Showreels... A dummy's guide

Landing a job in 3D is a bit like auditioning for the lead in a Hollywood blockbuster. In an audition, an actor has only a few priceless seconds to impress, and, likewise, a 3D artist will usually only have about two or three minutes to showcase their work. If the recruiter's time is short, he or she might make a judgement call in the first 15 seconds, so there's no point saving your best stuff for the end. You've got to shine from the start, playing to your strengths.

As DreamWorks' European Representative, Shelley Page says: "There's no such thing as a student film that couldn't do with editing." Demo reels are entirely different from student films - unless you've made the next Geri's Game. Many student films take on too much, resulting in what one jaded recruiter describes as: "typically five minutes of poor animation on poorly rigged models in poor environments." Demo reels are about focusing on one's strengths and not trying to be, for example, a character animator if your genius lies in modelling and texturing. "I don't want to wade through a showreel where someone's thrown in everything they've ever done," says Dave Throssell, Head of MillTv.

Do your homework: target the places that need your skills. Different studios have different structures for dealing with demo reels: your work might be viewed during a coffee break, or as the 42nd application in a mammoth session where the 41 before you all sucked.

But whatever the situation, you want the viewer to sit up as your stuff comes on. Below, industry professionals from all levels of the 3D industry show you how.

It's not just your reel that will make a good impression. Presentation is crucial

As well as thinking about the 3D content, it's worth giving serious consideration to the supporting material in your reel - it can be a vital part of selling yourself. CVs, portfolios and website links can all boost your chances. Be wary of sending hard copies packaged with your disc or video tape, as it's easy for material to get separated at the other end. It's far better, if possible, to include material on the disc or tape itself. Hard copies are more useful at the interview stage, where you might find yourself shunted into a back room without a PC to hand. "In your CV, be clear and be relevant. Avoid clutter and don't waffle," says Paul McLaughlin, Head of Art at games company Lionhead. "You should include a 'statement' or a more casual letter; it's always good to have a personal touch; it gives us an idea of the applicant's personality. And make sure that it's all up to date."

A portfolio highlights your core skills. If you're applying for a lighting position, you might send examples of your photography. If you're into character animation or design, then your life sketches could be useful. A portfolio directly supplements your 3D content, with concept sketches that show the recruiter how your images evolved (and that they weren't just copied off the internet). Sketches that display your 'working' are especially germane to modelling oriented posts - it's good to include a page or two showing all your thought processes.

If you have relevant work online, then you can use a web-site link to point recruiters towards it, with the advantage that they won't expect it to be as tailored and focused as the demo reel. However, Codemasters' Principal Artist, Jolyon Webb, warns against using websites as a substitute. "Definitely include a site link, but I wouldn't rely on people taking the time to go there. I've been sent a lot of CVs where people feel they don't have to include anything else, and when I follow the link I found it's on some kind of free hosting, or it's expired, or it's just unbelievably slow to download. What you need are images that people can see extraordinarily easily, on any machine." Page agrees: "Most of our recruiters, unless there's a pressing reason, don't have time to log on to people's websites. We need the material in front of us."

However, it depends on the individual circumstances in which the reel is viewed, and some companies find websites congenial. "I think the idea of [physically] sending showreels is gradually disappearing," says Throssell. "If someone emails me with web links to examples of his or her work, I can just click and load, and if it's at all interesting I can send it to 20 more people in the company without moving. I've employed a lot of people after perusing their websites."

Be. As. Clear. As. Possible

When it comes to the technical details, the watchwords are clarity and transparency. You can't talk the recruiter through the demo, and they won't have time for long explanations, so you need to set everything out as plainly as possible. One of the reasons why recruiters don't like student films is that they're usually team efforts, and it's often unclear what the applicant contributed. "If there are three characters on screen, then tell us which one you lit or animated or modelled," says Helen Brunsdon, Development Manager at Aardman Animations. A clear, concise breakdown is highly advisable, along with a list of the software you used.

An indispensable way to show your modelling process is with wireframes - recruiters can examine them at their leisure. "A demo should either show a figure in wireframe view, or with a grey plastic shading with the wires displayed on top. That's really important," says Webb. "As well as the wireframe, applicants should also show their models in a neutral pose with the textures on, ideally with neutral lighting. You shouldn't need to do renders, but take screengrabs instead. Then you can put a neutral background in, hide everything else and maximise the view. Grab both the textured model and the wireframe in the same view. Ideally, you'll have one or two images, showing the initial concept sketches, the wireframe, the shaded view and the texture sheet."

Turntables showing a model rotating through 360 degrees are also welcomed - some value them more than wireframes or texture maps. "It's obvious to us that what you're meant to be looking at is the character itself, rather than the character's movement," says Webb. "It's a way of displaying the model."

Remember that many jobs require particular software skills, so tailor your demo to the job description. Being able to use the basics well is more desirable than a hazy knowledge of the latest software. "I'd rather see something good in Hash Animation:Master, than a poor effort in the spangly tool of the moment," notes McLaughlin.

Don't stand out for the wrong reasons and avoid clich like the plague

It's better to do something that's simple and done well, than going for more complex projects and looking like an amateur. Throssell remembers how he picked his new recruits out of 50 showreels. "One had done a really good character walk cycle, so I thought, well, she knows how to animate. And there was a guy who'd taken the time to make the simple stuff look consistent: good colour, good framing, and good aesthetics. Neither reel was funny or had stories. But if people can create a little test animation and make it look good compositionally, aesthetically, or just in their choice of colour - it shows they've an eye for a good picture, and they're more likely to get the job than someone who doesn't."

Demo reels need some flair, but never at the expense of basic skills. "If it's a choice between originality and technical quality, again I'd go for something that was simple and done well," says Throssell. Matthew Sagar, HR Manager for the Moving Picture Company, agrees: "Originality is good to see, but it's craft we do here, we're looking for people who are skilled technicians with a highly developed aesthetic. We're interested in what you think looks good."

That said, there are some CG clich©s to be avoided if possible. "If there's one thing that makes my heart sink, it's a demo with spaceships," sighs Webb. "They're usually textured cylinders that don't display any modelling skills: you can't see weight, they don't interact with surfaces, they don't display composition, and they're a clich that has been done for 20 years." Other clich to avoid - unless you have a truly new take on them - include dragons, robots, cameras endlessly flying round sets and worlds populated by supermodels and manga heroes. "Sometimes I'd love to see a grocer's shop or an elderly woman," says McLaughlin. Page urges DreamWorks hopefuls to forget the metal worlds of sci-fi and tackle organic environments.

Your reel must focus on your strengths, but remember who you're sending it to. "We see an awful lot of dark rainy things, because that's the standard in the visual effects industry," Page notes. "But that doesn't work for us, as anyone who's seen our films knows!" Throssell adds: "If you're keen on thrash metal and have that as a soundtrack, the person who sees it might share your taste. But remember, there'll be 200 more people in that room, and you want to show them what kind of person you are. Avoid 'funny' showreels that show things like Darth Vader farting, which may make everyone on your course howl with laughter, but could embarrass you five years later."

Cut anything that's not up to scratch and leave them wanting more

Most recruiters agree that a demo reel should ideally be two or three minutes - perhaps even less. The cardinal rule is that substandard work should be avoided at all costs. But what is 'substandard'? The classic cases include character animations with feet that (unintentionally) slide, or go through the floor. "That's a classic; you see it again and again!" says Jolyon Webb. "If you're a modeller, and if there's anything boxy on something that's meant to be built out of muscles, or if it looks unnaturally stiff, take it out. And if you're a mechanical modeller and there's any part of your glossy car that looks like it's been in a crash and has been badly re-sprayed, take it out."

A wider definition of substandard work is anything you hesitate over including. "If you show something to your family and they think it's wonderful, it doesn't mean much," says Webb. "If you show it to someone who doesn't adore you and they pick up the fault, then it's not up to scratch. I often get demos from people who know something isn't good, but for some reason they've got an emotional attachment to it, because it's modelled on a girlfriend or it was the first robot they built. Those are really terrible reasons for choosing work for your demo reel." There's no room for being sentimental, then!

Unfinished work-in-progress might be worth including if it's of high quality. The downside is that it begs the question of why it's unfinished. At worst, it might give the impression that you can't complete projects. Throssell suggests that unfinished or 'flawed' animations make for potentially useful talking points at the interview stage. "When you go in to see someone you could take a different reel with more material, and explain, 'This isn't perfect because...' and talk through the problems you encountered."

It never hurts to swot up on your skills, to give your work that extra something

Ben Turner is Creative Director at Cosgrove Hall Digital, one of the studios that has switched to 3D in recent years. He argues that the fundamentals of character animation are overlooked in demos. "I see many reels where the character animation lacks a real presence. It's a problem with recent graduates, who've often not rubbed shoulders with people who have experience in moving a character. What they miss are those old-fashioned techniques that make the difference between a character just moving, and one I believe in." But in order to get that special something into your work, a bit of extra work is required. "Character animation is probably the hardest area to get into, and if it's your goal, you need to do some private study," says Page. She recommends classic 2D texts such as Richard Williams' The Animator's Survival Kit, along with Isaac Kerlow's The Art of 3D Computer Animation and Effects. "DreamWorks' challenge is to get the squash-and-stretch look from traditional cartoons, and it's not possible to get into the upper echelons of character animation without those skills. What we want to see is a mastery of basic things like weight and volume, and we'd prefer an unrendered character to see them better."

If you're showing off your animation, models are a secondary concern. "It's enough to see a box-figure or just the skeleton of the animation, with the movement clearly presented," says Webb. "As a games company, what we want are small discrete pieces of excellent full-body movement animation that loop smoothly: walks, runs, climbs, impacts, movements with effort, movements with recoil, anticipation. You could start with a standard character 'idol' and show three or four animations that come out of that, like a collapse animation, a jeer animation, a sigh animation, followed by returns to the base pose. Something like that would really impress us."

Video or DVD? DigiBeta or DivX? Oh, it's all so confusing!

The bulk of demo reels are sent on VHS and DVD. Both formats are still serviceable, and preferred by many companies because of the fewer compatibility problems they pose. A physical format like DigiBeta or a non-standard codec like DivX are less advisable, as many companies simply don't have then. A point to remember is that demo reels sent to America must be on NTSC tape or a Region 1 or (preferably) all-region DVD. The resolution should obviously be as high quality as you can get - third or fourth generation dubs won't pass muster - especially if you're applying for a lighting post.

If you're submitting files on a CD then, again, keep it simple. "I've had loads of problems interviewing people who had complex flash presentations. I'd load them, then find half the codecs are missing," says Webb. "If you put stuff on CD, it's better to put it in a variety of codecs. For example, if you send an animation CD, you could have a folder labelled, say, 'Walk loops', and then sub-folders inside that in QuickTime, Microsoft, MPEG and so on, so there's something to fall back on."

The setup at DreamWorks is a good example. European Representative, Shelley Page, works on a Mac and has problems with demos that either she or her stateside counterparts can't play. "I can't open AVI, MOV or MPEGs, while DigiBeta won't work in the States. DVD is the preferable format for us, with VHS as a failsafe. If it's an all-region DVD, so much the better."

To show off your skills to the best of their ability, think 'originality' and 'quality'

We're looking for people who understand form," says Chris Longmore, Managing Director of UK-based Drive Ltd, a computer-aided design company in the field of automotive modelling. Longmore says that models should always be grounded in sketches. "It's not just the result that counts, it's very much how you got there. We need to know that an applicant can interpret a sketch, understand what's going on around the back, and turn it into a 3D model."

As for the models themselves, Longmore says he looks for clean construction and good quality surfaces. "We want digital data that can be used downstream not just for visualising and animating, but also for creating physical models, CNC-milled models, SLA models and, at an extreme, going through to production tooling surfaces [SLA involves a 3D model being physically drawn onto the surface of liquid plastic by a computer-controlled laser. CNC milling refers to the physical cutting and shaping of metal by computer-controlled machine tools]."

"We'd also like to see visuals that cover three different areas. The first type would be visuals that communicate to a design review, such as a raycast visual that shows form very well so you can see highlights and reflections. The next level is more marketing-orientated visuals, more about accurate colours, textures, graphics and photorealism. The third type would be a stylised advertising shot, where we're getting across the feel of the product but you might not be able to tell what all the surfaces are doing." Posts in modelling, lighting and technical direction should demonstrate a well-rounded experience, though sometimes it needs to be weighted towards a particular skill. Where DreamWorks wants realistic textures and models that fit Shrek-type environments, other studios welcome applicants who demonstrate they can work around the spectrum.

Yes, we know you know. But you can forget the basics in all the excitement...

There are some things that go without saying, but it's easy to forget about them and still slip up. For starters, make sure that the demo reel is clearly labelled with your contact details, and that these are accurate and up-to-date. Make sure they're somewhere onscreen as well, in case the reel gets separated from the packaging. Check that your tape, DVD or CD has what it should have on it. "You wouldn't believe the amount of things we receive from applicants with nothing on them," says Brunsdon. "I remember receiving a VHS tape that was meant to have a demo reel on, but when I checked it, I found myself watching the previous night's Eastenders!" If you've already done work for a commercial 3D company, think about what you send out in mailshots for the world to see and don't be too 'free' with material that should be properly confidential (after all, the CGI community is quite small, and things have a habit of getting around). While this is a matter of judgement - for example, one can arguably show material in one-to-one contexts that shouldn't be included in a broadly aimed demo - it's still an area where there's no substitute for common sense.

Put that pretty pink bow down, and read on to see how to pack to impress

There's a slight difference of opinion among companies as to what kind of packaging is required. Some recruiters argue that it's practically irrelevant, beyond an image on the box that gives an idea of the content and a clear interface guiding the viewer through. "Big flashy things are not required for me," says Ben Turner. "As long as I can identify it, and there's a name and a picture, that's fine."

But a dissenting note comes from Brunsdon: "A demo reel could be in a different package - it's all about marketing yourself. Perhaps something specially designed with Aardman in mind, something eye-catching." Also, Webb notes that good packaging can have a practical use: "If you're sending a CD, put it in a hard case and put in a glossy print showing your most interesting piece of work," says Jolyon Webb. "Put your name and email on the case, and felt-tip them on the disc itself - I'd put them on every CD image too. As for the interface, I'd personally present it all as JPEGs and files in folders, unless you're going for certain kinds of design job. I like to put in a CD which opens up without trying to auto-run or do anything fancy." It'll (literally) pay to make their job easier...

How not to act like a stalker and still seem keen

Some companies, such as Aardman, notify people that they've received their demo. Otherwise, you might follow up with a brief email saying that you hoped the demo arrived safely and reiterating your enthusiasm, but don't expect a reply. "The general rule of thumb, especially with a big studio, is don't call us, we'll call you," says Page, who usually can't cross her floor for demo reel submissions. "We have our databases, and, although the material may not be suitable for our current project, we do a review when we're looking for people who might be suitable for the next project, and we call them back."

"We've sometimes hired people years after they first applied." But what if you've completed a new project since you sent your reel in, and the studio haven't seen it? You don't want to bug them, as they're probably really busy, right? Not necessarily: "it's always worth sending an update of your work," says Page. "If someone has done a new project since the last time we saw them, then by all means send it in on a reminder reel."

This is something that's emphasised by Sagar: "It's always worth re-submitting your reel, if you've done another job, or another piece of work in the meantime," he says. "We've got a library and a large database, and we keep everyone's demo reel that we're interested in."

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