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Creating a Reel: An Art Director's Point of View

If you are a traditionally trained artist, you probably have a portfolio of your work that you use to show prospective employers or clients the depth of your capability and creativity. Your traditional art and design work is important and should be included in your presentation.

As you begin to use digital tools to create imagery, your portfolio will expand to include a videotape of your 3D work. This is your reel, which takes it name from the pre–video-tape days when an animator carried an actual reel of film with clips of animation spliced together to create an ongoing record of his work. How the content of your reel is structured is important, but not as important as the content itself. A few simple ideas about how to structure your reel will help you avoid some of the problems seen in reels from experienced artists as well as beginners.

Next I'll cover the things that I look for as an art director in the reels and portfolios that come from artists seeking work in our studio.

Show Off the Basics

The first thing I want to see from an artist, regardless of experience level, is an understanding and practice of the basic principles and elements of design and image development discussed in this article. I'm especially concerned with composition, ability to create mood and atmosphere through lighting, use of color and contrast to create depth, use of the fundamental principles of animation, and so on. Showing me a well-lit, creatively animated bouncing ball that reveals an artist's imaginative and unique use of 3D tools is more powerful and relevant than imagery that tries to hide its deficiencies behind roller-coaster camera moves and a techno-pop sound track.

Show off your commitment to the basic principles and elements of image development by including those pieces in your reel that show that you understand pre-visualization, modeling, material development, lighting, effects, and animation.

Show Your Artistic Intellect

Art directors want to see how you think visually. Be prepared to show the sketches or pre-visualization work that you did to support your production development. The quality level of the drawing is not the only important thing; the key factor is the thinking behind the drawings, which communicates your ideas.

Reveal your understanding of the science, physics, anatomy, and so forth behind the objects, effects, and animation you are creating. Producers want animators who can think, reason, and solve problems through their curiosity and ability to think outside the box. Show how you relate your experience and perception of the amazing world around you to your work as a digital artist.

Show Your Experiments

Showing experimental work in your portfolio and reel reveals your willingness to explore. This highlights a certain critical curiosity and questing nature important for developing as a digital artist. Even if the experiments aren't completely successful, the message that you send by showing the work is that you are a person searching for new ways of doing things, and the results of those experiments will show up in your production work later. Think of exploration and experimental work as practice or rehearsal; when the curtain rises on a new project in your studio, you'll be able to perform.

I value this attribute in the artists that I work with. Creating experimental work, outside the confines of production, is important and necessary to your success as a digital artist. Always have a side project in progress, exploring some new facet of the creative and technical possibilities of digital tools, and show that in your reel and portfolio.

Show Your Cinematic Style

Cinematic style is created when you apply the principles of cinematography to your image development. One way to show your individual sense of design and cinematic style or taste is to avoid the herky-jerky camera moves and mind-numbing sound tracks seen in most reels from beginning and experienced digital artists. I usually look at reels with the sound turned off on the monitor anyway. This allows me to focus on the animation without the extra sensory input from the sound track. Unfortunately, bad camera moves can't be turned off. Use good taste in your music selection, allow the music to support the story of your work, and let your camera moves in your shots be appropriately animated.

Show Your Best Work

Every artist's work shows his current level of capability and creativity. A reel should contain two to three examples of your best work; show specific expertise in the areas of animation in which you want to work. Augment your reel with a 2D portfolio showing other fundamental skills, such as the use of color, drawing ability, and so on. Having the advice and guidance of a professional mentor as you create your first reel is the best way to learn what to show and what not to show.

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