Making a Sound Design Portfolio?

Making sound design portfolios is a lengthy process.  There is quite a bit to consider before you release a teaser reel.  Now, I’m no expert, and I honestly don’t like making a reel of my work.   The first bit of trouble is that I’m always waiting 6 months to a year from the time I finish a project before I can put a clip of it into my reel.  There are usually several reasons for having to wait: the film could be going through the film festival circuit, they’re looking for distribution, whatever.  Either way, they sometimes don’t want little bits of the movie to be shown, which could give away plot points.  Some filmmakers don’t want anyone to watch anything other than the whole movie – until they make money on it.

Anywho, by then, I’ve done a lot of other projects.  Also, by then, I’m already better at what I do.  I’ve learned new skills, learned new pieces of software and plug-ins, found new recording gear, discovered new tools, etc.  So, really, even my latest reel is already a little outdated…

I digress.  If you’re looking to make your own sound design reel consider a few things:

1. What work are you most proud of?

And a follow up: will showing a clip of it show other people what you’re proud of?  The answer is ‘probably not.’  What I’m most proud of are the parts of a film where I was handed incredibly terrible production dialogue, and I was able to make it work using all sorts of various tools and plug-ins – sculpting out the very best dialogue I can.  However, usually those scenes aren’t worth showing because they usually still aren’t the “best sounding” work you’ve done – at least it won’t translate that way in a short clip without some grandiose description… and the non-audio-centric filmmaker won’t understand the description anyway.

2. What clips can you show that will excite viewers?

BLAM! BOOM! POW!  Not everyone is excited by explosions, gunshots, and fist fights.  I am, but your viewer and potential next filmmaker/boss might not be.  Show off a wide range of skills.  Show off that really nice, smooth transition you made for that art film.  Soft, smooth things can be really difficult.  Plus, you’re more likely to use those skills on a regular basis, unless you’re doing Shaun of the Dead style movies (hire me for your next one, please).

3. What clips can you show that will highlight the diversity of your work?

You may have a lot of really cool action sequences that are going to blow people away.  But, not everyone looking for a sound editor or sound designer have action movies.  I like showing off my talents in all areas.  Yes, I’ve done some action sequences: check.  Yes, I’ve done some dramatic scenes: check.  Yes, I’ve done some artsy-fartsy new-age sequences: check.

If you only show off cool zombies, guns, fist-fights, and car chases then you’ll never be hired to do comedy, aft films, romance, and drama.  I’d prefer to work on all sorts of movies.  I don’t like to be pigeon-holed.  When I started doing sound design (as I’m sure it is for many out there) I started on horror films.  I LOVE working on horror.  But I LOVE working on everything else as well.  Showing off your ability to do a wide range of films can only help your business.

4. How much of a scene do you need to get your point across?

Ugh.  This always frustrates me. I am constantly throwing in too many long clips, and then whittling away to make it under 20 minutes long.  I got this last one down to under 4 minutes.  Here’s a good tip: the viewer isn’t going to figure out the plot of each movie you’re grabbing clips from.  So don’t worry about that.  It’s tough because you lose context, and often sound design is context-based.  Why the hell is there a car picking up this kid?  Why is it a harsh sound sticking out of this beautifully-smooth, trafficky soundscape accompanying a serene picture?  The story, unfortunately, doesn’t matter.  You could show the whole 3-minute montage of the kid smoking and waiting for the car to come, but that’s where the viewer is going to move on to the next reel they’re considering, or cat videos – one of the two…  What’s more important: showing the whole story?  Or showing how lush you can make your soundscape?

No one wants to watch a 20 minute reel.  They might as well go watch an entire movie you worked on.  But they don’t have time.  Which brings me to my next point:

5. How much time do you think your audience WANTS to spend watching your work, and all of the other sound design reels they’re considering?

The answer is probably no more than a couple minutes for each person they’re considering.  I’d love to make a 1-minute reel.  But you can’t really convey ideas about sound as quickly as, say, a DP’s reel, who can throw in a bunch of cool looking short clips and throw some cool music over it.  We have to let ours play out a bit.  We certainly can’t throw additional audio over a clip because then its covering up the audio work we did.  If you do that you’re not so much showing off your own work, but the work of the camera, lighting, and picture editorial teams.  They want to HEAR… YOUR work.

Start off with too much.  Find everything you think you want to put in it, create all the clips you need, maybe even do a little remixing when the 5.1 surround –> stereo throws off the balance a bit.  Line them up in whatever program you’re going to use to create your reel, and then chip away at it.  I usually start with several clips from each movie.  Then I chip away at the head and tail of each individual clip.  Then I just chop out whole clips.  Maybe two of your clips demonstrate the same skill: chop one out.

So, its a tough balance.  On one hand, they’re not going to watch for very long.  On the other hand you need to let your work play out long enough to show off your mad sound editing/design/mixing skills.  There’s no formula that i’ve found.  It’s just a matter of taste. And you should be considering not only your own tastes, but more importantly your viewers tastes.

Wish I could spend a couple more hours on this, but you get the idea.  Put some thought into it.  And email me some of your work.  I’d love to see your reel.

David Fienup

Soundopolis, LLC

Want more tips and tricks?  I found a great post by Kyle Vande Slunt.  Check out his Sound Design Demo Reel (its pretty sweet!) and his blog on