The Top 5 Mistakes You're Making in Your Portfolio or Demo Reel

My friend Michael Keith is the Production Coordinator at Falcon's Creative Group here in Orlando. Prior to that he worked as the Director of Career Services for The Dave School. He continues to give back to the community as a Mentor and Career Coach and specializes in the art discipline. The following is the first in a series of portfolio and reel tips that he is putting together. Thanks Michael for this and for all you do on behalf of our local community. 

Over the last 10 years I have watched thousands of demo reels and I often see the same mistakes being made by beginner and experienced artists alike. In my current role, I am the first line of defense when it comes to artists applying to media positions. Unlike the average recruiter or hiring manager, I will watch the entire demo reel from beginning to end and I review all of the artist’s work submitted. I make sure that I leave no stone unturned because I know what it's like trying to find a job in this industry. With this in mind, I thoroughly review every applicant but if I don't like your work, you won't get an interview.

So, what are the most cringe worthy mistakes that I see? I'm glad you asked!

1.       Showing bad work - The first and most obvious mistake I see on the average reel is when an artist puts something in their portfolio that shouldn't be there. Surprisingly,  it's not just junior artists who do this. Whether it's bad animation, bad models, textures, compositing, lighting, or graphic design there are only 3 reasons why there is a bad piece on your demo reel.

  • It's bad but you don't realize it's bad.
  • It's bad but you didn't bother to fix it.
  • It's bad but you didn't know how to fix it.

None of the reasons above are good reasons for unacceptable work to be in your portfolio, so get rid of it until you've fixed it. If you're not sure if a piece is worthy of showing to an employer then ask someone who's artistic eye you trust... in fact get as many eyes on it as possible!

2.       Showing non-relevant work - I often receive applications where the artist is showing work that is not relevant to the position for which they are applying. If you're applying to an animator position, then I should see a demo reel chocked full of animations and not a generalist reel or a modeling reel with one bipedal walk cycle on it. Tailor your portfolio for the kind of position you're looking for. If you are a talented modeler and animator, then have separate reels for each discipline.

3.       Not indicating what you did - This applies to junior and senior artists alike. An artist will often work on a project as part of a team and there are usually multiple artists for each shot so indicating exactly what you did is really important. Sometimes is as easy as a small text applied to the corner of your video saying "Animation of screen left character". A breakdown sheet is also very helpful and that can be a separate document that gets attached to your resume or cover letter.

4.       The reel is too long - Whether you're a junior or senior level artist, you're demo reel should be short enough to hold the attention of the viewer without being annoying. It doesn't matter how much experience you have or how many high profile projects you've worked on... a 5 minute demo reel is too long! For experienced artists I recommend no more than 3 minutes and for junior level artists no more than 2 minutes. If your demo reel is exceeding this length then it might be time to drop a piece or two.

5.       Your reel is out of date - When reviewing an artist's application and portfolio materials, I always look to see how old their demo reel is.

  • If you're a recent graduate who is looking for that first opportunity then your portfolio should be updated fairly recently. If you graduated a year ago and haven't put anything new on your demo reel since you completed school, then to me that's an indication that you haven't been continuing to polish your skills. The skills you learned in school are perishable and if you don't use them, you will quickly stagnate.
  • If you've been in the field for a while I want to see your most recent work. Having said this, I know that it not always easy to showcase very recent projects because permissions aren't always granted quickly and often until a project is publicly released you're not allowed to show your work. But if your demo reel is 5 years old then I would expect to see at least some of those projects on your reel.

The good news is that all of these mistakes are easily avoidable. Take another look at your portfolio before you apply to that awesome job you've been drooling over and make sure that none of these mistakes apply to your work.