by Randal K. West
Every successful shoot starts with a good plan.
If you want to expand your creative horizons and add new and exciting production elements to your videos, start by developing a plan for your production. Selecting the appropriate format, style and production elements will set you up for success.
As Creative Director for an advertising agency, I am regularly part of a dog-and-pony show to pitch clients creative premises for their television programs. In order to make sure that the right creative elements are contained in each premise, we start with a think tank. This is a day long meeting with the client that allows us to gather as much information as possible about the product. There are no bad ideas at this point as any idea helps the creative flow. Your videos can benefit from a similar process.
1. Gather Information
Before you begin to think creatively, do a quick overview of the project. Determine what it is that you hope to accomplish. Identify the intended viewer. Explain how you want your video to affect that viewer. Do you want to motivate, inform or just cause him to relive a warm memory. Try to boil the project down to a single statement that encompasses everything you are trying to accomplish. In advertising, this is called a “Unique Selling Proposition.” Actually write down a statement that defines what is unique about the project and what elements must be present in order to produce a successful project. Let’s call this the “Essence” of your production.
Next, take a look at all the potential production elements and then allow your time-line, budget, available resources and the appropriateness for the project to dictate what goes into your outline. Once you’ve defined your project, summarize it in a paragraph. Keep that paragraph in front of you as a constant reminder of what is important in the project.
2. Choose a Format
Part of your planning will involve selecting a format (or combination of formats) to use for your project. There are several formats commonly used for television and video productions.
Interview. A formal interview might take place on a set with the host seated behind a desk, like Leno or Letterman, with the person being interviewed seated opposite the host in a chair. An informal interview could be someone in a reporter role interviewing a coach on the sidelines of a football game, or a starlet on the red carpet before the Oscars. Additionally, the interviewer may be seen or unseen.
Documentary. A formal documentary might use a voiceover to describe the events that lead to the Battle of the Alamo, featuring drawings from the period and using black and white footage from old films that depicted the battle, like a PBS documentary on the Civil War. An informal documentary could be comprised of interviewing the cast and crew of an upcoming musical as they prepare to open a new performing arts facility. Rather than having a formal narration to describe the events leading to the opening, ask questions of the actual participants that will lead to a body of material from which you may cut your entire documentary. In the real people’s own words.
Video Magazine. In this format the hosts are usually behind a desk or newsroom platform but two hosts banter between themselves, the tone is lighter and entertainment value is increased.
Story Based. A story-based piece requires a complete script and actors to perform scripted lines. This is the most sophisticated and complicated format as it includes getting actors to say someone else’s words and yet come across as real people conveying real emotions. It might also involve the actors doing written recreations of events. These scenes can be shot in a studio or on location.
Talking Head. This is the simplest format. It is less complicated than an interview only because a standard interview usually involves more art direction and feeling of environment than a talking head segment. Talking heads can be shot with multiple cameras or film style. A film style single camera shoot involves shooting the person answering the questions first and then re-creating the questions with the interviewer later. Be sure to shoot reaction shots of the interviewer, “noddies,” so you can edit to the reactions in order to compress the guests answers without a jump cut.
3. Select a Style
Selecting the style you will use is essentially identifying the personality of the project. What is the flavor or feeling you want the program to convey? Is the presentation essentially formal or informal? Is it serious or silly? An interview, for example, can be formal (the 6 o’clock news) or informal (Oprah). A documentary can be narrated or it can utilize real people telling their own stories. In a lecture format, the speaker or topic will dictate the tone. A video magazine program like 60 Minutes is less formal than the Nightly News, where an anchor throws to field pieces.
4. Add Appropriate Elements
Once you’ve determined the format and style, you can decide which elements are appropriate for your project. Does any footage related to the subject already exist? Be sure to examine all possible existing footage before final planning. Even if you don’t use it, you might learn something about how the subject is best shot. If your subject involves following a process (remodeling a room, painting a picture, losing weight), consider before and after shots. These can be quite inspiring. I once shot a video designed to get the Mayor of a city re-elected to a fourth term. By showing what the city had looked like before he took office and what it looked like after, voters could see the difference he had made.
Aspirational shots (“aspirational” is an adjective in advertising lingo) can be created by simply locating a model who has the right look or by searching the Internet for inexpensive stock footage shots. When your video is talking about how wonderful it is to live an active older life, you cut to your aspirational shots (perhaps stills even) of attractive older models playing golf or sitting by a pool.
Product Demonstrations are often useful, where appropriate. A comparison between the old way and the new product can be a great element. Product demonstrations are straightforward, with possibly an expert performing the demo, or they can be light and fun (or even outrageous), as long as the power of the demo is maintained.
Since the development of pop-up video (interesting or pertinent information that overlays the video), the use of factoids has become popular. A factoid is simply an element related to the subject that is popped on in text or portrayed in both a voiceover and text.
5. Try Testimonials
Testimonials are particularly powerful. There are a few ways to incorporate testimonials into your project. The first is to interview a real group of everyday people who are doing the activity or using the product. The cheapest and easiest way is to bring all the people to one location and shoot them with the same background. However, this can look visually dull after a few shots. You may be able to get three or four usable locations out of the same room by picking multiple set-ups within the same general location. Sit just left or right of the lens and establish strong eye contact with the person. Don’t have them look into the lens unless they are very comfortable on-camera and even then only when what they are going to say is a personal appeal to the viewer. Talking right to a camera can be uncomfortable to the performer, (no human contact or feedback) and to the viewer, (the person is looking right at me). If you identify a particularly strong testimonial, you might want to arrange to shoot B-roll (shots without sound) of that person doing what they talk about and build it into a full feature for your piece.
If you shoot before an audience, you can ask for their reaction to what they’ve seen. You can do instant testimonials or a mall intercept, where people try your product or activity and you shoot their reactions. You can also shoot man on the street pieces. Make sure that if you shoot real people for testimonials that you have them sign a simple release which states that you can use their image and not pay them.
Expert testimonial is usually shot a little more formally. Keep in mind that having an expert might provide material that substantiates your belief in your topic, but an expert can also be a dynamic video presence. Sometimes a little science can go along way. You can choose to shoot the expert as a stand-alone testimonial or have him interviewed by a host or hostess. An expert can also analyze the action or perform a play-by-play description of an event.
Pre-planning your video project and creating a project essence that acts as your reference, along with a realistic time-line and budget, will help you select the right format, style and elements for your production. Once you start shooting with expanded creative visions, your palette will keep growing and growing. As a Creative Director, one of my favorite exercises is trying to match the format and elements to the project. I think you’ll find as much fun in this as I have, and your videos will look better and be more effective in influencing your audience.
Randal K. West is the Vice President/Creative Director for Hawthorne Direct, a Direct Response Television Advertising Agency.
Here is an example of a video essence brainstorm for a Public Service video for a local Kiwanis Club:
Needs to portray the focus of the club as one which helps children by raising money and distributing it to children’s causes and individual kids.
Needs to show that the club is both local, regional and nationally based.
Needs to seem fun and fulfilling to be a club member.
Needs to seem like the club is open to all ages, all types and both men and women.
Needs to be engaging, visual and dynamic.
Will It Work?
Three factors usually limit whether an element will work in your production:
Does the production timeline allow you to spend the time required to add this element?
Will the budget allow you to expend the money required for the element?
Is the element stylistically appropriate in the piece?