How to Make a Successful Demo Reel for 3D Artists

Finding a job in the CG industry

Manditing video on a Mac computer

Lucia Lambriex / Blake Guthrie / Getty Images 

When you go looking for a job in the CG industry, your demo reel is like a first impression and first round interview all rolled into one.

It has to convince potential employers that you've got the technical and artistic chops to survive in a production environment while showing them that your style and personality will be a good fit for the company aesthetic.

Obviously, the quality of your work is the most important thing on your reel. If you've got enough production level CG to fill three minutes, then you're already three-quarters of the way there.

But even if you've got great work, the way you present it can really make or break your chances for attracting the attention of top employers. Here are some tips for putting together the killer demo reel that helps land you your dream job.

Edit Yourself Thoroughly

Potential employers don't want to see every model or animation you've ever completed — they want to see the best models and animations you've ever created.

A rule of thumb is that you want your pieces to convey a consistent level of polish and expertise. If you've got a piece that's a noticeable cut below your best work, you've got two options:

  1. Leave it off the reel
  2. Rework it until it's up to par

If you do decide to rework a piece, make sure you're hanging on to it for the right reasons. If the image is conceptually flawed — built on an uninteresting concept or design, ditch it. But if you think it's a good piece that just needs a better render, then by all means, give it some love!

Get to the Point

Fancy introductions are nice, but your potential employer is ridiculously busy developing blockbusters hits and billion dollar game franchises. If you insist on including some sort of introduction clip please make it short.

If your work is that good, you don't need an animated 3D text effect to introduce it — quality CG sells itself.

Instead of getting fancy, display your name, website, email address, and a personal logo for a few seconds. Include the information again at the end of the reel, but this time leave it up as long as you think is necessary for the hiring directors to take down the information (so that they can see more of your work and get in touch!)

Also, and this should go without saying, but do not save the best for last. Always put your best work first.

Let Your Process Show Through

A hiring director once said the single biggest mistake a lot of artists make with their demo reel is that they fail to provide any insight into their inspiration, workflow, and process.

If you worked from concept art, show the concept art. If you're as proud of your base mesh as you are your final sculpt, show the base mesh. Show your wireframes. Show your textures. Don't go overboard, but try to elegantly include as much information about your workflow as possible.

It's also a best practice to provide a simple breakdown with every image or shot. For example, you might introduce an image by displaying the following text for a few seconds:

  • "Dragon Model"
  • Zbrush sculpt from Zspheres base
  • Rendered in Maya + Mental Ray
  • 10,000 quads / 20,000 tris
  • Compositing in NUKE

If you're including images that were completed as part of a team, it's also very important that you indicate which aspects of the production pipeline were your responsibility.

Presentation Does Matter

We said earlier that good CG should sell itself, and it's true. But you're applying for work in the visual effects industry, so appearances do matter.

You don't have to make presentation your number one priority, but make sure you display your work in a way that's consistent, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to watch.

Be mindful of the way you edit, especially if you're making an animation reel — employers don't want a high-paced montage that needs to be paused every two seconds. They want to see a reel that tells them as much as possible about you as an artist.

Play to Your Specialty

If you're applying for a generalist job where you'll be responsible for every aspect of the pipeline from concept all the way through to final animation, you can take a little less stock in this section.

But if you're shipping off your reel to a major player like Pixar, Dreamworks, ILM, or Bioware, you're going to want to show some sort of specialty. Being really good at one thing is what will get you in the door at a major studio because it means you'll be able to add value immediately.

I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by an HR supervisor for Dreamworks at Siggraph a few years ago, and she showed a handful of reels that had eventually led to jobs at the studio. One was a modeling reel, and in the entire three-minute reel the artist didn't include a single texture — just plain old ambient occlusion renders.

I asked the presenter if they preferred to see modeling reels without any surfacing, and this was her response:

"I'm going to be honest with you. The modelers that work for us aren't painting textures, and they're definitely not writing shader networks. If you're hired for a modeling role, it's because you can model."

We recommend you take those words with a grain of salt. Top tier studios like Dreamworks are unique in the fact that they have the budget to hire a specialist for virtually every role, but it won't be like that everywhere.

You want to show a specialty, but you also want to show that you're a well-rounded artist with a firm understanding of the CG pipeline in its entirety.

Tailor Your Reel to the Employer

Hiring managers are looking to see the quality of your work, but keep in mind that, in a lot of cases, they're also looking for someone that fits well with their particular style.

When you're developing your reel, have a few "dream employers" in mind and try to think about what types of pieces will help you get a job there. For example, if you want to eventually apply at Epic, you should probably show that you've used the Unreal Engine. If you're applying at Pixar, Dreamworks, etc., it's probably a good idea to show that you can do stylized realism.

Quality work is quality work, but at the same time, if you've got a reel full of snarling, gritty, hyper-realistic monsters you're probably a better fit for a place like WETA, ILM, or Legacy than somewhere that exclusively does cartoon style animation.

Additionally, many employers have specific demo reel requirements (length, format, etc.) listed on their website. Spend some time poking around studio websites to get a better idea of what sort of work to include.

Good Luck!

Looking for work in a competitive industry can be a daunting task, but a positive attitude and a lot of hard work goes a long way.

Remember, if your work is good enough, you'll eventually end up where you want to be, so practice, practice, practice, and don't ever be afraid to show your work around the online CG community. Constructive critique is the best way to improve!