If you’re unfamiliar with bull riding, the goal of the rider is to stay on this massive, angry, leaping animal for eight seconds. There are other rules and scoring is involved, but the point here is the length of time; eight seconds. “But, I’m an actor. What does this have to do with me?” Bear with me.
A few years ago Microsoft did a study that concluded that the average human attention span is eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish. Yes, a goldfish. “Again, what does this have to do with me or my demo?” The point is most people don’t spend much time focusing on things. When you take into account individuals such as Casting Directors who are asked to do their jobs in less time and for less money than in the past, you can bet if they have the luxury of watching actor demos when working on a project, they will be moving quickly. “How can you be so sure of that?” Well, I did my own study.
While living in Los Angeles for 15 years and attending a multitude of Casting Director Workshops I along with the other event attendees took these opportunities to get as much sacred and professional information from CDs as possible. I can’t think of a time when questions about demos did not come up. When asked how much of an actor’s demo they watch before moving on, the responses were between 3 to 8 seconds. Yippee ki-yay! Let that sink in. Casting Directors, the gatekeepers to television and film productions, who, along with agents, are the people who we create demos for, will watch your demo for 3 to 8 seconds before determining if you are right for their project and either move on or, if they really like what they see, continue watching. These few seconds are as important to the bull rider as they are to the actor.
After accepting this sobering fact, you might wonder what you can do to make a strong first impression. So much can be said about what goes into creating an effective demo. It’s important for actors to know the different types of demos; how to best incorporate their name, show titles or graphics; how to acquire and choose material; how to edit selections with a discerning eye; and how to make the final cut available for viewing, but for this blog I will focus on the basic principles of an effective demo and how to stand out in those crucial first few seconds.
Demos need to be short and competitive
One thing I heard from both CDs and agents is that your demo should be short, ranging from one to two minutes, definitely no more than two and a half minutes. Demos must also be competitive, meaning they look professional. The acting, audio, lighting, etc. should have the quality of what the viewer would see in film or on television.
Only your best material
Actors should think of their demo as the "Insert-Your-Name-Here Show." It is all about you, and it should be unmistakable to the viewer whose demo they are watching. This means your demo should be edited so you are the focus, with each scene highlighting your work, going so far as to have the first and last image in each scene be of you. CDs are not interested in the story of the show or film or scene. Plot, build, story arc are not important. This allows you to abbreviate your scenes, selectively excluding others actors’ screen time, exposition, etc. to show what is important, your best material. Over and over in these workshops CDs repeated the same sentiment; the focus should be on you, your work with no filler, no fat, only the meat. This work is of course you acting; genuinely engaging with and reacting to a scene partner, listening, being in the moment. Knowing that, actors should exclude montages. From a Casting Director’s perspective a montage is seen as filler or fat, and should be avoided. Though these are brief moments of you captured on camera they do not represent an actor doing their best work.
Leave them wanting more
With all that in mind, if you have 3 to 8 seconds to make a good impression, the first scene of your demo will most likely begin on a shot of you, right as you are delivering some very compelling work. The scene progresses, but not for too long, and ends on a shot of you, leaving the viewer wanting more. To revisit that idea of the viewer not needing to know the story, don’t feel the need to give them closure or show the scene’s conclusion. Show them the meat and move on leaving them wanting to see or know more. Them wanting more will hopefully result in calling you in for an audition or a meeting.
So little time, don’t waste it on a title card
Because the overall length of the demo is so vital, and especially those first few seconds, it is important that actors avoid using an opening title card (your name, union affiliations, contact info, headshot, etc.). Beginning your demo with a title card instead of immediately showing you doing your best work is not you representing yourself effectively. If 3 to 8 seconds is all you’ve got to get the viewer’s attention, don’t waste that precious time with information that can either be put at the end of your clip or accessed by the viewer on whatever website they are viewing your demo on. Including the information at the top of the video might seem professional and efficient; however, it’s actually a hindrance and keeps you from getting out of the gate fast.
Actor demos is a big subject. There is a lot more to cover. Keep an eye out for additional blogs, or feel free to contact me to schedule a consulting session to address information specific to your situation.