The Production Process
So, you’ve decided to commission a video to enhance your web site, add authority to your presentations and/or adorn your Reception area. You’ve done your due diligence, asked people you trust for recommendations, checked out some web sites, show reels and testimonials, allocated some time and a budget and are all ready to go. The foundation of any good film is a successful pre-production stage, when you and the production company get to know each other, preferably over decent coffee and all the steps are put in place for a film that can have a real and lasting impact on, and in your business. The story starts here.
RESEARCH & DISCOVERY
Getting a proper feel for any new client or product, either before pitching for a project or after commissioning is essential. Every company and communications task is different. It helps to guide and define the personality of the business that we need to project, as well as the kind of information to be conveyed in the finished film.
Before our first meeting we would typically ask our client to e-mail any information that they believe is relevant to what we need to communicate. This could take the form of web links, briefing or research documents, presentations, press releases or marketing literature PDFs. It’s also useful to know if there is a defined delivery deadline and at least a ballpark budget. Deadlines focus the mind and will affect cost. An indeterminate delivery date can make it difficult to quote accurately as there can be more opportunities to revise the approach during the production period. Generally deadlines are a good thing, so everyone knows where they stand.
IT’S GOOD TO TALK
Whilst solid written background information is invaluable it will never replace a telephone or preferably face-to-face meeting. To create the right impression of a business you need to get to know them. Making a film is a collaborative process and the openness and chemistry in the relationship has to be there from the outset. We’ve been told that our ability to grasp a product formula is astonishing and that we sometimes get to know clients better than they know themselves. Those are compliments we like – as a production company it’s our job to understand a product or business from the inside out so we can project it in the right way. That means getting to know the audience and competitors as well, so we can pitch the message exactly at the right level.
For the launch of a piece of new technology it is often invaluable to talk to the designers or engineers behind it. They have lived and breathed the product for a long time and along the way have had to overcome obstacles and solve a whole series of technical problems to meet customer needs. That gives them a unique and usually very illuminating insight. Similarly time spent in conversation with the sales team is invariably time well spent. They are at the sharp end, encountering any barriers to sales every day so their opinion has real resonance.
For a consumer audience we also need to know if there is any existing relevant research that might guide the way we approach the film – What are people looking for? How are your competitors addressing their needs? What does your product do that gives it that elusive edge?
MEET, GREET, OBSERVE
If we are working on a brand film or internal communications piece, the brief really comes to life when we start to meet people from all levels across the business. Chatting to a Receptionist, having a guided site or factory tour or listening in to calls in a customer contact centre can be just as valuable as interviewing the MD about his or her vision. Just as with consumer marketing, in a B2B environment the customer perspective is also vital – what do your customers really think about you? Can the film help to reinforce perceptions or remove misunderstandings? Our independence means people tend to open up to us in ways that they would not necessarily with someone from a client’s own business. It can make for fascinating and frank research – not just for the film. This information, together with any relevant quotes, can be fed back to the client in the form of a research highlights report.
EMBRACE YOUR NEW CONSULTANT
The MD of one high profile hospitality business described us as “like really good, less expensive management consultants – and at the end of it all I get a film!”
Because we have worked with literally hundreds of organisations across a wide range of market sectors and our work is usually deadline driven with a tangible, measurable result at the end we tend to get to know businesses more quickly, more instinctively and maybe less formulaically than most management consultants. We really value this and so do our clients – that way the videos we produce as their production partners becomes integral to the business strategy and can help define the real ethos and ambition of the business.
The process of commissioning and making a film should really help you to gain a different insight into your own company, if it doesn’t and you find yourself having to constantly tell the production company what to do maybe you are not getting the service you deserve.
NAILING THE BRIEF
The production company should send you a comprehensive contact report from all the key early research meetings. This will be the basis of the creative brief and is the beginning of a series of checks and balances that will ensure you end up with the film you want, so you need to check it through, correct any inaccuracies and the creative stage can then begin. Bear in mind that all this could happen in days rather than weeks. Our current record for production of a finished, approved and distributed corporate film for a new client, including shoot and all post-production from initial brief to delivery (for a conference in the USA) is 7 days (including a Bank Holiday), although admittedly this is kind of tight!
By this stage too you should have an outline production schedule, showing all the approval stages so you can make sure that those who need to see the project at each stage of delivery are available to provide their input and sign off. The ability to use the Web to work remotely has become essential here. We recently completed a corporate film for a client based in France, working in tandem with colleagues in California. Following an initial pitch via teleconference and an online Keynote presentation the whole job was approved and delivered remotely with various storyboard, script and edit uploads for review and approval anywhere in the world.
Typically we would now offer 2 or 3 alternative creative treatments, approaching the same communication task in different ways. These may be purely written or also storyboarded by an artist. Some directors might offer “mood boards” or “mood reels” compiled from the Web to illustrate an idea but our preference involves a reassuringly middle aged man with an array of magic markers and the God-given talent to visualise a treatment or script – George, our storyboard artist. It’s a tried and tested method – and it means that whilst the client can clearly see the journey the film will take, they are not getting a false impression of how it might ultimately look. The treatments will reflect a style of film or television you will recognise – using visuals only, actors, models, presenters or a combination of any of the above. The approach taken will depend on the individual job and budget.
So this is it. The point at which you instantly fall in love with, and commit to one of the treatments or, as sometimes happens, an amalgamation of two. Alternatively, the treatments might highlight a previously unforeseen misunderstanding of the brief, maybe due to a commercial initiative or reality the production company were simply not aware of. In this case you should call them in, explain the issue and give them the opportunity to re-think. It’s all part of the “getting to know you” phase and the earlier something like this is addressed the quicker everyone can make progress.
Assuming however you are happy with a treatment, the production company should by now have enough information to finalise the budget. Any treatment should of course in any case have been compiled in line with your ballpark budget guidance. Inevitably there will be tweaks or refinements to make, but the budget and the creative concept should go hand in hand. There is little point in presenting and being sold on a particularly high-end approach if financial reality demands something much simpler. Sometimes the simplest ideas work the best and a good production company will always try to come up with a solution that is driven by practicality as much as an original creative spark. They should also have a proven, thorough budget system – ours is based on a 10-page spread-sheet, regularly reviewed and refined to reflect the changing production scene.
So, if agreeing the brief and budget is the first of the approvals you’ll be asked for and the treatment is the second, finalising a script is the third. If you are making a documentary style film with a voice over this may not actually be the final script, but rather a shooting script that will dictate the scenes that need to be filmed. If it’s a drama or presenter-led film then any dialogue or pieces to camera in the shooting script will need final approval – whilst we can usually make changes to voice over narrative quite late on in the process, we can’t change what actors or presenters say in front of camera.
Sometimes the first script we present is very close to the final script, but typically there will be 4 or 5 redrafts that need the approval of a number of key people. The script itself, if written for a voice over will be laid out in two columns, with Vision on the left and Sound or narrative on the right. If we have gone for a drama based approach it will look more like a film script, with the dialogue identified for each character running right across the page and notes to suggest the action.
We always prefer to present finished creative treatments and scripts in person – if a script is actually read through out loud, ideally alongside a complete storyboard it makes a big difference to simply seeing it on the page and you can begin to get a real feel for how it will engage and inform your audience.
PREPARING THE WAY
With the script approved, hard working and far-sighted members of the production team will have been quietly lining up shoot dates and assessing locations, cast and crew availability in the background. Any good production company is the creative and administrative hub for a much wider network of skilled technicians and professionals – directors of photography, camera operators, sound recordists, production assistants, data wranglers, runners, make up artists, props stylists, casting directors and many more. The best of them tend to have busy diaries so the earlier you can pencil dates with them the better. Similarly with locations – it’s important to be able to recce where we will be filming well in advance so any potential problems for access, power, sound, lighting and so on can be identified and addressed ahead of the shoot, saving stress and precious time on the day. It’s always nice to meet the people we will be working with on location too. The prospect of having a film crew around can be a little daunting, but if you can make contact first and reassure them that it really will be all right and actually should be fun it makes a world of difference. We like it when people thank us for making it easy for them on a shoot – it’s important to bear in mind that everyone has their jobs to do and if people feel confident that your time with them will be both painless and efficiently managed that really is reflected on what ends up screen. We’ve filmed around the world in all kinds of locations – from factories to castles, luxury hotels to busy shops. Wherever we go we usually manage to make friends – maybe it’s our easy-going northern charm, or just saying “thank you” a lot. Whatever it is we are well looked after a result and everyone involved gets to enjoy the experience, making the job for our client that little bit better.
If we need a specific kind of location, for instance a house or apartment to shoot a home interiors film or a drama sequence we may need to use the services of a location finder who will already have a list of possible locations based on our brief. One commercial shoot we filmed last year included three different types of doorway, all of which we were able to film on one street with very amenable and friendly residents, thanks to our resourceful location finder. Result: a comfortable, efficient filming day that helped save time and money.
A number of possible location photographs will be taken and shared with the director and the client, before being narrowed down for the director to visit in person and make their considered choice.
IF THE FACE FITS…
Casting is another essential element in the pre-production mix. If you are choosing one or a number of actors or models to be the public face of your business the way they look, sound and act on camera matters a lot.
Sometimes a job calls for a known TV personality or actor. We have even written scripts with specific people in mind to help make the story more memorable (ensuring they are available first). The production company will deal with agents over costs, the contract and any restrictions on what the famous face can or cannot say or do.
If we are casting an unknown model or actor we would usually recommend using a casting director. She or he can then use their experience to put a suitable shortlist together from a casting brief prepared by the producer or director with the client’s input. The casting itself will happen usually over a day in a centrally located studio. Actors and models are accustomed to travelling miles for castings and, as with every aspect of what we do, giving them the attention and respect they deserve really goes without saying. Sometimes they can surprise you with their talent and versatility in what can be a very artificial situation. As well as seeing at first hand what they can do casting is also a way to get to know the actors or models as people and to see if they have that innate personal confidence and chemistry that will translate from a crowded studio or location set into a genuinely affecting and believable performance.
And that’s about it. You have a well-researched script, a crew, a cast and at least one approved location. Here’s where the fun bit starts – time to shoot.