Reel life — tips for cutting animation highlight reels

Cutting together a highlight reel of recent video work is daunting; you may find yourself asking, “How can I possibly distill all the cool stuff I made over the past year or two down to just one minute?!” It’s easier than you might think.

Right out of the gate, I can hear people mumbling to themselves that 60 seconds is not enough time to show all the work they need to show. You’re not alone. The first time I cut a reel for Tremendousness, it took some convincing that one minute was the perfect length. My reasons mainly boil down to personal preference, but I think they’re pretty solid.

First, let’s look at the new reel I just finished. Then we’ll talk about my approach.

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Always leave them wanting more

I’ve watched quite a few animation reels over recent years, and my main takeaway is that shorter is better. The internet has an ever-shortening attention span, as do I, and I didn’t come here to watch a series of slightly shorter versions of the videos you’ve made in the last 12 months… I came to be inspired and intrigued. 

When you make your reels too long, you tend to add in quite a bit of fluff. I’m not here to say what is or isn’t an important part of the videos you’re trying to showcase, but if I’m watching an entire section from each project, you’re doing it wrong. Keep it short, keep it tight, and keep it moving.

Giving yourself a time limit presents a challenge, and setting challenges for yourself is a great exercise in creativity. Limiting your runtime forces you to be more concise and really hone in on the best parts of each animation. Drill down on each piece until you have some of the coolest bits, and present those. If you do it right, people will want to watch the rest of the work, so edit, edit, edit!


Keep the energy up

Speaking of editing, cutting scenes down into their absolutely key elements is a great way to keep the whole piece moving right along. Find yourself some good music (ensuring that it still fits the overall feel of your brand) and pay attention to the beat. I usually try to structure my music like a regular song, starting with a somewhat easy build to a high energy, bringing it back down some in the middle to give the viewers a little rest, then building back up quickly for a finale.

If the energy of your music is the same from top to bottom, your edit will tend to follow suit, and even if your reel is only a minute long (it’s only a minute long, right?!) this can be fatiguing for whomever is watching. Giving yourself some lower spots will allow you to build back up again and keep it interesting. In our most recent reel, you can see where the clips are longer at the lower energy parts of the song, but at each small crescendo the clips are cut more abruptly to sync with the beat of the music. As the music swells overall, there are more cuts and multiple clips from different videos to match the energy of the song. 


Consistency is (sometimes) key

While you’re editing, it’s important to keep in mind how much of each video is being shown. If you only have a few projects under your belt, obviously it’s fine to show more of each one to fill time, but if you have a lot you’re trying to showcase in a short run, it’s easy to run out of time after selecting your favorite clips from just a few projects, leaving no space for the rest of your work.

If you have some projects you’re really wanting to highlight above all else, that’s great! But you’re going to want to try to keep a balance. Don’t spend 30 seconds on clips from one video, then try to shove 10 more projects in the remaining half. If you’re hellbent on doing just that, however, there are some tactics you can use. 

One approach is to split the larger piece up throughout the reel, playing some of it, a few other clips, some more in the middle, a few more clips, and end with what I understand is called a “banger.” Edits like this are where the rhythm of your music track really helps sell the imbalance; higher energy sections of music is a great place to show a lot of short clips from different work very quickly, and the lower energy spots are good for longer bits of the same video.

There were a few different videos we wanted to highlight in our new reel, and as you watch it you can see where those projects have more time than the other shorter clips, but I spread the edits out so the short shots are nestled between the longer ones to give the viewer a bit more time to process the more important parts.

Here are all the clips from this reel:

0:02: CBRE: Introducing Host
0:08: Deloitte: Mental Health Campaign
0:15: Tremendousness: Our Capabilities
0:17: Tremendousness: Understanding Empathy
0:20: Higher Achievement: New Strategy
0:23: Deloitte: Well-Being
0:26: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Diversity
0:29: Tremendousness: What is Gaslighting?
0:31: Tremendousness: Elements of a Presentation
0:35: Adobe: 35th Anniversary
0:45: Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute: Purpose
0:51: Dan Pink’s Pinkcast 2.0: Gift-Giving
0:52: Washington University in St. Louis: Happy New Year from Olin Business School
0:54: Tremendousness: Visual Thinking



These are some of the tactics that I employ when I’m trying to bring all our work together—but when it really comes down to it, you can just feel for yourself whether or not you’ve got something good in front of you. I’ve been animating professionally for the better half of a decade, and I’m still learning new things on each project. You will, too. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback or start over with a new edit.

And if you’ve got some different ideas or tips, I’d love to hear them!