This post was written by Oren Kaplan.
In an industry where people barely have time to heart-eyeball-emoji your Insta story, why will they watch your 12-episode web series or even your five-minute short? You need something quick and effective to turn your directing skills into paying bills. You need a director reel.
What is a directing reel? Are you supposed to show a bunch of shots from a variety of work? Or scenes? Or entire commercials? Should you focus on one genre or show your range?
In my exploration of the topic I ended up creating a video essay about director’s reels using my own footage, thus actually being my director’s reel. You canwatch it here.
I’m going to be honest. A lot of working directors I spoke to in preparing for this article told me reels aren’t “in fashion” nowadays.
'A Clockwork Orange'Credit: Warner Bros.One director mentioned that a portfolio-style website with work samples is a better way to go and much easier to keep up-to-date. Another director claimed that showing her Sundance short was better at opening doors than any montage reel. But many of us don’t have a festival-winning short that perfectly articulates our potential as filmmakers. And some of our work samples have great parts without being perfect all the way through.
This is precisely where a reel can save your ass. It allows you to show people the director you want to be. It’s a singular representation of who you are and what you do as a director without having to force someone to watch hours of material. The problem is, most directing reels are really really boring.
If you can find a way to beat the odds and make a reel that is compelling from start to finish, people will notice. At the very least they will be reminded that you’re a director. While there is no one way to make a great directing reel, I have seen many ineffective ones over the years. So I’ve compiled a list of 10 things to keep in mind if you don’t want your directing reel to suck.
1. Set a Reel Goal
Figure out why you need a reel and tune your footage and messaging to fit. Some common reasons are:
To Attach Yourself to a Narrative Project
This type of reel should typically have scenes in the genre of the work that you are trying to get. A horror movie? A comedy? A drama? Let’s see the work that you’ve directed in that genre.
To Court Investors
You wrote a script and are raising money to make it. Now you have to prove to potential investors that you know what you’re doing. Usually, these investors are not Hollywood folk. So you just want to impress them by showing them that your work looks like Hollywood movies.
To Promote Your Company
You’re not just a director, you’re an entire production company. This reel shows the capabilities and breadth of jobs you’ve done.
To Get Commercial Work
You probably don’t need a reel. Commercial reels typically consist of a playlist of three to five spots you’ve made that are similar to the commercial you are pitching on. They are customized for each potential job. Since commercials tend to be short, you can just send people to your website.
To Show Off
Yeah, bruh—you shot some cool shit and you want people to see. Here’s a crapload of rad shots, so next time you’re figuring out who should make a commercial for your startup, maybe think of me?
This is the type of reel I made, and it actually led to a lot of great conversations about potential jobs. Never underestimate your social network for gaining employment.
2. Plan the Structure
Map out the journey you are about to take viewers on. How will you introduce your work? Where can you subvert expectations? Maybe intercut that murder scene with your musical. What’s a satisfying ending? Perhaps a cliffhanger that will leave viewers wanting more? Make a plan, then dive in.
Your opening is very important. Show us what genre you work in ASAP. Do you direct thrillers? Start with a death-defying thrill. A scary moment. A hilarious gag. A celebrity. Grab our attention. Your opening should be five to 10 seconds. Then tell us your name, that you’re a director, and jump into the meat.
I personally like a quick montage after the opening to give people an idea of what kind of stuff I direct. People say montages are out of style. They are the same people that won’t watch an entire scene… so eff 'em. There’s a good chance this is the only part of your reel someone will watch. Make every shot count.
End your opening montage with a killer line of dialogue or a big loud stunt. Remember, you are creating a fast pace for your reel right out of the gate. Every moment should be impactful.
After the montage, I like to go into my best footage. A couple of lines of dialogue, and onto the next scene. Figure out how to inject variety. Think about transitions from piece to piece. Mix up the energy between static and moving cameras. Group similar work together. Take an ax to every single scene so it’s faster and snappier. A perfect scene for a comedy reel has two to five shots in it. Show us your aesthetic and get moving to the next thing before we get bored.
3. Incorporate Your Personality
Reels are an effective way to pitch yourself as a director because they show your personality. I’ve seen reels where the directors are characters themselves. Or that incorporate graphics or art that is in the director’s style. Come up with a cool framing device that speaks to who you are. The most common reason a reel is boring is a lack of structure—no beginning, middle, and end. It’s literally just scenes strung together. Show us why you’re passionate about your work.
4. Only Use Your Best Footage
Yes, the real estate video you made for your uncle looks amazing, but do not include it! We are telling stories here, not selling condos. Anyone with a Sony A7s can make a walk-in closet look cool. Forget about it! Your reel is only as good as your least interesting piece of footage. People will judge your taste by what you choose to include.
Great footage also means avoiding cliches. A lady’s high heel stepping out of a car. Dudes with shotguns walking through a hazy warehouse. An overhead shot of a quirky Gen Z’er in bed.
Avoid things you’ve seen a thousand times. Remember that viewers are comparing your stuff to Marvel movies, HBO shows, and The Office. Don’t give them derivative student-film-level junk.
And for the love of all that’s holy, do not put text on screen telling us that you “love to tell stories.” If you do, I swear I will quit this business and you will be all alone here.
5. Edit Music, Dialogue, and Sound Effects as if You Care
Choosing the perfect music is tough. If your reel has a lot of dialogue, try an instrumental track. Make sure the tone of the music matches the tone of your work. Use multiple tracks if the tone shifts. It’s just a reel, so you can use any damn Taylor Swift song you want.
Once you have the perfect track, don’t skimp on the rest of the soundtrack! The most typical mistake I see in reels is that the audio isn’t taken into consideration as part of the experience of the viewer.
Think of your reel as a short film where the music, dialogue, and sound effects have an intentional interplay. Pause the music to hit a great one-liner. Or use a suck-back effect to give us a moment of complete silence, right before a giant scare. Use a scene from a short film as a set-up and a car crash from a commercial to pay it off. Get creative! This shows that you know how to tell stories and understand how the mise-en-scène of cinema can create emotion.
At the very least, it will make you look like a genius.
Convince us that you’re not a noob. Why am I only seeing closeups? Does everything you shoot have the same Michael-Bay-wannabe orange/teal color grade? Do you only film daytime exteriors? Give me a cornucopia of visuals—cool compositions, visual effects, aspect ratios, animals, car rigs, complicated blocking, intriguing art direction.
One of the biggest giveaways of an inexperienced filmmaker is in the casting. Most new filmmakers make films with their friends who look just like them. Same age, same ethnicity, same facial hair. Show me that you can cast characters that look more like the real world and less like your immediate social circle.
7. Don't Be Coy about What You Did
Sure, I’m mildly impressed that you’re a director/DP/editor/writer. But can you please tell me what you did on this clip? If you’re a director/DP, maybe split your reel up into directing and cinematography sections. Or add titles. The worst thing is to not have any idea why you’re showing me something.
8. Don't Offer Us Melodrama Without Any Context
Screaming. Guns. Angry people slamming doors. We don’t care about that stuff. A woman crying on the phone with no context is just bad storytelling. Big overt displays of emotion will usually make my eyes roll so far back my LASIK insurance becomes void.
What I do want to see is subtext, irony, and natural performances.
9. Your Reel Is Probably Too Long
I don’t want to see your fancy two-minute Steadicam shot without any cuts. Anyone can do that. Edit it down to just the good bits. Get out early. Don’t let things breathe. Make us believe you have so much incredible work that we can’t even pause for a laugh.
I’ve had a few producers tell me, “Your reel is one of the few reels I made it to the end of.”
That’s because most reels are impossible to get through. A good length can be anywhere between one and five minutes. Just make sure you’re capturing the viewer’s attention the entire time. If things lag for even one frame, cut that frame.
10. Don't Include Cringeworthy Material
Comedy that’s not funny. Horror that’s not scary. Drama that feels forced. Stunts that my grandma can do.
Avoid anything that feels false. Even if the cinematography is amazing. Ask other filmmakers to help you prune out the second-rate stuff. Kill. The. Babies.
Bonus Tip: Include Your Contact Info, but Not the Year
I heard a story once about Eddie Murphy receiving a script that he loved. Except the writer never put their contact info on it. It is still unproduced to this very day. Don’t be that writer! Give us clear, easy ways to track you down.
And none of this Wix website BS, please. Buy a $5 domain name, for cryin’ out loud.
The first person that has to take you seriously as a director is you.
Feel free to include your contact info on the front and back of your reel, but make it snappy. If you have reps, throw them on there too. It’ll make you look legit. If you don’t, who cares. Nobody needs reps.
I also recommend not putting the year on your reel. Kinda sad when you send someone “Oren’s 2015 Directing Reel” in 2021, amiright?
So What's a Good Reel Look Like?
Is there even such a thing as a good directing reel? Yes. Here are a few:
- Tim Wilkime
- Valentina Vee
- Sawhorse LA (their branded reel is a masterclass in showing a lot of footage fast)
- Daniel Hurwitz
- Random Guy in India that Copied My Reel
Okay, I Made My Mind-blowing Reel. Now When Do I Get Rich?
Slow down, Spielberg. Will your brand-spanking-new reel actually get you a job?
Have you ever hired someone off of their directing reel? I’m guessing you haven’t. But if you’ve got nothing else going on you can at least brag to your Facebook friends about all the cool stuff you’ve shot. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark a conversation about collaborating on future projects.
If you’re interested in more half-baked advice on how to make it as a director in this grueling industry, check out Oren’s podcast, Just Shoot It, where he joins Matt Enlow to talk with other working directors about the craft and business of filmmaking. If you’d like to see Matt’s reel, tough luck. He doesn’t think directors need ‘em.