Demo Reels: Professional Perspectives (Steph Greenberg)

Written by Steph Greenberg

About the Author:

Steph Greenberg is Supervising Animator in a well known entertainment company.

*Disclaimer*: These are the personal views of Steph Greenberg. 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.

The following text is composed of a number of postings made by Steph Greenberg in response to queries on the CG-Char Animation List. This information has been arranged and tied together in and orderly fashion and put on display here with permission from the author.

DEMO REELS: A word or two from Steph Greenberg

[On Character Animation]

To be a “good” character animator, you really have to want that more than anything else. You are up against CalArts students who spend 2-4 years and at least $30,000 to become minimally acceptable character animators. As people on this list have said before, a walk cycle doesn’t make you a “good” character animator.

If you are a “good” character animator, you would not be happy with any other type of work. Good, requires a lot of practice. Richard and I have certainly seen our share of work the creators thought were good, but they were really good starts. Like going to the gym for a week or two and feeling pumped up, but you ain’t ready for a body building contest.

That takes a lot more pumping iron, even if you use steroids.

Also, I think most of the discussion about demo reels centers around jobs in the big production houses, where character specialists are character specialists. Someone else does the lighting and modeling. A starting job in these cases is character setup, in which you might get to assemble animatable skeletons and attach the models to the skeletons. You still have to know how to set up and animate a character.

The fact is, character animation as a job tends to be occupationally and financially rewarding, and if you can’t muster the resources to get a second tape deck and edit out the non-character stuff from your reel (presentation doesn’t count much–in fact, pretentious titles tend to make people say “this better be good”), then you aren’t taking this seriously enough.

[Regarding output facilities and the cost of putting a reel together:]

I know that we aren’t the only ones who’ve hired people based on pencil tests and wireframes. Real-time playback of wireframes with a couple of still renders played through one of those $200 video encoders tells many of us a lot about your animation.

As I’ve said, exquisite presentation can often work against someone trying to get their job as a junior animator. I can’t imagine what is so costly about making a demo tape specific to the markets you are targeting. I mean, VHS to VHS cuts only editing isn’t that expensive in most places, and editing reels at a VHS cuts only place is what I was doing for a living 9 years ago.

I’ve never spent more than $50 to edit one of my reels in 7 years of full time, professional CGI work. When I was truly, really, really broke, and it looked like I was going to be homeless, I worked out tradeoff deals with small editing places, doing low budget or free logos for their clients in exchange for editing time.

This was at a time when the top CGI animators were earning less than $40,000 per year (5 years ago). I was lucky to get $25,000 per year, which doesn’t go far in Los Angeles.

Now, beginning animators get $35,000, and after a year of experience maybe $50,000. 3 years of full-time experience in major facilities will get you $60-80,000. People run up student loan debts up to $100,000 to become lawyers and don’t make that kind of money for 10 years in most places.

(The definition of major facility is a name brand SoCal or NoCal CGI only production house–3 years in other facilities will get you more like $35-65,000–more or less depending on what part of the country you are in).

I think it certainly helps to have more than one reel. I don’t look at names or resumes until after I look at a reel. Sending out more than one reel, separated by a few weeks, gives someone a chance to see your abilities a second time without saying (I’ve seen this before–eject).

[What to include on a demo reel]

Put only stuff that doesn’t require excuses on your reel. The only acceptable excuse when I’m looking for an animator is not rendering because they want to show off their animation. Rendering can take a lot of time away from animation practice.

For example, I hate the fact that so much of my work is for real-time animation. Because it was never rendered frame by frame, the action can sometimes be jerky, there are too few polygons, and dialogue goes out of sync. I don’t know if it helps saying, “But keep in mind that this was rendered at 60 frames per second, motion blur was not possible, polygon counts had to be kept low because of an 8,000 triangle per *scene* limit, and the rider can view the character from any angle that they want.”

And people unfamiliar with real-time animation may be totally unaware that this reel they are looking for sets a new standard for real-time animation.

If your best stuff only amounts to 30 seconds, well, you should do more best stuff. In any case if you are sending in material without a previous contact in a company, mention in your cover letter that you have other things to show if you are called in for an interview (maybe even how many minutes). Excuses and explanations work better in person, in my humble experience.

I put my best stuff in front, so they can stop any time, easily rewind to view the best stuff again, etc. I suppose it would be hypocritical to give advice I wouldn’t take myself.

Incidentally, although I have at least 20 minutes of character animation to put on my own reel, I try to keep the total length of the reel down to 3 minutes. If someone couldn’t get the idea in 3 minutes, I’d be in reel trouble.

[Regarding things not to put in a demo reel (i.e. spaceships):]

Unless you are applying for a job specifically at a place that does space ship sequences, like Foundation, Area 51 or some similar place, space ship sequences will usually result in an automatic eject.

1. No matter how complicated you make a ship, it’s still easier than making a convincing character, unless it has the kind of close up detail of the Death Star.

2. Animating space ship sequences is easier than any character. A space ship is simply a flying logo without a corporate identity.

In other words, just don’t do it. No matter how much of a science fiction fan that you are. No matter how long you’ve wanted to do space ships. If you want to do characters, leave all of your space ship shots on the cutting room floor. If you don’t have enough character stuff to fill your reel, do more.

When I last did an open call for reels on this list, I was very specific: NO FLYING LOGOS, NO SPACE SHIPS, and yet when I got the reels, what did I see? If you are going for a character job, and you have 10 seconds of character and 5 minutes of IDs, logos, flying cameras or whatnot, please keep in mind that the person looking at your reel will resent you wasting their time by putting the other stuff on there.

This means, you may have to show initiative beyond the material that pays the bills. Like working nights and weekends on your own stuff, the first of which will be practice until you feel that you are good.

Even now, I’m looking at buying a computer again for home use to work on my own projects which I feel will highlight skills that I don’t think are being properly exploited at work. To explore new looks and styles that the people who pay my salary are uninterested in pursuing. Fun stuff. And I’m no beginner. It’s also not like I have excess time on my hands either.

[Regarding length of a demo reel:]

Frankly, I think a 3-5 minute short is way over the head of any beginning animator to do well. A good 5 minute short would take 4 experienced animators working full time, a good 2 months or more to do.

Hell, our group worked on a 30 second piece that took 3 weeks to animate, with 5 people animating, 3 people modeling.

Also, you shouldn’t attempt to pad out a reel to 3-5 minutes as a target. If you only have 1 minute of good stuff on your reel and you send out a 1 minute reel, I and many others who look at reels will appreciate it. 5 minutes is a god awful long reel. Ask Richard, who came over and watched reels with me one afternoon in a mostly *comfortable* environment.

I think beginning animators, and I mean beginning character animators regardless of how long that they’ve been doing 3D, should not do any pieces longer than 30 seconds for their first 5 works. The additional time that you have left from not over extending yourself can be spent refining and polishing the animation.

You can even tell stories in 15 seconds that will show off your animation skills and give you practice that can still impress prospective employers.

The problem with attempting a longer piece is that you get better as you go along in the production, or you run out of time, and both of these lead to extreme variance in the level of animation quality. Also, few people are really good at understanding how ambitious 3 minutes really is. So let me tell you, it’s bone crushingly ambitious, will take at least ten times longer that you thought, and 90% of the people who attempt it end up not finishing, or declaring something unfinished to be finished.

Then they are surprised when no job offers come back after they send reels to everyone.

[Regarding the length of a reel and the time put into it]

The last 10% takes as long as the previous 90%. Also, it’s in the last 10% that all the timing refinements and overlap are perfected. If you do excellent animation by yourself and sustain it for 30 seconds, I’ll know how ambitious or tenacious you are. If you do 4 very different 30 second spots that are good instead of one 3 minute opus, I’ll know the type of styles you can handle.

You can’t learn anything about how a person animates by watching a pose to pose 3 minute piece to shows them to be a jack of all trades and master of none. It takes a lot of time to hand edit channels for the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers, staggering them at different times for just the right timing. It takes a lot of time to get the head nods jwst right, the eyebrow lift in just the right spot, the pupils to point in such a way that the character appears to think, the set of the jaw during dialogue, the recoil from a finger point just aggressive enough, the overlap on the wrist smooth but not effeminate.

In other words, I don’t care if someone knows all the processes of animation, because you can get that from a book. I want to know if they can animate well, which requires practice, practice, practice.

Also, one piece of advice for budding animators: Scratch track! Don’t obsess on doing dialogue perfectly, just get the mike out, plug it into the sound board on your computer, act the lines as best you can. Or do what Robin Steele (Stick Figure Theatre) did: bum a track from an old movie and change/exaggerate the context. Frankly, I wish I had thought of it when I was doing my demo work.

I do look for tenacity and self motivation in animators, but if you are just starting out, start out with short pieces. If you do a few of those and still want to do an opus, then you’ll have learned quite a few things along the way that will make better use of your time. I still don’t recommend anything over 30 seconds until you’ve done 3 or 4 pieces and gotten feedback on them.

[Regarding motivation and effectiveness in creating a good reel]

People are absolutely at their most ineffective when they are trying to impress someone. I’ve been rejected, multiple times, from the best places in the business ;) (Of course I harbor a grudge against all of them, but that seems to be a common characteristic of animators everywhere).

If you want assurances that you’ll be able to come up with a reel that will guaranty you a job anywhere, forget it.

[The 3 stages of Character Animation]

This isn’t the first time or the last time I’ll say this, but here are the 3 stages of character animation, and what separates passable animation from great animation.

1. Characters move without pathologies that make you think, “Something’s just not moving right, here”. This first bar is a pretty hard one to reach.

2. Characters must be able to show believable emotion, even if it is just through body language. If it’s only through body language, you’re pretty damn good.

3. Characters must have a distinct personality. Say you have identical twin characters, one good, one evil. You must be able to tell which one you are looking at just in silhouette.

This last one is really, really hard. Think of Lasseter giving those desk lamps personalities. You could tell which was which, even if they had switched bodies. Or if Buzz and Woody had a brain switch, you’d be able to tell it was Buzz inside Woody’s body.

Be that as it may, we very rarely, and I mean rarely, get a tape that makes it to #1. So if you have a reel with only character animation on it, maybe a few seconds of it, usually the last piece you did, will show your true potential.

If your character animation were so-so, but you showed a skill at dealing with complex character hierarchies and skinning problems (and if you tell us what software you did something in, we know them all from Alias to Playmation and its more recent manifestations), then you could get a character setup job, learning how we cope with animation challenges and production methods.

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