you light interviews, see if there are moments before you call action; grab a serendipity piece.
• If you shoot a lot of interviews, ask your talent to do some poses that you can use for your reel. Maybe add a slider move to it. Showcase your lighting and unique composition, instead of a talking head. Voila. Magic!!!
 

“Rule of Thumb”

KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Try not to over-complicate a reel. Too much flash and quick cuts will make it seem like you are trying to hide something. Treat your reel like telling the story of what makes you tick. Convey your personality, your expression as an artist. This is so important to make it your own, so that your style comes across.

Another bit of advice I can offer is to show the stuff you like to shoot. This is paramount in positioning yourself. I love story and lighting assist photography, not the “look at me, look at me” style of photography. So with this in mind, my reel shows exactly that – shanehurlbut.com

If you do not have it on your reel, you will not be able to compete with others who do. Believe me, I have tried and failed. Getting to know who you are as an artist and respecting that is all about experience and maturing as a filmmaker. It doesn’t come easily. It didn’t for me.
 

“The Archives”

Here is a little taste of my second and third reels. I could not find the tribal music montage that started my DP career, so you will have to settle for my hokie 90’s opener that was shot in my house, as well as the B & W beauty montage. Some worked and some did not, but overall, it got me to where I am now. Music videos are where I began, so most of my montages are shots from videos done in my career. They are a great creative expression, so try to shoot these babies, even if you create them yourself. It can be so experimental; it is what gave me my fearless nature. We would try stuff just to try it. Lots of failure, but when it hit, WOW!!!, did it shape me as a cinematographer! Check out the Filter video, “Hey Man Nice Shot.”
 

 
We shot this video on 16mm, processed it, then printed it, then made an inter negative off of the positive, then printed it again. Then just for the hell of it, we did it all over again to see what would happen.
 


 
I am also including two reels from Mike Svitak, DP, and Bodie Orman, DP, both on my Elite Team, who are in the earlier stages of their careers.
 

“The Reels”

Bodie Orman has worked on several films and hundreds of commercials with me. He was selected as my loader on Act of Valor because not only did I know he would rock that job out, but he would also crush the four jobs above his pay grade as well as the six below it. He saw many of the images that he was responsible for composing and exposing on AOV. After that film, he told me that he wanted to pursue his DP career. I gave him my full support. This is really what the Hurlbut Visuals mentorship program is all about, being immersed in a creative, teaching environment where you are thrown into the ocean and you either sink or swim. Bodie swam!!!

Please enjoy his reel. I feel it has the perfect mix of cutting style, music that assists the imagery, and a nice sense of composition that illustrates what his character is as a shooter.
 

 
Mike Svitak has worked with me since he was a film loader on Semi-Pro. He was selected to be a 2nd A.C. on Act of Valor because I knew that he could do it all — operate, compose, clean, download, build, and handle the splinter unit. He had impressed me with his short film that won a Best Emerging Cinematographer Award at the ASC. His great attitude, mixed with a never say die mentality, makes him shine. When I was hired to shoot Deadfall, he was the first person who came to mind to deliver the 2nd Unit snowmobile chase. I knew that Mikey would rock it out and put the camera in those unique places. His reel has a very interesting concept on how to integrate interviews into abstract imagery. Many of you have asked how to do this, and I think Mike’s stab at it is very unique and inventive. Please enjoy Mike’s reel.
 

 
I love his color palette and choice of composition. This is what sets both Mike and Bodie apart. They have a very unique style and presence to their photography and framing. Please enjoy!!!

Author: Shane

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12 Comments

  1. Shane,

    Great post, I’ve had many of these questions on my mind regarding demo reels and it feels good to have an idea of what people want to see. Great point about how much of what we film is close to our heart, it is tough to be 100% honest with yourself regarding shots that may not be interesting to others, but we love. I’m finding the more that I can step back and look at my work from an outsider’s perspective, the better it is becoming. (I also have to give my wife props for the fact that she’s not afraid to dish out constructive criticism!)

    Thanks for all you do!

    -Josh

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    • Josh Shores. Thank you so much for the kind words and support.

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  2. Shane, Thanks for the wealth of knowledge! I really love those first reels of yours. How did these reels help you get work though? Where were they seen? How much of your work was attributed to reputation and networking over a reel?
    Ad Astra,
    Iain

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    • Lain Trimble. Back in the day the reels were only seen by distribution from your agent. A job would come through and then the agent would submit several D.P’s to be considered and with this the reel’s went to the Ad Agency, the production company, and the director. Now we have the ability to showcase our demo reels online, either through your own site or vimeo/youtube. Getting an agent is your first step. Thanks for the comment and support.

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  3. Well put. It is really nice when you have the edited/post-produced versions of your stuff. Such a challenge to keep track and gather all the things I’ve shot.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on using copyrighted music in a demo reel.
    Sort of a cross over question from your other music post but it seems like a lot of people just go ahead and use whatever song they want. I suppose most artists don’t have a problem with it since you are not selling a specific product…(aside from your services)
    I will say this though, I was taken to task for a song I used in a film that played ONE TIME in front of a very small film festival audience. They tried to charge me $500 but I got them down to $200…after 2+years!
    The song was removed from the film before it ever was released. I won’t name names…(ahem…bankrobbermusic)

    anyway, thanks, and oh hey… check out my demo!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_72DqJGl-s

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  4. Great review Shane, I’m currently working on my second demo this week and wanted to ask you about the difference you spoke about between full commercials and montages. would it make sense to have both to send to clients or possibly a montage followed by some 30/60 sec spots at the end?

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  5. Shane,
    It’s time for me to update my reel since you gave me some nice feedback a couple of years ago! I got some nice work out here in Israel from my reel because it was the right length and had the right tone – thanks for those tips!. People felt it was very high end and it helped me to land more work.

    Interestingly enough I go straight to a cinematographers reel as I’m deciding whom I want to interview (shameless plug in 3,2,1: http://www.bigleaguefilmschool.com)

    Thanks for the continued high-end content on your blog!

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    • Rod, I would love to enter this into our filmmaker’s spotlight. What are your thoughts? I think it is very good and love the framing and imagery. Good pacing, great song. Keeps me entertained and wanting more. All good things. If you fill out the form, we can get you featured my friend. http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/filmmakers-spotlight/

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  6. Shane- how do you have time to do all this? Thank you for putting this information out there. Some of my best work is the older stuff. It’s out there on Blu Ray. Do people re-cut sections of the reel when better quality footage becomes available??
    And who specializes in that? I can’t seem to find the time. Thanks!

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    • Joe Gallagher, thank you, yes it is exhausting some times but I love sharing and helping to educate the next generation of filmmakers. Yes I am constantly updating the reel. I usually find editor friends to put it together.

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