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A Primer for the
First Time Producer
Motion graphics and video

Contributors: Gaben Chancellor

If you have decided you or your organization needs a video, but have never been involved in a video production before, this article was written for you. Producing a great video is no small task, but with a solid understanding of the production process, the road from creation to completion can be fun, rewarding and successful.

It is important to note before we begin, that every motion graphics or video project will almost certainly be different, with its own unique challenges and production requirements. The following account is generalized to deliver an overview perspective, and is written for clients or inexperienced video producers who want a basic understanding of the process, and not necessarily for the experienced video professional.

Pre-Production: Initial Project Assessment.
Clarifying the desired outcome of your project is the first step. As designers, we have learned that visualizing the full scope of the challenge is as important as the solution itself. Ask yourself the following series of questions, and take the time to document the answers:

  1. What is my audience, and what do they specifically react best to?
  2. Where will this project be seen, and how will this project be delivered?
  3. What are the goals for this project?
  4. Is the company, product(s) and / or service(s) what are you selling? What makes what your are selling special?
  5. What is your primary and secondary message, or what do you want your viewer to take away from their experience?
  6. What is your Call to Action, or what do you want your viewer to do after viewing?
  7. What assets do you have internally which may help your process?
  8. What is an appropriate length for my piece?
  9. What is my budget and timeline?
  10. What project(s) have I seen that are close to what I would like out of my own project?
  11. What project(s) have I seen that I don’t want my project to be like?

Once you have answered these questions, you will have a solid foundation to begin considering the creative form of your project.

Preproduction: Initial Creative Session.
Once you have established the goals and message to be delivered, you are now ready to do the fun part… conceptualize the design of your project. Remember that most viewers respond best to a story so the challenge is this: What is your story, and how do you apply a conceptual theme to that story in order to better deliver your message? Working with collaborative designer through this process will help you generate unique perspectives about your message, and insures that the limits of production and budget are considered as development progresses. Our design process includes talking through and documenting a variety of rough ideas with our client before heading into the design refinement phase.

Pre-Production: Design and Creative Refinement.
Once a designer or design team has received a full brief, they are freed to refine ideas into a finite number of working concepts. The design team’s goal is to present a number of design concepts, from which the client chooses one that best fits their project goals. If you are selling a car, what message best sells the car, and what metaphor or conceptual idea best delivers that message to the consumer? There is never a single answer to this question, and it is critical that you take the time to consider the question and its answers before you spend time working on production details. Production design and the production script can be started once a single concept is agreed upon.

Pre-Production: Design and Creative Refinement.
Entire libraries are filled with books regarding the tips and techniques for production design and its main tools, scripting and storyboarding. There are some basic things to remember:

  1. It is generally best to have a production knowledged creative writer and artist work on your script and storyboard (if deemed necessary), as it allows you to guide the process, rather than being buried in it. Also, during the writing process, decisions are made regarding the production needs, and without knowledge of the difficulty of elements, it is easy to write in problems.
  2. Remember that you are an expert in your business, and they are an expert at writing scripts. Stand strong on issues regarding your content and expertise, and learn to allow your hired professional to do their job. Quality will be the result.
  3. The basics of writing a script are simple. Consider the following and you are 90% of the way there: How you might begin, what information needs to be delivered throughout the body of the piece, and how best to conclude. Everything else, regardless of how important, is a detail.
  4. The script can be the most important aspect of most motion graphics pieces. Do not cut corners or you will regret it. The script phase is your time to carefully consider all elements of the production, so use it wisely. That being said, for every rule there is an exception. Many documentaries are shot with an outline of what they want and no pre-written script at all. The flow of the project is dictated by what is caught by the camera. In fact, you may find sequences within an organized script which will change based on production discoveries. Organize your shooting but stay flexible. Go with the magic!
  5. The storyboard is most important for projects that require pre-approval of the look, or that have elements that require pre-thought to shoot right. A good example is anything with a mix of animation and live action. The fact is that many video only productions avoid storyboards (and their cost) all together. If you have a high confidence in your suppliers demo reel, you may choose to avoid storyboards all together.
  6. Production design also includes any design workups, such as set layouts, costume sketches, character concepts and the like. The more you include custom designed sets, costumes, animation and special effects, the more critical this step becomes.

Production: Creating your video
Once you have approved your script and storyboards, you are ready to begin production. The good news is that the different elements of production can happen in parallel to decrease your overall time. Another reason why a clear, well thought out script is so important. It is also important to remember that basic business insurance does not cover most types of video shooting, especially shooting “on location”, or somewhere out in the world. You can get short term insurance to cover the duration of your shoot, and as there are a variety of things that can go wrong, it is important to consider this detail. If you are hiring a production company, it is their responsibility to handle the liability, but it does warrant confirming that their insurance is sufficient. There are some decisions that need to be made, such as the type or format you will be filming in (such as Film, or Video, and in what format, High Definition or Standard Definition). While this is often dictated by your final output, or specified by your Director of Photography, it is important to think about future uses of the footage as you won’t want to re-shoot your footage just because you didn’t pre-think all of its uses. Let’s dive into the production process…

Production: Principal Photography
Depending on the elements and action in your script, there are many different ways your video shoot(s) could go. There are 2 main types of video shoots:

  1. On location. The advantage of this type of shooting is the variety of environments that the world provides, and the level of reality that can be achieved. The disadvantages are significant, including finding the right location, the need for shooting permits, the unknown variability of weather and the difficulty and expense of transporting gear such as lighting.
  2. In the Studio. The advantage of this type of shooting is that you have more control of the environment, including immediate access to sophisticated photo gear, lighting, set building and much more. The disadvantage is that anything you want to see on screen must be acquired or built.

Different types of video shoots have their own challenges. A few examples include:

  1. Food. A truly unique challenges, food shoots require a special attention to detail, and immediate access to facilities for preparation and delivery. They also require quite a bit of patience as food under hot lights spoils at an incredibly fast rate.
  2. Use of Actors. Anytime you add actors, you add complexity. Hair styling, makeup and wardrobe become mission critical. If you are using a single actor and they speak, audio recording becomes key, and control of sound on your set is a real issue. If you have more than one actor, dialog and blocking (or the movement of the actor) add a further level of difficulty.
  3. Use of children. Obviously, parental permission is absolutely critical. Keep in mind if you are shooting with children that they have special needs that must be met. They eat more often, tire far more easily, and can be distractible in more ways that can be related. Plan for shorter shoot times with frequent breaks, and remember that often a parent will come with the child, so you should be ready to accommodate production distracting requests.
  4. Use of Animals. Worse even than children, animals can be extremely difficult to manage. Allow for extra time and make sure you have a handler on set at all times. Also, the activity on a set can be very daunting to some animals… to the point of inability to function. Go into this with your eyes wide open!
  5. Use of Vehicles. Not to be taken on lightly. Vehicle increase the potential for accidents and increase the challenges of lighting and camera rigging. Obviously, expect your budget to climb and time on set to roar by.
  6. On or under water and wet weather. Another serious challenge, these types of shoots require special camera gear and more crew to deal with an array of details. Expect machinery failure, crew sickness and unexpected production set-backs.
  7. Pyrotechnics, Fire and Explosions. Obviously dangerous and expensive, don’t be fooled by those numerous action flicks… using these in a production adds deep complexity, danger and special, hard-to-get permits. Often, you can get away with post-production special effects for these needs, and with the sophistication of today’s software, it can look more real than real.

The bottom-line is that if your message requires the use of a challenging or dangerous production requirement, you shouldn’t shy away from it… just go in with your eyes open, and lock down a good, experienced crew to guide the process through to a safe and comfortable conclusion.

Production: Audio
The greatest thing George Lucas showed the world was how mission-critical audio is to the motion storytelling business. Audio creates mood and tone, while delivering at least one half of the message. Audio in video encompasses the following basic elements:

  1. Voice. Whether spoken by an actor, or delivered as a ‘voice over’, or disembodied description of on-going events, human voice helps bring he human listener into your inner circle. Voice gives us a thread to hang on to, and can help clarify or enhance what the viewer is seeing on screen. Voice over can also help bridge gaps in our understanding when the visual falls short.
  2. Music. Critical to setting the mood, music is a further cue to the viewer as to what is going on, what to expect next, and in what way they should feel about what they are seeing. A triumphant score brings with it a soaring of spirits and leaves viewers with a feeling of success. A moody score lowers our heart rate, turning our thoughts inward. Beware of a mismatched music score as it will change the entire flavor of your production. Also, be careful that your music does not run over your production, as it can be more powerful than you realize.
  3. Sound Effects. From the whistle of a on-coming train, to the cartoon sound of a pop-gun, sound effects help lend reality to the action as seen on screen. The richer your sound effects landscape, the more real the visual action becomes. Again, careful not to overdue as they can trample of the rest of your audio.
  4. Rights acquisition. As in visuals, it is important not to trample on others copyrights, or their ownership of existing audio, such as commercially recorded music. Just because you can copy a song, does not mean you can use it. In fact, it can quite expensive to purchase song rights from famous musicians so keep that in mind if you just have to have that favorite song of yours. It can have more immediate effects, such as if you intend to deliver on YouTube, your entire audio track will be stripped if a copyrighted song is detected.

Some audio is captured as you video your subject, while other audio, like Voice Over, is post-recorded. In either case, be careful not cut corners in this area as many great productions became mediocre ones through under production of their sound tracks.

Production: Animation
A perfect addition to any video project, or wonderful on its own, animation has many uses and forms. Animation is perfect for:

  1. Going places or seeing things a camera can’t. What is happening inside of a working engine? What does the heart look like when it is pumping blood? Animation can give us a view on the world that cameras simply can’t.
  2. Doing things you can’t do in the real world. Recently we stacked garbage up to the moon, and helped a dump truck talk for Allied Waste (portfolio link). With computer animation, the boundaries of only being able to show what can be captured on video are gone.
  3. Exaggerating real-world situations. Want your product to be as large as a skyscraper? Want your prod uct to dance a jig? Animation can make the inanimate come alive and do anything your imagination can dream of.
  4. Enhancing photography. There are times that you can film only a part of some action and need to add vital elements. You want you actor to shoot a basketball into a hoop, from across town? You want your actor to leap a tall building in a single bound? Compositing animation with video (see next section) can bring the real together with the illusionary to make on-screen magic POP!
  5. Bringing unique characters to life. Dancing Bears, 3 eyed aliens, teeth which talk to their tooth brush. Whether it is your product which comes alive, or a spokes-character who uniquely brands your company, animation can give life to almost anything. We recently animated two houses and a raincloud (portfolio link) for a roofing company that increased their local business market share significantly.
  6. Inserting informational graphics. From animating a pie chart, to visualizing elements in a boring list, animation can give life to information, making the data easier to watch and far easier to remember.

There are a number of animation types you might embrace, each with its own unique challenges and distinct advantages:

  1. Traditional Cel-based 2d animation. While becoming more and more rare, this is the grandfather of animation whose implementation is hand-intensive, requiring the production artist to paint each frame of the animation by hand. Today, there is software which makes this easier, and can even make other forms of animation appear to be in this style, a good short cut for someone with a medium sized animation budget. As most of us have grown up with hand-drawn animation, this form of art can be more approachable to the common viewer.
  2. Stop Motion animation. Made famous by the early science fiction films such as “Jason and the Argonauts”, and cartoons such as “Gumby”, this is a fun style that can used in many ways. It is hand intensive as each frame of an animation is a photo of a collection of objects that moves a tiny increment, before being photographed again. Repeat the process enough times and you have an animation. The advantage is that you can use any real-world photo tricks to make the animation feel very physical and ‘real’.
  3. Vector based animation. Popularized on the web through the use of a program called “Flash”[link to product site], vector based animation is graphically simple, using line art to form the visuals. While it can be delivered in any format, its advantage is really seen on the web as vector animation is much smaller in file size allowing for viewers to download quickly from any connection. Video or Compositing based animation. As computers have advanced, we have seen video programs become more like animation programs. They can process your video to appear hand drawn or cartoon-like. They allow complex layering and easy integration of illustration. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your video, pushing the boundaries of the traditional video medium to arrive at your own form of animation!
  4. 3d animation. The latest revolution in animation, we see 3d all around us, from TV commercials to full, feature length films like “Toy Story” or “Ice Age”. The power of 3d animation is directly tied to your imagination, as there are almost no limits to its possibilities. Characters, Science Simulations, Cloth, Fur, Explosions, Rain, Plant life… you name it, we can build and animate it. [link to animation internal] Come on and dream with us!

As each type of animation requires a different type of production process, so we will leave you with this: Use animation when video cannot tell your story or concept in the way you want. The animation process is more complex than video, and will tend to cost more. Its advantages do outweigh its costs in most cases, and we have never had a animation customer regret their decision. Ultimately, animation is only limited by your imagination and your budget. If you want to stand out from the average video, try spicing it up with animation. You may be surprised how much attention you get.

Post-Production: Editing
This is where a lot of the magic happens. Editing is the process of taking all of your created or shot elements and blending them together into a cohesive story. There is a lot of grunt work in the beginning. The editor starts by loading all of the material into editing software. We use Final Cut Pro [link to FCP product site] on a rather burly Macintosh but there are many options used by different production companies. Once the materials are all in the same environment, a long process of footage and content review begins. This entails looking at all of the footage and making quality and style choices, weeding out the glitches, bad takes and various problems to arrive at tighter collection of materials from which to work from. This is also when you might acquire stock, archive or other footage. Remember that any work that is protected by copyright must be released by its owner for you to use it, and will often carry with it some price tag. The smart producer will find out the cost of footage before including it in their script. Finding out after the fact that you cannot afford the clips you have used can be extremely disappointing.

The next part of the workflow is a bit different depending on whether it is a time driven target (we need a 2 minute video), a voice over driven target (we have a pre-recorded voice over that will dictate the flow) or content driven (we gathered random materials and want to tell a documentary story of whatever length). The most common approach is using a pre-written script that gives your editor a blueprint for how the project comes together. Sometimes the editor will start by laying down and perfecting the flow of the Voice Over, so that the spoken message drives the location of visuals, while other times, the editor will weave together a flow of the footage, allowing the visuals to dictate the story flow.

Depending on your available time and desire, the amount and timing of your interactions with an editor are up to you, however, we generally advise our clients to allow the editor a first work session to get a rough in place. This is far more efficient but still gives you plenty of time for input and change. It is important to remember that there is a style to any edit, and consistency of that style is what a professional editor brings to the process. Again, as you are the content expert, focus on giving content feedback, and letting the editor fret the editing details. Your piece will be far better for it.

Post-Production: Special Effects and Compositing
Special effects take the ordinary and make it extra-ordinary. When you want a magicians wand to sparkle with light, or need to drop a safe on someone’s head, you are going to need special effects. Most special effects add cost to your production, however, if designed right, special effects can make a normal video come alive with magic. Memories are made from the magic of special effects. Common special effects include:

  1. Blue or Green Screen compositing. When you need to super-impose, or composite, an isolated video element, such as a human, onto or with other action footage, you can do so by first shooting the isolated element in front of a single colored (blue or green depending on your production requirements) backdrop. Once you have that footage, the background color can be removed and replaced with any other graphic. We see this effect every night as the weather person stand in front of a digital animation of the coming weather systems. Your are seeing a man filmed on a blue background, and superimposed on the weather map.
  2. Compositiing of animation. Much animation requires some special effects layering, or compositing of different graphics to arrive at a final solution. In a scene where a woman leaps from a burning building into the net waiting firefighters, you might have many separate pieces of video, including a woman jumping, a building, random fire, and the firefighters themselves. This can get seductive as there are no limits to what you might create. Keep in mind that computer graphics is one of your most expensive budget items.
  3. Titling, Graphics and Logos. Anytime you want to add elements such as titles which swoop in, lighting glints off of logos or windshields, or other subtle visuals which were not in your photography, you will probably turn to special effects.
  4. Makeup. Horror films aren’t the only place you will see special effects makeup. From an overly large zit on the nose of your teen-age spokes model, to artificially aging your star, makeup brings photographic reality to physical changes required in your actor or actress. Yes, you can do makeup with computers, however, the cost is still orders of magnitude different.
  5. Model Making and Miniatures. While mostly replaced by computer graphics (especially at the video production level), there are still times when models and miniatures can really make a difference, or give your piece a special look or effect.

Most often done in parallel with the editing process, and sometimes completed by the editor themselves, special effects can used with a light touch to great effect.

Post-Production: Mastering and Final Output
The last step of your process is mastering and final output. This is a simple step, which can be a major stumbling block if done casually or without solid direction. The primary question you must answer is: What is your intended delivery outputs (standard TV, HDTV, DVD, BluRay, and/or Web low or high bandwidth)? Without diving into details such as audio format, compression levels or any of the other myriad of technical mumbo-jumbo, suffice it to say that a trained professional should be able to help you through that process.

After you have your final product, remember that there is quite a pile of data which is archived at the production facility. It may not be convenient for you to keep a copy of those archives, but make sure they are reputable as a supplier, and will be around to help you in the future. Many a client have returned to their supplier several years later in order to make small updates to their projects only to find the production company out of business, or unwilling to release materials for less than a kings ransom. Be sure to clarify these details BEFORE you engage your supplier.

While there are a lot of details to the video production process, success comes from getting back to the basics. Keep it simple and direct. The best stories have a single, powerful message told in as direct a fashion as possible. If your story is complex, show how simple you can make it, but don’t forget to take advantage of the medium. As video is a visual and audio medium, show them what you are talking about.

It is very important to remember that while you may be an expert in your business, media design and production experts spend all day, every day crafting media for delivery to the consumer. Your best results will come from letting the experts help you craft the final product. Your time is best spent focusing on the specific and unique elements of your business and make sure that the implementation is sensitive to your most important asset, your customers!

As experienced video creation professionals, we wish you good luck with your coming production, and are always happy to answer questions or deliver advice, but if you really want to knock the ball out of the park, give us a call and let’s talk about how we might collaborate to make your next video production a raging success. Give a call to Gaben Chancellor, director and cinematographer, at 831.425-0570 for a free estimate, or just sage advice (I don’t know if you have tried Pineapple Sage, but pick it fresh and fry it up in butter to serve with almost any squash dish and I guarantee you will thank me for it).

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