The hardest part (except for all the other hardest parts) of being a creative is having to distill a complex project into a few sentences or minutes. Whether you’re writing a logline or cutting a trailer, you always feel like you’re leaving your favorite part out. So when it comes time to cut a new reel for yourself, instead of agonizing, this template may provide for some guidance and inspiration.
But remember: the best way to follow best practices is applying them to your own brand or vibe and not being afraid to stray when it feels right.
The cold open
A striking, tone-setting moment or visual, no more than 10-15 seconds to get us in the mood and prime us for what we're about to watch.
If you have a favorite shot that feels indicative of your work as a whole, that should be your cold open. If you have many favorite shots, choose the one with the most enticing, confusing, terrifying, or twisted ending. The purpose of a cold open in film and television is to introduce us to a story, world, or character in medias res to encourage us to stick around for the full context, and the beginning of your reel is no different.
Example: Christina Raia, my podcast co-host, is a writer/director of socially conscious horror that’s often interwoven with comedy, so the cold open of her reel is a scene from her film, The Gaze. It’s a beautifully lit opening frame of a woman watching a movie, whose power goes out before being chased by a hooded figure, culminating in … twist! It’s a movie inside a movie! Actual director Christina plays herself, smiling and telling the in-scene crew they’ve got what they needed.
This instantly communicates a few important things: first, the scene’s gorgeously shot, so Christina’s no amateur at composition and working with actors. Second, she’s got the chops for her preferred genre (horror), effectively amping up the tension in just 22 seconds with just a few shots. And third, she can turn that suspense on a dime for a twist that isn’t always as bloody as a horror director’s resume might imply, weaving in comedy as effectively as fear.
Next up, it’s the clip show! The meat of your reel, especially for directors and screenwriters, will be a series of scene clips to showcase the skill you mean to highlight. In addition to choosing clips that feel impressive removed from their original context, you also want to make sure they all feel aligned, even from very different projects.
My directing reel, for instance, focuses on dialogue-heavy sequences with quick pacing and long takes, because as a director I tend to prioritize performance and conversational cohesiveness with hints of camera positioning or blocking quirks to reinforce whatever’s happening in the scene.
Your first clip should be your strongest scene/sequence from either your most recent or most representative project. It should make sense out of its original context, encompassing a complete thought or arc even if it doesn’t encompass the complete thought or arc of the full scene.
Not every project you've ever made needs to be in your reel, just the ones that best represent what you're trying to emphasize—and especially ones that are visually striking/ have unique production details/settings to help you stand out.
Unless your final clip feels like a conclusive beat, and even if it does, I’m a big fan of finishing with a montage; all the moments that look exciting or funny or impressive in 1-2 second clips that ramp up to reveal your name/role/contact info that final time.
Especially if you aren’t able to include a clip from every project you’re proud of in service of keeping your reel the recommended 1-3 minutes long, this is a great opportunity to really flex and show us the breadth of your experience edited to the jam you chose to match your vibe.
Because my directing style heavily emphasizes performance and giving actors space to explore, my final montage is a series of some of my favorite reaction shots and actor closeups.
Christina’s final montage features some of her most impressive moments of digital and practical horror effects (eyeball lasers, a body with an axe in it) weaved in between high-contrast closeups of action and dramatic character moments (crying, begging for their lives, discovering a body, etc.).
Pick a song with a strong beat roughly the same length as your video (aim for 2-3 minutes max) and that fits the tone and pacing of your work, which you can filter for when browsing music libraries. Avoid lyrics/vocals when you can so the work can literally speak for itself.
For royalty free music, try the YouTube audio library, BenSound, Incompetech, or FreeMusicArchive, but because you really want to stand out and most royalty free songs are fairly generic, it may be worth paying for a month of Soundstripe or another music licensing library for the perfect tune.
Remember that your reel isn’t the full conversation—it’s the start of one.
Don’t feel like you have to hit every possible angle, or encompass your entire work history/career so far. That’s what your portfolio is for, your cover letter, your job interviews, your social media feeds ...
The goal of a reel is to entice someone to look more deeply into you as a professional and, better yet, to reach out with an opportunity. So, save a detail or two you can reveal later, and take a bit of the pressure off this 3-minute video, especially because you’ll need to update it in a year anyways.
*Feature photo by Lisa (Pexels)