Your demo reel has many jobs. It showcases your best work, markets your creative business, and hopefully hints at what makes you unique. But how do you craft a reel that actually accomplishes those things?
This question is perhaps more important than ever. With an abundance of newly-minted creatives whose reels permeate every corner of the internet, it's harder than ever to have your work stand out.
And it can be just as hard for creative companies, particularly those dealing in client work. How do you capture not only the best work of your company, but the philosophy and culture and personality of it? How do you convey that you're worth hiring when there are countless similar companies, each with their own reels, all competing for the same business?
My friends over at Marmoset, a Portland-based company that produces bespoke scores for some of the world's biggest brands, as well as housing a really cool music licensing platform, recently put out one of the most unique reels I've seen in quite some time.
In its 6 minute run time, it accomplishes all of those things I mentioned above. It shows off Marmoset's best work in the past year, makes a case for why they should be hired to score high-end projects, and paints a distinct and welcoming picture of the company's ethos and culture.
Here's the reel:
Pretty cool, right?
I had the chance to chat with both Brian Hall, the co-founder of Marmoset who wrote and produced this reel, as well as Spencer Gentz, a Portland-based filmmaker who directed, shot, and helped edit it.
I picked their brains about some of the creative decisions they made and why, and tried to pull out helpful bits of advice for not just companies looking to produce a stellar demo reel, but individual filmmakers who need a reel that stands out above the rest. Hope you dig it.
Robert Hardy: First off, just for a little bit context, tell us about your history with filmmaking and/or music. How'd you get started, and how'd you end up where you are today?
Brian Hall: I grew up playing guitar and writing songs. Didn't think too much about music and picture til my early twenties, when I decided I wanted to stop being in bands and be a "composer."
I had lots of pieces to put together, but quickly became obsessed with the experience of scoring to picture. I love the final product, but my favorite part is the way every new project has the potential to draw me into the unknown.
My career has always been about music and picture. I've played in bands here and there, never with any wide success. I was a freelance composer for a couple of years, then I met my business partner, Ryan, and we started Marmoset.
First it was 2, then 4, then 12, then 25, now 40 or something crazy. It's been a lot of fun and I'm very grateful.
Spencer Gentz: Well I got into filmmaking at an early age, starting at about age five when my brother and I began making shorts with our family's Zenith VHS camera. From there and into high school I just kept making more and more shorts, and editing tape to tape via several VHS players and a CD player (for music beds).
My Junior year in high school I saved up and bought a 3-ccd camera (Canon GL1) and got that first iMac with iMovie. This led me into a spiral of staying up all night working on projects and loving every minute of it. That's when I first thought maybe I should study film in college and could kinda see myself doing this things as a career.
After film school, I gravitated toward the ad world and started making content in that realm as well as making music videos. I was also writing music under the name Bell Plaines, which would later find its way into the Marmoset Catalogue, and that's how I first started working with Marmoset!
What sets Marmoset apart from other licensing services?
BH: Initially, we made music custom to order. That was 99% of the work we did early on. As such, we have a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't and why. We have infrastructure, and we have different access points for different kinds of professionals.
Also there's a lot of joy in the air. Folks root for each other, go to shows together, it's got good energy.
You guys have a track-record of unique reels (the 2015 reel above is pretty badass too). This year's kind of feels like it picks up where the last one left off, but seems more focused and intentional in its design. Can you talk about the writing process for this and what you were trying to accomplish?
BH: It started off over drinks with 4-5 of the weirdest members of the team. We batted around ideas, but liked the premise of having a narrator driving the train so we could qualify things. I think that night we came up with the basic concept for the really stylized opening 45 seconds but there were a lot of unanswered questions at that point.
We know we want to introduce the viewer to our team and our culture and our brand, but we are limited by the quality and the nature of our recent projects. It's like a giant puzzle figuring out how to find a common thread and tie it altogether in an interesting way.
A lot of that happened in the initial stages of the edit. Adam Souza is kinda lo-fi and a wild brained genius. He used to be a bandmate and a freelance editor, and now he teaches film at Franklin High School. He and I did every previous reel, so once I had a premise and a general idea for the approach, Adam and I spent two days together putting everything on a timeline and coming up with initial ideas for the transitions.
Once we had the shape, we brought it to Spencer and he helped flesh out the ideas and we talked about feasibility. Also Ryan (Wines) was jumping in and out. He had some good ideas too. I think the airstream sequence was his idea. That's his boy, Desmond. Pretty clever for a CEO ;)
High level, though, a lot of agency people see these reels we make. It's great because for a brief moment you have them on lock, and you can say whatever you want. What a great opportunity to say something really thoughtful and connect on a deeper level.
In regard to the fact that it looks better this year, it's important to note that, with Adam getting a day job and not being as available, we finally knuckled down and brought in a pure director. That's Spencer. He brought a ton of insight and expertise and good ideas. He was amazing with our staff. Very disarming and very gracious with us, and elevated everything big time.
SG: Brian Hall reached out about making a new reel and had quite a lot of ideas already, as well as the spots that they wanted to feature. He knew they wanted to do something similar to what they did before with the seamless transitions thing, but a bit more in depth, with more insight about who they are as a company, their personality, etc.
So I wrote a few treatments with different tones. We then figured out a solid direction everyone wanted to go in. And decided to write and cast a narrator character (Katy Davidson) that would lead the viewer to and from the featured spots. I felt having one narrator would really be crucial to help the viewer understand and differentiate between the featured spots and transitions.
It seems like you're juggling at least three distinct ideas in the video: the quality of the clients you've worked with, the custom work that you've has done for them, and Marmoset's individuality and culture and philosophy as a company. How do you showcase the best of each of those while maintaining balance between them?
BH: I mean, the reality is that, if there's ever a time to brag, it's in your reel! We feel we accomplish that just showing the work, so we work to be humble, thoughtful, and lighthearted with our script. We don't want to come off as self-obsessed. That's probably one of the biggest worries for us with this route.
In terms of showing our culture, that's the great thing about this whole approach to our reel, is it's easy to showcase our culture and our philosophy because we have the floor! Lots of shots of our space, our city, our state, and lots of opportunities for different members of the team to dip in and dip out!
The transitions in this piece are super creative. I imagine they were written in based on specific client work you wanted to showcase, but I'm curious how that whole process unfolded. How'd you plan and structure these transitions to create the sense of flow from Marmoset scenes to client spots and then back again?
BH: All our little transitions are just that, transitions, so we can't get too complicated. Every transition has to be part of the whole, but then it can't be so nuanced that the viewer feels like they have mental work to do keeping up with a sub-plot. Each scene has to stand on its own so the viewer and emotionally/mentally move on, and it also has to help usher the viewer in to the next spot.
The first 45 seconds, where we talk more explicitly about creative, was our chance to assert our creative IQ. Once we got that out of the way, we were able to focus more on the feeling of Marmoset, vs a bunch of information.
It's just a lot of collaborating, coming up with new ideas and pissing off your director and apologizing and grinding it out. Technically I wrote more of it than anyone else, but there were a lot of people that contributed and solutions came from unexpected places at times.
Ultimately though, lots of folks can say they are a filmmaker or a writer or whatever if they have a brilliant director bringing life to the ideas. We couldn't have done any of this without Spencer — he nailed it.
In terms of getting nailing production and everything, it was just about a huge team effort. Spencer scouting locations. Vic helping with props and herding creatives and schedules, just lots of grinding. Once you nail the script, you just have to have a clear plan and you are good to go.
SG: We wanted some scenes to be seamless and some to just kinda reference a featured spot. We didn't want to overdo the seamless thing too much, so we split the difference I guess.
So in writing these transitions we would put together an edit of the featured content first, and then write each transition scene based around the edit of the spots we were transitioning to and from. So we knew going into production exactly how each scene should work, leading us in / out of the featured content.
What was the biggest obstacle in getting this reel put together with the quality and substance you wanted, and how'd you and your team manage to overcome it?
BH: Folks at Marmoset are so so so busy... We didn't plan production well so we were constantly chipping away at it vs just blocking out a chunk of time and getting it all done. It really dragged on and on.
Also it felt like we just kept finding more and more stuff that needed be done. Stuff we didn't plan well for. It was kind of a mess. Every time we do another one I learn something, but then the subsequent production ends up being so much more vast and involved that I find a bunch of new stuff to learn and it's a hot mess again.
Hopefully we'll get better at the logistics one of these years :)
SG: I would say the biggest obstacle was scheduling (special thanks to Victoria Semarjian, who help with producing and scheduling!). All the people featured in the transition scenes are Marmoset employees, who are juggling their own work deadlines, etc. So it was hard to pull them away at times. Marmoset also wanted to keep the shoot times between work hours, 9-5 for their employees sake.
So between availability, multiple locations, weather, and time restrictions, we ended up devising a plan to shoot over several days, but more or less half day shoots each day.
I'm curious about how a reel like this can be designed to attract the right people to a company. How does a production like this ultimately benefit the business Marmoset does?
BH: Through the reel we are trying to build friendships, establish rapport, and help the viewer get a really crystal clear picture of exactly what kind of job they could call us for. That means they need to see what our core tendencies are... to see what kind of music and what kind of creative is resonating and find out where there's overlap for them.
People need to know what makes you unique. If you seem generic, you get lost in the fray. Not necessarily because people are unimpressed, but because they are left unclear about what exactly they experienced. For better or worse, folks need to be able to put you in some kind of box, so we give them a box that allows us to be ourselves, and hopefully gets them excited about upping their game.
Spencer, where can people keep up with you and your future filmmaking endeavors (whether for Marmoset or your personal work)?
SG: So after years of working under my own name, this year I started a small production company named Oxbow Film. You can also follow us at @oxbowfilm on instagram and twitter!
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