I have, on occasion, in grammar school, in high school, in college, in my professional life, in my personal life, been accused of “bad handwriting.” Really, it’s handwriting that the readers can’t read, but I can. That’s not my problem, right? Except most of the time? My wife won’t let me write in cards, other than signing my name. And even then there’re complaints.
And, as much as I like design, illustration, visual communication… I don’t draw well. So when it comes time to visual ideas having direct impact of a strategic branding or marketing campaigns, sometimes my internal notes get shrugs, puzzled looks, or, worse, indifference.
We recently produced this :30 commercial for James Madison University Sports for Men’s Basketball.
Like most of our benefit-driven concept productions, there were a number of ideas on the table before we pitched to the client. The one we went with happened to be an idea of mine (running of course, much like the shower or mowing the lawn, without anything to write on) which, due to having a number of visual effects shots, needed to be communicated to the group. I’m a process junkie, I like to see how stuff is made, so I thought I’d share some of what went into putting together this commercial, “Live Transmissions.”
After the idea was greenlit internally from a pool of other ideas, the first thing I made was a very quick, static-images-taken-from-Google-searching, sounds cobble together, :30 version of what I was thinking. That served minimally as a way to work out what the timing could be, how the shots could vary, how many shots might fit, where there could be room for experimentation, how might the spot live, what the sound design could bring, an overall “does this work?” Very rough, but it was a starting point for me to play around. This was not something that was part of the client pitch, this was all internal.
For the actual production, we had ’10-’11 player Men’s Basketball player Denzel Bowles to shoot with for the field production, and he had limited availability. For a VFX shoot with lots of cuts and action, there needs to be at least storyboards and a shot sheet. So in addition to the rough test commercial I’d made, talking through the shots internally, I also shot footage of myself in our studio running, throwing a ball, catching a ball, and defending against invisible opponents. Seeing the breakdown in a physical space also helps me figure out shots and sequencing, and served as the first round of footage for compositing tests. Again, not for the client as part of the pitch, but a rough way to work through ideas with a short production window.
I mentioned the bad handwriting, and drawing. I present to you my quickly-drawn-on-the-couch, not-at-all professional storyboards. Here’s #1 and #2:
That’s right, you thought I was being modest. Back off, Rockwell…
Again, these were not submitted to the client, and were an exercise in figuring out what might work. I timed out how the shots felt, what I thought the duration for each shot might be, starting with #1, which is the establishing shot dollying left or right. Then the #2 shot has basic direction with “distance shot, not exactly clear what’s happening”, and starts to break down into #2 need a static shot for the VFX and #2A “player flickers on, shoot left & right.” Working through shots on paper means more opportunity for experimentation in the field and edit since you can get what you know will work ahead of time. Hitchcock always said he had his movies worked out in his head before he set foot on a set (I’m paraphrasing, he probably said it more atmospherically with a Saul Bass title sequence then a cameo); working through shots is a necessity.
More basic direction of what’s happening and where the camera might go, more pacing. At the time the plan was for me to do a very rough assembly edit before passing it along for a color pass to conform all the shots to a look before VFX which, in addition to doing the creative editorial, would also have the final color pass.
And storyboards #5-6:
More “players” add as the commercial builds, and tracking them becomes important. #5 has the starting point of who is going where, and that there needs to be some tracking. #6 gets into what I thought was going to be a transitional shot, which in the final commercial has a different purpose.
And the final shot:
A static shot of the hoop and a ball swishing in seemed like a place to put any call-to-action information, or serve as an out shot to get to that information. In the final video, we take full advantage of our player being able to dunk. The call-to-action information is placed in its own environment, we don’t see anything on the basketball court.
From here I put together a basic shot breakdown, with the same #1, #1A, #1B style. And I also threw in another shot plan for myself using cut up yellow sticky notes for a camera placement breakdown for the physical location so I could review possible angles:
So all that leads to shooting on location at the JMU Convocation Center with Denzel for a few hours, bringing the footage back to the office, and then a couple of days of back and forth on shot sequenceing, length, VFX compositing, sound design, sound tests, color correction, and adding and subtracting 3D sequences to serve as bookends (there’s a version of the commercial that has a shot introing us and shot outroing us that didn’t make the final cut before we presented the spot to the client).
Here’s the final commercial again:
It never works out exactly like you think it might, how you have it in your head, how it goes down on paper or in those test shots. And you don’t want it to, you want room for collaboration, exploration, and happy accidents. “Perfect,” “exactly,” aren’t words you use when making video and film. You can noodle things too much to the point where they lose character and voice, and you can under prepare. Sometimes you gotta keep working on that handwriting.