5 tips for making a killer reel.


Whether you love making them (unlikely) or consistently put them off (very likely), they're the best chance of getting your story across in the shortest amount of time.

Last month Story & Heart filmmakers gathered around our digital campfire (aka, our interactive webinars) in the Academy of Storytellers to chat all about reels. We even critiqued a handful of Academy members' films:

Shannon P: "I just listened to the webinar and replayed the comments on my reel about 6 times. Lots of great notes, so excited for the challenge of taking my reel to the next level! Thanks again for taking the time to give such a thoughtful critique!"

John F: "Thanks for the review! Solidified what I knew I needed to do. Excited to put the tips into action!"

In this two and a half hour webinar we covered a lot of ground and dug in deep to all things reels. From how best to go about creating them, what to avoid, and how to get them seen—nothing was off-limits.

Below, we share 5 tips for making a killer reel care of our panelists Joyce from Stillmotion, Ray and Joe from Locomotive, Dan from Gnarly Bay, and Joey from Film Lab Creative.

5 tips for making a killer reel

1) Don’t just use your reel to show what you can do. Use it to show what you want to do.

Care of Ryan Booth

Joey Mathews: We looked at our reel as an opportunity because we do a lot of creative work, not just DP or production. We wanted to communicate a message of who we are as a company and the type of clients that we want to work with. So I ended up finding this old Xerox orientation video that was amazing and the message that he had felt really spot on with our vision for how we want to do things and the clients we want to work with. And we thought, what a great way to pitch what we do by also kind of saying, "Look, this is the kind of client we're looking for too." And so it had this double-edged sword on the communication side and then we tried to match the narrative with a lot of symbolic footage that would connect with that. And then beyond that, finding the right music to be the foundation of that. Things really started coming together. Early on when I just started putting clips to music it was like, you know, I think our work is good but I think it can get a lot better. So I wasn't super excited about it early on until I started finding a narrative and started seeing that oh, this is our opportunity to not just show pretty shots but it's an opportunity that we can send a message to our potential clients.

Joyce Tsang: It kind of more or less goes back to a little of what Joey was saying earlier and showing some of our work but more so who we are as people and the type of work that we enjoy doing. I think it's a great way to show people in a short period of time one, what you're capable of doing and two, what you're interested in doing. Anything that doesn't represent you or the stories you want to tell shouldn't go in your reel. The whole point of a reel is trying to communicate who you are and what you want to do. So if it doesn't represent either of those things then leave them out.

Ray Tsang: I think it allows you to speak to the work that you want to do. You have an opportunity to create something for yourself and have a specific story that you want to say and tailor it to the type of stories that you want to attract and the type of clients you want to attract.

Dan Riordan: It is the easiest way to communicate what you're capable of and to guide your ship towards what kind of work you hope to do in the future. 

"Anything that doesn't represent you or the stories you want to tell shouldn't go in your reel."—Joyce Tsang, Stillmotion 

2) Treat your reel like its own project.

Care of Film Lab Creative

Joey Mathews: I look at it like its own project. I think that's what's great about reels—it allows you to take risks and do things that you really want to do. Sometimes with clients it's like you just, you can't do that. Make those reels out of the work you want to do. Grade it the way you want to grade and as potential clients see that and they say I want that look, I want what you're doing. And I know for us, early on we weren't getting those jobs. And so we almost had to kind of cheat a little bit and shoot some stuff on our own and maybe take a little thing from a project that wasn't really anything and make it into something in the reel. And I think that's totally fine.

Joe Stunzi: I really like what Joey said which was you have to treat it like its own project. We actually pitched three different concepts to each other basically to figure out which one was going to be the best approach. And I think no matter what project you're doing you should do that. You should sit down and think of different ways to approach it. I think if you want to show someone a different look you can achieve, show them a project. But I think creating it as its own creative body of work is so important

Joyce Tsang: I think as with any project you have a project lead but for the most part we sat in a room and figured out what we wanted to do and people pitched in anywhere from suggesting footage to going out and shooting footage specifically for it. It was a team effort for the most part. It definitely was. And I wanted to echo Joey's point about getting feedback and leveraging  Story & Heart's community or whoever you can get to watch your reel just to let you know what works and what doesn't work. Sometimes we're just so into our own footage and we've seen it so much, you can't really tell after a certain point, like I've seen this 85 times. It's great to get an outside look on it.

"I think that's what's great about reels—it allows you to take risks and do things that you really want to do."—Joey Mathews, Film Lab Creative

3) A killer reel is more than just killer visuals.

Care of Camp 4 Collective

Joe Stunzi: I think some of the most captivating reels are those that can take advantage of different moments within the soundtrack itself. And actually play with pacing—play with what you're seeing and play with how you're connecting the different moments. I know that's one of the challenges we have with ourselves is really trying to take people on a journey.

Joyce Tsang: I see music as just another layer of the story. So if you look at your lighting and your camera movement and your music and your pacing and all of that. As long as your music, that layer of the story jives with the rest of the story, it doesn't necessarily have to be quick pacing just because it's a fast or short clip. Depending on what you're saying and how you're saying it it could be a slower piece. What I don't like is seeing reels where the cinematography says one thing and the music is saying another thing. It's just confusing. So as long as those layers all match up, that's really the only thing for me in terms of music selection.

Joey Mathews: A lot of reels that all start looking the same when they have the same kind of shots. And I can't say we're not guilty of that too. When we start putting together our reel early on it was like man, some of this, it just kind of looks typical. For us I wanted our voice to be a little bit different and music was something that really lent a hand in that. I think filmmaking is such a multiple disciplinary thing. You have a lot of technical things, a lot of artistic things, visual, sound, color, composition. And I think the reel is the same way. You have your natural audio, you have your music, you have your visuals, you have your foley. I know with our reel, it didn't start clicking and start feeling good until we added wind noises and car driving noises and match striking noises, but it's not so loud that it's in your face. It's a little bit more subtle but you can feel it and it helps take the viewer. And I think that's the whole thing with filmmaking. With reels you want to take the viewer to a place, wherever that place is you decide. You just have to use all of those tools to your advantage. To me, if you could cut a reel that has all of those elements, like Joyce says, it's hard to do. It's like an amazing orchestra. Yeah there's a lot of instruments but when they come together at the right moment there's nothing else like it. And I think that would be my goal in building a reel or hope to see in a reel.

Dan Riordan: Going this extra mile shows that you aren't only capable of capturing good content...but it shows that you have the creativity to put it to good use. It's like a fisherman that is also a good cook...boom...hire that savvy person. 

Ray Tsang: I'd say that a lot of the time—in a lot of reels—the soundtrack is overbearing and takes over the entire piece. I think it just needs to come hand in hand and have a hybrid of knowing your story, having the visuals and having a soundtrack that adds to that instead of taking over the piece

"It's like a fisherman that is also a good cook...boom...hire that savvy person."—Dan riordan, Gnarly Bay

4) Using celebrities—or logos—adds credibility in your reel. But it has a trade-off.

Care of Stillmotion

Joey Mathews: I think we struggled with that because the longer we're in business we start working with bigger brands and we're like man, we need to show this. For us it was subtle product placement. Yeah, I did show Jordan but it was only for a real quick, not even one, second. I wasn't showing logos per se but I wanted our potential agency clients to watch it and say wow, they've done some big stuff.

Joyce Tsang: I think we kind of struggled with that as well. What do you put in and what do you not put in? In our reel we have Ryan Lochte and Obama. I mean, those are celebrities. But it wasn't Obama on stage talking, it was him having a very genuine smile and I think that speaks to how we want real stories with real people and it's hard to get a president to do that. And I think it's neat that we have that in there. But in terms of logos, I feel it's harder to do because it could be very distracting. We see logos on TV all the time. We see them in the movies and it just feels like an ad. So I think logos are a little bit harder than people to get by in terms of star power so to speak.

Joe Stunzi: I think when it comes to logos, you're working your visuals, the way you put them together should speak for itself. But I definitely have seen a lot of reels out there by production companies that want to show you logo after logo after logo, animation after animation after animation. I think that's great if you're an effects studio or doing animations. I think all sorts of different creatives can have reels and want to represent their body of work but I think at the end of the day, like Joyce said, the different authentic moments are so much more valuable. And people know that. I think people feel when you're trying to sell them on who you work with. I think there's something really important about being comfortable and going from there.

"People feel when you're trying to sell them on who you work with."—Joe Stunzi, Locomotive

5) Creating a reel is half the battle. The other half is getting it seen.

Care of Gnarly Bay

Joyce Tsang: We have Amina go out and just talk to agencies that we want to work with or clients that we want to work with and reach out that way. We don't necessarily have specific reels per se that we'll send out but if we have a non-profit, for instance, that we want to work with we will actually create a specific video just for them. It's not a reel in a sense that it's a mash-up of different clips but it is a specific pitch video that we would take to them. The other thing you could do is align yourself and make relationships with other media outlets or brands that you want to work with. So if we're interested in telling stories that have positive social good and impact, we can reach out to Conscious Magazine or Good or somebody like that and we could do cross blog posts or whatever and try to get your reel out that way without saying, "Hey, check out my reel."

Joey Mathews: There's been a few agencies that saw the reel because someone shared it on Facebook and they just saw it. So we've literally had meetings where people flew in out of state to meet with us because they saw the reel and they want to talk to us about some projects coming up. So in that regard, it felt a little bit more like we threw it out there and people liked it. I think if people like things they will share it. If they don't they won't. So it wasn't super strategic. Really it was we wanted to put something on our site that really represented our message and what we want to do. However, I do think with what Joe was saying and Joyce as well, instead of just casting this big net and seeing what happens, I think it's a little more valuable to fit so perfectly with what you're doing. And you understand their brand, you understand their message that they want to get across and you connect with them individually. It's not just like, "Hey, we're a production company, here's our reel, let us know if you need anything." It's more like "Hey, I've been wearing your clothes for the last 10 years, I love your brand. We've been making a lot of films that we feel connect with that demographic and this is why." And really put a lot of thought and effort into it and that can turn into a huge project, maybe even a contract and a relationship versus just throwing it out everywhere and saying "Hey, let's see what happens." For us, we haven't been super strategic yet with the reel. It's been a little bit more like we put it out, people shared it and we had a lot of good feedback. That's been great. But I would suggest being a little more intentional and finding companies you want to work with.

Joe Stunzi: I think another really good point to make about your presence online is that whatever stories you have out there, whatever projects you're presenting as the work of your company, it's so important I think to give a one or two sentence description and maybe even speak about who is involved. I think it's a great way to realize what's searchable content and what can people find out about it. You obviously want them to hit play, right? One of your goals in putting your reel out there should be to get people to click on to the rest of your profile and look at your other films. If you've done your job getting people interested in what you're doing, they should want to see what else you've put out there publicly.

Ray: You don't know how many times I've seen a reel where it's on YouTube with no description except "Hey, check out my reel." But then you go through it and you don't know what you're looking for, right? Is this a DP reel, a director's reel? What are you trying to communicate to me? So I would say, a two or three sentence description can do a lot in terms of the expectations it sets when someone first hits play on your piece.

"A two or three sentence description can do a lot in terms of the expectations it sets when someone first hits play on your piece."—Ray Tsang, Locomotive

Got any extra tips for creating a killer reel? Share them in the discussion below.

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