I’m sure that there is some poor, recently graduated culinary student out there somewhere right now who is eagerly awaiting their first real order. What will it be? Creme Brulee, Baked Alaskan, Smoked Eel? This is the moment that they have been waiting for: clean smock, crisp tove, pressed checkered pants, and brand new comfy black shoes with non-slip treads. And the order is (drum roll, please) a hot dog, a plain, boiled hotdog, and the customer doesn't want any seasoning, not even a dollop of Grey Poupon! Wahoo, years of study to serve up something so simple that an eight year old could do it with their eyes closed.
Mary Poppins said “in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap! The job's a game,” but I’m not sure that Mary was ever tasked with the production of hundreds of talking head videos. Oh but you say, the speaker is so knowledgeable, the information is so relevant, the facilities are so modern, we’ve spent so much on that new camera, etc. that we must have a video!
Sixty Minutes Producer Don Hewitt would ask himself when evaluating what to air, why would anyone possibly want to watch this? If he could not come up with a convincing answer the project went into the round file, regardless of the investment loss. His staff often disagreed, but no one could argue with the Neilsen ratings.
Video productions can either be starships that carry us to new vistas or shiny, used AMC Pacers that offer novelty and performance but leave us feeling gypped and eager to bale out.
The things that can be done well via video can be done very well, but there are some things that video does not do well. Attempting to do with video what it does poorly is simply stupid. Err, uh, I meant to say inadvisable. Here are a few good tests:
Show Me, Don’t Tell Me
When someone comes to me with a video idea, I want to know if whatever message that they want to convey could be communicated with very few words. If the answer is “yes” then the discussion can move forward.
Is the message complicated?
This doesn’t have to be a complete deal killer depending on the audience, but generally most successful videos must have a very simple message, story-line, and plot. Early filmmakers didn’t understand this rule, and consequently many aspiring filmmakers are required to study “great classics” like the 1927, 5 ½ hour version of “Napoleon” by Abel Gance. It was an amazing undertaking and remarkable achievement for a silent film during that era but is very difficult to sit through in one setting. Francis Coppola & Robert A. Harris, the current owners of the film are in the process of restoring it to it’s 6 ½ hour run time for theatrical release in 2017. Call me ADHD, but I don’t think I have it in me to sit through it!
Many beloved novels have been turned into films by streamlining the story or by creating a mini-series. One of my favorite serials is the BBC 2005 version of Charles Dickens' “Bleak House.” Like I said, “complicated” doesn’t mean it can’t be done but it will require extra care in order to be done well.
Is the story really worth telling?
Yes, it’s interesting, but is it that interesting? And has it gone through the right type of refinement to move it from the “good” column to the “great” column. Consider your audience, do they want, need, or could they be convinced that they need what you are “selling”. This is where the art of storytelling really comes into play in much the same way that it did when Jesus shared parables. You may be able to lead viewers to a deeper place once you have captured their attention but most viewers have been spoiled and expect something captivating to happen very frequently.
Do we have the resources to do it well?
While there is something to be said for doing the best that you can with what you have, it is difficult to see something look so beautiful in your vivid imagination and compare it with what you are actually able to create. I’ll provide you a very personal example. Shortly before a good friend of mine passed away he shared an amazing true story with me that he was researching for a novel. The tale contains all of the elements of a great story...a young working class boy who goes to sea, has a transforming experience and achieves in a few short years what others failed to do in the course of a lifetime, and at the same time he was opposed by the established powers. His life’s work allowed the Word of God to be placed into the hands of common people in their own language. In order for me to do a story like this one justice it would require period production of great expense and even with great frugality and efficiency, and the use of computer generated sets, etc. it would be a several hundred thousand dollar production. So, I may never see this amazing adventure turned into a dramatic theatrical release but I may be able to scale back my vision and create an interesting and informative documentary with a more realistic budget of several thousand dollars.
Is video the best medium?
If the message is complicated, technical and multifaceted, or very abstract, print with illustrations may be a better way to communicate. But there is something to be said for reaching those who are a potential audience but who are much more likely to watch a video then they are to read. Is is possible that a good audio recording with sound scaping would achieve the same objective? Many people who don’t make time to read will still work in listening to audiobooks while they do other things that don’t demand their full attention.
So, you’ve considered all the tests above and you still say a video would be beneficial…
Even if the final production is revised a 100 times, starting with a script is invaluable. Scripting an idea is a very good indication of just how serious you are about turning it into a real production.
Create a Storyboard
You might be surprised how many really great ideas are developed as the story is illustrated. Character and plot introduction and development, pace, casting, location scouting, production team communication, etc. are all aided by storyboarding. Involving others in this step and repeating this step until the story is refined is invaluable.
Finding the Right Team
Frank Capra believed that the moods and comradery of the cast and crew left its indelible fingerprints on the production. His resolve was that happy sets are necessary for the creation of good movies. He noted that he saw troubled productions that would fool critics but they would never be well received by the general audience. I believe that there are subtle nonverbal cues that bleed through, so as much as possible it is very important to look for unity and enthusiasm when selecting a team. The process is as important as the product, even if you are paying for services, many people are investing a portion of their lives to help you move your idea from the realm of concept to reality. If you achieve comradery the impact will be evident in the final production.
Many creatives understand that works are often “due” before they consider them “done” but somewhere in the mix someone needs to keep the production on a schedule. Wise managers will leave margins for error, accidents, technical problems, and acts of God. I have worked very hurried production schedules and had to leave some of the best shooting opportunities behind me. I have also experienced the pain of spending hours and hours in post correcting problems that could have been avoided in a few minutes in the field if the shoots were not rushed. Unfortunately, those who bring the money to the project or who are responsible to see that the money is spent efficiently can contribute to these types of errors.
The Ultimate Payoff
Capra used to make an audio recording of the audience reactions at his initial screenings and then sync it to the film. In review, he often revised the final edit of the films. Having the opportunity to see the impact of your creative work on an audience, moving them, challenging or perhaps spurring them to action can be hugely satisfying.
Just as our young chef is dependent on the customers that place their orders, media professionals must embrace the symbiotic nature of creative production. Even the rare one-man-band types like Tyler Perry who write, produce, direct, and act in their own works have to forge a working relationship with others in order to achieve their dreams. So, they must endure the order of a few boiled hotdogs and trust that they will still have an opportunity to serve up several gourmet meals!
Don is a producer and media consultant. He has worked around the world on various video productions. Don and his wife Lori have thirteen children. And yes, you are correct; Don does not need sleep.