Hi there! Great question.
So you don't have a short film, huh? Well, you might as well give up on this career, since you'll be laughed out of every studio on the planet. KIDDING! ha ha ha :)
OK, there ARE some studios (and some are major studios) who will expect to see a short film, and will put an emphasis on finding animators who have been through the creation of a short film, and thus have learned many of the great lessons to be found in bringing your own short film to life. A short film will never hurt your demo reel, and like I said, there are some studios out there who almost won't accept you without a short film. However, the truth is that a huge percentage of studios out there aren't all that interested in seeing a full short film when they are hiring for an animation position. They're interested in seeing AWESOME ANIMATION on your reel, regardless of context, and for a lot of studios, that's pretty much all they care about.
I'll get to what you do if you don't have a short in a minute. But first, what do you do if you DO have a short film?
If you do have a short film, my advice is to choose the very best shots out of it -- the shots that really show off your physical animation as well as your best acting --and include those shots in your "animation reel," which should also include some other physical animation tests (things like people walking around, running, kicking, throwing, climbing, fighting, flipping, falling, etc. -- body mechanics tests) and other acting tests if you have them. THEN, after that main "animation reel" plays, you can tack on your full short film at the end, if you like. Another nice way to do this is to have your demo reel DVD have two VERY CLEARLY MARKED menu chapters -- one for your animation reel, and one for your short film.
The reasons to set up your reel this way are twofold:
Demo Reel Rule No. 1: Your reel is only as good as the worst thing on it. Read that again, and then go look at your reel, and adjust accordingly if necessary. I can't tell you how many reels I've seen that had a few great shots, a couple good shots, and then one or two stinkers that ruined their chances of a job. Thirty seconds of awesome animation on a reel is SO MUCH BETTER than 30 seconds of great stuff and 30 seconds of mediocre work.
For recruiters and reel reviewers, watching a reel is about more than just seeing if you know how to animate. Your choices of what to include on your reel tell us a lot about where you are at experience-wise, and the inclusion of a shot with body mechanics tells the recruiter two things: First, that you don't realize the body mechanics are wrong, and secondly, it tells them that you thought it was good enough to show them.
So that extra 30 seconds of padding on the reel that were old shots you didn't get to spend the appropriate time on, well those aren't helping your case with getting a job. They're telling the recruiter that you aren't ready for them yet.
By contrast, only including 30 seconds of awesome animation tells them that while you don't have a lot of work under your belt yet, you are clearly a talented and promising new animator, and worth giving a chance. How does that relate to short films? Well, a short film is going to be a collection of many shots, right? The chances that you'll have the time to make every single shot of your short film absolutely outstanding are pretty slim. In all likelihood, there will be shots that aren't your main "hero" shots that don't need as much care put into them, and you're probably working with a deadline and will understandably have to pick and choose where you put your resources and time.
If your demo reel is a short film, or starts with a short film, then every single shot of your short film will be judged as though you have singled that specific shot out for the recruiters as a premiere example of the pinnacle of your abilities. Obviously, you can see how this has huge potential to backfire unless you've made the best short film ever.
Demo Reel Rule No. 2: Keep the recruiter away from the fast-forward button.
When people are reviewing demo reels for a large studio, they typically have boxes and boxes of reels to try to get through. Their time is limited and valuable, and they don't have time to sit through some slow-opening credit-filled short film intro. The instant they see a short film title screen that lasts for more than two seconds, they're going to hit fast forward, because they are understandably in a huge hurry to see if you can animate, and very often, they couldn't care less about the name of your short or who created your models or whatever other info you're showing them before your film really gets going.
So what's a recruiter to do? They have a couple hundred reels waiting in the wings to be reviewed, and 10 seconds (which is a LOT) into your reel, we're still watching a fly-through a bunch of forest trees with titles and moody music. No real animation to be found, yet.
Well, they can't wait around! It's time to hit that fast-forward button.
This is a huge mistake in the creation of your reel, because you should craft your demo reel specifically in a way that keeps their finger OFF of the fast-forward button. But why? What's the big deal?
Well, imagine you have 200 DVDs to try to watch today, and imagine that the vast majority of them are not going to be what you're looking for. That's your mindset. You're looking for the needle in the haystack. You have to fast-forward through the slow-opening of a short film, hunting for anything that gives you some idea of whether or not this person can animate. Titles aren't telling you that, forest trees aren't telling you that, and the moody music is just making you even more tired than you already are.
So, you fast forward! Perfectly natural thing to do. Then, in fast forward, we see the moody title-card flight through the trees just did a smash cut to a scene in the living room of the haunted house, and characters are zipping around doing and saying something. Quick! Let go of fast-forward! There's some real actual animation to see there!
In your best case scenario, you might have only missed a shot or two of the animation. Worst case is you just zipped through the best animation on the demo reel. Are you going to rewind on the minuscule chance that this person happens to be THE person you're looking for? When you have hundreds of other demo reels sitting in boxes staring at you, waiting for their turn?
No way! You're going to just watch from wherever you stopped fast forwarding, or you'll never get through all the reels waiting for review.
Now, maybe this is no big deal for you as the hopeful job applicant, but there's a decent chance that the reviewer just missed some of your very best animation, and will reject your reel because they never even saw it!
OK, so now that we've talked about how to set up your reel if you have a short film, maybe I should actually answer the question now? What if you don't have a short film?
Well, then you still have to carefully structure your demo reel (for example, you still need to pay close attention to Rules No. 1 and No. 2 and keep your opening title card really short for the same reasons as above!), and you simply don't have to worry about attaching your short film at the end or as a second menu option or whatever.
Essentially, it should be the same demo reel. Your reel should show off your very best animation. It should show that you understand body mechanics (please no more floating talking heads! That tells us zero about your actual animation abilities) and it should show that you understand acting. It should show that you can display emotion through silhouette and also through the eyes. It should show weight and force and your keen eye for detail and polish. It should show that you have a variety of work (when possible), and ideally it should show that you have the ability to animate in the style of the studio you are applying to.
Nothing is too basic or too complex for a demo reel when it comes to actual animation. If you are a newer animator, there is nothing wrong with including your bouncing ball tests if they show great weight or a lot of personality. Just include whatever you think is best!
As far as the actual demo reel breakdown, I won't get too into it or we'll be here all day, but my main advice would be to start and finish with a bang. Choose your favorite two shots and start your reel with one of them and end the reel with the other, and throw all the rest of your best work in between.
You need to catch the reviewers attention with your first great shot, right off the bat. I've seen people eject a demo reel after literally three seconds, so make that first shot really count.
And then you want that other great masterpiece right at the end so when the reel finishes, they are left with a feeling of "wow, that animator was great!" instead of throwing all your best stuff at the beginning and letting the reel trail off and get worse and worse until at the end, they're just left feeling let down.
OK - wow, that was a long one! Maybe I'll talk more about reels in future posts. Hope this is helpful!!