Just about every video producer, rank and file, from first time beginner to award-winning professional likes to grab the camera and run, shooting whatever inspiration has seized the moment.
There are times when serendipity plays a role in our productions but more often than not we need to be a bit more prepared when we want to create a quality production. Otherwise, we tend to overlook or forget something crucial. Having a plan more often than not works better than guerrilla-style run-and-gun, especially if you're taking your video beyond the "reality show" environment, into a more polished presentation.
Six steps will take you from inspiration to "it's a wrap" without interrupting your creative flow. You might in fact find yourself better able to take advantage of a "serendipitous or inspired moment" with a solid outline that guides you through your production day or days. Speaking of reality shows, I hear most of those productions take a planned path to capturing the moment.
1. Practical Inspiration vs Your Muse
In our minds we often "see the whole thing" from opening title to closing credits - creative inspiration. We play and replay the whole scenario like a Star Wars, Titanic or Avatar production and think we can keep all those wonderful shots in our minds - right there, when the camera starts rolling. In reality we need to be more practical. Taking the time to simply jot down, if nothing more, a list of inspired shots helps us as the practical part of our inspiration moves front and center.
So, you first need to establish what you want to do and separate that from what you can do. Being practical about the possibilities will avoid disappointment and carry you to a finished production of which you can be proud of.
Ask yourself key questions. Can I actually pull this off? Can I afford it? Do I have the level of inspiration and commitment necessary to carry it through? Can I find the right talent? Locations?
Think about your goals for this video production. Is it for fun? Will it be basically a learning tool? Do I want to create something that will go viral on YouTube? Is this going to be a commercial production? A film festival entry? Will this become my demo show-piece?
Knowing your project expectations, writing them down and making decisions at the beginning will give you a sense of purpose and direction, not to mention the confidence, to take it all the way. Yes, be inspired but force yourself to be practical as well. You will need both in the face of possible upcoming adversity - those Murphy's Law moments.
2. Establish Your Needs
You've outlined your production. You're focused. But you still need to do a few things before grabbing your camera and start shooting. It's easy for some of us, to remember "camera, tape, battery, tripod, light" but other needs play an important role in pursuit of your Great Video Production. When we read the more than occasional account of forgotten tapes, batteries running dry in the middle of things and malfunctioning buttons, focus rings or connections, we realize even the basics can be overlooked.
Yes, you need a camera and its essential components. You also need redundancy of backup, extras of the items essential to the success of your acquisition. Establish the length of your production and know how much tape, portable hard drives, blank disks or solid state cards you will need. Even a tripod might not be enough. Will some of your shots require a higher level of mobility or stability? Will you need a camera stabilizing unit or perhaps just a monopod? A beanbag support and flexible cords?
There's a lot of needs that are not always so obvious even when you do sit and write them all down, but taking the time to think about and establish your needs will help avoid overlooking the tools essential to your acquisition success. What you are going to shoot and where, the weather or location climate , the time of day all have a bearing on what you will need and how much of it to bring along. Make sure your ditty bag and grip box have the essentials before heading out for your first day or hour of shooting.
3. Mixing it Up
You also need to know how you plan to present your subject before rolling tape. What I mean by this is you need to decide if your production is based on action, dialogue or a combination of the two. While an acting coach in a class I once attended stressed that "dialogue is action" you have to know how you want to present that. Determine if a talent behind a desk or sitting in a chair - your basic talking head approach - is sufficient or if you want to include reenactments, graphics or other titling in your production to enforce its audio and visual impact.
Are you going to go a documentary approach, using interviews, archival images with Ken Burns-style movement, on- and or off-camera narrative (voice over). Will it be casual or highly scripted with a need for complex dialogue? You might be going for strictly entertainment with lots of action, comedy, "dramedy" (comedy-drama) or bodacious special effects. On the other hand much of your production could be created in the computer with a host of CG elements.
There's a myriad of approaches beyond the above-mentioned: ENG (electronic news-gathering), newscast, the herkey-jerkey amateur style of the 2008 movie Cloverfield, perhaps a creative musical you've scripted and want to self-produce. The sky is the limit, so to speak but there are always practical limitations. See item Number 1.
Knowing the primary style you want to use doesn't mean you can't mix it up. You just have to be aware of what you want before the shooting starts and plan for that. While you're rolling tape you can bounce from one improvisational act to another at your heart's desire. Mixing it up might not endear you with any purists out there but you could become the next Matt Reeves, Rodriguez or Tarantino with your avant garde approach.
4. Do this Now, or Earlier
If you have serious dialogue, want to follow a tight production path for content and narrative you will need a script . Your script doesn't have to be formal or perfectly formatted, though that can help others in your production crew who might be more familiar with standard script terminology. A simple basic outline of what needs to happen when and what needs to be said when will keep your production focused.
Your script makes possible another important production/directing element and that is your shot sheet. This is a list of what has to be videotaped with or without audio to accomplish your vision, to satisfy your inspiration. Without a list - definitive or not - you will miss must-have shots and not recognize areas during production where you need to improvise, adding shots that establish a script and shot sheet can be mission critical. It can also come in earlier in the planning and development of your Great Video Production but I've found that following my inspiration, determining what I will need to make it happen and deciding what approach I want to take, what format, helps me better establish a script and from that the shots I will need to make it all come together.
You need to recognize situations like time of day, outdoors or in, daylight or nighttime, camera placement, location availability, weather conditions and a host of variables that will affect what you capture. These notes are easily placed alongside your described shots and will keep you alert to necessary improvisational changes. The production "big boys" have all this and more going into actual production but still discover the need for script additions, deletions or changes and have re-writes done mid-shoot. This isn't cost effective and can be wa-a-a-y counter-productive, but it happens. The more prepared you are going in, the more satisfied you will be with your production going out.
5. Bring it all Together
Are your first four steps necessary or even crucial to the success of your production? No. Just as there are writers who tell of a moment of inspiration that led to an all-nighter and a complete script or novel alongside the morning hot tea, there are occasional unique creative go-for-moments in video. No outline, research or planning. The occasion, however, is rare and nearly always not perfect. While perfection is a goal, not a destination, you know what I mean.
What will get you closer to a satisfying outcome from your opening moment of inspiration is planning your shoot. A few simple note cards with shot ideas and concepts listed might be enough for you, just make sure your batteries are charged. Taking a little extra time to prepare rather than impulsively attacking your project will keep you inspired and prevent that horrible moment when you realize you need to abandon the production or start over.
Look at advance preparation using the five steps above as what you have to do before you can have some fun. Doing so will make what you want to do not only fun but satisfying and successful. The more you plan first, the more flexible you can be when the good stuff starts making your production a joy rather than a job.
6. Revisit Your Muse
Creative chefs will come up with an amuse bouche "to please the mouth" - a tempting appetizer often supplied for free at the start of a meal. When all the planning is said and done. Even when you've called it a wrap, or not, you want something that will please the eyes and ears. This has a lot to do with the quality of shooting, lighting and audio you've acquired but it also has to do with deciding if you got what you were after. Has what you acquired given you the ingredients you need to accomplish your original vision? Come close? Or did it take a completely different but acceptable creative path?
Muses in Greek mythology are the goddesses or spirits who inspire the creation of literature and the arts. Blame your Muse or credit her with what you started out wanting to do and in the final analysis review your plans before shooting and after to see where it all wound up.
You will find that knowing what you want to do with your inspiration and determining its practicality, what you will need to make it happen, what you want it to look like and how you want to put it all together, will make your creative juices flow. This will be backed by the confidence that only planning can give. Video producers, like most people, enjoy surprises but prefer them to be the surprise party kind and not something that knocks them off the track en route to Great Video Production.
The ABC's of Planning
The different kinds of personalities, www.personalitypage.com/high-level.html (heavy reading) says there are essentially 16 personalities, but even accepting the ABC groups can define how we approach things. There's Type A, always in a hurry, impatient and often aggressive. Type B lives in the moment and doesn't mind waiting for the right moment to take action. Type C focuses on the future but takes the time to plan and research before making decisions. Simplified, of course, but this has a direct bearing on the steps you take toward Great Video Production.
Of course Type A will be more likely to run-and-gun, grab the camera and burst forth with thoughts and ideas raging in the brain and little planning or organization to go with pursuit of the production. Taking just a minute to realize this tendency will help those of us in this category to accomplish something more than a mix of impulsive shots. When inspiration hits use that first impulsive blast to jot down a one- or two-line description. Sleep on it for a night then look for your note. If you can't find the note or are totally under whelmed by what you jotted down, wait for the next burst.
Type B folks might enjoy a more methodical approach to things while still preferring to live in the moment. The good news is that you will likely have a package of 3x5 index cards and know exactly what drawer it is to be found. You can and will take the steps necessary to think about your project and write particular notes on a dozen or so, then check that your batteries are charged, ditty bag is complete and be on your way to shooting. A bit more planning or sleeping on the idea overnight might be helpful here, if for no other reason that it might encourage you to further script out your project.
Believe it or not there's a catch to being a Type C personality. Oh, you will plan thoroughly and probably already have story board sheets, a script writing program on your computer, all your equipment in a nice, logical place and ready for action. You will consider and re-consider your moment of inspiration before going any further. The trade-off comes when you over-plan or even take so much time and put in so much effort in making sure everything is accounted for that you never roll tape.
As with anything we approach, there are multiple ways to go about it. No one way is the perfect way and no particular way is wrong to the point of gross negligence - subjective viewpoint. Learn to accommodate your personality and tendencies while modifying your approach to video production to the point that it falls somewhere between impulsive acts and over-planning to the point of stagnation.
Earl Chessher is a veteran career journalist with more than 30 years experience who has produced thousands of videos and written about creating and marketing video for more than 20 years. His claims his overactive Muse sometimes visits hourly but rarely stays long enough to create a masterpiece.