Wednesday, September 20th, 2023 Article by Ling Han

10 insider tips for crafting a winning animation demo reel

A great demo reel is key to landing your first job as an animator. DNEG Animation’s Ling Han provides 10 insider tips for creating a winning reel, using examples from his own student reel.

When I made the decision to pursue a career as a professional animator, I dedicated over two years to learning my craft and improving my animation skills. Fortunately, my demo reel proved to be a valuable asset and helped me secure a position at some big names in our industry: EA, DNEG, Agora Studio, and Walt Disney Animation Studios.

In this article, I will be providing my insider tips to help you to create an impactful demo reel of your own, and increase your chances of securing your dream job in the industry.

I’m going to assume that you’re already a capable 3D animator, so the first few tips will cover the basics of how to structure your reel, and other useful skills you can demonstrate on it. The second half of the article will discuss the best types of animation to include, using examples from my own student demo reel.

My reel reflects my passion for the craft, and I hope that it, along with the insights shared in this article, serves as a resource for individuals aspiring to enter this exciting field.

1. Get the basics right

Begin your reel with a clear cover page, which should include your name, your email address and phone number, along with the title of the reel. Don’t make recruiters scroll to the end to find out who you are. The cover page should last no longer than 3-5 seconds.

When showcasing your work, consider including brief on-screen descriptions during the clips. This can be done through lower thirds or overlays that provide essential information such as the names of the projects and companies they were done for, as well as your own specific contributions to the shots. These details provide context for your animation and help viewers understand your role and achievements.

Keep each animation piece between 8-20 seconds in length to maintain viewer interest, and aim for a total duration of 1-2 minutes for the reel itself.

2. Make good use of camera language

In an animated feature, animators usually just focus on animating. The camera layouts are created by layout artists. However, it is still necessary to learn camera language.

With a good understanding of the rule of thirds and depth of field, you will be able to create more visually appealing, cinematic scenes for your reel. Correct choice of camera angle and movement can also enhance the storytelling in your animation, conveying emotions, establishing atmosphere and guiding the audience’s attention.

YouTube is a good resource for videos on camera language – check out the one above, or search for terms like ‘camera language in film industry‘.

3. Demonstrate 2D skills

Even for a 3D animator, drawing is an important skill, making it possible to quickly sketch out ideas and experiment with different poses and movements.

This lets you iterate faster, planning shots and refining ideas before moving on to the more time-consuming process of 3D animation.

Also, in an industry like animation, visual communication is sometimes is better than vocal communication, making it easier to communicate what you have in mind.

While the focus of your demo reel should be your 3D work, including 2D work can be a plus. In my own reel, I included thumbnail versions of the rough 2D animations I used to plan out shots, like the one above, alongside the final 3D animations.

Maarten Lemmens‘ demo reel helped him get a job at DreamWorks Animation.

4. Study the reels of successful animators

By analyzing successful animators’ work, you can identify what techniques they use to create compelling work, and what elements they include to create effective demo reels. This can help you to improve your own skills, and to create a reel that stands out.

Study reels created by animators who were hired by the company you want to work at. For example, Maarten Lemmens’ reel helped him land a job at DreamWorks Animation. Tony Kim and Nghi Duong’s reels helped them get into Pixar! Donghoe Kim interned at Sony Pictures Imageworks, as well as Pixar and Lucasfilm.

What type of animation should you include in your reel?

Studios value animators who can convey emotion and personality effectively through their characters’ movements and expressions, so demonstrating this skill in your demo reel is crucial. In the next six tips, we’ll explore the types of content you should use to do this. Note that while including all these elements can be beneficial, it isn’t mandatory. What matters most is featuring your absolute best work in the reel.

Also bear in mind that if you’re applying for a job as a 3D animator, particularly at a large studio, it isn’t necessary to show that you can build your own character rigs. It’s okay to use stock characters that other artists have posted online, providing they’re good quality.

I’d recommend the rigs created by Kiel Figgins, Ramon Arango, Wonderwell Studios and Jean-Denis Haas (Animation Buffet).

5. What to include: a walk cycle

The walk cycle is often considered to be the cornerstone of character animation, so it’s important to have a great one in your reel, at least at the beginning of your career. A convincing walk requires a deep understanding of body mechanics, since it involves complex movements of various body parts, including the legs, arms, torso, and head.

Although animating a walk may seem like a straightforward task, it is more complex than most people think, especially for young animators. Remember: each character has their own unique personality, and they require a specific walk cycle to convey it. Whether they are goofy, dismissive, or savage, their walk cycle must reflect their personality vividly.

For example, during my time at Disney, I had the opportunity to animate Tong from Raya and the Last Dragon. It was a challenging yet rewarding experience, and I was able to incorporate Tong’s personality into his walk cycle. In the video above, you can sense that Tong is happy and satisfied. Maybe he just finished a chore, and is on the way home, where his wife and family are waiting for him.

6. What to include: non-verbal pantomime and physicality

Pantomime is a form of animation where characters express themselves without words. It relies solely on body language, facial expressions, and gestures to tell a story.

Including non-verbal animation in your reel highlights your ability to express a character’s emotions and intentions effectively. It also showcases your ability to convey a character’s physicality, emphasizing their weight, balance, and interactions with the environment.

For the clip above from my demo reel, I was inspired to create an animation based on a dance video I saw on TikTok. However, it is important to distinguish between inspiration and plagiarism. To push the humor beyond the original TikTok clip, I studied Michael Jackson’s dance clips to find more poses that I could incorporate into my animation.

7. What to include: acting performance and dialogue

Being able to convey a wide range of emotions through acting performance is a really important skill for animators. It makes characters feel more relatable on an emotional level. Dialogue also involves lip-syncing the character, ensuring that their mouth matches the spoken words.

In this animation, rather than having the character move around a lot, with big pose changes, I focused on animating their breathing and creating a quiet moment for the audience to connect with them. This is a challenging approach, and it helped to showcase my attention to detail, and my understanding of how characters can communicate without always being in motion.

8. What to include: multiple characters interacting

Animating interactions between multiple characters is more challenging than animating a single character. Including such animations in your demo reel demonstrates your ability to handle complex scenarios.

In addition, animators need to be entertainers. Being able to convey emotions and ideas with humor helps to keep the audience engaged, and interactions are a good way to demonstrate your skill at doing this.

In this animation, the character is doing one thing but actually thinking about something else. The dentist is supposed to be focusing on his job, but is clearly being distracted by his internal fantasy (dating).

9. What to include: non-human pantomime

In movies, animators are frequently given the challenge of animating non-human characters, which can be both thrilling and demanding.

When I encountered the spider rig shown in the clip above, I viewed it as a chance to explore a new animation style and stretch my abilities beyond my comfort zone. Animating with the rig, which heavily relied on body language and expressive eyes, was nerve-wracking but also incredibly exhilarating. Through this experience, I was able to demonstrate my capacity to entertain the audience through unconventional means.

10. What to include: non-human dialogue

Movies, especially animated movies, often feature a goofy character, whose movements are big and unexpected. As an animator, I find working on such characters very exciting.

The lizard from the clip above is the most challenging animation I’ve worked on so far, as the pose keeps changing. For inspiration, I looked to Buck in Ice Age 4, sketching thumbnails of my ideal poses. While the final animation was different from my initial vision, the story and character remained true to my 2D exploration.

I kept exploring different poses, then abandoning them when I came up with a better idea. This took longer, but made the animation better, and I learned the importance of persistence – and most importantly, of never being too attached to your ideas.

About the author: Ling Han is an animator who has worked at DNEG, Disney, EA, and Agora Studio. He has worked on Wish, Netflix’s How to Train Your Dragon TV series, and Golden Rooster award-winning animated feature The Wind Guardians. He won consecutive Excellence Awards for 3D animation at the Rookie Awards. Website | LinkedIn | Vimeo | Instagram

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