Shot from scratch showreels – an opinion.

Several opinions, if I’m honest.
Pull up a chair.

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I love screen acting.

I haven’t done much of it compared to many actors, but I’m fascinated by it.  I love to watch actors’ showreels and I’m constantly intrigued by what makes actors “stand out”.

Really good showreels are a wonderful combination of terrific acting and great editing.  From a casting point of view the best ones are those that show both great acting AND that people have already been cast in broadcast work.  It’s a useful filter for casters and obviously reduces risk: as a CD or Director you can be reasonably confident that the actor has a clue, knows how to behave on set and has already been judged capable by someone in the industry.  As an agent, it shows that the actor is employable…

However, for lots of actors starting out you can’t showcase your screen acting to a caster unless you have at least something on screen – hence the explosion of “shot from scratch” showreels.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have seen some absolutely shocking examples of shot from scratch.  Some of them are so bad, I can scarcely bring myself to watch them all the way through – even for research purposes.

If you are considering paying for a shot from scratch reel then you are likely to be investing a lot of money.  It’s worth spending plenty of time doing some research.

I think the very best research you can do is to watch lots and lots and lots of showreels one after the other.  It’s what casting directors do.
CCP is quite a good source of showreels, but I’d also suggest looking at the Spotlight pages (and showreels) of some more established actors – you can often get access to these via agency websites.  Watch the showreels put out by shot from scratch companies by all means, but make sure you compare them to those actors who have showreels compiled from broadcast clips.

Imagine you’re an agent, deciding whether or not to take on a new client.  What helps you to make a decision?  What annoys you, gets in the way?  If you watch scores of showreels in one sitting, you’ll soon see why CDs and agents will often only watch a few seconds before moving on.

I’d also suggest getting some screen acting experience before you try a shot from scratch reel.  Do some student films, or get together with friends and shoot some footage on your phone.  Do a short course if you can afford it.  Having some experience is likely to help you to get the best value for money in a shot from scratch reel.  It’s important that you know what you want – and what you hope to capture.

I think there are some obvious pitfalls and reasons why some shot from scratch reels are terrible – and perhaps some less obvious ones.  Some of the following don’t make them terrible acting showcases – but some of them do make them very obviously shot from scratch. Where possible, when trying to interest a caster (and therefore from an actor’s point of view) I think it’s preferable to avoid announcing its shot from scratch nature.

1.  Bad acting.  Sometimes it’s that simple and quite possibly there’s not a lot that can be done to rescue these.   However, I think that sometimes – maybe more than sometimes –  it may be a case of reason number 2 – or at least that number 2 can be a huge factor:

2.  Lack of direction OR lack of direction by someone who understands the acting process.  Shot from scratch showreels – by their very nature – are undertaken by actors with little professional screen experience.  Actors may have had very little screen acting training.  Some will have only done theatre.  Some will have only done amateur theatre.  Some may have done very little acting before at all.  Helping actors get a good shot from scratch reel means understanding their limited experience from an acting and technical point of view and watching for the pitfalls.  Sometimes “talk faster” is all that will be needed for the scene to work better  – but there needs to be a way of helping actors to do that without making them self conscious.

3. Bad writing.  Oh my word, there’s a lot of this!  I could write an entire essay on this subject – but I won’t… at least, not now 😉

4. Cliched scenarios.  Oh good grief, there are SO many of these! If you watch lots of showreels, you’ll soon see what I mean.  Guns and people tied up in cellars feature remarkably often – but there are plenty of others that are likely to make a CD squirm.

5. Actors choosing “characters” (or scenarios) they’d love to play – rather than acting in scenes that allow them to showcase something in their acting/casting bracket.  This is such a giveaway of shot from scratch.

6.  Over-ambitious scenes.  Choosing something that requires far more time/money/expertise than is available.  Period drama (without the budget or design skills/knowledge to match) is one of those I see most often in shot from scratch.  Casting Directors are interested in your acting – not how pretty your frock (or frock-coat)  is.

7. Poor production values.
This happens occasionally when an actor hasn’t chosen the company wisely.  Sound/lighting can be crap and/or the company doesn’t have much technical expertise.  I suspect this is what annoys the good showreels companies the most .

However, unless it’s *obviously* bad (and sadly sometimes it is, and therefore detracts from the acting) then I think this is actually less of a problem than most of the other points  – from a caster’s point of view.

In any case, this is an easy thing to watch out for when you’re researching companies.

Many shot from scratch companies spend a lot of time in their marketing telling actors how great the equipment is – I sometimes wonder whether this means that they don’t concentrate on other equally important elements.  Most showreels are viewed on computer screens – not on cinema screens.  It’s important that showreel companies recognise this fact too.

8. Lack of background/extras in locations where there definitely SHOULD be background.  Another dead giveaway of shot from scratch. So many empty cafes and streets…

9. Lack of screen acting technique from the actors (but see point 2). Inability to hit marks, poor grasp of continuity etc etc.

10.  Bloody guns being waved around by people who have no idea how to even hold one (see point 4!)

11. Wooden acting partner – ruins the scene for the capable actor.

12.  Scenes that are basically a monologue with someone sitting in and nodding in response…

13.  The same locations used in lots of different showreels; the same bridge, window, sofa, potplant – even the same mugs.  When you watch lots of showreels this is horribly obvious.

14. The same scripts used for different actors’ showreels.  This is also horribly obvious if you watch lots of showreels.

15.  Having the same screen partner in different scenes on a showreel.

16. Recreation of an already-released film or tv scene.

17. Lack of time – especially the time to help inexperienced actors to improve their on-screen performance.

There are probably more. ☺

Then there are the editing issues:

1. Bloody montages…
2. Not knowing who we’re supposed to be watching until 20 seconds in.
3. Not enough dialogue or close ups.
4. Inclusion of clips with “famous people” even when it doesn’t show the actor in question actually acting …

Other pitfalls:
In my opinion the following three issues are pitfalls that you may need to insist on the company addressing for your benefit – because addressing them may not be in the company’s immediate interest:

The resulting showreel is far too long.  Between one and two minutes really is plenty for a shot from scratch reel – and the scenes don’t need to make narrative sense.  I think companies like to think they’re giving “value for money” when they provide a reel with 3 scenes each 60-90 seconds long, but it’s so much better to have a minute of excellent work than 4 minutes of adequate work.  It costs the company the same to deliver the one excellent minute – and it’s important for actors to recognise this too.  Don’t judge the worth by the length.

The resulting showreel publicises the company as well as the actor.  If you’re paying for it, you shouldn’t need the company’s details anywhere on the showreel – or certainly not prominently displayed.

There is not enough time on the shoot for you to practice/rehearse as an actor (not just the technical stuff).  On a real shoot you probably wouldn’t get much rehearsal time at all – but if you’re paying, you should be able to insist on it.  Whether or not you choose to have a look at a “take” before moving on should also be the actor’s decision if the actor is paying . You don’t usually have this option on a shoot either, but you’re paying, so you should be able to decide, providing it’s been agreed beforehand.  There are pros and cons to looking at your work as you go along – the more screen acting practice you get, the more you’ll become aware whether this is likely to help or hinder you.

If I had to choose just one thing that would improve most shot from scratch reels, it would be the writing.  Good screenwriting isn’t easy – and of course it’s not just dialogue that makes the difference. Good dialogue is a doddle to deliver and can help to make everyone look good – but a credible, original, interesting scene is far more that just great dialogue.

As part of the research you do before choosing a company and script, it would be worth looking at some TV screenplays (BBC writers room has a great selection).  You can see just how much goes into them.



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2 thoughts on “Shot from scratch showreels – an opinion.”

  1. One of the people that does shot for reel recommends getting experience and is a short film maker with good credits. His scenes are domestic involve a partner that can act and has no guns and knives.

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