Creative Development: The Secret Sauce

Have you ever laid in bed the night before a shoot you’re responsible for, tossing and turning, wondering if everything is going to pan out the way you hope it will? “Will I know how to communicate my ideas to the cast and crew? Will we go over-schedule? Is my script even good!?” It feels like you’re a skydiver about to jump out of a plane - because once call time hits, there’s no looking back, and you have to jump. Will the parachute deploy? Does it have holes in it? Do you even have a parachute? Are you going to flail around and make a fool of yourself? These restless nights are the worst, and apart from taking your sleep aid of choice, there’s only one thing you can do to get those much needed zzz’s - have a rock solid plan. 

Picking up a camera and shooting has never been cheaper or simpler. The barrier to entry into commercial video production has been lowered, and while this presents a ton of benefits to the filmmaking community, it’s made it easier to overlook one critical stage of the production process - creative development. The “shoot it now, figure out the rest later” attitude is deadly, and inevitably leads to shortcomings in the end product. To be fair, oftentimes most of us DO think we have some semblance of a plan. Throughout my career I’ve fallen into this trap more times than I care to admit. I would be convinced that I had a solid approach, but either on set or in the edit bay I would stumble upon a hole in my preparation. Maybe the story is convoluted, maybe the edit has a pacing issue due to lack of content, or maybe the b-roll doesn’t illustrate the dialogue like I thought it would. Time and time again, I would come back to one, simple realization that separated my good projects from the great ones - your video will only be as good as the creative development you put into it. 

Story - one of the most critical elements to creating a video worth watching. Let’s say you’ve got a good one, what now? How do you do it justice? The weakness I used to notice in my projects was that they lacked in one or more of three areas: they didn’t open with a bang, they lost the audience’s attention somewhere in the middle, or they didn’t end in a satisfying manner. Let’s face it, the rise of social media has our population consuming more video content than ever before. People’s standards for interesting commercials are at an all time high. So, how will you make your story stand apart? If you’re going to make something good, you have to be willing to interrogate your idea. Here’s a few questions we’ve started to ask ourselves once we have a story outlined:

(1) How will our story catch the audience’s attention in the first 15 seconds? 

(2) Is there an emotional arc throughout the story? What methods are we using to instill those feelings?

(3) What is the final emotion we want our audience to be left with? What reasons have we given them to feel that way?

(4) How is our cinematographic approach helping to tell the story?

(5) Is our production design aiding the story, how so?

(6) Do we have confidence that our cast can properly relay the emotions that are crucial to the story? Have we developed a plan of action that will help them perform when the moment comes?

Part and parcel to the story is plot and pacing. Whether you’re making a 30 second, 60 second, 2 minute video, or anywhere in between, you must have a plan for where your plot points will fall and how you’ll get from one to the next. At Hidden Woods, we try to make this process as tangible as possible. Once we've shot-listed and storyboarded, we’ll actually put those storyboard frames into a timeline to feel out the pace of the edit. This helps us answer questions like, are we overshooting? Are we undershooting? Are we moving too fast or slow through a scene? Does the plot enhance the story? These sorts of questions bring us down to earth and help us make more concrete decisions on set.

Final point here, and this one hits close to home as it’s the new secret sauce at Hidden Woods. A huge benefit we’ve found in being thorough with our creative development process is the opportunity it presents to shoot for editorial transitions. If you don’t have a shot-list and a plan for exactly how your edit will play out, you will miss this opportunity. Whether it’s a slick match on action, a sound design element gluing two shots together, an attention-grabbing graphic cut, or perfectly timed whip pan, you simply won’t get the result you’re looking for without some forethought - or, if you do, just be thankful you have an attentive editor. Well-executed transitions add a feeling of intentionality that help hold an audience's attention. It tells them, “There’s a methodology and an intent behind what you're watching. We have a plan here.” Transitions can simply add a layer of visual playfulness, or make a bold suggestion between two adjacent shots without a single line of dialogue being uttered. They’re as lightweight or as significant as you design them to be. 

It’s so easy to think you have your sh*t together before walking onto set, but you will get exposed time and time again if you aren’t properly prepared. Be courageous, and ask yourself the tough questions that challenge your approach. You may end up dismantling your idea in the process, but what you'll build in the aftermath will be much more solid. So take your damn time in pre-pro - you won’t regret it.

By Aidan Sëan McCarthy

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