Demo Reels: Professional Perspectives (Oren Jacob)

Written by Oren Jacob

About the Author:

Oren Jacob is a Senior Technical Director at Pixar. He has been with the company for more than six years now and has worked on numerous award winning commercials like Listerone “Arrows”, “Mission”, and “Jungle”, Levi’s “Khakis”, and Hallmark “Magnet”. He has also worked on many commercials that did not win any awards, but his mother still loves him. Oren did quite a lot of lighting and special effects work on the chase sequence in Toy Story, creating the smoke contrail effects and assembling the overhead helicopter shots of a suburbia that was a little too much like the one that he grew up in. More recently, Oren finished a new THX logo for LucasFilm, taught the first Pixar University, a 10 week, intensive training program for newly hired technical directors, and is now a Senior Technical Director on the Toy Story Sequel.

*Disclaimer*: These are the personal views of Oren Jacob. These are not the views of his employer. The following text has no relationship with how his employer as a company, anyone who works there, or anyone else for that matter, feels about this particular topic. This text may not be used or reprinted, in whole or in part, without permission.

DEMO REELS: A word or two from Oren Jacob

The work that you put on a demo reel entirely depends upon the work that you are trying to get. If you applying for a jobs as a character animator, put character animation on your reel. Create a story. Compel your audience. Make them laugh or make them cry, but evoke some kind of emotion or response. Almost always, any robot, spaceship, chrome teapot, checkerboard floor stuff will get you ejected as fast as the reviewer can reach the button on the front of the VCR, unless you do something really, really, really creative with that material. And I don’t suspect that all of you out there are Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, so pick your subject away from the typical Siggraph palette of tired examples.

If, on the other hand, you are applying for a job as, say, a lighting TD, then show some lighting in your shots. Have some bright regions, dark regions, transitions in between, focus the viewers eye, lead them around the frame, demonstrate a sense of density balance, color balance, and good taste. Maybe if you can pull off an excellent looking frame that violates every single one of these things, then do that too. But just do not submit a flat shaded, poly render of some wizard staring at a point light which happens to be embedded in a flickering candle with tons of ambient filling the scene all around.

Maybe a good suggestion for people who don’t know what to do with a reel like this is to imagine that you are putting on a theatrical play. You are the person walking around up there in the cat walk and you can point all of those clever lights with colored gels toward the stage to create an aesthetically pleasing experience for the audience. Just remember to not throw each of the 16,000,000 colors available to you into the picture and thereby totally distract the audience from what they should be getting out of the image. Go buy a book on cinematography and buy a book on black and white still photography. In fact, why don’t you include some real photographs in your reel. Show us stuff that wasn’t done on a computer. Big points for this. And sketches. Reviewers always love to touch and hold things. Send us pretty pictures.

And, let’s say that you are applying for a job as a modeling TD. Then, show us your models. Do not hide every shot in really dark lighting so that we can’t see anything. You’re applying for a job as a modeler, not a bad lighter. You probably don’t want to pretend that you are an animator and try animating your model so that is just ends up looking epileptic. If you do that, then not only can we not see your model but we also know that we’re not going to forward your reel to the animators. Just build some cool stuff, render it sensibly – maybe even light it well – and show it off. Give us a few seconds per model to let our eyes understand the image. And you probably want to show several kinds of models. Organic, living shapes. Hard edged, manufactured objects. And all manner of things in between.

In all cases, do not put on some completely lame, Art Of Noise, 1987, super-duper, agro, around-the-world remix of something on the audio track dubbed so loud that the clipping causes the speakers on our televisions to go into a seizure. Every other reel for the past decade has used this kind of techno-garbage. Now, while I may or may not actually like that music when I’m listening at my house, using that kind of stuff on a reel only just pisses everyone off in the review session. Enya can be pretentious but if the images that you are showing are a match, then you could get away with that. Classical music tends to be soothing. Big Band music (highly recommended…) is exciting, robust, and a little zesty. All I’m saying here is search beyond the techno section at your CD store and find something unique. Gregorian Chant? Moroccan? Maybe subtle Japanese string instruments? Just no more techno stuff, please.

And always include a credit list explaining what you did, shot by shot, or model by model, so that the reviewers don’t immediately ask “Did s/he do that all by her/himself? No way.. give them a call.” And, this is particularly true of folks who work on large group projects like, say, a film effects job.

Don’t just lump every single shot from the film that your company worked on in the reel. When we review two reels that come from a company that worked on a show like this, we all immediately ask “I wonder why those two folks put all the same shots on their reel and didn’t include a credit list with their resume?” Just avoid this situation entirely and put a credit list with your reel.

And, above all else, more important than anything mentioned previously, do not ever, ever, ever show stuff that you are not allowed to show. If you are working on a film and it hasn’t come out yet, NEVER NEVER NEVER put this on your reel. Besides the obvious legal debacle that you are bringing upon yourself, besides the high probability that you will get fired immediately, and besides the overall stupidity of this concept, you will never, never, never get hired.

A few additional thoughts…

Overall, be creative. Be original. And put something on your tape that makes me want to watch it. Draw me in. Compel me in some interesting way. Try and do something that hasn’t been seen at Siggraph in the past few years. And have fun doing it. If you really want to make space ships fly, go ahead and make a better space battle than the one in A New Hope. But your odds of success against a mark set that high are, well, not very good in my humble opinion. You probably aren’t a better director than Lucas and if you were that good executing effects sequences, you are probably already working in the industry anyway.

I should point out that there are companies that do look for folks who can execute space ship battles copied from films and TV shows. If you are applying for a job in those sectors of the industry, then this email sort of doesn’t apply to you because your job will be to make space ships fly through star fields. If that is the case, then disregard everything I’ve said.

I should also point out that it can really help to tailor the work on your reel to the company that you want to work for. ILM, Disney, Digital Domain, PDI, BlueSky, Pixar, Rhythm&Hues, Sony, and others all do different kinds of work. If you want to work for one of those companies in particular, then it can help to submit a reel that deals with some of the issues that the various companies deal with.

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