Footage Is Footage

A few months back, I was the guest on Judy Kerr‘s web-based series Acting Is Everything (yes, a web-based series that accompanies her essential book) and we talked a bit about demo reels and whether actors could — or should — create footage for their reels or only stick to professionally-shot, “legitimate” clips of their work. I believe those roads intersect, if the footage you create is professionally shot. And in the era of YouTube, your clips could easily be seen by more people than might ever lay eyes on pilots that don’t “go.”

So, if you’re sure you’ve got the talent and that all anyone needs to do in order to take a chance on you is see the goods, it might be time for you to consider a DIY approach to getting your demo reel done. Heck, even if you have good footage, perhaps it’s just one great scene and a bunch of outdated, one-liner stuff that isn’t serving you today. And remember; if it’s not getting you work, it’s costing you work. If you’ve decided that you’re ready to take your reel to the next level (or to create your first “real” reel), let’s jump into some tips on how to get it done right, as poorly-produced footage could actually be worse than having no footage at all.

Enlist Help

That student filmmaker you adored? You know, the one who you said will be the future “it kid” of Hollywood? Ask him to shoot your scene. Or the theatre director who totally gets you. Pair her with your favorite DP who’s looking for more tape for his reel and you may have something really magical! Even if you don’t hire someone to professionally direct your scene (and I really recommend that you do), get your finished footage in front of pros whose opinions you trust before you start handing out copies of your reel all over town.

One savvy young filmmaker friend of mine handed me a copy of his latest film (rough cut) at a party last week. He then emailed me a link to a survey about the film. It was simply brilliant: Watch my rough cut, tell me what to fix. No ego, no drama, no pressure. Awesome. He’ll take the data from these anonymous survey results and make a better finished product. And he’s conducting this research before putting the film in front of film festival screeners whose willingness to guide him to a better finished product will be nonexistent.

Use Original Material

If you can’t use original material, use obscure material. And if you can’t use obscure material, make the material you do use totally your own. Add lines. Improvise. Turn a four-person scene into a two-person scene (I did this kind of editing to a scene we used in our showcase last month and it worked so well that the writer thanked me for the punch-up). No one needs to see a scene that we know by heart on some up-and-coming actor’s demo reel. No matter how “yours” you make it, you will never make us forget the actor who received an Oscar nomination for originating it.

Cast Yourself Correctly

Cast yourself as the industry would cast you. Yeah, I know, your biggest, highest-profile role to date has been a two-line co-star on According to Jim, but what I’m talking about doing here is giving yourself a lead-feeling role in the exact type category in which you would be cast, if you were to score a lead role today. This is not the time to stretch your range or flatter yourself into believing you’re a dashing leading man when you’re always gonna be, “Hey, it’s that guy!” Find material in which “that guy” gets some really great lines and show us you doing what you do best (and what you’re most likely to be hired to do, again and again). We’ll eat it up. We’ll get you.

Pay Attention to Production Values

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Make sure the sound quality is fantastic. Make sure everything is well-lit. Yes, it’s about the performance, but if I’m distracted by crappy sound quality and poor lighting, I’m not going to pay attention to your acting, and that’s not good. It’s like test-driving a great little used car. It’s awesome. It has low mileage. It runs like a champ. But it’s got this huge gash on the hood and you can’t take your eyes off it. Yeah, you should probably still buy the car: It’s at a great price, it’s certified and under warrantee, and you can even fix the physical flaw… but as you’re making your decision, you keep thinking about that flaw. Unfair? Yes.

Why It Doesn’t Really Matter Where Your Footage Came From

We can’t tell. Let me qualify that. If it’s done extremely well, we can’t tell if it’s footage from an unaired pilot, an Internet series, original programming for a cable network, or a clip from an indie film! And if what we’re hoping to do is assess risk (which, c’mon, is exactly what we’re hoping to do, if we don’t already know your work and we’re looking at your demo reel), all we really need to know is your primary type, how you’re most castable, whether you’re right for a particular role, or if we want to meet you to learn what else you can do. Sure, we will want you to trade out self-produced footage for “the real thing” when that becomes available, but until then, we want to know your work!

Remember, your demo reel is the trailer for the feature film that is you. Make it memorable. Make it fantastic. Leave us wanting more.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000720.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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