The Spotlight Podcast: What Should You Include in Your Showreel?

Do you have a showreel on your Spotlight profile? You need one!

In this episode of The Spotlight Podcast, we discuss what you need to include in your showreel to have the best shot at getting your next acting gig. 

Our Audio-Visual Specialist Nicholas Peel is on hand to help us out. He's watched thousands of showreels in his 11 years at Spotlight and answers all the key questions to ensure your showreel is everything casting directors want to see and doesn't include anything they don't want to see! 

20 minute listen.

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Episode Transcript

Christina Care: Hello and welcome to this episode of The Spotlight Podcast. Today we are answering the question, what should I include in my showreel? A very important question for all actors to know the answer to. And to help us answer that question, we have my favourite, Nicholas Peel, our Audio-visual Specialist at Spotlight.

Nicholas Peel: Hello.

Christina Care: Hi Nick.

Nicholas Peel: Hi Christina. You all right?

Christina Care: I'm good, thanks. How are you?

Nicholas Peel: I'm good. I'm good. I'm good. Yes. Showreels, exciting topic.

Christina Care: Showreels, yes. I was inspired to make this episode with you today because I saw a tweet recently from a casting director in which she put a breakdown on Spotlight and she received several hundred applications. She said 50% did not have a showreel. That was her observation.

Nicholas Peel: Yes. It is highly recommended to have at least some video material on your page because there's only so much that you can actually see of someone from their headshot.

Christina Care: Absolutely, and from what they've written on a profile.

Nicholas Peel: Exactly, yes.

Christina Care: You really need a showreel.

Nicholas Peel: Bit of video footage. I've been here for 11 years and ever since I started, casting directors have been requesting to see video content on your profile.

Christina Care: Absolutely.

Nicholas Peel: To see what you look like walking and talking. It's kind of surprising that people still don't have it.

Christina Care: Yeah, I think a big barrier to it is just not knowing what it needs to be, which is what we're hoping to answer today.

Nicholas Peel: Yes. Fingers crossed, yes.

Christina Care: I want to start by asking you what it is that you do with showreels. Why do you know so much about showreels, Nick?

Nicholas Peel: Well, as I said, I've been here for just under 11 years. And I used to upload showreels onto the Spotlight website back when you couldn't do it yourself so I saw probably thousands of showreels because they'd all come to me and then I'd sort of manually upload them before we automated it. We also have a showreel editing service here at Spotlight and I've edited hundreds of showreels here. I don't edit them any more. We have a brilliant freelance editor who edits showreels. Also, I work in a studio, so I've spoken to loads of casting directors and when they found out that I edit the showreels at Spotlight, of course, that tends to be a topic of conversation.

Christina Care: Absolutely. Yeah.

Nicholas Peel: And yeah, I now film and edit video content and of course one of the questions that we ask quite a lot of casting directors in all of our video content is, what do they want to see from showreels?

Christina Care: Absolutely.

Nicholas Peel: Yeah. I've had it come from a lot of people, what they want to see and also I've seen a lot of stuff myself and lots of do's and don'ts.

Christina Care: Oh, totally. Which hopefully we'll cover. But yes, you and I make the video content that goes onto the YouTube channel and it is something that comes up again and again. Maybe a good place to start is you've seen a lot of showreels. When you, as an actor, are just sitting down to try and shuffle through all of the content that you might have ever made as an actor, what's the first thing you should be putting in? Is it your name? Is it a bit of music? What is the first thing a casting director should see in your showreel?

Nicholas Peel: I'd say put your name first. Don't make it too long. Sometimes you have people and they have an animated name popping in and a photograph of them in a fancy hat or something like that. It just needs to be your name because when they click on it or when you send your submission through, they won't necessarily remember what your name is. The first thing is your name. Three seconds, no more than three seconds. And then the first scene that you put in is something fairly recent. It should be very clear who you are and ideally a nice speaking role. Something good. Your best piece of work first obviously, but it should be very clear who you are and we should see you in close up as well. The number of times I saw showreels where the scene would start and you're looking at it and there are four people who the performer could be.

Christina Care: Right, it could be any of those people.

Nicholas Peel: It could be any of those people.

Christina Care: They all seem equally important in the scene.

Nicholas Peel: Exactly.

Christina Care: It's quite hard to tell. Who am I focusing on?

Nicholas Peel: Exactly. Obviously if you don't have footage that is very clear who you are to begin with, then when you bring your name up, perhaps your headshot at the same time as well, just to remind the casting director what you look like and then obviously the scenes you've got to look like your headshot.

Christina Care: Right, yes. That's the additional challenge. Don't then immediately put a scene with blue hair or something when you've got brown hair normally.

Nicholas Peel: Exactly. Or something where you're wearing a mask or something like that, you can't see your face.

Christina Care: Right, of course.

Nicholas Peel: Because that's just going to get confusing.

Christina Care: Yeah. It's a challenge because you kind of have to have that footage. What does that tend to look like? Are you allowed to just take something from BBC iPlayer that you've been in?

Nicholas Peel: You cannot take stuff from BBC iPlayer. Legally, you cannot. The footage that you download from catchup services such as BBC iPlayer or on-demand, there's loads of them, but it's got this DRM copyright protection, digital rights management protection on and it is actually not legal for you to rip it and if you did manage to rip it, you'd probably have to download some very awful software to your computer and you'd get a virus.

Christina Care: Just don't do it.

Nicholas Peel: Don't do that. The best thing to do is to contact the production company. The BBC has the BBC contributor access programme and you can contact them and request a copy of your show. You can go through the BBC contributor access programme, but ideally just contact the producers or the production company of the show, whoever your contact was when you were filming it and get them to send you a copy. You can still record stuff off the television. Obviously, VHS players are long, long gone.

Christina Care: Long gone.

Nicholas Peel: DVD recorders are long gone as well. But you can actually buy freeview receivers that record the live TV broadcast onto a memory stick and then you can edit from that. And I'm not sure about the legality of that.

Christina Care: Again, you could ask permission.

Nicholas Peel: You'd have to ask permission. You do need to ask permission to use anything in your showreel. Just because your face is on screen doesn't necessarily mean that you have permission to use it.

Christina Care: Right, exactly. An alternative to that is, and if you don't have any particularly good scenes that you can use, is potentially to make something yourself. That's occasionally been encouraged, what do you think? Is it okay to just write yourself a scene and maybe film it with some friends?

Nicholas Peel: Yeah, I think that's a great idea. Not only are you making yourself video content for yourself, but you also learn about other roles. You learn how to use a camera, you learn how the lighting affects things. You learn how to use sound equipment, stuff like that. And so when you're on set, instead of just being an actor who sort of sits there, you can actually understand what's going on.

Christina Care: And also you can really write yourself something that will make you shine.

Nicholas Peel: Exactly. Or if you always get cast as one type of character and you want to do a different type of character, you can write yourself a different type of character and show that you can actually play the London gangster or the Queen Mother or whatever. You can write yourself a role that you may not otherwise be cast for. And yeah, and it's great. And you can always keep it up to date as well. And filmmaking is great fun as well.

Christina Care: It totally is.

Nicholas Peel: It is, yeah.

Christina Care: We had a session recently-ish at our last open house with Emma Dyson who is one of our membership team specialists for performers. And she made a particular point of picking out showreels that contained scenes that were written for theatre. This is definitely one of those no-goes, it seems. That if it's meant to be delivered on stage, it's probably not great to film. What do you think?

Nicholas Peel: Well that's very true. Things for stage and screen are written very differently. It depends obviously on the play, but if you've got a speech from Shakespeare and you try and film it, you have to bring the performance right down. It doesn't sit necessarily too well on screen.

Christina Care: Or perhaps worse than that, I've seen showreels where someone has literally just filmed themselves doing a play. That's also definitely not really kind of thing to put in a showreel.

Nicholas Peel: Not necessarily. Some people do have theatre showreels and I have actually heard from some theatre casting directors that they want to see theatre in the showreel. I would say, don't mix it with with the screen work. For example, if you're predominantly a theatre actor, a stage actor, then absolutely, get a showreel put together with bits of film production. As long as it's good quality. I've seen somewhere, the camera's just been set up at the back of the theatre and there are 20 people on stage.

Christina Care: There are heads in the way.

Nicholas Peel: And then at one point an arrow pops up on screen to point out which person we're meant to be looking at. But they're so blurred you can't tell.

Christina Care: Really consistency is perhaps the most important thing. If you're going to include a bit of theatre and a bit of dramatic acting and then commercials and then singing and lots of other things, it could get a bit confusing for a casting director.

Nicholas Peel: I'd say, separate it. You have your theatre reel and keep it separate from your screen reel. Casting directors who is casting for television is only going to want to see screen work. They're not going to want to see you in a production of Aladdin.

Christina Care: Right. Yeah. Makes sense. I want to ask you a few nitty-gritty questions now about things like format of files and that kind of thing. I know that you and I have done a podcast in the past where we talked about self-taping and our number one thing was about keeping it in landscape. Does that apply to my showreel as well?

Nicholas Peel: Yes, it does. How many cinema screens in the world are there that are taller?

Christina Care: In profile.

Nicholas Peel: Yeah, exactly. How many screens are there that are taller than they are wide? None.

Christina Care: Zero.

Nicholas Peel: I think there was one film made in Germany in the 1920s that was shot in taller than it was wide.

Christina Care: Okay. That's a very niche example there.

Nicholas Peel: Very niche example. But basically, no one's making films in portrait. Television screens are not in portrait. Nothing's in portrait apart from your phone screen. And casting directors realistically are not going to be looking at your showreel on their phone. I don't know why people do it, but people do love to do it. It just looks so unprofessional. If you're going to do it, do it properly. You can film stuff on your phone, make sure it's in landscape and just make sure it doesn't look too bad. There are lots of instructional videos online.

Christina Care: We've got quite a few.

Nicholas Peel: We have.

Christina Care: We have some lovely videos on our YouTube channel about how to make a showreel.

Nicholas Peel: We do indeed, we do indeed.

Christina Care: You can definitely check those out if you want some more detailed information about the practical stuff, the equipment, the lighting, etc. But in terms of format, and this is another common thing that comes up from casting directors, is that they get sent a file that is just massive when someone's put together their showreel. And part of that is to do with length and part of that is to do with file format. What should those two things look like?

Nicholas Peel: Well in terms of length, we say three to five minutes but I think five minutes is too long. Realistically, most casting directors are not going to have time to watch everyone's five-minute reel. It needs to be short and sweet. Some of the best showreels are a minute or two minutes. Your best scene from this film, your best scene from this TV series. I think 45 seconds per scene is enough.  They're going to want to see you. If they've seen you in 45 seconds in that scene, then that's fine. They want to move on to the next thing. And so, some showreels can be a minute and a half or two minutes long and that's absolutely fine.

In terms of file format, MP4 is the most commonly used format ever. MP4 with the H264 codec and AAC audio. Sounds very complicated but that's the most commonly used file format. Ideally, it should be no more than 300 or 400 megabytes is probably the most you would want to have for a three-minute video. And the smallest file size I would say is probably about 80, 90 megabytes. Between 80 and 400. I think 300 is kind of the sweet spot for file size for a three-minute video.

In terms of how to make your video into an MP4, there are online converter sites that you can use. If you just Google search online video converter, there are ones that you just upload.

Christina Care: There will be plenty.

Nicholas Peel: There are tonnes of them. You could sign up for free Vimeo account. Upload the file to Vimeo and then download the MP4 file. I know a lot of people use that. Or you can use software on your computer. We've got a video on our YouTube channel about how to convert a video file on a Mac using QuickTime player and I believe that works on PC as well. It's quite easily done and that converts things into an H264 MP4 with AAC audio, which will work for everybody.

Christina Care: Fabulous. And in terms of actually sending that to a casting director, there seems to be mixed things about whether or not you should just include the actual file in an email or just a link to a video.

Nicholas Peel: Well obviously I think the easiest thing to do in the UK is to just have it on your Spotlight page.

Christina Care: Absolutely.

Nicholas Peel: And then send that. Don't send the video file in an email because the email would be massive, especially if you've made a 400 megabyte one. That will clog up the casting director's account.

Christina Care: Yeah, keep in mind that they're probably receiving hundreds of those kinds of emails as well.

Nicholas Peel: Exactly, yeah. You can upload it to Vimeo if you don't want to use Spotlight obviously, you should want to use Spotlight because it's awesome. Or, if they need the video file, you can either make the Vimeo link downloadable or you can use wetransfer.com. Everybody loves WeTransfer.

Christina Care: There you go. Lots of options there.

Nicholas Peel: Lots of options.

Christina Care: Want to ask you one other sort of stylistic question again, another common one, the montage. Do we do montages in our showreels?

Nicholas Peel: No, we do not. Whenever someone's asked advice about showreels since I've worked here, in those 11 years, I've never heard someone say that they like watching montages. In fact, I've heard so many people saying that they hate watching montages. And the advice that we've been giving for years and years and years is, do not have a montage in your showreel.

Christina Care: Yet somehow, they still appear.

Nicholas Peel: They appear quite a lot as well.

Christina Care: Who is making these montages?

Nicholas Peel: I know. They just love them.

Christina Care: Nobody wants to see a montage.

Nicholas Peel: Nobody wants to see a montage. I think actors like montages because it's like a trailer for them. It's like a movie trailer for them, but for casting directors they're just not useful or interesting and they waste precious casting director time.

Christina Care: Indeed.

Nicholas Peel: Lose the montage. Three seconds of name card at the beginning and then go into your first scene.

Christina Care: Your first scene, yeah. Same thing seems to apply to music. No big long music at the beginning or music over all of your scenes. That seems to be a thing that happens sometimes too.

Nicholas Peel: Yeah. That is, it just sounds a bit naff and also.

Christina Care: It's a bit distracting too, isn't it?

Nicholas Peel: It's quite distracting. Yeah. And also you run the risk of, I've heard music running under people's showreels and it just sounds, it's a song that is particularly, I don't like it and I don't want to continue watching because I don't like that song.

Christina Care: Oh no, and then you're completely disadvantaged because they've just not liked the song.

Nicholas Peel: Exactly. Also, if you're uploading to places like YouTube, you're going to get copyright hits on the music.

Christina Care: Of course.

Nicholas Peel: And then you're going to get adverts playing at the beginning of your showreel, which of course you don't want if you're uploading to YouTube. But also, it just sounds awful. Keep it simple, keep the thing simple. A bit of music under running the whole thing isn't going to lift it. You've just scenes from the films. Obviously, if there's music in the scene that you're using then that's fine. Don't try and remove that because that would be really difficult. But yeah, but don't add a jazzy song to jazz it up a bit.

Christina Care: Yeah. Don't need it.

Nicholas Peel: Don't need it.

Christina Care: To summarise, what are the top tips that people need to take away now when they're putting together their showreel?

Nicholas Peel: Short and simple. Short. The simpler, the better. You need to start off with your name, followed by your best scene that features you in a closeup and that it's very clear who you are in the scene. It doesn't need to be more than three minutes long, three to five minutes we say on the website, but it can be a lot less. It can be a minute and a half. No music going underneath the whole thing. No montage at the beginning. You can film your stuff yourself, that's absolutely fine. Obviously, look at guides online about how to film stuff yourself and yeah, don't overcomplicate it.

Christina Care: Yeah. Simple as that.

Nicholas Peel: Simple as that.

Christina Care: Hopefully everyone can go away now and make a fabulous showreel.

Nicholas Peel: We can hope, yes.

Christina Care: And if you need our help at all, where can they ask questions?

Nicholas Peel: They can ask questions to [email protected]. And yes, and we get back to those quite, quite, quite frequently.

Christina Care: There you go.

Nicholas Peel: Always.

Christina Care: You can also ask us questions on Twitter @spotlightUK and I think that's pretty much our podcast for today.

Nicholas Peel: That's our podcast for the day, I think. 

Christina Care: No, I think that's it. 

Thank you so much, Nick, for helping us answer this question today. This is our last podcast for the year, so you can join us again next year for our next season of podcasts.

Nicholas Peel: Yay.

Christina Care: Yay. If you've got any feedback for us, please just send us an email or hit us up on Twitter. We'd be happy to hear any suggestions you have for any other questions we can answer for you via podcast next year. Thank you so much.

If you have any topics you'd like us to answer in a future podcast, then please email [email protected] or let us know on Twitter @spotlightuk!