Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Video: Stick to the Script

Shot list from Lie to You

This is a rant.

A while back I shot a video. I had a script all set with shot list, angles and all. But on the day of the shoot I deviated from the plan. I won't go into the details but the point is I deviated from the plan.

The problem with video is that execution is paramount. Unlike stills, you have much less latitude to fix stuff in post production. Furthermore, your camera angle is (or least should be) constantly changing. So you have to consider much more than your typical still image angle. Toss in proper storytelling and sequencing and you have a medusa monster that is infinitely deeper and more complicated than still imagery.

If you don't believe me, just consider the smallest Hollywood production versus the biggest Vogue production and how many people it takes to execute even a simple, small-scale, small budget film.

This is why the script is king. You gotta stick to the script.

Now when I say "script" I don't necessarily mean the dialogue. What I mean is the pre-production plan. The schedule. The shot list. The written form of how you are to execute the video.

Now I'm not saying that you don't improvise when improvisation is necessary. Because there will be times during the shoot you'll want to let a scene evolve organically. But if you do pre-production correctly, the script ultimately contains more thought than you could possibly conjure up on the day of the shoot. Proper pre-production means you'll have poured in all the time, sweat, blood, tears, effort, and consideration prior to the shoot. It should have resolved most if not all of the "what ifs" and "what abouts". Location scouting, storyboarding, casting, etc. are all such important pieces of the puzzle.

The problem is that most people want to just shoot. They skip the pre-production and try to resolve it in post-production. Only to find that their storyline has huge plotholes or that they've missed a shot here or didn't get enough footage there. Pre-production separates the mice from the men.

And the thing with good storytelling is that it should be easy to follow. The logic has to be sound. One of the problems that I've run into with my videos is that we (as producers) are so close to the storyline that we have a convoluted perspective of the project. We make false assumptions that the audience knows as much as we do. But when we test the video on a live audience we sometimes discover that there are gaps in their understanding because they've misunderstood/misinterpreted a part of the story.

Now that's great if there's room for interpretation, but if there's a specific message we're trying to convey, then we've epically failed as a storyteller.

For example, for one of my videos the opening sequence involves the protagonist coming out of a building with a bag full of money and jumping into the car with her lover. As producers we didn't think it was necessary to fill in the backstory about where the money was coming from and how it got into the bag because we neither had the time (to explain in video) nor the resources to execute a complicated heist. But in retrospect, without telling that part of the story, the audience has no idea that there is even money in the bag. To the audience, that black bag is just a black bag. It could be full of clothes. They don't know that there's money in it until later.

Actually that's just an example of poor pre-production.

A better example was that in one of my commercials for an apparel client, we totally neglected a shot that would have eased the transition out of the dream world that we created for the protagonist. Why didn't we shoot it? No good reason. Simply forgot. Didn't stick to the the scrip. It made it that much harder in editing to actually make the ending make sense though. The editor in me asked the simple question to which I had no answer,

"Why do you bother writing a script if you're not going to follow it?"

And what I've discovered is that many people in the world of film have specific roles. They're specialty is either front-end or back-end but rarely both. So when the DP neglects a shot, it's probably because he can't envision how it's going to edit because he doesn't take part in the post-production. And this is exactly why you have to take an active part in the entire process of either cinematography or photography, in order to have a holistic and grounded understanding of the art. For film it means being in pre-production, production, and post-production. For stills it means being in pre-production, production, and post-production. If it sounded like I just repeated myself twice, it's because I basically did. You'll keep making the same mistakes if you don't have a part in the entire process. Time and time again I see photographers make simple lighting mistakes only to have their retouchers correct it for them. Time and time again I've noticed that DP's don't have the final vision of how the story cuts and therefore don't have a good enough grasp of what shots are critical for the audience to understand the storyline.

So the point is. Do the legwork before the shoot. Write a good script. And when you shoot, just stick to the script. It's that easy.

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