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I’m gonna come right out and say that doing acting reels isn’t my main editing gig. They are so different from music videos, short films, and the like. There’s almost no focus on narrative. Editing an acting reel reminds me of back-to-school shopping when I was a child.

Wha-huh? Bear with me.

My mother, probably like a lot of people, hated shopping in a crowd. And second probably only to Black Friday sales is the back-to-school rush at department stores the weekend before classes begin. Children screaming, shoes thrown everywhere, clothes in the wrong places…blah. Shopping successfully in that environment requires a couple things – an ability to make sense of the chaos, and the drive to get in and get out as fast as you can.

Editing acting reels are kinda like that. You are given a slew of clips (assuming the actor is lucky enough to have a lot to choose from), are asked to make sense of it all, and try to compress it into the shortest time possible.

If you Google tips for making acting reels, you will come across a lot of advice, and quite a bit of it is contradictory. Here’s my best shot at it:
Brevity, baby: Casting directors want to find the right actor for the job. They also want to eat a sandwich and figure out why this annoying person is texting them on their iPhone again. Are they gonna watch an entire short film or pay super close attention to a 10-minute masterpiece? Doubtful. 2-3 minutes is your best bet. And they’ll probably only pay attention to 30 seconds of it.
Transitions Suck: People want to know what the actor can do, not how much the editor loves drawn out fades. Do a clip, then another, then another. No unnecessary distractions.
Music & Montages Suck Worse: Unless you are trying to make a reel out of nothing and really need something to kill time, putting in a flashy montage of the actor doing various poses and faces just looks like you’re faffing about. It looks like you needed something to kill time. (This is untrue, of course, if you are putting together a reel for someone who is also a dancer or a motocross stunt bike driver. Montages work there. But really, shouldn’t their dancing or stunt reel be separate anyway?)
Cast a Wide Net: You are trying to showcase all the skills of the actor. Show off a variety of moods, pacing, and loudness. If he/she isn’t all that talented in a specific genre, of course consider leaving it out. But the generic acting reel should show off bits of everything the actor can do well. If they are planning content for their website, then you can break it down into longer, more specialized reels like “Drama” and “Comedy” or “Modern Sitcom” and “Period Piece”.

This is a reel I did for the actor Michael Genadry. There are things I like about it and things I don’t. Let’s deconstruct.

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I opened with a quick shot of his name. I didn’t linger on it, but it gives the casting person a moment to look up from pressing play or to hang up a phone call. Also, I used a font that the actor uses in his branding to make it consistent across all media.

Now usually, you open up with the strongest clip you have available. Something close up. Something powerful and/or funny. I did not have that option here, though, because the actor’s clips are incredibly far apart in time. The majority of his clips are from nearly 10 years ago, and the actor doesn’t really resemble what he used to look like in them. So, I made the choice to open with the most recent film work he had done to give Casting the most current physical depiction of the actor’s body and face. It is not an ideal opening clip because visually, the focus is more on Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano than the actor I am trying to showcase, but it was a necessary compromise.

I move to his earlier stuff. Juxtaposing the actor’s sitting down and timid emotions from the previous scene, I go to a boisterous walk-and-talk. Then from that comedic scene to a longer one where he is playing angry and standoffish. I felt that it was necessary to show the actor in a scene with a female, so next, I used a tiny bit from a much longer romance scene. Then, I finish it off with the longest scene of all that demonstrates some physical humor and dramatic acting all in one go. In a little over 2 minutes, the actor manages to demonstrate fear, timidity, cockiness, resentment, disgust, anger, self-conscious love, and self-righteous zeal.

It finishes with another shot of the actor’s name and this time includes a headshot. I feel that it’s all right to let this slate linger for awhile longer than in the beginning because you aren’t fighting for the attention of the casting director anymore.

Is it perfect? No. Once that actor’s latest movie comes out, it can be assumed he will want to integrate those more recent scenes and chuck out some of the old ones from the television show. But the editor has to make do with what is given to her, eh?

So in the case of acting reels, for a change, it isn’t really “all about the story.” To return to my earlier tortured metaphor, it’s all about how much quality stuff you can shove into your shopping cart.