A friend of mine asked me the following question:
"I am not well-versed in creative briefs and story boards and conveying the story I plan to tell to the client. Because for me personally, I feel like my best ideas begin to develop over the process of shooting and getting interviews.
So would that make me a hard person to work with? If I don't stick to the original plan always? I know that the most important thing is for the client to get what they want and need.”
The most tangible way of showing your vision to yourself and your client is through storyboards. But how do you make a storyboard when you can't draw? Here are 4 methods you can use to create your next storyboard, even if you aren't an artist.
How much planning is needed?
Let’s take a step back before we try to answer our main question.
How much planning does your project really need? Not all videos require the same amount of planning.
While many Hollywood productions plan out every detail of every shot, some documentary filmmakers don’t know the story until they sit down in the edit booth, after all the footage has been captured.
Free yourself with this truth, homeslice: every project is different.
Some projects need storyboards, shot lists, schedules, catering for the crew, and a thousand other tiny details planned in advance. Other projects just need you to be at the right place at the right time with your camera on.
If your project is a documentary, maybe a rough sketch of the direction is all that’s needed. Your client may understand if you tell them, “I’m aiming to tell the story of _____, but it’s important that I stay open to the story developing as I shoot and edit.”
And if that doesn’t sit well with you—if you know you’re going to need more than that—read on, my friend!
Here’s how to convey your creative vision to your client.
1. See it For Yourself
The desire to grab the camera, hit record, and upload the finished product by sunset is one thing. This is creative energy and projects are dead without it. But seeing the video in your head is quite another. This is creative vision.
I always make movies on paper… And when I begin to shoot the film, for me it’s over. So much so that I wish I didn’t have to shoot it. I’ve seen it all in my head: topic, tempo, framing, dialogue, everything.”
- Alfred Hitchcock.
Beyond understanding how the settings on your camera work, and beyond having the confidence that you’ll use the right settings at the right time, do you have a creative vision?
Can you hear the music?
Can you see the facial expressions in your mind?
Can you feel it already?
This is the first step, not just in communicating your plans to your clients, but in making something that is truly great.
And hey, you may not be like Hitchcock and know every inch of your video before you shoot it. But you ought to have a clear enough vision to excite yourself.
Ah but, what if you can’t get creative vision for yourself?
Here's a tip: don't try to be so original.
“No man who cares about originality will ever be original. It's the man who's only thinking about doing a good job or telling the truth who becomes really original -- and doesn't notice it.”
- C. S. Lewis.
Did you hear that loud crack? It was the sound of the floor splitting where the mic just landed.
Don’t think that unless you’ve generated every idea in your own mind that you’re somehow cheating the creative process.
-- Everything that is in your mind was placed there by someone else who created it. --
It’s a mixture of all the things you’ve already seen and heard.
Of course I'm not saying you should ever steal an idea outright, but don’t be ashamed to be inspired by specific things. In fact, I think this is necessary.
Every artist you love–musician, painter, filmmaker, or poet, was inspired by another artist at some point in time.
Somewhere on the internet I couldn't find, John Mayer can be found talking about how he developed his musical style. He said that he tried to copy those who inspired him, but of course couldn't match it exactly.
Yet he said that in this process (of trying to match your inspirations exactly but failing) you slowly begin to develop your own style.
Do this with video production. Find something that deeply inspires you and try to match it exactly.
Two sources of inspiration...
1. Other Videos – Find a video that excites you online. One you think would be a perfect fit for your project. Draw inspiration from the lighting, the camera angles, the sound design, the overall feeling. And try your best to make something that’s just as good.
You will fail at this, and that's good. Exact copies aren't interesting. But you know what is? Stepping towards developing your own style.
2. Music – My single biggest inspiration for making videos is music. I can’t tell you how many times an image has come out of my mind just from hearing the right sound. The same is true of words for a script or even an imaginary interview. Music brings it all together for me.
If you go to Music Bed, you can browse their tracks until you find something that moves you and makes you want to create something. The advantage here is that if you follow the music exactly, you can license it and use it in your final project.
Still have no vision?
It may be important to step back and ask an even more primary question.
What are we trying to say with this video?
Video is just a means of communication. If you don’t know what the point of the video is, your images and sounds may be beautiful, but they will be hollow. It will all be fluff.
It’s hard to not feel directionless if you don’t know what the point of your work is.
QUESTIONS TO ASK OF THE PROJECT
- What are the business goals?
- What are the feelings we want to give our audience?
- What do we want the viewers to do and feel?
- What will they be thinking?
- Where will this be seen?
- What is this about in general?
If I told to go shoot an interview, get b-roll, and edit it together to whatever music sounds good–without telling you the purpose, it would be impossible to have certainty with your creative decisions. They would all be guesses.
But if I told you to go tell the story of a specific national park in a way that makes families with young children interested in vacationing there, it would be much easier to be creative.
You could interview a a family who actually vacations there every year.
Shoot b-roll of them cooking out and having fun in the golden sunlight.
Shoot an interview of a friendly park employee speaking of features that appeal to parents.
Find some music that sounds earthy and organic.
It would almost start falling together without you having to think too hard about it.
And that’s the beauty of creative vision. When you really get it, communicating it to your client won’t be a problem anymore. You’ll be able to talk about it, write about it, show it–whatever!–because you’ll have a sense of direction.
After you see it for yourself, then what?
2. Describe it in Writing
One of the best things you can do after you feel a vision swelling within you is to write. Start describing it in detail. Let it flow, don’t edit. Describe the shots you see, the music and sounds you hear. Paint a picture.
This is for you at this point, not your client. So just write loosely. This will help your brain.
Through this process your idea will evolve. You’ll gaps in your vision you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Actually, by the time you’re done writing you may have a different vision altogether.
“I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”
- Flannery O'Connor (I'm pretty sure)
The thing about writing is that it’s a free way to create a mockup of your story. Changing the direction is as easy as deleting text and writing something else, or copying and pasting.
So first and foremost, writing your vision out will help you. But secondly, a written summary may be all you need to paint the vision to your client.
In my proposals I try to always write a paragraph or two describing the video, even if it’s as simple as, “the video will be driven by an interview with Jill and will have corresponding b-roll of her working at her desk.”
Even if you do need more than writing (like storyboards) you should always write down your thoughts at the beginning as a reminder throughout the project.
What if you need more than writing?
3. Show It (4 Methods)
Alright. You have the vision. You’ve written it down. What if you actually want to see something?
There are a few ways of accomplishing this.
"Show It" Method 1 – Drawings / Storyboards
Creating storyboards is an art in itself. There are people who specialize in doing only this in the industry. And some of them are amazing!
Here are a few ways you could approach getting storyboards for your project:
1. Hire professionals.
If you have a really big project, especially a film or scripted narrative, you might want to consider hiring someone to create storyboards.
One of my favorite artists I’ve seen online is Andrew Cherry. His work is just good to look at period.
2. Storyboarding Software.
The two main programs I’ve seen online are Toon Boom (that name!) and StoryBoard Quick (the website is… not great, but the product seems useful). These are a bit pricey if you just need some quick sketches.
A cheaper software option might be ShotPro, which is an iPad app.
3. Use Fiverr.
A simple search for “storyboard” on Fiverr brings up some interesting results. It may be all you need if you just need a basic illustration.
4. Do it Yourself.
If you’re decent at drawing, and if you creative is simple enough, you may be able to create a storyboard yourself that accurate shows your client your vision. (And of course, when you’re just making storyboards for yourself, this will almost always suffice.)
You can always go the old fashioned pencil and paper route, or you could get an app to help create something more interesting.
My favorite iPad app for drawing is Paper. It’s easy to use and you can create some really cool drawings even if you aren’t an artist.
Though not a storyboard, here is an actual lighting setup I sent to a fellow shooter once when I couldn’t make it to a shoot.
"Show It" Method 2 – Using Other Videos
Besides storyboards, another great way to communicate your creative vision is to show past work you’ve done that could work well for the current project. This works wonderfully if you have a body of work built up already.
And if you don’t have a lot of work to show? Try finding another video online that captures your vision, even if it just hints at it.
There are several great places to look for inspiration.
If you go to Vimeo’s Channels page, click on Featured, and sort by followers, you’ll get several pages of channels in various genres, like documentary, motion graphics, slo-mo & timelapse, and more. (Just be careful on Vimeo, sometimes the images are obscene.)
If you’re doing commercial projects (especially the kind that are light-hearted and cleanly produced), look no further than Sandwich. They are a true inspiration to me.
A highly-artistic creative group that creates stellar productions. Another huge inspiration.
These three are just starting points. The amount of content online is more than you’ll ever see. So dig around until you find something that resonates.
One huge word of caution: Make sure you don’t accidentally set the client’s expectation too high by showing them something way out of your skill set. Be very honest and upfront if you won’t deliver on the same production standards.
If you’re uncomfortable doing this method at all, don’t do it. It won’t be good if you show only amazing stuff to our client and then make something that’s not even remotely close.
"Show It" Method 3 – Using Watermarked Stock Clips
Stock video used to mean something awful, and many times it still does. Nowadays it can mean something beautiful.
Here's how you could use them for storyboarding:
Find some clips that coincide with your vision.
Download the “comp” files. These will have the website’s watermark on them.
Create a rough cut of them in your editing program.
This method is great because it gives you a good sense of the timing of the edit. You can also get watermarked music and add it to the edit as well. (Site's like Music Bed and PremiumBeat let you download these watermarked tracks before purchasing.)
You may not find clips that are exactly what you’re looking for, but you may get pretty close. And having something like this to reference will greatly help you communicate your vision.
Here’s where you can go to find good clips.
(*These sites do still have some not-so-great generic stock footage, but you can find some useable clips too.)
"Show It" Method 4 – Shooting a Video Storyboard
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez shot video storyboards for his movie Desperado quickly and roughly before production. And honestly, with the amount of time you might spend drawing or looking for clips, this method may work for you too.
Maybe the best thing for your storyboard is to grab your camera and go shoot it. Make it quick. Don’t obsess over settings. Take all the footage and edit it in one day. Now see if the vision doesn’t start to take shape.
Even the roughest version of this will do wonders for sorting out kinks in your creative vision and could save you a ton of time in the actual production.
This approach will probably work well only if your project is big enough to necessitate it. If it looks too good and the project isn’t that big, the client may see it and think the project is already over.
At the end of the day, communicating your creative vision is all about setting expectations for your client. Some clients just trust you and you don’t have to do anything but get to work. Other clients want to know you’re going to nail it in advance and see detailed storyboards.
Be willing to do whatever it takes to help them see the vision. Sometimes this willingness itself speaks volumes and helps build their trust. And ultimately, that’s what you both want anyway.
The idiom to guide you always: Under-promise, over-deliver. "UPOD." (Kidding.)
What are you struggling with in terms of creative vision? Leave a comment below and letting me know.