Shawn Kelly Answers 5 Burning Questions About Demo Reels
Animation Mentor co-founder and ILM Lead Animator Shawn Kelly answers five great student questions about demo reels and gives advice on applying for studio animation jobs. And he should know—he’s been at ILM for more than 20 years! Get ready to soak up some knowledge.
How much do you guys weigh a demo reel along with a resume and cover letter from an applicant? Like for example, let’s say a person has a great reel but not much experience on their resume?
Shawn: Honestly, I never even glance at a resume until I’ve seen the demo reel. The reel is always going to be at least 90% of getting the job. Knowing someone at a studio may help with getting an interview, but it isn’t going to get you a job unless your demo reel wows people.
However, once I’ve seen and liked a reel, then I’m extremely interested in reading the cover letter and the resume. It’s a great way to get to know the applicant a little bit and get an idea of their interests and background. Take care with your cover letter and resume as well—if it’s rife with spelling or formatting errors it shows a lack of attention to detail, the exact opposite of what studios would want in an artist.
I never even glance at a resume until I’ve seen the demo reel. The reel is always going to be at least 90% of getting the job.
Always be 100% truthful about your experience on the resume as well or those lies will very likely come back to haunt you. Remember, this is a small industry, and the recruiters all know each other and all experienced animators have friends at tons of other studios, so using someone else’s work on your demo reel or lies on the resume will travel around the entire industry in flash.
That said, if the demo reel is amazing, most studios aren’t going to care much at all about any lack of experience on your resume.
Is it smart to frequently show a studio your work even without a job posted on their website?
Shawn: It’s never a bad idea to send an updated reel to a studio, regardless of whether or not they have openings posted. There’s a fine line, though, between keeping them updated and becoming a pest to the recruiters, so I’d say to only send an updated reel when you really feel that you’ve improved it and added new content (a new shot).
Hiring needs can change really fast at studios, so it’s always good to be on their radar. If you apply and they aren’t hiring right then, at least you’re getting yourself into the queue of artists they may turn to when the show suddenly needs animators or a new project starts ramping up.
Is story more important than the physical mechanics of a shot? Is having a funny idea important too? How important would that be?
Shawn: No, the physical mechanics of a shot are much more important than the storytelling on a demo reel. That isn’t to say that the storytelling isn’t an important part of the equation as well, though. Your shots need to make sense, and the more entertaining and emotionally sincere the performances are, the better your demo reel will be. That said, you might have the best acting performance ever, but if the character looks floaty and wrong when she walks around, the shot is ruined.
Physical mechanics are what are most important, and frankly, strong physical mechanics are much harder to find on a demo reel than strong storytelling skills.
Studios are looking for animators who can bring something special to a shot. Artists who can “plus” the direction they are given and take even a “small shot” to a higher level and make it sing. However, at a studio, you will be given direction and it’s often very specific direction. It’s rare that a junior animator at any studio would be expected to come up with a shot idea out of whole cloth. 99.9% of the time, you’ll be animating a shot that has already been somewhat thought out and you’re executing the vision of the Director while bringing what you can of yourself to it.
In light of that, the physical mechanics are what are most important, and frankly, strong physical mechanics are much harder to find on a demo reel than strong storytelling skills.
As far as “funny,” goes, it doesn’t hurt to have some humor on your reel, but it isn’t a prerequisite to getting a job. It doesn’t have to be funny, specifically, but the reel should be as entertaining to watch as possible.
The “holy trinity” of demo reels would be strong body mechanics, entertaining storytelling, and sincere emotional changes in the characters. Everything else, such as lip sync, music, etc., is still important, but is the icing on the cake if you’ve already nailed those first three.
Do you recommend having one shot character then the next shot creature, then character, etc. Or what is a good way of ordering shots on your reel?
Shawn: Generally speaking, you should be tailoring your demo reel to the studio you are applying to. Often, that doesn’t mean entirely different content, but rather showing most of the same content in a different order.
It’s getting harder to get a job at many (I might even say “most”) studios without some animal and/or creature work done in a more realistic style.
The order you describe isn’t a bad idea for your “generic demo reel” to have on-hand that most studios could watch and get excited about. Alternating between character and creature work does give you a chance to get any studio, no matter their chosen style, interested in your work.
However, there are some few studios who very specifically only want to see a certain type of content or style. A few studios may really want to see some motion graphics work because they do a lot of that with their game, or some few studios may only really want to see stylized “cartoony” work. Some few visual effects studios may only want to see creature animation and realistic work.
I say “few,” though, because those studios are not in the majority. Not by a long shot. The vast majority of studios are happy to see whatever your best work is, and know that “style” just comes down to exaggerating the same principles in different ways. Exaggeration is really the only difference between “realistic” and “cartoony.” Both styles are using exaggeration, but in different ways and very different amounts, but it’s all built on the same foundation.
That said, more and more games and vfx and commercials studios really badly want to see some creature animation on your demo reel. They are still eager to see your more stylized work as well, but it’s getting harder to get a job at many (I might even say “most”) studios without some animal and/or creature work done in a more realistic style.
Tailor your reel to the job you are applying for and the studio you are applying to!
As for the order of shots, you definitely want to grab their attention right off the bat and leave them excited at the end. That means bookending your reel with your best work, and ideally starting the reel off with the type of work that the chosen studio typically works in. I usually recommend putting your second-best shot first, your best shot last, and everything else in between, but I would switch that up if that would mean placing realistic shots at the beginning of a reel sent to Pixar or Blue Sky, for example, both of which might still be interested in seeing that work, but are much more interested in your stylized work.
Remember, tailor your reel to the job you are applying for and the studio you are applying to!
How important is rendering your demo reel vs. just playblasting? My school tells us to render everything, but I see professional reels all the time with just playblasts.
Shawn: Playblasting is totally fine. I’ve never met an animation supervisor who cares at all if something is nicely lit on a reel. The only time it can matter is if lighting or particle work helps tell the story of the shot. Other than that, I’d say playblasts are totally fine. When we are looking at reels, we are looking at the body mechanics and the acting performances, and I couldn’t care less if something has textures or is lit.
That said, if you do have some nicely lit shots, it doesn’t hurt the reel at all to include them, of course!