Home Video Hints: Planning Production: Part I

With this column, Home Video Hints ups the ante. To date, we’ve focused on the casual, sometime shooter who wants decent-looking videos with the least possible effort (access past articles online at videomaker.com). Over the next 12 issues we’re going to survey the basics of video production – the procedures you’ll need to create short, easy, but professional looking programs. Though we’ll vary our topics from issue to issue, we’ll end up covering the basics of pre-production, production and postproduction. To start right at the beginning, today’s homily covers step numero uno in making a video: figuring out what video to make.

Once you’ve taped enough vacations, holidays and family events, you may want to create a real program from scratch. But what kind of program and what’s the subject? A famous journalist once confessed, "Writing’s easy: you just stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood stand out on your forehead." The same is true about starting a video project. To get your project launched (and prevent excessive blood loss) break the job down into practical parts and complete them one at a time. In order, you need to decide on your program’s genre, concept and subject.

Genre

First, what genre, what basic type of program is it? Maybe a documentary (your daughter’s prowess at softball), a training program (How to drive a stick shift car), a story (the shrub that ate Toledo), an editorial (trashing the environment is wrong), a commercial (the Lion’s Club charity breakfast) or a music video. These are just a few standard video genres.

Why bother? Because each different type of program has a particular form, includes particular components, and demands a particular production approach. These requirements aren’t enforced by some kind of program police – after all, nobody cares what you do with your camcorder. But over the century during which visual media has evolved, folks have gradually developed the techniques that work best. If you’re the next Orson Welles, you can safely ignore all this conventional wisdom. For all the rest of us, though, it’s at least a good place to start.

Program genres are covered at length in the June 2002 issue, so let’s illustrate the process of selecting a program type with a single example: the commercial genre. Return with us now to the Lions Club charity breakfast.

Almost every commercial has at least three objectives:

  • Name recognition
  • Product description
  • Motivation to respond

    To promote name recognition, you want to get that name in front of the viewer: in superimposed titles, in the voiceover copy, and in the Lions Club banner that appears in the background of several shots.

    The product, of course, is the breakfast; so you’ll need shots of the delicious food served.

    Motivation to respond? This is where you show (or at least tell about) the good works funded by these charity breakfasts.

    Look what’s happened: by identifying a genre and examining its usual parts, you’ve already begun developing your program. But a commercial has another essential trait: it’s short – really, really short. You have no more than 60 seconds in which to do all that naming, describing and motivating.

    Concept

    To help you do this, you’ll need a strong program concept. A concept is a particular approach to your topic, a hook, a gimmick, an attitude – call it what you like. The Lions Club breakfast is a subject (which we’ll get to in a minute). The concept determines how you treat that subject. Let’s try this one: At their charity breakfast, the club members have as much fun as you do.

    Aha! With a concept to guide you, you’re closer to defining your subject matter. About half your time (say 20 seconds) will be devoted to a montage of the Lions Club’s good works, augmented with voiceover descriptions. Where the concept comes in is with the product: the breakfast itself. Your concept suggests that you intercut shots of the club volunteers having fun cooking and the customers having fun eating. By doing this, you put across the idea that customers and club members alike are working together for the community – and having a ball doing it.

    At this point, you begin to imagine cause and effect pairs of shots, such as someone scrambling eggs and then someone eating them. And what else? What other combinations suggest themselves? Now you’re down to the third step in the creative process: expressing the concept in concrete subject matter.

    Subject

    Different club members are frying bacon, rotating sausages, flipping flapjacks, turning eggs, pouring orange juice and dispensing coffee. As you show each one, you want to include the volunteer’s happy expression. Have the pancake flipper gleefully show off her technique. Feature the griddle cook’s beaming face as he deals a new deck of sausages.

    On the customer side, you want to show that everyone’s welcome, so cover the whole age range from grandparents to rug rats, all having fun together. Include a teenage couple, as interested in each other as in the food.

    Don’t forget the cause/effect organization. Follow the flapjack flipper with a young girl eating flapjacks. Pair the sausage cooking with a grandma happily cutting one.

    Organization’s never easy, so when you’ve got your concept and subjects, you need to build a blueprint that shows them in the correct order and with the proper emphasis. The simplest tool for this is an outline.

    Outline

    An outline is basically a list of shots in chronological order. Don’t confuse this with a "shot list," a production tool that organizes shots in shooting order, which is rarely the same. At this point you want to ensure that every shot is present and accounted for, and to judge whether they all flow coherently and smoothly.

    For completeness, each shot in the outline should include several elements:

  • Location Is this in the kitchen or the breakfast area – or is this shot at a place where the breakfast proceeds are put to good use?
  • Population Who’s in this shot: the egg cooker, the flap flipper or the young couple?
  • Image Size You don’t need exact setup descriptions in an outline, but it helps to include "WIDE SHOT," "CLOSEUP" or similar general descriptions.
  • Audio Summary What, very generally, is on the track here: narration, music, dialogue or ambient production sound?

    In many cases, this outline is as far as you need to go in documenting the show you’re going to shoot. (Hint: if you make your outline with a spreadsheet or database, you can instantly switch from a content outline to a production shot list, just by re-sorting by different fields.)

    Storyboard

    If your program is highly visual – and commercials usually are – a storyboard can help you pre-visualize the look of the finished program.

    If you’re like me, you can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, but, hey, who cares? No one has to see your scribbles. I use circles for heads, aiming them screen left or right by where I put the noses (check marks) and maybe ear ovals. I use arrows freely to show the direction of movement, both camera moves and action in the frame. Whatever works for you is plenty good enough.

    If you don’t storyboard the whole show – which would be silly with, say, a talking head interview – at least block out the complicated action sequences. Steven Spielberg does, so, unless you’re a better director than he is…

    I’m comfortable with a computer paint program (I use Corel Photopaint), so I storyboard on screen; but you can also draw empty frames (four units wide by three high) in any word processor, print them, and draw your pictures in pencil. I find that a page of three rows with three frames each is about the right size for me. Leave room for notations under the drawings, perhaps shot numbers, key dialogue, or just reminders to yourself about staging the action.

    If you don’t yet make storyboards, they may seem intimidating, but once you get comfortable with them, you’ll love ’em.

    Script

    How about a full-fledged script? For a 60-second commercial, a board is probably better, but for longer programs, a full script is often a good idea.

    Fiction movie scripts are laid out across the entire page, while informational programs are generally formatted in two columns, with audio on the left matched to video on the right. If you start to do a lot of script writing, Software packages (such as Final Draft or Screenwriter) are available for either style. Script typing involves tedious formatting, which these programs automate for you. For example, if you type FATHER once as a character name, the next time you head one of his speeches, typing F will automatically bring up the whole word. (If FRANK is another character, the software opens a drop-down menu with both names to choose from.)

    So there’s a flying survey of one-half the pre-production progress: blocking out the program you want to produce. The other half is production planning, and we’ll get to it in a near-future issue.

    Good shooting!

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