The Cinematographer's Reel
Shock & Awe vs. Cool & Calculated
I’ve been asked two questions for most of my life in this industry – three if I include “Will you please buy me a drink?”. They are “How do I get to be a DP/ Director/ Editor?” and “What should my reel be like so that I can become rich and famous/ finally get some work?”. The smarter amongst those who ask spot that the two questions are linked like siamese twins, and combine them into one longer question… but strangely enough I’m hardly ever asked how you can actually make a living doing what we do or if it’s a good career move.
My answer to the first rarely impresses – usually along the lines of “Are you independently wealthy, incredibly good looking with very low moral standards, related to someone famous in the industry, or fantastically lucky?”. But the reel, or showreel, question deserves a sensible answer because it is really very difficult to explain in a way that you can act upon… especially as a rookie, when you most need an effective reel to open any doors.
The problem starts as soon as you have to decide whether you are making a reel for your own entertainment or to actually get work. However much we may hate to admit it, the goal has 100% to be to get work… anything else is just sad. If you are like me then you have an established approach to working out how best to make an effective program that actually works. In my case this starts at the end of the line – who is my client, what do they do/ make/ say, who is the audience, where will they see the program, what action do we want them to take, what do they need to be told/ understand to make them do this, how do we achieve this.
For the most part our clients are the audience, and who in their right mind wants to put them on the spot with 20 questions about what hits their hot spots? So our concept is on the rocks – confounded before we begin. Fortunately for us all there is the American Society of Cinematographers (theasc.com), the March 2020 edition of the ASC Magazine (which you can view at ascmag.com), and the wonder that is Jay Holben (who you can visit with at jayholben.com).
Jay Holben & The Perfect Reel
Jay has been and done everything, from acting to producing, but is best known as being an outstanding Cinematographer, Director and Educator. He’s also a man who likes to call a spade a spade and almost certainly knows how to use one. So once I read his recent article in the ASC Magazine (March 2020) on the art of creating a Showreel that works, and saw how many of his opinions and experiences matched with my own, I knew I had to bring it into my little blog – and Jay was kind enough to allow me to do so.
This is what Jay has to say… (with a few comments and thoughts)
If you are a cinematographer seeking work who doesn’t have a reel, you are significantly hindering your chances of obtaining gainful employment
Cinematography reel frame grabs courtesy of the filmmakers.
Jendra Jarnagin has been a cinematographer for more than two decades, with her work appearing on ABC, Fox, PBS and Hulu. She opens her montage reel with a mesmerizing clip of a dancer in front of a colorful rainbow of light (at the top of this page). As Jarnagin notes, the start of her reel is a quick montage “sizzle” of the highlights, and then a collection of grouped clips from each project that has a more narrative progression. See her reel at jendrajarnagin.com.
The reel is the cinematographer’s calling card. It is quite often the first impression made on a would-be employer, be that a producer or director, and offers a short window of time to demonstrate your skills, style, sensibility, experience and talent. Creating such an invaluable tool would seem to be a simple endeavor, but extraordinary amounts of controversy and confusion abound regarding the humble reel.
The thoughts presented here are my own professional opinions. They are based on my role as a producer and director — one who hires cinematographers — not on my past experience as a cinematographer. When I’m sitting in a production office deciding whether to hire you, these are my considerations.
In general, the motion-picture industry works on relationships. It is truly a business of “who you know” or “who you know who knows someone else.” A vast majority of the time, a cinematographer is hired because he or she has already worked with the director or producer. When those individuals are unavailable for a particular job, the next list of contenders is assembled from trusted sources’ recommendations. For example, the producer puts out a call to Emily, a cinematographer both he and the director have worked with, but she is not available, so she recommends Joe. This one degree to two degrees of separation is the nature of the business.
When those inquiries fail, however, a producer or director will often seek new talent, and this is your opportunity to dazzle and earn the job. Whether you are a second-degree recommendation or a cold discovery, your reel is the first impression you make on the people doing the hiring.
Sometimes a producer and director will seek out a cinematographer whose work they know — they’ve seen specific projects and decided they want to work with the individual who shot that material. Whether it’s something the director/producer has seen before or your reel, it’s your prior work that gets you the next job — always. When you have a significant body of work behind you, the need for a dedicated reel becomes less critical. But until you’ve won your Academy Award or shot your 15th Sundance Award-winning film, you need a reel.
Yes, YOU need a reel
(It bears repeating, because this is so important in finding work of any sort, as a DP, cinematographer, cameraman, videographer, AC… even gaffers, audio guys and other non-camera crew, people will quickly look at a reel where they won’t always read a list of credits…)
If you are a cinematographer seeking work who doesn’t have a reel, you are significantly hindering your chances of obtaining gainful employment.
Tari Segal, director of photography for CBS’ FBI, offers a narrative-feature and a television reel. Both show incredible variety — and she has grouped each project together to demonstrate visual storytelling ability. The deep composition pictured above is from a short called Mojave Junction. Her reels can be found at tarisegal.com.
The Montage Reel
There is substantial debate in the industry as to whether a compilation or montage reel benefits the cinematographer in today’s marketplace. Allow me to address this with a scenario: I’m a director with a project in the very first stages of preproduction, and I don’t yet have a cinematographer. All of my prior cinematographers are booked, and so are their recommendations — it’s a busy time! — so I’m looking for someone new. My producer has received hundreds of résumés and submissions, some from reputable agencies, some cold. I’m open to anyone, but we’ve got to cut down the submissions.
My producer goes through the pile and selects a dozen for me to preview. At the same time, I’m getting script revisions from the writer, actor submissions (probably video auditions) from the casting director, sketches and designs from the production designer, and budget and schedule revisions from the producer’s team. It’s a lot, so I need a shortcut to maximize my time. Though you have a beautiful website with all of your work laid out, visiting the websites of all 12 cinematographer candidates and scrolling through dozens of commercials, music videos and clips will take me hours — time I simply don’t have. But if each of these cinematographers has a two- or three-minute compilation reel — voila, a shortcut! It’s an extreme time saver for me, your potential employer.
Once I’ve gone through the compilation reels, I can make my short list, and then look at more of their work on their websites and choose whom I will meet with. If you don’t have a compilation reel, you are absolutely going to the bottom of the pile, and chances are someone else will get my attention before I get to you. The reel is a CliffsNotes for your skills.
Is a compilation/montage reel still germane today?
You bet it is.
(I can add to this from my own experience in UK advertising agencies, where I’ve often seen a creative director belt through a long list of potential DPs or Directors for a spot, clicking off their reels after 20 to 25 seconds if they haven’t caught his attention. Some people say a montage reel is just eye candy, and in many ways it is, but that creative director has a vision of what he wants to see stylistically while usually being open to having his attention captured by something else – and you either hit or miss in the first five or so shots. If you keep him watching then you’ve got another two and a half minutes to provide further proof that you might be the one, so long as you can hold him for all of that time…)
There are many things you can do to help your compilation reel stand out in the crowd. Most cinematographers are not necessarily editors, so the concept of putting together a reel is often quite daunting. Hiring a solid editor to put your work together for you is absolutely worth the cost, but give that editor direction. Explain how you want it assembled and what you think is the best way to illustrate your work.
(I have to support Jay 1000% here – over the years some of us are lucky enough to master one discipline and be able to move on to master another related discipline too, but initially most people will struggle to be really great at directing, shooting. lighting or whatever. Unfortunately there is a tendency to assume that because you can, say, physically operate Premiere then you can also edit, or you can color grade because you can change the look of a shot in RedCine-X. Why on earth would you go there? You need your work to look as good as it humanly can on your reel – actually on everything you do – and so bring in other specialists who are as gifted at putting together images into a story or making the shots look exceptional as you are behind camera. It involves cost or favors, but nothing kills the potential impact of a reel as much as bad editing or weak color grading)
Gathering footage for your reel can also be a herculean effort. Try to work it into your deal memo from the start that you will get a copy of all the dailies or the final color-corrected footage. Not every project will agree to this — especially larger ones — but many will, and it will make your life a lot easier.
Your reel should contain your best work — and only your best work. And it should be the best photographic work, not necessarily the work that was the hardest to do or that you were most passionate about. No one cares what it took to get the shot; they only care about the result. Many will advise you to “put your best shots first,” but I object to that concept. All the shots on the reel should be your best. If they’re not, don’t include them! That way you can concentrate on the overall flow of the reel rather than worrying about which shots are the best.
(I think this one is great in theory but few people have a stack of shots which are all perfect 10/10s that will also work together. Sometimes a 9/10 or even 8/10 is okay to include if it helps you to build a reel that has an engaging rhythm and atmosphere – we tell stories as sequences that make sense, not as independent images, and without this the reel itself may not work)
Group together shots from one project. When you spread them out throughout a montage, returning to the same look time and time again, it becomes repetitive. It also suggests your work is limited and you’re spreading it thin to make it look like more.
Less is always more. It’s hard to accept that — but believe me, it’s true. I recently saw a cinematographer’s reel that was 30 seconds of WOW, and it left me feeling that I absolutely wanted to see more of that person’s work. That’s what you want from your reel: to make an impression and leave them wanting more.
(but at the same time it has to be fulfilling to the viewer – and never forget that the client neither knows nor cares that a shot took you a week to setup, or the actress was so wonderful to work with you ran off with her – the only thing that counts is what they can see)
Lighting is key. Your reel must demonstrate your lighting ability. This is paramount for a cinematographer. Yes, beautiful naturally lit shots are absolutely germane, but you MUST demonstrate lighting as well.
Visual storytelling is key. If the camera moves in a shot, the move should be motivated and should expand the narrative, even if we only see one shot of that story. Even better, string several shots together in a sequence and clearly illustrate your ability to execute visual storytelling. The more your reel feels like it has a story or an emotional flow, the better. That’s especially true if you’re submitting for a scripted narrative. Remember: The job is visual storytelling, so even in your reel, you should be trying to tell a story. That will have more impact than you can imagine. This is the entertainment industry, so at the end of the day, your reel should be entertaining.
Focus your reel. As painful as this is to read (and even more so to execute), you need multiple reels. If you are working in scripted narrative, you need a reel for drama, horror, thriller, comedy, etc. Submit the reel that matches the job. If you submit for a horror film and you have all comedy and drama on your reel, chances are very slim you’ll be considered. For a narrative reel, do not include documentary, commercial, music video, industrial, etc. Likewise, if your reel is documentary, don’t include music videos or narrative work. Keep the reel specific to the job. If you do many different genres of photography, that’s awesome; just make sure you have separate reels for each one. The more focused your reel is for the job you want, the better your chances. In the commercial world, this gets even more specific. If you’re submitting for a car spot, don’t include beverages or cosmetics spots — they want to see cars. If you’re submitting for a wine spot, they want to see wine, not beer or cola. The more you can help producers and directors visualize what their project could look like, the better your chances of getting hired.
What if you don’t have the kind of work on your reel that you’re submitting for?
This leads me to a very important point: If you’re a young cinematographer who wants to shoot horror movies but you’ve never shot one, how can you get a job shooting one? Our business is full of terrible Catch-22s, but this one you can solve: Go out and shoot the material you want to be shooting.
Yup, it’s that simple.
There’s nothing wrong with shooting material specifically for your reel. You want to shoot horror films? Get some actors together and shoot a horror scene. You need material on your reel that’s in the spirit of the material you want to get hired for. It’s crucial. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not shooting material for your reel. It does not matter what camera you use; it does not matter what lens you use. Photograph it well no matter the hardware.
Kevin Garrison is an international cinematographer who has shot on nearly every continent. His work is a combination of narrative features and commercial projects. His reel is an almost trance-like collection of exquisitely beautiful moments. You can see more on Vimeo here.
(A point that I have always very strongly made to all of my trainees and during my college lectures is that you can only get better and develop by actually doing the work – but, of course, in most cases you aren’t spending 40 to 60 hours a week shooting actual jobs. Japanese culture says that it takes at least 100,000 hours to become an expert. So if you have to practice in your own time to get the hours you need to succeed, why not get together some friends and shoot specifically designed montage footage for your reel – and enjoy yourself doing your type of project
Jay also mentions the tools you might use aren’t important – I’m not sure I’d agree with him on this within this context. On many projects with careful design you can get great shots with any camera or lens, but when we are talking about shooting footage that can be used on your reel to show a particular genre then the tools can matter. If your heart’s desire is to shoot surf movies then blasting away at the waves with a 24mm lens on a DSLR isn’t going to do much for your images. There are some genres where having the right tools to record the images you want to achieve are vital. Similarly I’d suggest that when you are ready to get THE shot for your reel you want it to have a degree of quality that is appropriate for the subject and style, so beg, borrow or rent the minimum of equipment you can achieve this with. Your reel should be an investment in your future.)
Even More Tips
Don’t stretch your work to fit a particular length. Shorter is better, always.
Slow motion does not equal great cinematography. Unless your specialty is high-speed photography, a reel full of slow-mo shots is an immediate eye-roller for the experienced director/producer. It’s likely to be immediately tossed into the bin.
Cool skateboarding shots do not equal great cinematography. Unless your specialty is sports photography, GoPro shots with cool action are not enough to make a cinematography reel.
Drone shots are cool, but unless your specialty is drone photography, they are not enough to make a cinematography reel.
A series of natural-light/daylight sequences can be beautiful, but they are not enough to make a cinematography reel, unless — sense a motif here? — that is your specialty.
(And don’t be afraid to ask other people’s opinions about what you have done – not just friends and relations, people that will actively rip it just for their own entertainment. You can ignore anyone’s advice but it’s illuminating to know what others might think, and be able to handle potential problem areas. The thing with a showreel is that it is often a one off shot to change your career, so you want it to be awesome in every way)
Website & Social Media
I consider your website and social media to be part of your “reel.” You must have a website, and it must feature expanded samples of your work. Once I’ve seen your reel and I’m interested, I need to see more. I want to see scenes from narrative projects or full commercial spots, full music videos, entire short films, etc. Your website should have all of this. It should also include a biography about you.
A presence on social media is also imperative. IMPERATIVE. Many people moan about it, but social-media sites are another calling card, and your potential employers will look for them. Absolutely, 100-percent. Instagram is the hot place right now, but you should have a YouTube or Vimeo presence as well. Your Instagram especially should be a healthy mix of samples of your work, behind-the-scenes photos, and some personal images — not your cats and dogs, but you in real life. That is the professional purpose of social media: it gives a potential employer an idea about who you are as an individual. That is just as important as your work.
Reject the concept of a social-media presence at your peril. It’s not only part of your professional image, but also a wonderful means for new directors to discover your work. Connect with them and utilize the platforms just as you would a networking event. It’s just an extension of that.
Does your number of followers matter? Not in my experience. Though producers are often (pretty much always) talking about social-media numbers for actors, we’re not marketing the project based on the cinematographer’s following. Having 50,000 followers might be an impressive statistic, but it won’t be the make-or-break factor in whether you’re hired. Don’t fret about that. Just have a presence.
Tips From An Agent
• HD Footage! Make sure it’s at least 1080p. In this day and age, don’t use standard-def footage.
• The images are much more important than the music. That should go without saying, but too many people put far too much weight on the music.
• Less is more! Keep it short — three minutes or less.
• No lip flap! As you’re building the montage, don’t have actors speaking when there is no sync sound. It’s very distracting.
• When you’re starting out, if you can incorporate any celebrity talent and recognizable faces, it will make the reel look bigger. Be careful with featuring folks that have passed away, as this will date the work.
Brian Goldberg, television partner, Worldwide Production Agency (WPA)
As you can probably tell by now, Jay (and Brian) have opinions and a mass of experience to back them up. This is a topic that I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time now but never been able to find the right way of getting into it without it becoming a sermon… hopefully Jay has been able to do that for you in this short piece – part of his Shot Craft series of articles in the ASC Magazine.
Of course, having opened the door on this subject there are an awful lot of questions that need answering – but like any other film or video project, build a well thought out framework that answers the requirements of the audience and the client and everything will start to drop into place… or call me and we can chat about it!
I sub-titled this blog Shock & Awe vs. Cool & Calculated because that has always been the decision on style for reels that I’ve had to choose between because of the nature of my work – do I want the harshness of Punk or the smooth progression of Jazz? At the end of the day I guess that this, too, fits in with Jay’s logic… build two reels and decide which style each specific client will respond best to!
You may also want to consider wether you want to have a montage style reel but also have a fuller portfolio of complete pieces. This is particularly important if your web presence is going to be aimed at both Producers and Directors – and end clients. A good Director, say, is primarily looking for style and innovation that is relevant to the project he is putting together – and he should be able to see a shot of a womble sitting on Wimbledon Common and imagine the same style shot with the grandmother on the Paris Metro that his brief calls for.
However, the Marketing Director of a company making kid’s clothes tends to want to see shots of kids in clothes, not wombles – and may not be able to make the creative jump. More pieces provide more opportunity.
At the same time most people looking at your work do want to see some complete pieces – to show that you can provide the same level of shooting throughout a project, not just pull one lucky shot out of quagmire of disasters. By providing one or more showreels to fulfill that fast and furious first decision, and then links to a portfolio of complete programs you can handle a bigger picture.