Crafting the perfect showreel
It should be comforting to know that in the current economic climate there doesn’t seem to be a downturn in job opportunities for 3D professionals working in the design, visual and entertainment industries. However, just as there is any number of studio positions available, it’s dwarfed by the amount of people going for the jobs. Some will be students fresh out of courses; others will be junior animators, artists or modellers looking to move up in the world. Competition, as always, is fierce. The traditional way of whittling down applicants for jobs is to view showreels that have been submitted, but how can you make sure your reel makes the interview shortlist?
In this feature, written for 3D World and previously published in a different form in that magazine, you’ll find tips direct from the people who see reels at a range of animation, VFX, games and architecture studios. There will also be general tips on how you should craft a reel tailored to a specific job. With luck and your skill, by this time next year you should be firmly entrenched in your new studio.
The textbook reel
Eddie Leon is the President and CEO of US architecture visualisation studio Spine3D. His idea of the perfect reel is one that is diverse and eye-catching. “It should show a range of talent regardless of the position you are applying for,” says Leon. “Everything from the choice of fonts and colours in the titling to the pace of the music and editing must be chosen carefully. This helps to determine whether or not the artist has a good eye. Technical skills can be taught on the job, but a good sense of colour and composition is hard to teach. It is something that is almost natural to some artists.”
“For a VFX reel the general rule of thumb is that you should have 5-6 things, 5-6 seconds long,” says Lee Danskin, VFX course tutor at Escape Studios. “Within those you should aim to show you have the following skills: that you’re able to camera track, model something real, and light, integrate, and composite to match the backplate/grade.”
Eddie Leon says that another point to consider is that most 3D companies are small. “So an artist might seem to have a higher value if they can show skills beyond their core expertise,” he advises. “As the economy worsens many companies are forced to diversify and look for new projects in different industries. Their ability to adapt will help them survive. Artists that are willing and able to learn new skills can also help guarantee that they will not become redundant.”
However this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t research the company and job thoroughly. Certainly this is the case in the games world. For example, Stuart Adcock, Technical Art Director at Ninja Theory, feels you should tailor the reel to the position you’re applying for. “Competition is high,” he says. “The more suited you are to a position, the more likely you are to succeed.” Such a reel could for example demonstrate some of the work that the company deals with. “But don’t just throw stuff in because it’s relevant,” stresses Adcock. “Make sure it’s great. The most relevant work will be what gets critiqued the most.”
Like many of the people we sought advice from, Adcock recommends that your reel shows progression of work (i.e. reference, concept, base model, hi-res). “Paint over the top of your own screen shots and critique your own work,” he suggests. “Show us how you arrived at the final result, iteration is key and we want to see that you have the patience and talent for it. It can also show us what your intentions were compared with the end results. You are only ever as strong as your weakest piece of work. Focus on your strengths; show 10 shots of excellent, lovingly created work rather than 30 shots of mediocre rubbish. Ask yourself if your reel demonstrates artistic skill, drive and commitment.”
This advice applies whether you’re a student or a more experienced hand. Anjelica Casillas, Manager of Digital Production at Rhythm & Hues feels there is no difference between entry level and experienced artists in terms of the qualities her judging panel looks for. “The difference to me would be that I would expect the experienced reels to have more polished work and more variety of work,” she adds. “I hire a lot of students because if they have the skills and we see the potential, we like to grow them as artists. That’s one of the things I enjoy about my job as a manager – growing the artists into leads and supervisors and in general into better artists.”
Andy McNamara, Senior Maya Animator at Prime Focus says that even with ‘speculative queries’, you should put only what you perceive is your best work. “Anything that’s at a professional level, that demonstrates a high degree of polish and is well executed should move you ‘up the pile’,” he says.
Sometimes that little extra will make all the difference. “One fx artist took movies of our own game and added a fresh spin on the colour grading and effects,” recalls Stuart Adcock. “This can sometimes work well, but make sure it’s not on your reel, just a little something extra. In this case we hired her.”
But do make sure that ‘something extra’ is your own work. “Never show content that does not belong to you,” stresses Anjelica Casillas. “It’s a small industry and we will know if your work is not your own. I have seen the same shot on two different reels before.”
As for delivery itself, Lee Danskin suggests that for visual effects studios you should submit a DVD (though not a data DVD), which should contain a very simple menu system.
“If it’s overly complicated, people will switch off or press eject even before they have got to see your work,” he says. “For games jobs a file attached to email containing images or link to a simple, well designed website may be OK. Its important to understand who’s going to be looking at it; what format best suits both them and the type of work you’re showing. Contact them and find out!”
If it’s a hardcopy submission Andrew Lindsay prefers a CD. “DVDs are still a tad less reliable,” he explains. “But generally we expect to see reels online these days in. avi or QuickTime format. QuickTime is good as we can go through frame by frame. And they should be readily downloadable.”
However Jolyon Webb, Art Manager at TruSim (a division of Blitz Games), suggests you take care with Web-based reels. “I’m getting frustrated with the current fashion for on-line show reels with every movie clip embedded in a web page,” he says. “Very frequently these don’t work, or only work if you happen to have the happy magic combination of codec and web browser and media player on your PC.”
In terms of duration, you’ll be hard pressed to get a reel longer than 3 minutes past these experts. “For animators 2 minutes is fine,” says Lionhead’s Andrew Lindsay. “3 minutes is the absolute maximum. For riggers/TDs, up to 5 minutes is okay, but again 3 minutes is enough.”
Andy McNamara says a reel should be as short as feasibly possible, showing your best work without ‘repeating’ any material to make the reel longer than it needs to be. “I’d say 2-3 minutes works well,” he adds. “Most decision makers have short attention spans and get lots of them every week.”
“No longer than 3 minutes,” agrees Gustavo Capote, Studio Manager & Art Director at Neoscape. “A one-minute showreel with just the best works is more effective than a long show reel showing quantity.”
It’s a view shared by Andrew Gordon, Pixar animator and one of the experts you’ll find offering a host of great information at splinedoctors.com. “I’d rather see 30 seconds of superbly executed character animation than 3 minutes of mediocrity,” he says. “Keep your reel short and sweet.”
One of Andrew Gordon’s other tips is to include a cover letter and reel breakdown. “Keep the cover letter simple,” he says. “Don’t try and write an essay about why you think you should be the one. It will always come down to the work. The cover letter and resume are glanced at.”
Keep the reel clean and simple and above all make sure you name your reel with your name. “Don’t call it ‘Reel’. Call it ‘yourname_Reel’,” advises Andrew Lindsay. “Put contact details at the start and end.”
“Name and contacts details are a must,” agrees Gus Capote. “It’s amazing how many show reels you have to check the resume to find out the artist’s email, or even the name.”
Music isn’t to everyone’s taste. “I don’t need to hear music on a reel – some people will be alienated by your choice,” says Andrew Lindsay. “No music suits everyone. Keep it low if you do use it. Also make sure any lipsync has audible voices.”
“Overly fussy or badly designed intro graphics or distracting audio/music have the potential to irritate rather than enhance your application,” says Andy McNamara. “Many heads of 3D/recruiters will turn the audio down or off anyway. Put your best pieces first and last on the reel, as these tend to be the ones that a recruiter will remember the most.”
“Bad naming conventions can be an instant turn off, so make any files clear and to the point,” suggests Stuart Adcock. “Listing details of the file format can also be helpful.”
Include a credit list to make it clear which bits you actually worked on. “ You can say someone else did the modelling, I did the texturing,” he says. “Time estimates are also valuable information. Showing us stuff that wasn’t done on a computer, such as photos, sketches and flipbooks, can be refreshing.”
“A breakdown is not a common practice in architectural visualisation, but it’s very helpful,” says Gus Capote. “Show the time frames, objectives and what you achieved with the work.
Capote also suggests you show your work in a simple and effective way. “Don’t bother with complicated editing unless you are applying for an editing position.”
However don’t forget that the best-prepared reel in the world is nothing without talent. “If you’re a great animator, we’re interested,” says Andrew Gordon. “If you don’t think your reel is up for the scrutiny, keep working on your animation chops.”
by Michael Burns
Many thanks to the following people for their help with this feature:Games Stuart Adcock, Technical Art Director, Ninja Theory Pascal Blanché, Art Director, Ubisoft Montreal Jolyon Webb, Art Manager, TruSim Andrew Lindsay, Animation Director, Lionhead Studios Architectural visualisation Gustavo Capote, Studio Manager | Art Director, Neoscape Eddie Leon, President and CEO of Spine3D VFX/Animation Anjelica Cassilas, Manager, Digital Production, Rhythm & Hues Andy McNamara, Maya Animator, Prime Focus Andrew Gordon, Animator, Pixar (& tutor at Splinedoctors.com) Lee Danskin, VFX course tutor at Escape Studios Sofronis Efstathiou, Programme Leader, MA 3D Computer Animation, Bournemouth University