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Demo Reel Advice for CG, VFX and Animation Students

Photo: Monkey Business / Dollar Photo Club
10 May 2015
By Cody Welsh

If you’re an aspiring computer graphics artist, you’ve probably discovered how important it is to have a reel that makes you stand out from the crowd. The concept is simple enough to grasp, but actually creating a reel that best showcases your -- undoubtedly amazing -- creations is no easy feat, especially with the amount of competition that exists for jobs in computer graphics, animation and visual effects. To help you figure out how to make your reel the best it can be, we contacted three people who have a tremendous amount of experience in the matter, and asked them to give it to us straight. What makes a good reel?


Expert #1: Vince De Quattro

  • Head of Production at Athena Studios
  • Veteran VFX artist
  • Former master's-level instructor of visual effects
  • Worked at Industrial Light & Magic
  • Has been vetting reels for almost 20 years

1. It should be interesting. Editing is key. One mediocre inclusion blows the entire reel. Shorter reels are less likely to include sub-par entries. Best material first. Don't split material from single projects over the reel. I hate that. Include only the best two to three shots from a single collaborative or longer piece. Don't keep hitting me over the head with like material from the same project. I get it. Now move on. I'm losing interest.

2. Choose collaborative pieces over single exercise stuff. I want to know that you can work within a complex pipeline. Let your reel index explain how you operated within the collaboration. The better the collaboration, the better for you. Even bad collaborations or small indie projects can produce some beautiful shots, creatures creatures and/or concepts. Be open to working for collaborations in school, especially cross collaborations in other departments like film, advertising, new media, industrial design, architecture and sculpture. If you're a digital artist, try to get into working with the traditional animation teams. Learn both sides. If you're a modeler, be sure to take anatomy classes -- both human, and animal.

3. If you can draw/paint/sculpt, include it in your reel. In fact, if you can create concept art for your material (like a concept for a creature model), please include it as part of your turns/breakdowns. If you're a modeler, please include ecorche (skinless figure study) materials. Again, if you're not good, do not include them. Bad fine arts material doesn't help.

4. If you're an animator, make sure you're using an extensible rig. There are a million Norman and Andy mods. Please don't use vanilla Norman or Andy. Make sure that your monologue/dialogues are interesting and tell stories. It's ok to rip tracks to run with, but make sure they are not offensive, stupid or banal. Don't show guns. Don't show murder. Don't animate anything that any of the top three animation studios wouldn't show at a G screen. Seriously. You can do your dark opus later, after you retire. Right now you want to get a collab position at a major. Don't offend us.

5. If you're a modeler, make sure you include at least one "moment in time" turntable. A "moment in time" turntable is a large scene that depicts a frozen moment in time, capturing emotion and motion between several different actors/actresses, and bonus for anthropomorphic inclusion like a bird or other quad. Fantasy moments in times are neat. It lets you run with your concept and anatomy skills. You'll need to cross your organic with your hard surface and showcase your nascent understanding of surface texture and lighting.

6. For animators, make sure you always do walk cycle turn-tables. And whatever you do, don't do standard neutral walks. Give me a character walk. If you can do a pirate peg leg limp walk/turn with a good rig, then you can probably do a rest state neutral Andy walk forward. I get it. Don't waste my time. Show me that you're outstanding. To better understand what I mean by outstanding, watch the first twenty minutes of Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." Be outstanding.

7. If you want a job over the next grad, get cross training in associate pipeline skills. Cross-training is the main goal of digital art's education today. Initially, we did everything. We didn't do a great job, and we were mostly computer scientists with zero understanding of design (see the giraud-shaded ships in Last Starfighter). Then, in the thick days of CG, when it was all ILM or nothing, everybody was a specialist. Those times are gone. If you want a job over the next grad, get cross training in associate pipeline skills. Modelers should learn surface texture and some lighting concepts. Modelers should understand concept work. Animators should understand rigging and story. Animators should understand camera and layout. Lighters should understand particles systems. Particle jockeys don't have to cross-train anything because they're gods. They already know Python. All of you should have is some experience with Linux or some Linux variant. Windows is not used except by tiny companies. OSX is a variant of Linux. If you have OSX, you have access to tcsh and csh. Learn a little scripting.

8. Make sure the material you're selecting for your reel supports the type of job you're seeking, and matches well to the companies that you're applying to. If you want to do creature work -- high resolution creature work for feature films like "Pacific Rim," you’d better have some complex ZBrush material backed with rigged multi-part mech models that are lit very nicely for either working turns (have some rigger, animator, lighting friends?). If you want to do Pixar films, make sure that you can get some rendered monologues/dialogues that look like a recent Pixar film. Don't copy their material; that's a bust. Just show them that you can do their stuff in exercise mode. Better to show near quality collaboration material from an MFA thesis project or other BFA collaboration.

9. If you're an independent 1099 artist looking to get back into it, ditch your awful local paint store animation and commercial work back when you were using MAX and Poser models. Sick. Instead, show your ability to learn new software by creating some specs. Get involved with local junior colleges and community colleges and try to jump start some sophisticated collaborations. Find some local SIGs (ACM SIGGRAPH or chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH), or join ASIFA or some other professional societies and get a collaboration off the ground. Don't recycle that oldish phong-shaded thing from the late 90s using Softimage. That scares us.

10. VFX artists should concentrate on either digital matte painting, hardcore tracked production meshing or particle simulation. Don't do exercise one-offs. Take a look at the breakdown reel from ILM or Stargate Studios. I was a VFX artist, CG supervisor and VFX supervisor. I trained under 10 academy award winning VFX supervisors and could make this paragraph run for years. The main thing is to get your hands on some high definition footage (2K-4K) and track it. put some incredibly complex and varied elements into it in order to show your reviewer that you understand things like key, fill and bounce lighting, shadows, specular highlights, color, ephemera (like rain or smoke) and depth, both depth of field and depth haze. VFX digital matte painters should be able to paint concepts on Cintiqs, too. VFX compositors should be able to write a few Python-ish hooks into Nuke. Don't plan on impressing us if you only use timeline-based compositors like AE CC. Everyone on Creative Cow and Lynda.com uses AE CC. Nuke is key. Nuke me. Be outstanding. (See number 6.)

Some additional tips:

  • For modelers, I like 90x (frames) of full paint turns on the Y (up) axis, followed by 90x wire over ambient occlusion turns (to show organic mod edge loops and corners). Use either sidebar texture map slides (up travel pans) during the rotations, or separate tex maps and concept inclusion at the head of the turns.
  • For VFX compositors, I like fast, consistent wipes - maybe 15x per pass from back to front showing the background plate and matte painting extension, with foreground green screen elements, and then ephemera over it (like rain, smoke, reflections, etc).
  • VFX folk, please show me a full shot run through first, and then fast reverse to middle frame; then, hold for the wipe breakdowns. I like this method because I get to see the full shot before the breaks.

The final word:

Interest is key. Your reel is your gallery. It explains who you are without having to take you out for a beer. It is your calling card. It is your space. Are you neat and tidy? Do you express an attention to detail? Could I trust you to deliver my vision? The vision of the director? Do you get collaboration? Show me. Show me your reel. Show me your collective creative life in one stretch of 90 seconds. Wow me. Be outstanding. Now go watch the first act of Full Metal Jacket. Be pumped. Win.


Expert #2: Chris Van Noy-March

  • Digital Media Designer at Gannett
  • Holds a BS in Computer Graphics Technology from Purdue
  • Runs the Reel Review and MentorMe programs at SIGGRAPH
  • Has experience in animation, graphic design, video editing and imaging

1. You want your demo reel to showcase the skills required for the job you're applying for. This means if you're an animator, then you want your reel to only focus on fantastic animation. This holds true for all disciplines.

2. Don't include music on a reel unless you're 100% sure that it will add value to your presentation. Most companies will mute all the reels they receive anyway, so it's best to spend that energy on your work instead of finding that one soundtrack that will be perfect for your reel.

3. Your reel should contain your absolute best work. If you're questioning whether to keep a piece in or not, you probably shouldn't include it. Fewer strong (and finished!) pieces in your reel will showcase your skills as a professional much better than a large number of unfinished or mediocre pieces. From what I've seen, when students add more and more pieces to fill time on a reel, the overall quality of his or her reel drops. You want those who look at your work (i.e, hiring managers) to be impressed by the quality of your work. Being able to do quality work in a timely fashion is huge in every industry. It does your team and company no good if they have to continuously redo work because it doesn't pass the quality standards for the project on hand.

4. It's in your best interest to stay aware of business and technology trends of your chosen career path. Learning is lifetime skill that will benefit you in your career.

5. It's okay -- and advisable -- to pull inspiration from artists and technicians who have strong reels. Study why they're successful, and apply those learned concepts to your work. It never hurts to ask the community for feedback either. One thing I enjoy about this industry is that there's a large number of people willing to help you achieve your goals when you put in the work. All you have to do is ask. People are approachable; don't let shyness get in the way of learning from others.

6. Never lie on your reel or resume. Do not claim work that isn't yours. Don't try to deceive the recruiters or hiring managers. You'll be found out sooner or later, and this industry is small -- it will become immensely difficult for companies and people to trust you if you start off by trying to pull a fast one just to get a job.

7. Include a written breakdown of your demo reel for the viewer. This allows for a brief description of what you did and what the project was. It also allows for quicker reference for the viewer to find a specific piece in the reel, should he or she want to go back to a specific spot.

Additional tips:

Below are a couple of links I've referred to over the years when building reels. You'll notice an overlap with the overall concepts of this topic, but the information is solid and well worth the time to read.

Note: If you're a student interested in having your reel reviewed by established professionals at the annual SIGGRAPH conference, or a professional willing to donate one or two hours of your time to give students reel advice, please contact the ACM SIGGRAPH Student Services group.


Expert #3: Terrence Masson

1. Unless you REALLY want to be a generalist, ONLY show what you're best at, and what you want to apply for. Hopefully, those are the same things.

2. If you want to only model, don't try to texture, shade and animate your models at all. Just a nice ambient occlusion pass turntable cross faded with a wire-mesh view, to show your clean topology.

3. If you want to show off your animation, then it doesn't matter what free rig or model you download to animate; no one will care. It will be how you make it come alive. If you're very lucky to be a rare individual who is equally excellent at several things, then be careful how you present this; be aware that many places look for specialists -- especially large companies.

4. DO show (briefly) any highly excellent NON-digital art or tech that you're passionate about: figure drawing, photography, sculpture, graphic design, etc. This shows you to be a well rounded person with core skills, not just someone who learned a digital tool.