Form ever follows function."

–Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924), U.S. architect.

Creation is easy for omnipotent superbeings. They contemplate for a moment inside omniscient super-consciousness and out pop entire worlds, brimming with all manner of flora and fauna.

But for the rest of us, creation begins with blank slate, a white piece of typing paper, a computer’s blinking cursor followed ominously by–nothing. Do whole worlds spring forth at our command? In most cases, no.

Where do great video ideas come from? You have to create them. Even if you hire a writer to put your script down on paper, you’re still responsible for the content. It’s up to you to tell the writer what kind of a script you want. How do you know what kind of format, or approach, the script should have? You don’t. It’s subjective. Every project is different.

What follows is a brief discussion of how to find the right approach for your work. Though this knowledge won’t make you into an omnipotent superbeing, it will help you when it’s time to choose a format to work with in your video projects. We can’t tell you how to have good ideas, but we can give you some pointers that just might jump-start the creative process.

Let There Be Video

This is where we get into the gray, fuzzy area that drives engineers and other logical thinkers crazy. They want to know: if A then B, if B then C. Most of the time, creation doesn’t work this way. It’s more like making a stew. You take all the information you have about a project and throw it into the pot (your brain). Let it simmer. Don’t put too much heat on it because you might burn it. After a few hours, days or weeks–again, it’s not an exact science–the idea will come to you.

Aha, you say, creation is easy. You just let it cook in your head and eventually it will pop out on its own. Except getting the ingredients for the stew takes an effort. It involves doing your homework.

The Learning Process

Let’s say you get a call from Amalgamated Widgets about a marketing video. You take a meeting with Joe Widget to discuss the project. You learn the purpose: to sell a new kind of widget; the intended audience: factory managers who use the widget in their processes; the method of distribution: the client will show it on large monitors at trade shows; and the length: five minutes.

You ask every question about widgets you can think of and take copious notes. You get copies of every memo, letter, press release, newsletter, advertisement or anything else that anyone has ever written about the widget which will be useful in your research. You take a tour of the factory and talk to the folks who came up with the new process for the widget. You take a prototype widget and sleep with it under your pillow.

By this time, you have widgets coming out of your pores. You should have plenty of clues about the form your video is going to take. Widgets are not inherently interesting. Therefore, the video will have to compensate in some way for this lack of excitement. You have learned that the intended audience of factory managers are no-nonsense people with busy schedules. This means that they want their information in a simple, straightforward manner, in a form that doesn’t waste their time. And you also know that the place where they will see the video (a trade show) is a noisy environment where hundreds of booths are competing for attention. This tells you that your video must grab the audience immediately in a way that doesn’t ask for a high level of concentration from the viewer.

Once all these parameters are in your brain, you can come up with a solution. Your video could put a heavy emphasis on beauty shots of widgets supported by words on the screen. If the video had a narrator, he or she would be off-camera, and the viewer might not be able to hear what they were saying. Therefore, all information that the viewer had to absorb would be visual.

Let’s take another example. Say your video is a travel piece, a personal documentary of your experiences on a family outing. The audience would probably be friends and family, sitting on the sofa at home and eating popcorn. An on-camera narrator might be just the thing to turn a boring series of travel shots into an interesting and fun way to relive your vacation.

You may want to create a video that will work in any situation. You could try to create such a thing, but it would probably be neither fish nor fowl. By trying to be all things to all people, the video would more likely be a mish-mash of information with no clear purpose. An audience may not know why a video bores them, or makes them angry–but that doesn’t stop them from being restless or perturbed.

The key to finding the right voice is to understand that form follows function. The underlying structure of the video should make sense in the context of the specific purpose of the video. Would you wear a tuxedo to go swimming at the beach…or a pair of Speedos to the President’s Ball? If the answer is yes, then rational arguments may not work in this case. Go for the irrational.

And remember: every video has a voice, whether or not it’s intentional. Regardless of your level of videomaking, your work will be more impressive if it looks like you put some thought into it.

Pick A Format, Any Format

There are no rules about when you have to use one type of format over another, but you will see that shows with similar content often have similar formats. We’ll look at some formats and explore where they might work.

The simplest format is the unseen narrator, or voice over. In this format, the viewers hear the voice tell them about what’s on the screen, while the video supports the information. Although uncomplicated, this format works well for many applications; and because it’s so easy, it’s usually the least expensive way to produce a video. Also, you can change the wording of the script right up until the talent actually records it. This may seem obvious, but there are other formats where this isn’t possible.

Another format that rivals the voice over for simplicity is the use of the on-camera expert. In this type of format, you set up the camera in a location and the expert goes through a procedure, explaining it as the camera follows their actions. Because the expert is explaining a process they understand well, there’s no need for a script. To finish the product, it’s only necessary to eliminate any "bad" takes in editing.

But changing such a show is tricky. If the expert decides long after shooting that they want to include a segment on a part of the machine that you didn’t cover, your choices are limited. You can go back into the field to shoot this segment, or you can "fix it in post." This may mean freezing the image of the machine and inserting a voice over that the expert creates during editing. Although this would work, the result would probably look like what it was: a fix-up, a patch. And it would take more time in editing to put it in.

This Face For Hire

An example of a format which calls for a lot of planning is the use of a professional on-camera talent. In this case, I’m talking about a spokesperson, someone who is only pretending to be an expert, so you (or the script writer) must create all the dialogue for the talent before they get on the set.

Let’s suppose you’re going to shoot a video for a professional client–a bank. You need to be careful who you get to be the on-camera talent for this project, because the audience would identify the spokesperson with the bank. Because of this normal association by the audience, it’s essential that the talent be as good as you can afford.

If the delivery of the spokesperson is unbelievable or sloppy, the audience will think the bank has these same attributes. An amateur often takes longer to deliver a speech with any degree of believability and they usually don’t know how to take direction. You don’t want to bet your video on the chance that you’ll find one of these gifted amateurs.

Good talent "sells" the information in a video. Because the talent is believable, the information they present is also believable. And the talent is usually a person who is either attractive or who has an interesting appearance. The audience enjoys watching them.

In a video where the subject doesn’t lend itself to visual presentation, the talent can help carry the program. Instead of sitting on a graphic for thirty seconds, you can stay on it for ten seconds and show the talent for twenty.

A note for the professional videomaker: whenever I have a script that calls for someone to perform the difficult duty of delivering copy directly to the camera, I try to hire members of the Screen Actors Guild. These actors often spend years on their craft before the union allows them to join. As a result of all this practice, they’re very good at what they do. By nailing the inflection, body language and prop handling in one or two takes, professional talent can pay for themselves in money saved on production time. But before you get your mind set on SAG talent, find out what this service costs. It isn’t cheap.

If the script has a certain style–funny, serious, sincere, hip, fast and bouncy, slow and melodious–good talent will usually pick up on this style and bring that to their delivery. It’s your job to know what the style of the video is, just in case the talent misses it and tries to put a happy read on your script for Buniel’s Funeral Parlor.

The Documentary Format

Often, when using the documentary format, the director will choose a subject and then shoot everything that pertains to it, within the confines of the budget. If the documentary is on the rare snow buffalo of the Arctic Circle, then it might take several years of sitting on icebergs to get enough footage to put a show together (possibly longer, considering the snow buffalo is imaginary).

Ken Burns created the unusual documentary format for The Civil War using period photographs, interviews with historians, dramatic readings of letters and quotes from the statesmen of the time. The photos were mostly black-and-white and the camera would rest lovingly on each for long periods of time. The description of this format makes it sound dull, but Burns’s genius was to recreate a time with music, sound effects and brilliant writing. If you believe in your subject and the format you choose is appropriate, anything is possible.

I’m Ready For My Closeup, Mr. DeMille

A dramatic format works well to illustrate points inside training videos, or to recreate bygone eras for historic works. It also works pretty well for dramatic or fictional productions. We’ll put into this category any script that uses people or animated characters who are pretending to be something that they aren’t.

I have worked on several videos for a corporation where the director had to show employees making mistakes. One video dealt with customer service. The first scene called for a secretary to answer a phone incorrectly, search for pen and paper to take a message, yell across the room and generally screw up. By hiring an actress to play this part, the director was able to create a comic situation through excess. The viewer could chuckle to themselves, but they also recognized that they had, on a smaller scale, made the same mistakes that the video exaggerated and dramatized. The humor kept their attention and it made them more receptive when the video showed the "correct" procedure.

To pull off a dramatic format, you need an excellent script and talented actors. Good direction also doesn’t hurt. I once judged a video competition and one of the entries used a dramatic format, but the script, acting and directing were painfully amateurish. The other judges did their best to remain passive while we watched the presentation, but after several minutes we all lost our composure and broke out laughing. Unfortunately, the video wasn’t a comedy. I suppose if the video had achieved its purpose, we might have forgiven the lack of skill in its presentation. It didn’t.

The message is this: be aware that if you try a format before you have the skills to pull it off, it might not work. If it’s a project you’re shooting just for your own personal enjoyment, such an exercise is a great way to learn. If you’re creating a video for a paying client, you might want to stick with a simple format until you gain more experience.

And Now, The News

A magazine format presents its information in the manner of Sixty Minutes or Entertainment Tonight. Each point that you make takes the form a short segment. A host can introduce each segment, and other talent can then "report" on the subject at hand. Coordinated graphics hold the show together, giving it a continuity of style.

This type of format works well to bring different kinds of information together in one package. Because the audience has often watched news shows where one story has no connection to the one that went before it, the director can jump to entirely new information without confusing the viewer. Also, because you present the information in short segments, the viewer’s interest should never falter.

Multiple Formats

You don’t have to tie your video to a single format, and in most cases you shouldn’t. In the case of the corporate video with the actress playing the "bad" secretary, an on-camera spokesperson introduced each scenario. This spokesperson was shot in a neutral setting (a studio) to set her apart from the dramatic vignettes. Near the end of this video, the format changed. The actors who had been shown in realistic settings were "interviewed" and their comments were put in as if a reporter was asking them questions from off-screen.

I have used a documentary format mixed together with MTV-style music video segments. I have used interviews with real people in the same show with voice-overs and graphics. I have seen every format used with every other format, and done successfully.

Do Your Homework!

The trick is to do your homework before you pick a format. Consider the purpose, the length and the intended audience of the video. If it’s a professional project, research the subject matter thoroughly and then let the information simmer in your brain. But even if you shoot video just for fun, your work will benefit from a little homework and forethought on the matter.

There may not be a perfect format for every video, but some work better than others. If your mind is cooking, you’ll know what it is.


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