Why Planning Ahead Doesn’t Have to Stifle Spontaneity

Every video created needs to tell a story but that’s not possible without some form of planning ahead. Filmmaking is an art, and like any artistic medium, people go into it expecting some form of spontaneity. As with drawing or painting, the ability to let your creativity flow freely onto the canvas is an idea many filmmakers try to capture when shooting their projects. The problem is, every video you create needs to tell a competent story from beginning to end. Without some form of pre-planning in place, a story will suffer dramatically. Some people feel, however, that the act of planning ahead can stifle the creative spark, but this isn’t the case. Planning ahead doesn’t have to put an end to the spontaneous artist inside you. 

Don’t Shoot From the Hip

There are plenty of filmmakers who thoroughly enjoy the pre-production phase and planning everything out in detail before the cameras begin to roll. However, there's also a large group who struggle with the concept of planning everything out ahead of time. Rather than map everything, they want to get the story recorded and let the creative spark guide them throughout the shoot. 

Every video needs to tell a competent story from beginning to end. Without some form of pre-planning in place it will suffer dramatically.

It’s a novel idea but altogether flawed. While it’s possible to create a video in this manner, the amount of headaches involved aren’t worth it in the long run. Video production and filmmaking is about telling a story, or getting a point across, and every shot used should be designed to enhance it. This is where shooting without a plan becomes problematic.

You could be wasting a lot of time that would be better put to use rehearsing with your cast and setting up gear. When everyone is ready to go you don’t want to be standing around going, “Hmm” and “Ahhh” trying to figure out where to get started.  It’s time-consuming, costly and will make others question whether or not they want to work with you again in the future.

Even a plan as basic as “I need two wide shots of this action, a couple medium shots of the secondary action and then a close up,” is better than no plan at all. While it's simple, this plan still gives you a roadmap to work from, allowing you to get started quickly once you arrive on location. Regardless of the depth of your shooting plan, having one is pivotal to any project you have – big or small. 

Planning for the Unexpected

Inspiration can hit at any point during a shoot.  Even if you’re a meticulous planner, with every shot mapped out in advanced, there will be times when creativity strikes you in a powerful way. This happens frequently when shooting outdoors, as the beauty of nature can get the creative juices flowing. New camera angles may present themselves or the location may offer a better spot to record your video from than the one you planned on. This doesn't mean you need to throw your plan out the window, nor should you be so strict in your plan that you ignore those impulses. Instead, it's a simple matter of adjusting your plan to fit your new vision.

Say you’ve found a better location to shoot from. Your shot sheet can remain largely intact since the types of shots you capture won't need to change. Angles obviously need to be adjusted, but a wide shot is a wide shot regardless of where you shoot it. Without some kind of plan in place, changing locations means having to figure out your shots, framing, re-blocking and everything else, all at the same time.

Never ignore the creative inspiration that comes to you; it could be the difference between a good video and something amazing. But if you don't have a plan in place, you won't be prepared to take advantage of the new opportunity. This is especially true of shooting outdoors, where the lighting and surroundings can change from moment to moment. The extra time spent framing and deciding which shots to record could mean the location is no longer what you wanted. Instead of getting down to business, you've been wasting time. 

Telling a Story

Not every project needs to be treated like a big budget affair; using detailed call sheets, timetables and full shot maps. Every video, however, should tell a story or have a point you want to get across. For this reason, it’s crucial to have a plan in place for how you’re going to spend time while out on location. The last thing you want to happen is to draw a blank when it’s time to begin shooting. Imagine bringing all your cast and crew to a location only to make everyone stand around waiting for inspiration to hit you. 

Even a short Vine video is meant to tell a story. It may be nothing more than a joke, but the video still has to set things up before the punchline – physical, or verbal – lands. While this doesn’t coincide with the traditional way people think of a story, it still serves a purpose for the audience.

If a video lacks purpose, you’ll be hard pressed to find an audience willing to watch it. People need to know there’s a point in taking time out of their lives to watch something, even if only for a few seconds. Without a sense of purpose behind your videos, the likelihood of people watching anything else you create decreases dramatically. If they feel you've wasted their time before, they're not going to give you a second chance.

Telling a story of any kind isn't possible without some form of planning ahead. After all, if you don't know the purpose of your own video while shooting it, how can you expect the audience to figure it out? Planning ahead ensures you're giving viewers something worth seeing, which in turn means they'll be coming back for more. 

Basics of Shot Design

Another reason to plan out your projects is because no matter the scale – Vine video, sporting event coverage or a short film – in order for it to be effective, it needs to stick to the basics of shot design

A grid overlay on the camera display showing the rule of thirds.
Upper photo showing the top of a girl’s head cut off. The same photo below shows her chin cut off.
If a video doesn’t follow the principles behind framing a shot, it’s tough to get your point across to the viewers. Rather than paying attention to the video's content, they’ll focus on how rough it looks.

A grid overlay on the camera display showing the rule of thirds.
A grid overlay on the camera display showing the rule of thirds.
Planning ahead alleviates this issue, ensuring you follow composition basics when it comes to your shots. Basics like not crossing the axis of action, proper headroom and the rule of thirds shouldn’t be ignored and can elevate your video above the others you’re competing against. Without thinking of your composition ahead of time, or having a general idea of what you want, you’re likely to end up with wavy camera movement and a weaker overall video. Poor production values aren’t going to land you scores upon scores of followers, but pre-planning will resolve that problem.


Three frames of geese at a pond showing different shot types.
More than composition, the story you tell isn’t nearly as effective without a variety of differing shots.  From wide, establishing shots, to attention grabbing extreme close-ups, every video needs a range of them. They draw viewers in more effectively and establish the overall pace for your video. Without variety, videos quickly become boring, and audiences will lose interest before you have a chance to grab them.

A plan as simple as writing down a list of the shot types you need ahead of time is an easy way to get plenty of coverage for your video. It doesn’t have to be as detailed as a shot sheet, but it’s enough to keep you thinking about the essential basics of filmmaking throughout your shoot. 

Shooting for Show vs. Editing

In the expanding world of viral videos there are some projects that may skip the editing process entirely. While this goes against the grain with some people, as filmmakers and video producers, it's vital that we adapt to the changing trends of the medium. The rise of Vine, Instagram and others have created a new generation of short form media specifically designed to be quick and to the point.

These kinds of projects are ‘shoot to show’, meaning they’re recorded and posted online without any form of post production in between. Shooting to edit is the more traditional way of recording, but taking copious amounts of footage for a six second video isn’t advisable. Even these quick videos are meant to convey a message to the audience and I would argue it’s more important to plan ahead for them since “fixing it in post” is no longer an option. 

Say you’re heading outside to film your friends doing incredible Parkour stunt work and you only want to capture a handful of tricks and share them online. While this type of video doesn’t necessarily require a bunch of forward planning, at the very least you want to make sure you’re framing the shots before hitting record. It’s a shoot-for-show kind of project, so it’s crucial to make sure you have a plan of some kind in place before recording. Even with such an interesting video topic the impact could be lost on viewers due to your poor choices in shot design. 

Tossing the Plan

Like the rules of filmmaking itself, there's always exceptions to be made, and sometimes you'll discover the need to toss your plan out the window. It's not something that should be taken lightly, because it's still important to have an idea of what you want to get out of your video project. However, some circumstances may prevent you from utilizing the plan you had.

Take the Parkour video we mentioned earlier. Perhaps you intended to shoot outside, but the weather conditions weren't ideal, the equipment you’re using isn’t what you expected, or your crew is less than your plan called for. Experience plays a large factor in determining when it's okay to shoot 'from the hip'. If it’s your 100th Parkour stunt video compared to your first, it’s more feasible for you to rely on your instincts and what’s worked for you in the past, rather than sticking to a meticulous plan.

The main point we’re making here, is that regardless of what happens when you’re on location or filming from a set, a cinematographer needs to be flexible. Rigidly adhering to a plan, simply because it's there, can be almost as detrimental as having none at all. 

The Balance Between Vision and Function

Making an engaging video that garners you the right kind of attention requires work and effort to be put into it. Even with smaller projects, you want to make sure your message is conveyed accurately. Making plans ahead of time will ensure the filmmaking basics are followed so production values aren’t holding you back from your full potential. However, it’s important to listen to those artistic inspirations and adjust your plan accordingly. A good balance means your spontaneity, or creative spark, is never stifled, but you’re always presenting the best video possible for the world to see. 


Using Vine to Show Off Your Skills

Shooting a video for Vine is a great way to garner attention for yourself and your projects in a very quick amount of time. Fortunately uploading a video is as simple as downloading an app on your smartphone, hitting the upload button and selecting the video you want. It's downright scary how easy is it now to share your work with the rest of the world. Because of this, it's more important than ever to be aware of the content you're shooting. Even when shooting on your phone for a quick Vine upload, framing and composition are essential but impossible without some sort of pre-planning.

If you're using the platform to expand your presence in the online world and gain interest in your larger projects, even these quick videos need to show off your potential. Planning ahead will ensure you present your best work, regardless of the length, and can make your shooting to uploading timeframe shorter.

Jordan Maison is an editor and VFX artist whose plied his talents in Web content for Disney Studios as well as movie and videogame websites.

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