When I first started casting for my feature film, I was shocked to notice the discrepancy between the talent of my actors and the quality of their reels. Some had been in the industry for years and had videos that were long, confusing, and plagued with basic issues like poor audio, bad lighting, shaky cameras, or worse. I turned many promising candidates away because I didn't want to waste my time "guessing" at which actors might be talented without being able to tell from their reels.
All actors know that they need a great reel, and many of them spend a lot of money to get one. As a director, I can tell you that you need to be careful about setting your sights too low. Before you spend any money, take a deep breath and raise your expectations a little. Here are five things an actor should demand from anybody that wants to shoot a reel for them.
1. Clarity. Can I as a director see who you are and how you act? No matter who is watching your reel, what they want to see is an idea of how you'll fit into their own material. Show them how you look from a variety of angles and include a clear shot of your face. Make sure I can understand how you speak, how you express yourself, and how you carry your body. Like any headshot, a reel should maximize your image for the screen so well that we absolutely remember you once you have left.
2. Style and Flare. Make it memorable. Too many demonstration reels are shown from a single, still shot that seems like the camera is bored with the talent before they even start speaking. If the philosophy is that less is more, ask for your money back. Trust me, there is no such thing as a clean slate when it comes to shooting a scene. The camera is a biased viewer, it sees what the director sees, and if the director is bored and has his eye on the paycheck, it will show up in the shot. You need to come in with a defined sense of who you are and make sure the director sees it too, so that he can bring out the flavor of your performance in the subtle yet essential decisions of how to light, frame, and block your scene.
3. Professionalism. If your audio sounds fuzzy, if the lighting looks unintentionally bad or seems out of place, or if something obscures your image, then your reel will be switched off in seconds. Period.
4. Confidence. Casting directors don't want to have to hold your hand through the audition, and directors don't want to hold your hand during the performance. They want to be respected, not worshipped. Show that you are a motivated performer who thinks on your own and takes responsibility for how the scene goes, and they will see someone who makes their life easier and their film better.
5. Mystery. Once you've shown who you are, give them a sense that there's more beneath the surface to be discovered. Can directors work with you to draw out new elements of your personality? Even in familiar, by the book roles like the police clerk in a crime drama, directors are always looking for ways to push the envelope and excite the viewer. So are you a one trick pony or can they expect you to rise to a new challenge? Give yourself a chance to reveal your true potential to the camera with an expression or moment that conveys how much is lurking within - it will make people want to know more about you, which makes them remember you.
Think about yourself as a First Class Performer who needs a First Class Reel. And never settle for a scene that simply mimics the quality of a forgettable movie without giving you the chance to shine in your own way.