This is a question I see a lot amongst actors starting off, and almost all soon to be graduates from an acting school. It’s an important question, and one that can be hard to answer if you don’t know the specific ingredients you’re looking for. Picking a good showreel scene is an important part of the gig. If you think about it, it is not too dissimilar to other art forms. Musicians make EPs, artists make portfolios, actors make showreels. Don’t let it become a big drama. Think of it as part of your CV: “Here’s my credits, and here is some good work of mine”. As you progress through your career, your showreel will become a collection of your best professional work. The search will be over. But for those at the beginning, or needing an update, it is important to know what makes for a great showreel scene.
By showreel scene, I mean a self-produced proof of your acting. It is a filmed work that you have chosen and either shot in a self-taped/audition style or a simple setup that demonstrates your ability to perform a scene. It may be a stand alone scene or used as part of a small collection of works. Whilst it can be new writing, more often it is a scene from an existing movie or show.
Most everyone, including myself, has had – or will have – the agonising process of trawling through scenes, looking for “the one”. Although the search may be arduous, what is more frustrating is thinking you’ve found gold and then being told its trash. I hope with this article I can help you identify why this might occur.
When you see a good showreel scene of a colleague or classmate, you know it, but it can be hard to pinpoint why its good. Don’t worry, I am here to help. So, if you’ve been on the hunt and want help narrowing it down, or you want to find out what the ingredients of a great showreel scene are, read on.
Know Your Type – Play to Your Strength
We often forget this, but what makes a great showreel scene, is one that suits, and showcases the actor doing it.
When I was picking my first showreel scene, I had no idea who I was. That is not meant to be existential, I was comfortable with who I was, but I had no idea how I would sell myself. It sounds crude, but really that is what I am offering – me and my talent – and I wasn’t sure where ‘me’ fit into the spectrum of characters that appear in our stories.
Although as actors we like to think we can play everything, we probably won’t get a chance to. That’s the reality. We all have a type. I should clarify that I am not talking about race and gender here. What I am talking about is our mode of being. The energy we naturally exude and feel most comfortable in. Some of us are naturally more reserved or romantic, aggressive or sombre, serious or jolly, amicable or standoffish. Although it’s possible to play beyond that, it is undeniable that actors excel in certain types of roles that suit them.
A small anecdote from the vault: Early on in my acting, I found a scene from Vickie Christina Barcelona that I thought could be a potential showreel scene for myself. It was fun, playful and I thought it had a great arch. I watched the scene and it flowed fantastically. I brought it to class, expecting a good response. Then a class mate said, “I mean, it’s a good scene… but you’re not Javier Bardem.” Although bruising to the ego of a young man in his early 20s, my classmate was right. It was a good scene, but I am no romantic lead, and although the scene was good, I was totally wrong for it.
Finding where you fit is a tricky thing to nail down and unfortunately you are the worst judge of who you are. I have seen a lot of actors try and fail to force themselves into the type they think they are or want to be. As soon as they let that go and be themselves, that is when the jobs start happening.
So, ask. Ask directors, agents, teachers or classmates (not parents or close friends, they are bias). Pay attention to what scenes you keep getting given, in class or castings. Find where you fit, where you are most cast-able and then lean into it. If your naturally boisterous and comedy is your strength, don’t put down a quiet tragic scene as your first showreel to test your range. Show them what you’re good at!
After you have put your best foot forwards, then you can start adding some variety. However, if you find the right scene, it should have plenty of opportunity to showcase your acting.
Check out this article more information about knowing your ‘actor type’ or typecast.
How Long Should a Showreel Scene Be?
The length of the scene is a matter of who you ask. Different people have different preferences and trends change all the time. You need it short enough that it doesn’t get boring, but long enough that something happens. Time for the character you’re playing to be changed, but not too long that the audience gets ahead of you.
I like to think in terms of pages. For me, a good show reel scene is 2-3 pages of film script. It’s a nice chunk of action, has 3-7 beats, and enough happens in it for the characters to be different at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning. Any more than that, and we are getting into short film length, and casting directors will rarely get to the end of it. Any less, and there is very little chance to show you reacting to anything.
What Can I Do to Make My Showreel Scene Good?
I am going to offer a couple of random philosophies I have picked up which I always use when working with students on any scene work, that also apply to showreel scenes.
#1 Chicken Roll Theory
This is a strange one, but bear with me.
If you take your first bite out of a chicken roll, and its mostly bread and mayo, your first thought is “there is not enough chicken in this chicken roll”. No matter how much chicken is in the rest of the roll, your first thought is that it is lacking.
Same applies to the end. If the final bite is just bread and mayo, no matter how much chicken was in the middle of the roll, you are left feeling that there should have been more.
So what does this mean? The opening and closing of the scene need to have an impact. Really good showreel scenes start and end super strong. This doesn’t mean the middle can sag, far from it, but having strong opening can hook the viewer in and a strong closing moment which leaves a lasting impression can really serve you well.
It is worth keeping in mind the sheer quantity of tapes a prospective agent or casting director will receive. They are time poor and have more to watch. From the small amount of casting I have done, the first 30 seconds is super important. By that point I already know if I want to see more, or if I want to move on.
#2 ‘Pacey Pacey Darlings’
I had a director who used this exact phrase. It doesn’t mean rush, but it does mean trim the fat from the piece. It’s a warning against overindulging.
Too often I see actors indulging in moments in a showreel. Extending a pause so they can push out a tear or let something linger so they ‘really feel it’. They feel the pressure of the showreel and focus so much on their moments, that they forget to serve the scene. They are so concerned that their acting hasn’t been seen, so they act harder for longer. I feel most of us are guilty of this sometimes. Unfortunately this usually comes off as forced, indulgent or a little contrived.
A good defence against this is to keep up the pace of the scene. Again, this doesn’t mean rushing lines or overlapping cues, it means making sure you are not artificially slowing it down, or adding unnecessary pauses in. Use the lines you have to pursue your objective. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” as Shakespeare said. Don’t act your intention and emotions and then say the line. Use your lines to convey your intentions and emotions.
To put it another way: act on the line. And the best way to serve yourself, is to serve the scene.
#3 All Killer, No Filler
“But what if my scene doesn’t have much happening in it?” I hear you ask. Well… find another scene. A great showreel scene is very similar to a great audition scene. It should be a crucial point for the character. Using a scene of fluff, where not much happens will give you very little opportunity to showcase your acting. A scene with a stronger character journey is going to have much more impact than a very domestic, uneventful scene.
A good showreel scene is a mini story, with a beginning, middle and end. We often think about story arcs, but for showreels we need to think about arcs in a much smaller unit of action. In the 2-3 pages, something needs to happen to affect the character in it. This is what stories are all about. If you pick a scene just because of some witty dialogue or a cool punch line, you are showcasing the writer, not yourself. You will have no opportunity to demonstrate range or dynamism within a scene. However a scene with a strong character journey can give you the opportunity to
Look for the journey of the character. If you don’t know what I mean by that have a think of these elements:
- Is the character different at the beginning of the scene then at the end? (Character development)
- Did the character expect one thing to happen, and instead had to deal with something else? (Gap between expectation and reality)
- Did new information in the scene significantly shift the tone and energy of the character? (turning point moment)
By having a showreel scene which answers yes to one or all of the above criteria, your showreel scene will have the opportunities you need to demonstrate range, action/reaction and variety in your performance. It will also be entertaining for the viewer, because a story is happening in front of them. It becomes an interesting scene, not just a showreel!
Of course in the end it comes down to the playing of it, but having a scene which allows you to find peaks and troughs through playing an objective and that provides an opportunity for your character to shift and change during the events of a scene, then you are on your way to having a great showreel scene.
A Good Showreel Scene Requires No Context
Another often overlooked element of a good showreel is the amount of context it requires.
This answer should be zero. Zero context should be required. It should require no explanation, no preamble and no complex set up or action.
A good showreel scene allows whoever is watching to be able to concentrate on the acting, not find themselves asking questions about the scene. I would love to do a scene from The Expanse, but for someone that hasn’t seen it, mention of the “Outer Planet Alliance” is going to take them out of the scene as they are going to start wondering what that could possibly be. Whilst soldiers in the trench might be compelling, if there is too much action, we become distracted by the logistics of the world you are creating, and we can’t focus on the acting.
Everything from the setting to the relationships should be immediately obvious or entirely irrelevant to the audience. Steer clear of jargon, whether its super professional, sci fi or supernatural. Pretty much, you are wanting to make sure there are no distractions or obstacles to the viewer focusing on you.
The same goes for stylistic choices. Anything too genre specific, or stylistically out of the ordinary is going to be jarring. Fleabag is a great show for showreel scenes, but the direct to camera addresses can be jarring for a showreel. It works for Fleabag the show, it wont work for a showreel. People familiar with the show will get it, but if they haven’t seen it, they will be very confused.
Two hander scenes that deal with personal matters are best, with a very clear relationship between the two characters. If I did end up doing a scene from The Expanse, I would choose one that deals with interpersonal drama, not one that mentions the political landscape of the solar system in the year 2400 or the technology that’s around.
A Good Showreel Is ‘Beyond Compare’
A good showreel is a stand alone work. You should be able to watch it without context so the actor’s performance can shine through. With that in mind, you also don’t want your viewers to be reminded of someone else’s performance when they are watching your work.
The last thing you want is to be compared to an Oscar winner. I see this almost every year I work with graduates. The scene they want to do is the scene that won someone an oscar. Its too fresh, too iconic, so many people will want to do it and most importantly… your performance will probably be compared to the Oscar winning performance. Why do this to yourself?
Same applies for trending series. Don’t set yourself up to be compared against everyone else using that scene. A new, well written show comes out, and then, within a few months, a stack of actors are using the same few scenes for their showreel. Two years ago, everybody was doing Sex Ed scenes. Last year it was Fleabag. This year, I am sure it will be You, Gaslit or Succession. If you are looking at popular shows or movies, dig further into the show to find some of the less iconic moments.
You are better off finding something a little left of field. Go to good production houses and look at their back catalogue. Maybe a locally produced show or something from a few years ago. Something which allows the viewer to watch without being distracted by lines they are familiar with, or scenes which they know.
If you do want to do a scene from a show trending currently make sure you give your own version. Don’t set yourself up as a direct copy or replica of a performance, do it your way.
If you want more tips on: where to find a showreel scenes.
Conclusion: Good Luck!
As with all of the topics I write about, I feel like I could write a book on the subject. Whilst there is always more to think about, this is a great place to start when considering what will make a good showreel scene.
As I mentioned earlier, in the end it comes down to how you play it. And good actors will do good scenes. But being able to identify what makes a good scene for this purpose can help you narrow your search for scripts or help you choose between takes of the same scene.
Most important thing to remember if you are putting together a showreel scene, is that this does not have to be one and done. If you shoot a scene and you don’t like it, you can do another. If the scene you have up isn’t getting the reception you wanted, you can shoot another. If you get sick of the scene you have or you want to pitch yourself in a different direction, you can shoot another! Keep working until you’re happy with it.