Pizza chef holding a cooked pizza
Time spent in commercial pre-production is always time well spent.

Here we’ll focus on the pre-production aspects of producing a video commercial. We’ll discuss all the steps that must be completed before you press your camera’s record button. Video commercial pre-production can be viewed as a four step process.

Step 1: Meet the Client

Do you have a favorite restaurant? Maybe you even know the owner. In this scenario, you could approach the owner and pitch the idea of helping to grow their business through video advertising.

Once you’ve successfully pitched your services, it’s time to sit down with your new client and discuss their vision for a video commercial — also referred to as a “spot.”

Once you’ve successfully pitched your services, it’s time to sit down with your new client and discuss their vision for a video commercial — also referred to as a “spot.” Maybe they envision advertising that consists of several shots of happy people eating at their restaurant. They know that the commercial should feel inclusive, so the people presented need to represent a wide range of individuals. Perhaps, the owner also imagines a short scene of themselves cooking then serving food, followed by a shot outside of the building with graphics that list the street address, website and telephone number.

Pizza on a wooden paddle.
A short scene of the owner cooking then serving food.

You want the client to leave the meeting convinced that their ideas have been heard. Listen carefully while taking notes or using an audio recorder. This is likely one of those times when listening is more important than talking.

Ending scene of the outside of the pizza restaurant.
Ending scene of the outside of the pizza restaurant.

Step 2: Write a Treatment

Let’s say that you and the client have agreed upon a basic concept for the commercial. Now, it’s time for you to write a treatment. Don’t panic. Some video production folks don’t see writing as their strong suit; in fact, it’s often the reason we are drawn to visual storytelling. The hard truth is that a video production company with one employee (you) has to be competent at both writing and video production.

A treatment is essentially a short summary that reads like a story and describes events as they happen. We are not talking about a script — that’s the next step. The treatment puts in writing the mutually agreed upon vision you and your client have for the commercial. You can present the document in writing or pitch it orally to your client. Take notes of any suggestions or changes they propose.

Step 3: Write the Script

Video commercial scripts are typically formatted in two columns. The left column contains directions for video and the right column displays information about the audio aspects of the commercial.

Typical visual information includes the framing of the shot and a description of the action. For example “a medium shot of a couple eating dinner” or “close-up of smiling child eating kale.” The script indicates camera movements including, pan, tilt, zoom, dolly and truck. The video column also describes visual effects like split screens, green screens, animations and textual information presented on-screen.

Typical visual information includes the framing of the shot and a description of the action.

Audio direction in the right column includes all the spoken words presented in the commercial — whether vocalized in dialogue or read by an announcer. Additional elements of the audio column include a description of the music and sound effects. Direction should also be given for the sound level of the audio, like fade-in or fade-out. If music is to be played quietly while an announcer speaks, this is referred to as a “music bed.”

A shot list — a literal list of all the shots that make up the commercial.
The last step of the pre-production process involves the compilation of a shot list — a literal list of all the shots that make up the commercial.

Here’s the critical question to ask for any script–if this script is handed to someone with little knowledge about the topic, will it communicate the information necessary to produce a commercial that is consistent with the vision of the scriptwriter? If the answer is “yes” then the script has done its job.

Step 4: Make a Shot List

The last step of the pre-production process involves the compilation of a shot list — a literal list of all the shots that make up the commercial. The source of the shot list is the script — a shot list entry might be “close-up of smiling child eating kale,” discussed earlier. Once on location, this document will make shooting more efficient, and assure that you don’t leave without capturing a piece of required video. This is especially important when a script calls for shooting at multiple locations.

Some producers create another pre-production document called a storyboard, which proves especially helpful in the preparation of a shot list. The strength of the storyboard is in its ability to visually present the script on paper.  A storyboard is made up of still images that sequentially represent each scene of the production — it’s similar to a cartoon strip. The image can be hand drawn or captured with a camera — the visual representation should impart enough information to describe the essence of the needed video and provide the basis for an entry in the shot list.

With the four step pre-production process complete, it’s time to schedule the shoot, then grab your gear and go capture some video. Like most of life’s tasks, planning done before the project begins often pays big dividends by increasing the quality of the finished product and reducing overall time to completion. Time spent in commercial pre-production is always time well spent.

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