Planning for Video, Part 1: The Seed

Sony HDR FX1EAs a multimedia producer, I've been planning and delivering video projects in various forms for nearly fifteen years now. Back in the early days, it was hard to find learning materials, the technology was complicated and bulky, and I'm sure I made more mistakes than not. Today, however, it's far easier (and less expensive) for prospective producers to jump into the fray and create near-professional videos and films without dealing with the hassles of even a decade ago. The key to it all is not luck nor technical aptitude (although those can help): it's planning.

This is the first of a series of articles about planning for a top-notch video project, from the initial seed through pre-production, shooting, editing and distribution. It's meant chiefly for beginners, but I invite more advanced producers and videographers to jump in with their own advice. I'll also be releasing new video production D*I*Y Planner forms as they become relevant. If you've ever had an inclination to produce a video, now's your chance to follow along and get started.

Back in my first forays into video, one had three choices for independent (i.e., non-studio) production. First, there was the bulky low-end shoulder-mounted VHS cameras that, while still expensive at the time, were meant for beginners and amateurs. Second, you could rent pro-quality equipment (hard to find in the boonies) that proved large, unwieldy and extremely heavy to use and move around; some even required a dedicated tape deck external to the camera. And then there was the possibility of shooting on Super8 or 16mm film, but then you had to worry about film purchase, film processing, recording synced sound, transfer to video tape, and all the other wild expenses that made even small productions a hassle. In short, producing a quality video was very far out of the price range of a fledgeling producer or filmmaker, not to mention the technical skills needed to set up and operate the equipment.

How times have changed. Today, you can purchase a tiny hand-held high-definition camera (such as the Canon HV20) for about a thousand dollars, with 40-60 minute tapes running $10-25. Throw in a decent mic, a tripod, and perhaps a mini XLR mixer, and you could get started for a few hundred dollars more, flushed with all the basic equipment. Of course, depending on your needs, you could always purchase lighting kits, external monitors, dollies, Steady-Cams, and all the other gear, but all that isn't really required for many projects. Right now, you just need a camera and an idea.

While we'll discuss equipment a little more in the next article, this one is all about that idea, and how to make that little seed grow.

First, let's cover some of the basic categories within the grasp of a beginner video producer.

  1. Reality and documentary videos. Examples: weddings, interviews with relatives/elders/friends, nature/wildlife, videos for a cause (heritage, environment, healthcare, etc.), birthday parties, tourism, historical documentation (e.g., a way of life passing away), following around condescending rich girls making fun of farmers, "the making of" something, practical jokes, capturing police beatings with camera phones.
  2. Training videos. Examples: mechanical procedures, business procedures (e.g., customer service), demonstrations, fishing techniques, camping how-tos, archery techniques, software usage.
  3. Theater and film shorts. Examples: filmed stage plays, music performances/videos, humour shorts, fan flicks.
  4. Miscellaneous. Examples: classroom/lecture coverage, shareholder reports, video wills, real estate video (used for selling homes and business space), inventory video (documenting a list of items for insurance, police or auction).

A word about terms here. I use the term "producer" here to mean the person bringing together all the production aspects, such as logistics (including budget, equipment, place and transportation), cast, crew, sound, lighting, videography, shooting list, daily production schedules, editing, financing and distribution. For small productions, the producer may also be the videographer, the sound person, the interviewer, the director, and so on. If you're recording your child's birthday party, or a classroom lecture, you'll likely not need any sort of crew. So, for these articles, I'm going to assume you're planning as a producer. The rest, I'll leave up to you. Heaven knows there are plenty of websites out there already ably serving camera people, sound engineers, lighting specialists, and so forth.

So, you've probably had a niggling little inclination in the back of your head for a while now. It might be an interview with an aging family member, whose words you'd like to preserve for posterity. It might be a sermon from a favourite pastor, or a training video for your company. It might be best friend's wedding, or a play that a relative is taking part in. It might even be a full-fledged short film with actors, locations, and a story you really want to tell. The first thing you have to do is judge your own ability to produce the project.

Now, nothing is truly outside of your ability, as long as you have the creativity, finances, time and --above all-- will-power to throw into your video. But certain ideas are more realistic than others. Sure, it would be nice to do that three-hour space opera, but it might be better to start with recording a school play.

Write down your top five ideas on a piece of paper. Think about the things you want to record, the ideas you want to flesh out, the causes you want to serve, and the people you care about.

Think about the level of effort needed for each project, and the equipment you'll need for each one. For example, let's say you're recording a school play. This means that you'll need: a) multiple mics, either strategically located around the set, or on each person (such as wireless lavs -- those little clip-on mics you seen in interviews); or b) a P.A. system already set up for the stage by the school that you can tap into. Sitting in the audience rarely gives quality audio. For another example, let's say that you're interested in producing a wildlife video about the rare spotted moose of the Texas plains. Knowing that these moose tend to be skittish, how can you get close enough to record their yearly mating ritual, and how can you record their yodelling? Why, you'll need a good zoom lens, a tripod to keep it steady, and a very good directional mic.

On the other hand, if you just want to record your grandfather discussing his father's pilgrimage to the west and finding work during the depression, you'll just need a basic camera, a basic tripod, and a nice well-lit location. If you think forward to the editing process, you can even borrow images from the family photo album for panning and zooming during his interview. A potentially beautiful, valuable and heart-moving video with only basic gear.

So as you move through your list, think ahead to what's involved. You should also consider time frames. Once-in-a-lifetime events, like a wedding, mean you have to be ready and accessible, and film in a hurry. Seasonal things, like summer camping trips, or winter dogsled races, obviously require careful timing, a compressed schedule, and the right equipment (such as outdoor gear, proper clothing, and ways to carry everything). Training videos can be done anytime and anywhere the proper subject is to be found, but remember that you are shooting a procedure, and that has to be carefully scripted and edited for best effect. And other reality videos, such as a mini-documentary on a favourite cause of yours, may mean getting plenty of people and places lined up during their peak availability.

Last but not least, consider lighting and external shooting conditions. Unless you already have a decent lighting kit (generally around $600 for most of the basics), you either have to make your own (more on that later) or use available light. Thankfully, most cameras today operate quite well in fairly low light. But if you want your video to look professional, be sure to consider what you can get away with. Taping your grandfather in the shade of a sunny porch can look beautiful, but a troop of children singing in a dimly-lit room will usually look amateurish and grainy. And if you're shooting outside, make sure you can account for nature. Nothing is worse than assuming you can shoot for four days in a row, only to find it raining for three days.

So, which of your ideas have the brightest prospects, in terms of shooting time, level of effort, logistics and place? Most importantly, which mean enough to you to overcome those issues, will mean enough for you to imbue with your heart and sweat and, yes, pocketbook?

Choose your idea. Take a piece of paper, and mind-map it, writing down all the various things you have to keep in mind, all the questions you have to ask, all the important bits you need to cover. Don't worry too much about form, or logistics, or technical bits. We'll get to those later. For now, you have to grow your seed a little, figure out what you want to achieve and how you'll be doing it.

That's your assignment for this week. Next article, we'll start on planning the logistics.

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Thanks for the video article/assignment.

I am looking forward to the next article as I am beginning to work more and more with video.

That is important

These are all good points, but I think the most important idea you bring up is to pick an idea that is within your range, that is doable. Filmmakers tend to be big thinkers and it's easy to take on an idea that's so large that it simply collapses under the weight of itself. I'm not sure if there's a formula for this or if it's just pragmatics, but I believe there is a level above which a film rapidly becomes exponentially too difficult to pull off without a lot of money and time, far more than it may appear at the beginning, which can be both discouraging and a deal-killer in terms of the project. It's easy to be impatient and want to get to the Oscar's right away, but remember: Michael Moore started out as a regular guy with a camera trying to prove his credentials with his Chucky Cheese discount card.:P

Pyramidiology: What you get when you mix pyramids and idiots.

Steve Sharam

Director's chair...'s easy to take on an idea that's so large that it simply collapses under the weight of itself. I'm not sure if there's a formula for this or if it's just pragmatics...

I would view ideas and production as discrete processes. For example let's say I wish to study the differences in nonverbal behaviour between the Schtroumpf and Smurf speaking 'Blue People of Belgium' and I have decided to use video in my research. A very exciting project I am sure you will agree. :) However, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that one is competent in all the different areas of expertise involved in this type of project. Rather than getting carried away on a wave of excitement only to end up being eaten by a giant squid in the first reel I would say our projects need careful planning, that is if we are to take them through to fruition. :)

As for the Oscar I am not all that keen actually. I already got one you see. :P

It's very nice...

It's very nice... :)

I never finish anyth


Well, can I see it?

Pyramidiology: What you get when you mix pyramids and idiots.

Steve Sharam

Of course not!

You are Canadian type-a!

closet award

I'm almost certain the only reason sard doesn't want us to see it, is because it refuses to come out of the closet. ;-)

(i'm only know, joking here)




P.S. For those newer Newton converts, if you have the tap sound turned on, you may have noticed that the pitch changes every time you tap--that's because it's playing the Oscar-Mayer song (you remember it, surely? "My bologna has a first name....")

Disturbing yet true...

Dead link (Lyrics)

The "Lyrics" link goes to a "We're sorry the page you are looking for could not be found." page
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Your cheese is strong Luke Skywalker…

Kraft FAQ:

My bologna has a first name it's O-S-C-A-R, my bologna has a second name, it's M-A-Y-E-R. Oh! I love to eat it every day and if you ask me why I'll say.'Cause Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A!

I figured it was that sort

I figured it was that sort of boloney
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

I thought it was this one:



More than one?…

A man could lose his mind listening to that all day. ;)


Of my colourful Filofax and snazzy shirt collection. :P

yeah, sard... that's it...

yeah, sard... that's it... ima jealous of that big planner. ;)


Music Video?

As an ex-television producer, I'm really looking forward to this series of articles. In your list of possible productions, of course, producing a music video for a local band may be something of interest as well.