show • reel (noun): a short video containing examples of an actor’s or director’s work for showing to potential employers.
The showreel – also known as a demo reel – is a cornerstone of a filmmaker’s resume. It lets directors show off their directing, cinematographers show off their cinematography, and a host of other crew display their talents in the medium that matters most.
When it comes to landing a gig, nothing impresses like a top-notch showreel. After all, what good are the words of a resume when you can’t see the films, feel their impact, or evaluate their competency?
Except the showreel is valuable for only a handful of positions in the film industry:
- Make-up artists
- Stunt coordinators
- Sound mixers
And I’m sure there’s more. The trend in all these positions? They have an obvious creative hand in the finished work. The director molds their showreel to show off the subtlety of an actor’s performance or their command of the story. The cinematographer features their mastery of light. The colorist shows how their manipulation of post-processing can enhance the image.
Meanwhile, there are a host of other crew positions that have little to no creative merit in the final edit. And I don’t say this to downplay these crew’s importance, but to shine a harsh reality on something I saw recently: showreels for camera assistants.
As I stumbled across a few of these videos, I was mostly confused. Just as confused as I have been in the past when I see job listings for a camera assistant asking for a reel. In my mind, it makes me wonder, “Do these people even know what a camera assistant does?”
It’s important for a cinematographer to have a showreel and, at times, a camera operator. Both have significant impacts on the aesthetic of a film (though a camera op’s influence varies on each film).
For the camera assistant (AC), however, there isn’t much to show off in a showreel.
In fact, I’ve ever only seen them for a 1st AC. A 2nd AC’s reel would be laughably pointless – do you just show off how talented you are at slating?
(Indeed the only one I’ve seen worth watching is laughably awesome.)
Yet even the 1st AC reels I’ve seen are, frankly, unimpressive. About the only thing you can “show off” is your focus pulling skills, but here’s the problem with that:
If you do your job right, everything should be in focus. There is nothing to “show off.” There aren’t any creative factors to display like that for a camera operator or a DP.
The job of the 1st AC or focus puller isn’t like that of the camera op or the director of photography (DP). To display a shot as exemplary focus pulling is like saying, “Hey look! I did what I was supposed to do!” It’d be akin to the DP showing off shots leveled and framed properly, but nothing more.
I asked other camera assistants on Twitter for their opinion and was given several good points:
@evanluzi I think it's frivolous. 99% of what an AC does is never displayed in the image. And pulling.. Well you're either in or not
— Bag of T-Stops (@WadeFerrari) October 9, 2013
@evanluzi doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to tell how hard it was to pull focus with pictures, IMHO. Hearsay is the best recommendation
— Simon Sturzenegger (@arrimaniac) October 9, 2013
@evanluzi Pointless and futile. AC references: CV, imdb, phone calls/mails to previous DoPs/ACs he worked with. imho of course
— Paul Morin (@paul_morin) October 9, 2013
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly creative aspects to focus pulling. Rack focusing, the “touch” you place on the follow focus, and the speed at which you pull can all have effects on how a shot is perceived in the context of the story.
But nobody is hiring a camera assistant based solely on their ability to interpret a rack focus creatively – that’s what the DP is for. They will tell you whether to go faster or slower or keep it at the same speed.
And this is the crux of it all: the creativity of a camera assistant isn’t the top priority for those hiring. It is for many other positions, but not for us AC’s. What they want is somebody who can be an expert of the technical side of the camera while working smoothly with the cinematographer or camera operator.
Yes they also want somebody who can keep a shot in focus, but the primary function of a showreel isn’t to display proficiency for basic professional skills – it’s meant to dazzle a viewer with the unique abilities and creativity of the person whose reel it is.
In short, reels for ACs are pointless. Shots in focus are expected and reels aren’t meant to show off basic competency of skills.
If a producer asks for a reel, well, it can’t hurt to humor them (though it’s yet to happen to me). It’d also be unfair for me not to acknowledge this point in favor of having a reel as an AC:
@evanluzi It's seeing the sort of jobs they've AC'd and the responsibilities those jobs entail. Producers can see how big the job was.
— Emily Herold (@enherold) October 9, 2013
If you agree and find it valuable to have a reel for your market, then by all means push forward with it.
But to have one by default could be representative of exaggerated ego. It could also be misconstrued as you attempting to take credit for another operator’s or cinematographer’s work. Whether either of those are true is up for grabs – I doubt anybody strives to show off an ego and take credit from others – but you risk giving off that impression nonetheless.
Instead, if you have a particularly impressive piece of focus pulling, write a blog post about the clip on your website. Or link to it in your cover letter/introductory note to a producer along the lines of, “here’s a shot from a production I recently worked on.”
Otherwise, there are several more effective ways to impress producers and land a gig below-the-line. I’ve yet to personally encounter an AC who had a reel for camera assisting, let alone a reel that was pivotal in their ability to find work as a camera assistant.
After all, how many grips do you know who have a demo reel? Or electricians? Or boom operators?
Just because we’re behind the camera doesn’t mean the visuals of a film are distinctly representative of our work. We do so much more while the camera isn’t rolling and, ultimately, an AC’s performance is judged just as much between takes as it is while we pull focus.
In the end, it’s not going to be a showreel that gets you camera assisting gigs – it’s going to be your network recommending you, cold calling with a strong resume, and your ability to kick-ass and have a good attitude once on set.