If you’re like most videomakers, you probably have more project ideas than you can shake a camcorder at. So with a little talent and the right equipment, you should be able to produce top quality video work, right?
Right. Then why do so many great ideas fizzle out somewhere between that first blinding spark of inspiration and the final credit roll?
The answer is simple: before the lights come up, before the cameras roll, even before you write the script, you must take two essential steps if your video is to find and follow its true course:
Step one: clearly define your concept.
Step two: write a concise treatment.
A concept nails down your program’s primary message, and the manner in which you will deliver it to your primary audience. Later; as you navigate the winding curves of production, you’ll think of the concept as your destination. A treatment is a written summary of the video’s purpose, storyline and style. It will become your road map. These tools will help you maintain solid and continuous contact with the video’s intended direction every step of the way.
These are probably the most overlooked steps of preproduction, but if you conscientiously pursue them on every project-no matter how simple-you’ll save time and add polish, propelling your work to new horizons of quality.
Developing the Concept
How does a concept differ from a raw idea? Let’s look at a couple of ideas and watch how they change as we develop them into concepts:
1) The Trees of New England; and
2) Car Repair
Each of these has possibilities as a video project; but if we were to pick up a camera, or even try to start writing a script at this point, we’d suffer a false start. Before we can set out on our creative journey, we need a clear understanding of our destination.
Admittedly, many ideas don’t deserve to survive. Who among us hasn’t pulled the car off a crowded freeway to jot down a “great idea” only to read it later and find that great idea somewhat less than overwhelming.
Take our first idea: The Trees of New England. This sleeper might die right on the drawing board. Why? Because it lacks profitability. The visual effect could no doubt be stunning, but who would purchase (or finance) a video about trees when public television carries a variety of nature shows that feature similar subjects every week?
To succeed in the marketplace, your work must deliver a primary message, a primary audience and an effective way of delivering the former to the latter. To prove worth the effort, The Trees of New England would have to distinguish itself from similar programming through style or content to appeal to existing markets. Another option: The Trees of New England could deliver its message in a way that would captivate audiences in a new market niche. Note: if you can see a way to make money with this tree idea, please feel free to run with it.
You may find yourself shelving many ideas that survive this kind of initial scrutiny; these ideas typically lack some element necessary to a profitable video, such as reasonable production costs or a viable market. Or through research you may discover that someone else has already produced your idea. That’s okay; you can always generate more ideas. Don’t get too caught up in creative decisions during these first stages of exploration. In the process of transforming a germ of an idea into a viable concept, necessity will make many decisions about a project’s direction for you.
How about our wannabe video-Car Repair. This one offers a multitude of development possibilities. But remember, you can’t please all of the people all the time. Avoid the temptation to create a “do-all” video. As producers, we always want the largest audience we can get-up to a point. Create a repair program that appeals equally to master mechanics and interior designers, and you’ll get a show without a specific destination. In other words, your project could end up running out of gas in the wrong town.
Your first move: define the audience. Let’s find a target group who could use some information about car repair.
Here’s where brainstorming becomes an indispensable tool. There are as many methods to brainstorm an idea as there are people, so there are no hard and fast rules. Basically, you need to distract the left (logical) side of your brain so that the right (creative) side can come out to play.
Here’s what works for me: I speak my thoughts aloud, no matter how silly they sound, while bouncing a rubber ball off the concrete walls of my basement office. This technique gets the creative hemisphere of my brain churning; my subconscious coughs up ideas from a well much deeper than the one serving my logical hemisphere. I write down the more coherent mutterings on a dry erase board as they erupt. All in all, it’s probably not a pretty sight, but you’re welcome to adapt this method to your own brainstorming technique.
Here’s a condensed version of my brainstorming session for the car repair idea. I flip the ball. It hits the floor, the wall and then slaps back into my hand.
“Repair,” I say to myself, as I continue to bounce the ball. “Maintenance… mechanics…men.. women. ..children …women…smart women…independent women…car maintenance…where’s the need?…when would they have the need?…college…BINGO!”
When young women go away to college, they no longer have Mom or Dad around to watch the oil level and check the belts. The same is surely true of young men, but I decide to target women as the larger of the two potential audiences. Should I go after both in hopes of selling more tapes? Absolutely not. Since the buying characteristics of the two groups will be different, I must tailor the style of the production to one audience or the other.
Through brainstorming, the original idea “car repair” has now become its simpler cousin, “car maintenance.” Do we have a real concept now? Not yet, but we’re getting there; we know our target market and our message. Still to be considered: the production’s style, or the best manner in which to convey our message. This will eventually encompass shooting style, lighting style, acting, wardrobe, makeup and dozens of other factors. For now, however, we’ll break style down into two parts: 1) getting the viewer’s attention; and 2) and keeping it.
Hook, Line and Profit
A hook is the attention-getting element that yanks viewers away from their busy day, and into our product. The need for a good hook is the same in every communication medium, whether it’s an advertisement, a popular song or a training video. Human beings are frenetically busy creatures; you must seduce them into giving their attention away. After delivering this interesting hook and convincing them to look our way, we must follow through and give them a storyline that will hold their interest for the duration of the program.
There are a number of ways to engage and keep the viewers’ attention:
- shock value
- visual stimulation
- glitz and glamour
To decide which combination of elements will work best for our car maintenance video, we need a better understanding of our target market:
17 to 20-year-old females needing to perform simple car maintenance themselves. As with many aspects of concept development, most of our decisions are made for us as we discard what will not work-which leaves us with what will.
My gut says to skip shock value in a program that deals with cars. Self-interest is definitely an important consideration for a young lady who is both: I) trying to assert her independence for the first time (ego self interest); and 2) living on a budget (financial self-interest).
Visual stimulation? Our target group comes from a generation accustomed to the kaleidoscopic imagery and lightning fast cuts of beer commercials and music videos. Let’s use this one.
Glitz and glamour are obvious shoo-ins for this age and gender. Comedy can be an excellent tool for communicating many subjects, as long as you execute it well. Let’s keep humor in mind, too.
Simply being aware of these tools is not enough. More important is an understanding of the ways they will impact our target audience. If we can effectively utilize one or more of them in our production (and our marketing package), we may just have a moneymaking project on our hands.
To recap: we need an eye-catching (visually stimulating) presentation that offers college-aged females something they clearly need (self-interest) in a manner consistent with their accepted versions of self-image (glitz and glamour). If we discover ways to enliven this delivery through the use of comedy, all the better.
Even if we are unable to meet all these criteria, we must be aware of them, so at the very least we avoid working against the psychology of our target audience.
More ball bouncing is probably called for at this point to help us predict how we’ll apply these general ideas to our intended audience. But rather than put you through that again, I’ll just tell you what I came up with for our sample project: A Young Woman’s Guide to Minor Car Maintenance. The package resembles that of a concert video or a compact disc more than an instructional videotape jacket. Lots of neon colors surround a snazzily dressed college-aged woman, who leans confidently over the open hood of a small automobile. Her posture says, “I have the world by the tail, and so can you if you take a closer look at this.”
The back of the jacket explains that you’ll need no tools to perform most of the tasks covered in the program. These tasks are simpler than you ever thought possible, even fun once you give them a chance.
Best of all, you’ll feel an exhilarating new sense of independence after you master these simple skills.
Writing the Treatment
We’ve come a long way from the original idea. By asking the right questions, we’ve developed a potentially viable concept. We understand it in terms of:
- to whom the video speaks;
- how the video will speak to them; and
- what the video will say.
Now we can write a treatment, which will help us pursue our project without losing sight of our concept. By clearly defining our direction in this way, we can hold true to our original vision for the project.
Depending on the complexity of a production, its treatment may be long or short. Some in-depth treatments resemble scripts; others simply document mood changes and/or visual effects, with technical annotations along the way. Regardless, the treatment should always move the reader chronologically from the beginning to the end of the program.
There’s no established manuscript format for a treatment. Just try to tell a story in as readable a way as possible. The treatment for our car maintenance video might begin like this:
A Young Woman s Guide to Minor Car Maintenance
Statement of Purpose
The main goal of this project is to provide information about basic car maintenance to female college students age 20 and younger. These young women face the full responsibilities of car care for the first time in their lives.
In the interest of hooking and keeping the attention of the target audience, we’ll present this information in a series of three music videos. Cuts will be as short as possible. A different actor/musician with a distinct personality will demonstrate each automotive maintenance task.
Most important, the tasks will not be overly technical in nature. Our audience needs to understand only the basics of car care: how to check belts, check the oil and other fluid levels, change a tire, fill the radiator, replace a burned-out fuse and so on. The frequent use of common-sense metaphors will remove any feelings of intimidation this subject may arouse in viewers.
The video jacket layout resembles that of an album cover rather than an instructional videotape. The songs contained in the program will be remakes of popular rock-and-roll songs, with lyrics pertinent to the mechanical tasks.
The opening credits emulate the digital-animated effects common to music video TV stations. These lively visual effects are choreographed to heavy guitar and powerful drums. The monolithic CTV (Car Television) logo vibrates in time with the music.
Cut to a perky female vee-jay who says, as if continuing a thought from before the latest station break, “We’ll hear more of the latest tour information soon, but first let’s take a look at this new rclease from Jeena and the Jalopies…”
Cut to close-up of female lead singer in the middle of a concert. We hear the giddy cheering of a large crowd as she introduces the next song. Her tormented expression prepares us for a tale of love’s cruelty; but when she speaks, it’s about how her car has done her wrong. The hand-held cameras circle like vultures on the fog-drenched stage. Her dead-earnest performance mocks the lyrics, which seem comically out of place.
Cut to a dressing room interview with Jeena. “Yeah,” she says, “almost every song I write is taken from tiny own life. I hated that car.” (She takes a drag from her cigarette.) “And I loved it. Know what I mean?” Music from Jeena’s live performance fades up as the camera holds on her face.
(Music continues.) Cut to Jeena standing next to her car, a late model import. She wears the demeanor of a child instructed to shake hands with an enemy, but stubbornly refuses to do so. She casts occasional guilty glances at the camera, but refuses to look at the car, with which she is obviously quite angry. “My old car wasn’t like this,” she claims, shaking her head. “I could see the dip stick-easy. Check the oil and be done with it. So, you know, easy.” Video dissolves to a memory sequence of Jeena opening the hood of an older automobile.
This gives you an idea of how the beginning of our treatment might read. It paints a much more complete picture than the words Car Repair. This video will probably be around 30 minutes in length; its treatment will run about 10 pages, typewritten and double-spaced.
If that sounds like a lot of writing, compare it to the amount of money and work required to reshoot even one minute of video.
More Treatment Tips & Tricks
Some productions, like our car maintenance video, will involve fairly hefty budgets financed by outside investors. The treatment then becomes a sales tool for communicating the project’s value to potential investors.
Depending on the type of video you’re producing, other uses for a treatment include:
- seeking client approval;
- giving a “big picture” of the program to technical and creative staffs;
- making sure that you can arrive at your destination.
Perhaps the most important benefit of writing a treatment comes as a result of the uniting itself. In moving from the general concept to the specific steps to develop that concept, your treatment will pass through many incarnations. Problems will crop up at this stage; you’ll solve them by revising the treatment. In overcoming these obstacles on paper, you will save yourself from facing them later on the shoot itself.
Production Planning Tools
Videomakers have traditionally used several tools to help them navigate the circuitous pathways of production. In filmmaking, there’s the storyboard, a comic book style layout of sequential drawings that tell the visual story of a movie. Some videomakers use storyboards as well; but for many low-budget productions storyboards prove too expensive of a luxury.
This is certainly true for our car repair video. For this production, our treatment must do the storyboard’s job-by creating compelling, descriptive images with words. The treatment must clearly map out the avenues we’ll travel without necessarily describing every fire hydrant and blade of grass along the way.
A general rule of thumb: gear the sophistication of your treatment to the purposes it must serve. If you need to impress the board of trustees at a major cable network and feel you are out of your league in terms of writing skills, hire a freelance writer to prepare the treatment. The earlier in the creative process you bring this person in, the more benefit you can gain from his or her experience.
Don’t sell yourself short, though. If you feel reasonably sure that you can tell your video’s story from the beginning to the end, in a readable way that your colleagues will understand, do it.
The worst mistake: skipping these crucial planning steps altogether.
Even the simplest video can flounder if you neglect the proper planning process. The meticulous development of concept and treatment allows you to cut and polish your rough project. The goal is to move into the later phases of the work with a crisply faceted jewel that will withstand the rigors of scripting and production.
Stray Wynn Ponder is a writer and producer of TV commercials and industrial training videos.