You may be eager to get out there and start recording your next video masterpiece. But do yourself a favor. Plan out all aspects of your production before you head out on location.Let’s say that you’ve planned a location shoot at a restaurant so you can get some shots for a production. You told the owner you would be there at 3 p.m. Suppose you have some other shots to do in the morning at several locations. If you didn’t prepare a schedule, you have no idea how long any of them will take. Each shot will undoubtedly take longer than anticipated, you forgot to allow for travel time, the crew is hungry (don’t forget time for lunch!) and when you finally get to the restaurant, you are two hours late. The owner now has to take care of the dinner crowd and you’re out of luck.
You didn’t get into video to become a bureaucrat. You bought your camcorder and gear to watch your visions materialize, to breathe life into ideas, to create a piece of truth where moments before there was merely air. These are laudable goals. The problem, however, is actually achieving them. And that takes planning.
Your time is valuable. Spend it like you would spend money. To make sure you get the most value from your effort, you have to do some preparatory work before your finger hits the Record button. There is a saying in the biz, "Everything takes longer than it takes." That means that no matter how well you plan, something will probably happen that you didn’t anticipate.
You can minimize the pain by doing your homework. Many professionals spend as much as 90 percent of production time in the planning process. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for planning his films in such minute detail that he found the shooting process dull. He had already seen the movie in his head and the rest was mere mechanics. You may say, "Hey, I don’t want to be bored when I’m shooting," to which I say, "Is your name Hitchcock?" All right, then.
In the Beginning
If you’re serious about choreographing a video production from start to finish, you will need a script. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate document. In fact, it can be an outline scribbled on a napkin (although they have a habit of disappearing during lunch). Just make sure that the script helps you understand what needs to be shot and it will do the job.
Work with "split-format" (audio/video) scripts and "film-style" scripts. Split-format scripts are ideal for short projects, like 30-second commercials or industrial videos, while film-style scripts lend themselves to dramatic productions. You can easily use your word-processing program to set up a table and create a script that looks like Figure 1a. The same script done film-style would look like Figure 1b.
If you plan to write for the film industry, this format must be absolutely perfect or your manuscript will be tossed without a second look. There are software programs available that can make this process easier (See the Film Script Software sidebar).
Shot by Shot
Once you’ve written your script, you can begin to plan like a pro. First, break the script down into shots. In our example, we have three shots: one, a mailman walks up; two, close-up of a dog, and three, the dog attacks the mailman. Now it’s time to create the next document in our bureaucracy of video, the production schedule.
Using the schedule will help you during planning in many ways. You will know approximately how long it will take to shoot shot sequences, what props and equipment you will need, how many crew members to bring and when to break for lunch.
It can be helpful to take the split-format script table we illustrated earlier and add some more columns to it. As you can see, planning is all about detail. The script should tell you everything about each shot. Using this information, you can create a production schedule to illustrate how much time it will take to achieve the script’s needs. The far-right column indicates times for each shot. Here are some rules of thumb that will help you put numbers like this to your own schedule.
Stop or I’ll Shoot
Once you have a script and production schedule, you’re ready to shoot, right? Nope. You will need to create an itemized shooting schedule.
Shooting schedules look a lot like production schedules except for one crucial difference. All shots from one location are grouped together. This simple phase can potentially save you more time than anything else in this article. Why is grouping shots so important? Because returning to a location not only wastes time, it also sends a signal to your crew that you are not in control. And that’s a real confidence buster. Let’s say you are shooting at a location and trying to remember all the shots you need in your head. You finish, strike the equipment, get in the vehicle and start to drive away. Then it hits you. You didn’t get the closeup. Arrrgh! Turn around, unload everything, set up the gear and get the shot. Now look at your crew’s faces. Do they love you for the extra effort that you have just caused them to endure? Or are their faces red with smoldering hatred? If this scene is repeated over and over, a volunteer crew will probably not return for more. And a professional crew will probably not trust your judgement on other aspects of the video production.
Now you have a script, a production schedule and a shooting schedule. Keep a copy of each of these documents in a single notebook when you go into the field. You will probably work mainly from the shooting schedule. Cross-off shots as you finish them and keep track of the best ones by writing down the time-code number next to the shot on the shooting schedule. This will help you find the shot when you sit down to edit. If your recording device doesn’t have time code, you can note which tape (or digital media) the shot is on and the amount of time that has been used on that media. This is not as precise as time code (where each frame has a unique number) but can be helpful.
Keep a copy of your script with you in the field; just carrying the shooting schedule is not enough. On the shooting schedule, the shot’s location is the most important element, but you often need to know how the shots are going to work together in the real script. This way, you won’t shoot two shots that are too similar to each other (a head-to-waist shot of the talent, for example) and try to edit them together later. Such an edit can make the talent appear to jump from place to place (which was fine on Bewitched, but might not be the effect you’re looking for).
Put it All Together
If you have done your homework and kept good notes during shooting, your editing process should go much more smoothly. This is harder than it sounds, because working in the field can be like being in battle, with problems and unforeseen obstacles flying like bullets. (You’re trying to get audio while in the flight path of the airport; or you need blue skies and it’s starting to rain.) However, let’s pretend we live in a perfect world and all has gone well.
Editing is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. If you know where all the pieces are before you start, you will save yourself a lot of trouble, which translates into time. If you create a simple show with straight cut edits, you can figure that each minute of finished program will take you about an hour of editing time. If you plan to use wipes and special effects, double the estimate. If you want to experiment while editing, triple it.
Make sure you have everything you need when you go into an edit. Will you use a voice talent to narrate the show? Have it done before you start. Are you identifying on-camera interviewees with titles? Make sure that you know how to spell their names.
Taking a video from start to finish is a big undertaking. It’s best to know what you’re getting into before you invest your money and time. With a good plan, you will not only have more fun during the process, you will have a good chance of actually getting the darn thing done and that’s the best plan you can make.