The dream is always the same. You are back in school when you suddenly realize that you have to take a test. It is a three-hour test and you are late. Two of the hours set aside for the test have already passed before you even make it to the room. The prompter hands you a test; you sit down, open the booklet and stare at the questions. You don’t know any of the answers. You are about to fail miserably.
This is an anxiety dream, usually brought on when you’re about to embark on a shoot you’re not prepared for. It’s often a project requiring more skill or experience or money than any you’ve yet to produce.
No, you don’t need a shrink. What you need is a plan.
Plan It Now
The fancy way to say it is pre-production. The simple way is planning. It’s not the most glamorous part of putting a video together, but it’s one of the most important.
Here’s the cold truth: the more effort you put into pre-production, the better chance you have of creating a worthwhile video. When clients pay you to produce a video, they expect you to prepare a plan. Even when you make the video for your own entertainment, you’ll enjoy the process more if you prepare a plan of action before you shoot.
Why is the plan so important? A shoot is a complex situation. And the larger the shoot, the more complex the situation. You’re in charge of this situation; everyone comes to you with questions. The camera operator wants to know where to put the tri-pod. The talent wants to know where to stand. The lighting director wants to know what mood you want. Do you have the answers? Do you even know where yOU are in the script? You don’t have a script? That could be trouble.
Pre-production planning is simply making most of these decisions before you get into the field. You’ve got to know what you want and how you’re going to get it. Then when things get confusing-and they will- you’ll have your solutions at the ready.
Script It Right
This is going to involve paperwork (there’s always paperwork).
Three of the most important documents used in pre-production are the script, the shot list and the shooting schedule.
If you prepare these documents carefully, you’ll have very little or nothing at all to worry about going into a shoot.
Nothing, that is, except for weather conditions, temperamental talent, shooting permits, equipment rentals, meals for the crew and so on. Which is why it’s important to free up as much of your brain as you can through careful planning. You’ll need it.
Everyone knows what a script is. It’s that piece of writing Hollywood pays folks millions of dollars to create-the production’s blueprint. The script details all the words to be spoken during the production, either by talent on camera or by an unseen voice-over announcer (VO). The script also includes descriptions of scenes, special effects, shot angles and other visual elements.
You can format a script in two ways: split format or film style. Say the chamber of commerce hires you to make a video promoting local glass artisans. In the split-format script, the visual elements appear on the left side of the page with the audio elements on the right.
My personal preference is to use the split-format on short productions, such as 30-second commercials. Film-style scripts suit longer projects, such as marketing or training videos, or dramatic productions involving actors. Of course, you can use a script written on a napkin as long as it serves its purpose.
When the script is close to its final form, you may want to read it aloud and record this reading. As you read, think about what will happen visually-the images that go along with these words. This will give you a better feel for the pacing of the show.
Put yourself in the place of the audience. Would a 30-second shot hold your interest, or would you expect the image to change sooner? Does the script mention certain details-“art glass has become one of America’s most popular collectibles”-but does not specify shots showing these details? Do the shots go by so quickly that the viewer has no chance to absorb all the information? You might find you need pauses between some sentences.
Think about how the audience will view the program. Will they sit as a group watching the show on a big screen? Or will they watch it individually, alone, say in a training situation?
Think about the best ways to get your message across in that particular setting.
Fixing pacing problems is the director’s job-that usually means you. It’s much more efficient to anticipate and eliminate such problems in the pre-production process, rather than have them surprise you during the editing of the final show.
While working on the script, look for ways to make the story more engaging. You can do this by enhancing the dramatic elements.
Play It Up
Perhaps Bruce the master glassblower takes on a new apprentice. So you decide to shoot a series of shots showing Bruce training his young protg, ending with the protg trying his first solo art glass project.
Or perhaps the studio gets a rush order and it’s up to the new kid on the glass block to fill it without Bruce’s help. These are examples of conflict (mastering the difficult and potentially dangerous art of glassblowing) and problem/solution (fill rush order) strategies that can help to keep the audience’s interest.
You might want to create a timeline of the entire show, showing the different dramatic elements. The timeline would show the tension building (as the protg makes mistakes) and then the release (after he succesfully finishes his first project). Then the timeline would show the tension, building again, the apprentice tackles the rush order and then the release, when he fills it.
If the script lacks tension or drama, add some of these elements.
Storyboard It First
Once the script is complete, you can create a storyboard. Here, you describe each shot in the script as a small picture. These pictures can take the form of stick figures or elaborate comic book style graphics-as long as you can visualize the actual video by looking at them. Under the pictures you can add the appropriate audio (words and sound effects) and make notes about camera movement (pans, zooms, tilts).
The storyboard is very useful, because the act of creating it forces you to visualize scenes. This enables you to identify and fix potential problems before you shoot any footage.
Say the script calls for an edit from a close-up of one glass vase to a closeup of another, a vase with much the same appearance as the first. While preparing the storyboard prior to shooting, you’ll notice that these shots are so similar that you risk confusing the audience.
Storyboards also serve as props, helping you explain to cast and crew what you’re trying to achieve in your show.
Now that the script is nearly complete-but small changes are still possible-it’s time to number each shot. This identification is necessary because you will arrange shots later in ways-such as time of day or location-that have nothing to do with where the shots fall in the script. By numbering the shots you can easily jump back and forth between your shot list, shooting schedule and script.
You can decide how to number your shots, as long as each one has a unique way to identify it. For example, you can use plain old numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4…. Or you can put the page number first. Page 1 shots would be 1-1, 1-2, 1-3…. Page 2 shots would be 2-1, 2-2, 2-3….
If after you number all your shots you find that you must add another, say between shot 4 and 5, you can simply name the new shot 4A. Or you might choose a shot-series number scheme. These might be all the shots that make up a scene and could be numbered 101, 102, 103…; 201, 202, 203…. (101, Bruce lifts the rod to his mouth; 102, he blows into the rod; 103, he turns the rod, twisting the glass into shape as he blows; 201, Bruce cleans up his workspace when his work day is done; 202, he leaves the studio.)
Time It Out
Figure out about how much time your shots will take in the final video. Say you know that shot 17 is a pan from Bruce to the oven, but you don’t know how many seconds this move should take.
Say you’re in the field shooting and you guess, making the pan last for five seconds. You may be making trouble for yourself later. When you get to the edit, there might be room only for a 3-second shot; that 5-second pan won’t be over when you must cut to the next scene.
Avoid this by estimating each shot’s timing. Read the voice-over or actor’s lines from the script; clock it while using a stopwatch to see how many seconds the shot will take.
Professional talent will speak a little more slowly than you do, because they enunciate more carefully, so make your estimates a little longer than the actual time it takes you to read the lines. Now when you get into the field, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how long the shot should take.
Set It Up
When all the shots have numbers, group them. Go through the script and determine all the different setups.
A setup changes when you move from one location to another. This could mean something as complicated as packing all the gear into a van and driving five miles-or as simple as moving from one room to another.
The goal: to avoid returning to a previous setup. Extra moves are inefficient, expensive and annoying to cast and crew alike.
You can group shots by location, by talent or by the props appearing in them, by time of day-whatever critical elements are most important. If you have several scenes where Bruce drives a ’57 Chevy (a classic car that you must rent from The Classic Car Place), then you should schedule all these shots on the same day. If you’re not paying your talent, group their shots together so they can make their contribution and leave. If the talent has one scene in the morning and then has to wait around until the afternoon to perform his only other line, he probably won’t jump to participate the next time you call.
Notice that you don’t shoot in sequence. You shoot the shots with the entire staff first, no matter where they fall in the script, then you can let most of the staff go back to work.
Next, you shoot the shots involving a smaller number of glassblowers.
Then, you move on to the closeups of your talent, taping all the necessary shots in this location. Remember: you might need a few people to fill in the background; otherwise the staff may seem to disappear suddenly when the shot changes.
By planning out every sequence of shots and carefully grouping them, you can avoid one of the biggest mistakes a director can make: forgetting to get a shot.
Say you’ve just completed shooting the art glass studio staff. You look at your script and realize that you missed a shot of Bruce with half the staff behind him. The crew has most of the equipment put away, staff members have said their good-byes and your star Bruce has already removed most of his tools.
When you tell them to put everything back so you can get the missing shot, what goes through the minds of the crew and cast? “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
You lose their trust-and it won’t be easy to restore it.
Schedule It Soon
Once you have the shots grouped in a logical order, you can put together the shooting schedule. If the shoot will oniy last for a couple of hours, the production schedule is not as important; but if you plan a shoot lasting several days or weeks, the schedule is essential.
With a good production schedule, you not only know where you are in the scheme of things, you can also tell crew members and talent where they should be. This keeps things moving forward in a controlled manner, and guards against the chaos that can easily overtake a production.
Before you put the shot groupings into a schedule, figure out how long it will take to actually set up and capture each shot. This is always an estimate, easily thrown off by poor actors, bad weather, power failures and other disasters, natural and unnatural.
Timing estimates will vary according to the style of the individual videomaker. However, you can use the following rules of thumb to estimate the timing of your shots; just be sure to make adjustments as necessary.
For complex shots. If the shot is an elaborate one involving many people with camera moves (such as a dolly or boom), allow 30 minutes to get the shot.
For wide shots. If the shot is a wide shot of an area with only one or two people, allow 15 minutes to capture it.
For close-ups. When shooting close-ups of talent, inanimate objects or very simple shots, allow 10 minutes per shot.
Remember, these are averages. Some of the setups will take longer to light and prepare, some require only a matter of seconds, but when averaged out they boil down to these lengths. If you use them as a guide, you’ll have a good estimate of how long a shot grouping will take to put on tape.
As you put your groupings into a production schedule, be sure to allow more time for the first shot of the day. The crew is groggy (from whatever excesses engaged in the night before) and all the equipment must be set up and checked before it is ready to use.
After you complete one setup (at the studio, for example), think about how far you will have to go to get to the next location; include this time in the schedule. If you need to shoot a certain shot grouping at a certain time of day (Bruce gazes out over the ocean as the sun sets), then you must plan for it. The sun has a habit of going down on schedule, whether you are there or not.
You should also keep in mind the activity level at your location. Say the art glass studio is near a highway. If you shoot in the morning, the sound of the commuter traffic may disrupt the artistic effect you want.
Even if you think there’s no highway near by, check for nearby airports. This is more common than you might think.
Where is the sun in the morning? Will the skylight-filled studio have the right lighting from the angle you want to use? A visit to each location before production begins could help answer these questions.
After you have resolved as many of these problems as you can, you will find that you must make compromises. You might not be able to shoot at exactly the time that you wanted, or you might not be able to afford to rent the ’57 Chevy for two days (to include it in a shot you can shoot only on day six).
You can find solutions for all these problems before you get into the field-and you should.
Whatever Can Go Wrong, Will
Once you’ve prepared the script, shot list and production schedule, you can keep track during the shoot.
Starting with the shot groupings, check off shots as you shoot them. Then you can cross-reference to the actual script, underlining or crossing out the audio portion as you capture the corresponding video. If any audio is not underlined, you know immediately that you have missed something.
I know what you’re thinking, “That sounds like a lot of work.” It is, at first.
But once you’ve been through the process a few times it gets much easier. The point is, when you come to a shoot with these documents in hand, you not only oversee a smoother-running production, you show your crew, your talent and your client that you know what you are doing. You can earn this kind of respect only by putting together a good plan.
The other important reason for planning in such detail: now you can better handle those problems you didn’t anticipate. A light stand will fall over and the bulb will smash, causing a delay during clean-up. The artisans will go on strike. Bruce will get the flu.
By solving the problems you can predict ahead of time, you are free to deal with the nightmares you don’t expect.
Plan on it.
William Ronat, a Videomaker contributing editor, owns a video production company.