One of the most common mistakes I see in self-generated media work is a simple lack of any pre-production planning whatsoever. OK, not every 5-minute vlog posted on YouTube requires in-depth research, audience targeting, storyboarding and scripting; but in reality, the more successful YouTubers out there pay a lot of attention to all of these elements, making them a routine part of their production cycle. For example, on even the most basic product review, a simple bullet point list of observations on your chosen product can be extremely useful in focussing your thoughts, checking coverage, creating a sense of structure and, if nothing else, providing a prompt when your mind simply goes blank. It’s easy to believe that seasoned broadcasters, who present their content with spontaneity and informality, simply get up and do it – no planning, no script, no fuss. However, in reality, a huge amount of work is put in behind the scenes, prior to production, which, if they’ve done their job well, you’re simply unaware of. Move into top-level movie production and every last second of footage is planned within an inch of its life, in order to ensure maximum impact in the final product. At whatever level you’re producing content, getting used to carrying out appropriate pre-production activities will almost certainly pay dividends in the end, either by improving your finished product and/or saving you considerable time in the long run.
Much of what I’ll be discussing can be done at almost any depth or level of complexity you could imagine, from a few scribbles on the back of a beermat to massively involved activities involving dozens or even hundreds of highly skilled professionals. What’s important is that, at whatever level they’re operating, these things are embedded in every production team’s routine.
The remainder of this article is based around producing a movie product of some kind, be it a marketing video, corporate profile video or a full-blown feature film, the principles can be applied regardless. This way I can confine the illustrative examples I use to a particular area of media production, rather than trying to be all things to all people. However, many of the ideas I’ll be discussing are equally applicable to a very wide range of creative media activity, because they’re essentially about setting parameters for the design and execution of your project. For example: probably the most important concept in video/movie production is narrative, but in many ways, narrative is just as important for a web designer or a graphic artist as it is for a film director. Our opinions, desires, identity, sense of self-worth, sense of achievement, and sense of culture are among the myriad facets of our consciousness that are built around narratives of one kind or another. Narrative is, therefore, an essential communication tool, used by media developers of every kind to create meaning for their audience.
Basic aims/first principles
Are you trying to inform/entertain/persuade?
Without at least some sense of focus regarding the purpose of your proposed content, you’re likely to end up (paraphrasing Rowan Atkinson) like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat. The purpose behind your media production may, of course, embody more than one main aim: wildlife documentaries are often intended to inform us about an aspect of the natural world, while also entertaining us with lots of dramatic footage of beautiful creatures in the wild, but increasingly they’re also attempting to persuade us to take action to protect a fragile environment. Having a clear idea as to your purpose helps to ground everything you do and is remarkably useful in shaping your project, whatever the scale or format.
Who is your target audience?
Knowing who a finished media production is aimed at is essential to ensuring that you’re communicating in the right way. For example, an advert for a product that’s likely to be purchased by 18-30-year-old men will almost certainly require significantly different production values to an ad for a product that is likely to be purchased by middle-aged women. Everything from the choice of talent, the language they use, setting, costumes, pace of editing, right through to the choice of background music, choice of on-screen fonts and just about anything else you might be able to think of, will be influenced by audience identity. It’s becoming increasingly popular, for example, to film video adverts aimed at younger audiences in vertical format, because young people are much more likely to view them on a vertically held phone than on any other device. Vertical video requires a whole different compositional sense from that required for landscape ratio video, which might influence choices of location, movement within the frame, even the physical size of your onscreen talent. Of course, identifying your audience is only half of the story and understanding what motivates them is what really counts in informing choices you make during production. With this in mind, it’s worth your while carrying out research at an early stage, particularly if the target audience for your video production isn’t immediately familiar to you.
Practicalities and legalities
Where, when and how will your product be consumed?
We’ve already considered the prospect of your media product being viewed predominantly on smartphones, which might influence major aspects of your production. Other possibilities in the ever-widening array of media devices may also be of importance. Do you even consider making more than one version of a product to accommodate different viewing circumstances? Web designers have long since realised that designing their products on the assumption they will be viewed on computer screens is no longer appropriate and it is now almost compulsory practice to produce responsive websites, which change layout for viewing on different aspect ratio screens, which in many cases involves using alternative content. Other questions may arise when the environment in which your product is likely be enjoyed is considered, or when considering which platform or hard format your product will be enjoyed from.
Are there any regulations or guidelines that need to be adhered to?
If you’re involved in filming a video production of any kind, there are rules regarding things such as any claims you make about yourself or a product, portrayal of sex and violence, representation of race, disability, gender and gender identity. Whether your video production appears on mainstream TV or anywhere on the internet, you are definitely subject to some combination of BBFC, ASA and Ofcom regulations and guidelines. If, for example, you deliberately misrepresent your product or yourself in promotional media, you’re leaving yourself open to, at best, loss of confidence, and, at worst, banning of your promotion and the possibility of hefty fines for flouting the rules. In addition to national regulations, video host platforms such as Facebook and YouTube also have community guidelines that you could fall foul of without a little research, which would be costly and extremely annoying to find out at the end of your production cycle rather than at the outset!
If your production is larger scale, are your budget and schedule realistic?
While many moving image media projects are feasible on an almost cottage industry basis these days, your business may need something on a slightly different scale. You may, for instance, require a web advert, which involves several people, several locations – not all of which are under your control and that may require an extended period to produce. If this is the case, some serious project management may be necessary in order to prevent your creative dream turning into a nightmare.
Media production, like any other creative endeavour, has a habit of running away with itself in terms of ambition and consequently cost; so it’s crucial, from the outset to set a budget and to keep close tabs on costs as they start to mount, which they inevitably will. It may, for example, seem like a great idea to include a dramatic 2-second drone shot in your video advert, but, depending upon any number of factors, this could end up blowing a large hole in the finances of a modest video production, especially if you do it safely and legally! Even the best of us sometimes underestimate just how much things cost, particularly if we’re doing something for the first time. Similar issues apply to scheduling, with things like the co-ordination of several parties, equipment availability, obtaining filming permission and editing, often taking up far more time than you might think.
The simple way to avoid any unpleasant surprises in terms of budget or filming schedule is to gather as much information as possible by making appropriate enquiries. Most service providers will be only too happy to offer advice, as they regard someone seeking it as a credible lead for their business. Once you have all the necessary information, you’re in a good position to cost out and draw up a timetable for your filming activities. Even then, I would always advise prudent contingency planning, because a) you never know what you’ve missed, b) things might change as the project develops and c) there are some variables that are simply beyond our control, illness and poor weather being just two examples! Above all else, be realistic!
Permissions, insurance, copyright, talent release, privacy and GDPR:
I’m no legal eagle, but I can point out some of the more common areas of law, which cause problems for content creators regularly, when not recognised or attended to appropriately. Unfortunately, many creators are completely ignorant of (or in some cases simply don’t care about), several quite straightforward legal issues that could cause them significant problems if they’re not careful.
In many circumstances, despite current trends in the ‘democratisation of content creation’ (i.e. smartphone content), you cannot simply appear somewhere, with a camera (even a very small discreet one) and start filming. Any private property or publicly owned property that is not generally open to the public (council offices, police stations, etc) that you wish to film in, will require the owner’s or custodian’s permission to do so! Caution should be taken as many apparently public places, i.e. to which the public a have access, are in fact private property: shopping centres are a prime example. Failing to secure adequate permission for filming can lead to confrontation, legal action and even confiscation of your equipment. Gaining permission for filming can be as simple as writing an email, paying a visit, or making a phone call, so failing to do so is inviting unnecessary risk for what would have been little effort. OK, there may be other steps involved, like proving that satisfactory health and safety practices and public liability insurance are in place, but these are to protect you as a content creator, as much as anyone else. If you simply can’t be bothered, please stop wrecking our industry, as everyone who works irresponsibly in this regard is ultimately making things more difficult for those of us who play the game! Asking permission is also, let’s face it, a common courtesy that civilised people should practise.
Copyright infringement is an area upon which almost everyone has an opinion, most of which have no basis in law. If you republish copyright material in any way whatsoever, you must have permission to do so from the copyright owner! Republishing includes anything that you do to distribute or make available that material in any form, to anyone. Moreover, it is generally accepted that ALL creative material is regarded as copyright unless it is clearly identified as in ‘public domain’. This means that using other peoples video footage, photos, audio recordings or music in your productions, without appropriate permission, no matter where you found or purchased them from, is illegal. While some producers, in some circumstances, turn a blind eye, simply because reuse constitutes good publicity for their products; this should not under any circumstances be taken for granted. Again, the mechanisms for checking copyright or for asking permission are readily available online, so there’s no excuse.
If your video production features anyone who is clearly the focus of attention on screen, then they should be given the right of refusal, again this is certainly enshrined in law, but is also a question of common courtesy. This is, of course, different from someone who wanders into view while you are filming in a public place, but again, if they object and if a re-take is possible, it might be a reasonable response to delete the shot and go again. If someone is a featured and crucial part of your production, especially talent, you should ensure that appropriate talent release documentation is in place, as this could prevent significant problems down the line. Imagine a situation, for example, where you have filmed an interview with someone, which is a substantial component in a documentary piece you are making; if they change their mind at a later date and demand the material is deleted, you have very little grounds for refusal without appropriate release documentation. If you are working as a contractor for a client who is effectively acting as producer, they may have already taken care of this, but it’s always worth checking. GDPR and the right to be forgotten enshrined within it, will inevitably provide some interesting case law over the coming years, which will create new and potentially significant challenges for content creators. For now, suffice it to say that holding and processing someone else’s data (including their image and voice data) is fine, provided that you have legitimate reason to do so and that you take appropriate precautions to keep that data safe.
Creating a narrative
At the beginning of the article, I wrote about narrative and how it applies to all areas of media production and it’s very true to say that you don’t need to be an author to need some kind of plot. Any form of promotional media, for example, is essentially about building a narrative and we can follow many of the same basic rules that we might follow if we were writing a play or a novel. Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of narrative structure describes the following states that inevitably find their way, in some guise or other, into virtually all narrative:
- A state of harmony exists (EQUILIBRIUM)
- Something happens to disrupt that harmony, requiring action (DISRUPTION)
- Key players realise and acknowledge that disruption has occurred (REALISATION)
- Key players attempt to resolve the situation (ACTION)
- A new equilibrium is reached (RESOLUTION)
In a Hollywood movie, for example, we might see something like this:
- A happy seaside town is looking forward to a prosperous summer (EQUILIBRIUM);
- The town’s beaches are terrorised by an oversized man-eating shark (DISRUPTION);
- After much burying of heads in the sand a decision is finally taken to hunt down and kill the shark (REALISATION)
- Quint, Brodie and Hooper take to the sea to hunt down the shark (ACTION)
- The shark is killed and life returns to normal (RESOLUTION).
We also see the same simple pattern in promotional media, e.g:
- Life is good (EQUILIBRIUM);
- Something happens or is found lacking, making life not so good (DISRUPTION);
- Life would be so much better if… (REALISATION);
- Buy our product/service ([call to] ACTION);
- Life is good again (RESOLUTION)
And in documentary media, e.g.:
- Descriptive overview of an ecosystem (EQUILIBRIUM);
- A population within that ecosystem seems to be declining (DISRUPTION);
- Research is undertaken and cause established (REALISATION);
- Scientists propose a solution ([call to] ACTION);
- A more positive view of the future is proposed if the solution is adopted (RESOLUTION)
Your plot outline may become a little more complex than this, but Todorov’s theory is a good place to start. By setting out a simple plot outline, you instantly create a reference point for everything else that happens in your movie production, so this is worth doing for even the most basic project, particularly if you’re working as part of a team.
Following the establishment of a simple plot outline, a synopsis starts to put some flesh on the bones of your narrative. A synopsis starts to describe situations and characters involved in your story in more detail. This is an important step, because it starts to build an emotional bridge between your plot and your audience, giving substance to the characters and situations in your story that an audience can relate to, empathise/sympathise with, become afraid of/repulsed by, etc. A synopsis doesn’t have to be a huge in-depth study, of the type that you might produce when developing a screenplay for a feature film, but it should give you a framework around which you can begin shaping elements of your production: dialogue, costumes, direction, camera angles, lighting, visual effects, etc.
The example below shows a simple plot outline and accompanying synopsis for a 30 second TV ad to promote a breakdown recovery service:
|Someone is driving||Sammy is a hardworking mum who, after a long day’s work, has collected her children from nursery and is now driving through the rain, to the comfort of home, chatting to her children about their day.|
|They have a puncture||There’s a sudden bump followed by a rumble, with Sammy realising that steering has become more difficult. Sammy pulls off the road and reassures her children before investigating the problem.|
|They realise they’re going no further||Sammy sees the damage and a heavy frown appears on her face. She gets back in the car and tries to calm the, by now fractious youngsters.|
|They call their breakdown service||She takes out her phone and calls her trusty breakdown recovery provider. A cheerful voice at the other end of the phone reassures her that help is on its way. Soon the scene is bathed in flashing orange light as help appears.|
|The breakdown service sends them on their way||A friendly operative from the breakdown company taps on Sammy’s window and informs her that all is now well and she can continue her journey.|
In a more involved dramatic piece, character studies for each of your key players are another important element of pre-production. In many ways, a character study is an extension of the synopsis into the characters themselves and helps to solidify each character, giving the director important reference information for how each character might speak, act and respond. A well-developed character is key to eliciting emotional ownership in the viewer, with flat, underdeveloped characters being difficult to believe or empathise with in any way. In feature film production its common practise to build in sections of dialogue or even whole scenes (which are effectively on-screen character studies in themselves), that help establish each character as fully as possible: In the movie Jaws, the boathouse scene, where Brodie and Hooper first encounter Quint, is a perfect example of this.
If anyone is going to speak in your video production, it’s a very good idea to have at least a skeleton script, which pays attention to everything we have discussed so far regarding purpose, audience and narrative. Even something as simple as a two-minute marketing video can start to lose coherence if you stray too far from your first principles and any spoken material will play an important role in maintaining not just that coherence, but also the impact of your production. Going back to the scenario at the start of this article, I mentioned having a bullet point list of things that need covering in a product review. I learned my lesson early on in this respect, holding my head in despair when I realised I’d missed out an important ‘deal breaker’ feature from a review and I had no choice but to go back, reshoot part of the video, and then make one of those really dodgy edits, because I didn’t have time to start from scratch. You could go to the lengths of setting up an autocue or you could simply have a sheet of paper on the table beside you, either way, it’s well worth the time, unless you have an absolutely top-notch memory that is.
If you’re filming an interview, having a planned set of questions to ask your interviewee is pretty much essential. In fact, depending upon your interviewee, they may insist upon seeing and approving questions prior to the session. Even if you’re videoing on the spot interviews at a trade show or conference, having a very clear idea of what you’re going to ask and how you’re going to ask it is crucial. It’s always important to prepare your questions in a way that they invite a longer explanation rather a simple yes/no response, as the latter is probably not going to prove that interesting. You should also decide from the outset, and brief your talent accordingly if you don’t intend the questions to be heard in the final product, as is very common in talking-head style interviews. This will have quite a bearing on how your talent responds, particularly if they’re less experienced, and could result in a next to useless finished product if your interviewee’s responses lack context.
If your video production involves dramatic dialogue of any kind, then its important to consider how characters involved might say the lines they’re delivering, to the people they’re addressing, in the situation they’re in. To some degree, you might evolve the delivery of dialogue during rehearsal, but it’s always a good idea to include some sense of direction in the notes that you include in your script. As with any part of pre-production, good scripting can help save a lot of time on-set, giving your talent as much information as possible ahead of shooting, so that they’re at least on the same page when it comes to doing their job. At this point, it’s also worth looking back at our plot outline, synopsis and character studies as they will all help to maintain consistency and coherence in the script/screenplay.
In just the same way that a script, however simple, helps to solidify the spoken element of your video production, pre-visualisation of some kind can also be extremely useful to even a basic film product. In days gone by, pre-visualisation meant a storyboard, which would encapsulate the key visual flavour of each scene or each shot within a scene as a series of drawings or paintings. On feature film productions, a team of highly skilled artists would be employed to develop storyboard artwork which served as a visual reference for every part of the production. Accompanying the images would be notes regarding camera angles, camera movement, lighting, stage directions and so on, once again giving as much information as possible to the production team and enabling on-set time to be used as efficiently as possible. While this is still common practice on larger movies, many smaller productions have had to find more budget-friendly ways to satisfy this need. While for many years storyboarding for lower-end production might mean fairly basic scribblings, more recently, any number of software solutions have evolved for pre-visualisation including 3D and even 4D (i.e. motion) rendering. Below there is a screenshot from ShotPro, a typical example of a visualisation app aimed at movie makers, which is available for most platforms, including mobile ShotPro enables some quite elaborate pre-visualisation including camera position, focussing and movement, lighting and, to some degree, character animation. If you’re artistically adept, then a storyboard may be a quicker and cheaper option for you, but for those of us whose artistic limitations are reached with stick men, a storyboarding/visualisation app might well provide a more realistic method, as well as preventing a lot of embarrassment and explanation when presenting visualisation work to clients or other members of your production team.
Other extremely useful practices
This might sound like I’m suggesting that all movie production involves jetting off to glamorous or exciting places, and I guess you may be lucky enough that this is the case, but, as with everything discussed so far, location scouting can be a useful part of your pre-production process for even the most modest production. Let’s just say, for the sake of illustration, that you’ve been commissioned to make a short corporate video for a local school. Turning up on the first day of your shoot with cameras, lighting and sound gear on a trolley and asking ‘right, where are we going to do this then?’ isn’t going to inspire a great deal of confidence in your abilities or experience. Much better to have toured the facilities in advance with a member of the school’s management team (preferably one who has a set of keys), making a note of suitable places to film interviews and interesting places to gather B Roll, while also gathering useful information such as if and when particular spaces might be free during the shoot, timings for break and lunch (when the school will be at it’s noisiest), or ascertaining how to switch off the ridiculously loud extractor fans in a particular room. All this without even mentioning things like prior knowledge of glaring logistical, technical or health and safety issues that might arise. Armed with this kind of information you can now prepare for your shoot accordingly and hopefully won’t be in for any unpleasant surprises on filming days. If you’re concerned that this might take up too much precious time, consider the alternative, which could be a part-wasted day necessitating an additional shoot and either going over your quoted budget or more likely taking a financial hit. Better, surely, to cost in a pre-shoot visit from the outset and to ensure that you have voiced/agreed (and preferably documented) certain expectations on your part!
Regardless of whether or not you’re using a storyboard, a shot list can prove completely invaluable. A shot list is essentially a simple shopping-list style document, which, as well as ensuring that all shots are captured and providing a quick guide as to camera angle/camera movement, etc. can be used to group logistically related shots together (e.g. all shots at a particular location or all nighttime shots) to minimise movement and setup time. On a larger project, a shot list could save you a great deal of time and money and will certainly help you to plan out your itinerary in the most logistically easy way possible. But even if your video production is something as simple as a single location, one-person corporate interview, while the main A-roll footage (the actual interview) should pretty much take care of itself, a shot list for B Roll (incidental and illustrative material) could help to make sure that you have everything you need to keep the production visually interesting, let alone having enough material to cover edits, etc.
Depending upon the nature and scale of your production, there are many other pre-production issues that will need to be addressed in order to ensure that your project goes smoothly and successfully. The real message here is that whatever you’re doing, planning and preparation will make all the difference in the world to your final product. So, if you’re planning on doing some kind of corporate video or video marketing work, or just developing your vlogging or review videos, maybe there are one or two more steps that you should pay attention to before grabbing that camera and shouting ‘action’.
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