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The Narrative Commercial Production Outline:

Development: Striking the Deal

I’m not going to spend time here on what happens before you have a deal.  Every business has their USP (Unique Selling Proposition) that lands its work.  Let’s acknowledge here that hard work goes into the agreement of a business that wants to get attention and the company that will help them get that attention.  In its simplest, development goes something like this:

  • Agency meets and cuts deal with client. 
  • Agency does research relevant to client’s needs/wants. 
  • Agency pitches ideas to client for approval.

Rarely, if ever, will this begin with a script like many feature film development stories do.  The starting point is, in most advertising cases, a desire to move a market to action (buying). The creative ideas come because of this desire.  

Pre-Production: Everything that comes before your shoot day

The Agency and the Production Company know they’re working together, and everyone is excited about the ideas they have batted around.  One idea rose to the surface as a favorite… It’s go time.  A chronology of the film production process flows like this: 

  • Scripting: 
    • A writer uses a professional writing program to craft a script based on development information.  This could be one script or many, depending on the scope of work. 
    • A client should have already approved the general idea of this script. There should be no major curveballs in relation to the overall concept.  Revisions are going to happen.  Iterate as needed. 

Note: If you can, involve your director now. Get info and feedback early.

  • Script Breakdown:
    • After approval, the things that comprise the complete script must be broken down and accounted for — locations, props, actors, effects, etc.  
  • Storyboard: 
    • People know this term and expect it.  The truth? Few projects ever have one. There are a few reasons for this:  1) they are misleading because actuality and the hand-drawn reality often have no way to reconcile.  This is largely due to budgets.  The bigger the budget the more you may want to consider a storyboard;  2) Unless there is time to iterate through revisions, a one-pass storyboard is not terribly helpful (and, again due to budget, most are one-pass); 3) Clients don’t often have a way of really getting it.  Sorry client-side marketing folks, but let’s get real for a moment.  How often are you consuming frame-by-frame visual media and extrapolating that into mental motion pictures?  If you think you’re doing it enough to keep up with the people who do it for a living, you’re probably lying to yourself.  If this makes you feel bad, just remember that we likely can’t do your job either.  I have a tip that may help if you find yourself in the charade of trying to internalize a script or storyboard that is not clicking for you: ASK QUESTIONS. Get the people on the creative side of the equation to explain, act it out, and give you visual samples of their own or other’s work to help illustrate an idea you’re struggling with.  Youtube and Vimeo are rife with top-notch examples of other people’s work that may help them show you what they mean by a scene direction or special effect note.  And, if they can’t handle showing you another group’s work as a quality sample, then they have an ego problem that you’ll have to watch out for through the process.  Just sayin’.

*TIP: Barbies.  I’m a father to two amazingly creative, storytelling daughters.  Their imaginative play reminds me often that the use of a puppet or a doll can actually tell a story.  If it comes to it, get dolls out to express ideas if you find yourself in a pre-pro story conversation that has not yet found clarity. Go to Walmart. Buy knock-off barbies. Tell the story (oh, and post it online later… I could use a good laugh and it always looks nuts when adults in an office do this).

  • Shot List: 
    • A shot list should be created.  This list is at the very least a scene-by-scene breakdown that has written information about the needs of each scene.  It’s a checklist to make sure every wide, tight, and OTS (Over the Shoulder) shot that the director may want is captured appropriately. 
  • Search and Schedule:
    • Remember the locations, props, and actors?  You need to find and book those now. 
    • Locations:  You must shoot somewhere – it’s either a studio or not but either way you have to find the right one(s) and book it. Public areas – streets, sidewalks, parks – will all likely need permits. Private areas are far easier to deal with.  
      • Don’t forget important location matters:  Where are the outlets? How much electricity can you access? Where are the bathrooms?  Where can you load in/out?  Are there any noise matters to know about – like construction that is scheduled? 
    • Props & Wardrobe:  Same story – find, buy/borrow/rent. 
    • Actors:  This is a process unto itself.  My favorite way to handle this is to use a casting director and just make approvals as I am sent samples that fit the parameters I requested. There are often auditions and layers of scheduling that must happen to even test these waters.
    • Meals & Crafty:  Everyone on set will need breaks for food.  Meals must be provided, and the custom on set is to have a “Craft Services” table that has healthy and snack foods that are easy and quiet to consume.  Pre-plan and book this. A tip: small shoots that are mobile can go out for meals but generally it is a bad idea. Have food come to you. 
    • Crew: Actors and locations are on camera.  You have to nail those down and be sure you have their availability matching.  Then you can book crew and equipment.  I have a crew that I prefer.  People I’ve built muscle memory with who are stellar creatives and they also have become my friends.  They are my go-to. But even they will tell me that if they can’t make the dates of my shoot work for them, I need to move on.  
  • Site Survey (Tech Scout):
    • Before filming can begin, the crew needs to see the location you will be filming in. This is called either a site survey or a tech scout. The purpose is for your tech crew to note critical things such as: available power, location of breaker boxes, access to fire suppression, size and location of windows and their sun exposures, ambient noise interference, etc.
      • Smaller productions often cannot afford this.  Substitute the onsite experience by having your location scout take ample photos of rooms, lights, outlet locations, and circuit breaker boxes.  
    • Frequently, this activity leads to a set of diagrams that notate where critical lighting and camera positions will be set according to the shot list.
  • Equipment: 
    • Prep any owned gear one or more days before the shoot.  Gear, if you don’t own it, must be brought in.  Rent and schedule the gear checkout day. If renting online, make sure to factor in shipping. 
  • Rehearsals:
    • Actors need to have a sense of what they are doing.  Directors need to see what’s what.  Key crew members ought to know what to expect.  Makeup artists want to see complexions.  Do a table read and, if possible, do it on location. Block action if you can.  Invite as many people as you can afford to pay and give them their chance to get information and offer feedback.  You can work out a lot of kinks upfront by doing this.  Unfortunately, this is often a luxury, but it is a luxury I strive for. 
  • Documents needed before shoot day:
    • Actor releases/contracts 
    • Location release/contracts
    • Crew contracts
    • Detailed Call Sheets (A call sheet explains each day’s schedule, when people must arrive, parking info, addresses of shoot locations, phone numbers and emails of all key players, etc.)
    • Security badges/forms if on a secure lot 
    • Insurance Certificates: GL (General Liability) and Workers Compensation. Disability Riders for said insurances may be needed to cover rented equipment, picture vehicles, and some projects demand Errors and Omissions.

Production: Lights Camera Action

A lot of groundwork has happened.  A foundation for a great production has been laid.  

Let’s shoot!

You’re likely expecting to find bullet points here but it’s not that easy.  You see that part in Pre-Production about Shot Lists? Yeah… that’s kinda your outline for your shoot.  You need to deliver on THOSE bullet points.  

What is likely more helpful is that I share a list of what is typically on set for a small/medium video production. 

People:  

  • Actors
  • Producer
  • Director
  • AD (Assistant Director)
  • DP (Director of Photography)
  • 1st AC (Assistant Camera Operator)
    • Small Sets: DP is Camera operator and is his own AC
  • Gaffers (crew focusing on lighting and electric)
  • Grips (crew focusing on support equipment)
    • Small Sets: Gaff/Grip often is the same person
  • Audio Tech(s) (this person often comes as an Owner/Operator package)
  • DIT (Digital Imaging Technician: the guy who backs up the camera and audio files)
  • MUA (Makeup Artist; this person comes WITH a kit of makeup and hair product)
  • Wardrobe 
    • Small Sets: makeup artist and wardrobe are often the same person
  • VFX Supervisor and team (if you have in camera or post-production effects)
  • Craft Services & Catering
    • Small Set Tip:  Fruit; Veggie Platter; Pizza; Little Debbie Snacks. Cases of H20
  • Location Manager
    • Small Set: it’s the Producer
  • Security
    • Small Set: it’s the Producer
  • PA’s (Production Assistants)
    • These are intern-level people, often college students, who have a desire to be on set and know the truth that they must pay their dues.  They WILL get coffee.  Return the favor and teach them something. 

Things:

  • All necessary lights, cameras, etc. (as per pre-pro)
  • Meals & Crafty (as per pre-pro)
  • Printed Documents:
    • Blank Releases
    • Copies of contracts (not the originals)
    • Scripts
    • Call Sheets
    • Shot Lists
  • Laptops
  • Pens/Pencils/Makers/Tape/Blank Paper
  • Cell Phone Chargers
  • Checkbook & Credit Cards
  • NEW company hard drives for DIT (2 or more)

Post-Production: The Edit and More

You had a great shoot.  You made some memories and are pretty sure you did a good job.  Now it’s time to prove it in Post!  

On the smallest of shoots frankly this is the part where one person inputs the data into their favorite non-linear editor (Adobe Premiere is the most common amongst the pros).  Even then, there is a process. It’s often bigger than a one-man show, so here’s a good guide to go by. 

  • Data Distribution
    • If you recall, there was a DIT guy and multiple hard drives on set.  One complete copy of the data goes anywhere but the office.  For my company, 1one copy in NY and one copy in FL is the minimum.  Whichever location is NOT using the data for the edit is the storage/backup location and this is NOT to be touched unless it is to make a third copy.  
  • Data Wrangling
    • The DIT operator organized your data into its final organization and this cannot be changed lest you undo the value of your backups.  The wrangling that must happen now is your editor needs to create files to store new assets like logos, color data files, auto-save files, export files, etc.  In my opinion, there are a lot of ways to handle this and its the editor’s choice as long as it’s clear, well organized, and becomes redundant on a daily basis. Redundancy in the cloud is preferable. 
  • Edit Process
    • Rough Cut
      • Your editor uses your script to rough cut the entire film.  This is often easy enough on small projects but in larger works, it may involve the director working to choose the best takes.  
    • Client Review 1
      • The rough cut can be shared with clients, but many clients can’t see a half-baked cake.  Use discretion. 
    • Fancy Rough Cut
      • This is a term I just made up.  If you think about how you’d present a commercial to a client, you’d likely not show them an unpolished mess, you’d show something you can smile over.  So, my advice is to add some temp music and sweeten the sound.  Do an ultra-simple color pass to correct anything that you think is distracting.  THEN you can share and chat.  
      • You need to show the customer this type of pass in order to confidently lock in your work. 
  • Music
    • There are many paths to the right music.  Sometimes you know the music upfront and are cutting your work to it.  If you’re so lucky to have Pitbull license a track to you, you’re using that track.  If you’re doing his music video… well, I’m surprised you’re reading this because you must be a fellow pro! Now, if you are dealing with stock music, often you’re at this newly-coined “Fancy Rough Cut” and out on a search. Where to find music is an entire blog that may be coming soon. Let us know if you want the skinny on great music resources!)  
    • A word about composers.  I’ve worked with only two composers on about five total projects.  In my experience this is a hit and miss experience.  One asked for reference samples and ran with them in brilliant ways.  He over delivered on quality, originality, and my vision.  Wonderful!  The other had an artistic bent that I can only liken to the merger of Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future’, merged with Mariah Carey’s public diva persona.  It was brutal.  Either way, you are a bit at the mercy of the person who is spending hours to create original work. It’s a risk and it’s time-consuming.  It’s also a potential part of the process that is in itself is iterative and takes time.  Worth noting, done. 
  • Voice Over & ADR
    • Automated dialogue Replacement or “looping” is a rare need and almost never budgeted for.  In the commercial world, this is often a repair job when audio went south on set.  It can happen. It’s ok, but it’s time and cost that usually can’t be recouped.  There are times when on-set noise is a reality of life – prepare for this need upfront to compensate. 
    • Voice Over:  Just like actors – this is a search for talent and a line item for cost.  This OFTEN happens in post.  You feel out the vibe of your work and then go hunting for talent.  Script and social cues (like the VO being a mom talking about parenting) often determine the gender of the voice actor. 
  • Edit
    • More passes to include the following:
      • Music
      • VO
      • ADR 
      • Graphics (which may need creation & animation)
      • VFX (which may be an iterative process by more crew. VFX can be is own creative beast and requires artistic supervision of its own.)
    • Review
      • Your client gets to review a finished video.  They are seeing your new additions, and, in a perfect world, this is what the client comments on.  They will likely show more people, and THIS is often a problem… here’s the issue.

CAUTION:  AGENCY/CLIENT RELATIONSHIP PITFALL

The contract you have between the client and the production house needs to state the parameters within which you are willing to revise.  A great way to handle this is that with every “review round” the client gets ONE pass at feedback and ONLY on the NEW CHANGES.  That means a story review pass in an early rough cut gets story comments. Once comments are made, the story is locked.  Then, when music is added comments on music are kosher BUT story changes are not.  And if they are needed, there may be a need to bill extra.  

I am a HUGE advocate of being a cool person who is magnanimous and goes with the flow.  Small tweaks that take 2 minutes? You got it.  A “small tweak” that takes an editor 5 hours?  That might not be the same thing.  But then again, depending on the scope of work and depth of relationship… It might be totally OK.  I suggest you prepare well on paper and then aim for awesome through the process… which includes awesomeness in the relationships you build along the way. 

  • Color
    • I’m a big advocate of not doing work that you’ll just have to undo later.  Color correction early in the process of editing is a bad idea. If there’s a glaring, distracting issue then you should take care of that early.  The sweetening of color that makes a bunch of edits from different angles – and even different camera models – feel cohesive can be done at the end.  I see people color correct first and it mystifies me.  They are either doing batch work which is not final, or they are wasting time as they will likely cut much of what they labored over.  Story first; color later. 
  • Export
    • This is the fairly simple act of rendering the video out.  For a client’s sake, know that the longer a video is the more time it takes to render.  It’s not too big a deal with reasonably straightforward work – lite-on CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), and simple colorwork. 
    • Renders get exponentially longer and more complicated as you ask computers to do more. Think Pixar — you don’t render Finding Nemo over lunch. 

Post-Post-Production: Distribution

Now you have a video. It’s done.  Phew.  Now what?

Likely you walked into the project with a plan:  TV ad, social media uses, YouTube pre-roll, etc.  

If you didn’t walk into the project with a distribution plan, that’s a big issue. That MUST be dealt with upfront – in development!  Don’t make a video to make a video.  Don’t. Ever. Do. It.  

Why waste your time?  Make a plan and execute on it.  

My two cents on distribution are going to stop there because there’s a whole world devoted to this topic.  Agencies plan it.  Trafficking departments do it.  The sales guy at your local station does it (of whom I am not a big fan because his incentives lie with his mission – place content on his channel first and always).  Every so-called social media expert has a plan and a theory on this.   Any one of these people or groups may have the answer to your distribution needs depending on your project, and more importantly your goals.  Bottom line is, it’s on you or the people you hire to have the incentive to help YOU first. 

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