Complete Guide to Authentic Story Discovery Part 4

This is Part 4 in a 4 part series on Story Discovery. In Part 1 we talked about our Problem-Solving approach to story. In part 2 we discussed pre production research and identifying an audience. Part 3 covers themes, guiding principle and keywords. You should read those posts before this one.


As we’ve discussed in earlier chapters, interviews are incredibly valuable to defining your story, understanding the problem, creating a solution, and knowing what characters are available for inclusion.

There are two kinds of interviews we’ll focus on: Pre interviews and on camera interviews.

It’s not uncommon for stakeholders to be unaware, or unassuming of potential characters, and by talking to and interviewing people involved, you can find out about interesting use cases, applications and other characters who might be involved. For example, working with Peter Harsch Prosthetics we learned of the tremendous impact his patients had on him, and then seeked out a few patients for inclusion in our story.

This may sound surface level or obvious, but it’s the manner in which we found these characters that made our story so powerful which allowed for  an impact on their business.

Knowing what to look for and how to conduct these interviews will yield better responses, characters and elements for a stronger story. Finding the answer to solving the problem is done through a series of questions and answers conducted like a conversation where trust and empathy are present.


behind the scenes film interview

Pre Interviews

Pre interviews happen long before the lights and camera are rolled out. They’re usually done in a casual environment that will spark conversation. This is part of User Research we mentioned in part 2, and the goal is to learn about a subject straight from the source or users or customers.

In order to go into these pre interviews without looking like fools, we’ll need to have completed other aspects of research. This is the only way we can get any kind of substantial information from our interviewees.

Displaying subject matter knowledge also shows a sign of respect to your interviewee. When she/he knows you’ve put time into learning about their space, you’ll earn respect back. Not to mention if the interviewee is extra passionate about the space it will be a much easier conversation to have.

For our project with Peter Harsch Prosthetics, we had to interview several  patients and get their backstory. Being interviewed was a sensitive task for a few of them and through the interview, we learned that they sometimes feel uncomfortable in certain situations where they walk in and everyone begins to stare at them because they are missing a limb.. We need to know enough subject matter knowledge  beforehand to drive the conversation appropriately and respect their space.

tar productions office

Knowing that one of our PHP interviewees was a fan of craft beer, I suggested we meet at a brewery next door to our office. Showing our interviewee, Daniel where we worked and what inspired us allowed   him get to know us a little bit better. From walking next door to a brewery to have an engaging conversation in a casual and comfortable setting, we created a space for both of us to share and connect.

It’s important to remember that in these situations, we have to give to get and be mindful that taking time to introduce yourself, conversate and get to each other will go a long way.  We share our experience or show empathy to develop a relationship, and once we have a rapport with someone, we get so much more out of these pre interviews.


Increasing Engagement in Interviews

Shifting the way questions are asked is a great way to create engaging interviews and  to always search for the deeper meaning behind something that may not be immediately obvious. This is true for pre interviews and on camera interviews.

During pre interviews, this furthers the space you create which allows  you and your subject to bond and build a connection. This allows  for on camera interviews to have  responses with significant depth and flow.

Providing context and setup helps bring the interviewee into the question and helps them respond with greater detail. Leading questions with familiarizing statements or acknowledgements bring the interviewee back to the foundation and allows for responses with a complete sentence.

Asking why after a statement or response does little to get beyond the surface, but asking why X made them feel a certain way or another way is essential to diving deeper and getting the answers we are looking for. We may even ask a seemingly similar question that may yield a completely different response such as why they think X affected them in such way which will in turn provide deeper and more personal answers.

Another question we love to ask: How did X make you feel, can you describe it in detail?

This leads to much more profound responses that are engaging and provide stronger material for stories to flow. Remember, we’re not trying to tell everything about a story but a specific part or perspective that truly connects with our audience. Staying focused increases engagement, and story is as much about what we include as about what we don’t. The power of editing.


On Camera Interviews

Being asked questions in front of lights and cameras is daunting. We understand that it’s incredibly  easy to become self conscious and freeze up. This makes getting the answers and responses you want from your characters difficult.

At this point, you know the story  pretty well, thanks to all of the research conducted, planning and discovery from earlier steps. In documentary productions, we know how we want our story to unfold, but don’t know the exact verbiage that we’re going to get from our characters. While this may be challenging, at this point we know what we want to hear and what we should hear.

This is why pre interviews are so critical to our success. We’ve taken notes on our subject and created a connection with them, we know how to make them converse and how they converse. Mannerisms, long-winded answers, short & incomplete answers- these are all challenges that we can work through, but oftentimes are heightened or exacerbated when the lights and camera are out.


It’s important to actually start the interview before hitting ‘record’ on the camera. We let the interview start naturally and get the conversation going like we would if cameras and lights weren’t present. As you get  to your seat or production position,  begin to engage and recreate with your subject the same you developed during pre interviews (you should be an expert at this by now).

I always tell my team to give me a signal once we’re rolling, that way I know what exactly is being captured on camera without a jarring interruption with the interviewee.

Try to avoid saying, “Okay, we’re rolling now so let’s get started.” This will instantly make the subject feel self conscious, unless they’ve been on camera plenty of times and are are used to it, but this is the exception.

During the interview, try not to look down at notes or questions. Remember, if this is a conversation that flows, and if you’ve done the proper research, you should be able to remember questions and guide the conversation naturally.

Looking down between questions will remove the space, flow and connection you’ve created with your subject and this will show in your final product.



Guiding the conversation and getting real answers means we have to stay away from generic intros such as: “Can you please state your name, age, and where you’re from?”

Never say never, but these kind of intros set up the interview for canned responses, which is far from being a true storyteller. If we want to create an engaging conversation, we need to conduct interviews like engaging conversations- something you would do at a coffee shop or while having a beer with someone you know.



Interviews play a larger role in documentary projects but in scripted content for commercial or branded entertainment, they are also relevant, especially in the discovery phase.

These interviews are essentially the same as pre interviews for documentary pieces and are aimed at gathering info and user research.

While nothing compares to interpersonal conversations, video chatting via Skype or Google Hangouts work pretty well too. With potential characters located all over the world, this is a viable solution.

When working with Helping Haitian Angels we relied heavily on Skype during our discovery phase. We had to create a bond via video chat with Debbie and her team so that when we arrived in Haiti we could get started right away and feel like best friends (we still are:)



Now that we’re getting into the nuts and bolt of production, where we actually shoot and create, we’re talking about more tactical aspects of story but these decisions are made in the discovery phase. The look/feel/mood of should support our guiding principle and keywords that solve our problem.

Let’s look at the different lighting setups we used in two different projects.

soft exterior interview lighting
hard interior interview lighting

These two stories have unique looks that have an effect on the storytelling experience and how we want the audience to feel when watching them. For our project with Helping Haitian Angels, we wanted the audience to feel empathetic for the orphaned children living in Haiti. We wanted the audience to get a feel for what life is like and pull at heart strings, encouraging them to take action- a donation or volunteer time in Haiti.

On Ricky Whitlock: L-1, T-12, we wanted the audience to feel the pain of a broken back and the intense, physical work Ricky was going through to get his professional surfing career back on to where it was before his injury. The sharp and high contrast ratio lighting in his interview helped bring the audience into the scene. We feel for Ricky, while at the same time we want to see him succeed, because we feel the work he’s doing.

Both of these interview styles support our solution to the problem. They are intentional, but subtle and support our purpose. They were direct findings from our discovery sessions and make made the films so much more effective.


Thanks for joining us through this four part blog series, make sure to leave any questions on discovery or interviews below!

Complete Guide to Authentic Story Discovery Part 3

This is Part 3 in a 4 part series on Story Discovery. In Part 1 we talked about our Problem-Solving approach to story. In part 2 we discussed pre production research and identifying an audience. You should read those posts before this one.



Discovery and research are as much about sharing the findings as it is about collecting it. Once we’ve had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the space, talk to stakeholders, customers and others, we can start to see our story take shape.

By this point, we know far more about the problem and the solution than when we started and most likely have a few ideas to move forward with. The stories we tell lie in the findings from talking with those engaged in a product. Our observations from user research are refined into themes (for more on this visit Part 2).

When looking at the common themes and the ideas that repeatedly arise, we’re able to define our guiding principle for the project or relationship. The guiding principle is a simple yet profound statement that reminds us why we’re embarking on this journey. A guiding principle should be at the forefront of creative decisions throughout our project and relationship.

On longer term projects, when we’re finishing assignments on a continual basis, the guiding principle reminds us how each piece of the puzzle fits together as a whole.



Finally, we create a list of 3-5 keywords that further support our guiding principle and remind us about the creative decisions to make throughout the storytelling process.

Keywords are incredibly helpful during production when we’re making decisions on the fly, but also during our planning and pre production phases when we’re determining the look/feel/mood of our film.


Story Leads Us

This exercise provides clarity, allowing us to focus on what’s essential. Stories fail when there’s not a clear direction for the problem we’re solving. Trying to fit in too much or irrelevant people and/or places can convolute our plot. If we lose our audience’s interests too quickly we’ll fail at solving our problem.

When determining what to shoot, these keywords keep us focused and helps avoid overshooting. This frees us up to cover scenes with intention, but more on that in chapter 4.

It’s important to think about our targeted audience and how they’ll be watching the film when coming up with keywords. The creative decisions we make during production, and later in post production will affect how the audience perceives our story. Keywords guide us to make tactical decisions.


TAR keywords: adventurous, remarkable, sustainable, lifestyle, passionate

Our keywords inspire us and keep us going. Notice how they support our guiding principle of Story Leads Us.

If we’re trying to make our subject feel larger than life, we may include a keyword: Distinguished. This would suggest we shoot him on longer lenses where the background is out of focus putting all emphasis on our character. However, this keyword would also suggest capturing cutaway close-up shots of little details that further separates our character or reinforces the larger-than-life feel.

Finally, we ask ourselves what stands out as remarkable. We visualize the problem and put it into context learnings from the research and interviews already performed. This is a powerful exercise that provides a bird’s eye view of your story.

Google doc share

The research we do is meant to spark ideas, inspire us and the stakeholders, provoke perspectives and support our gut instincts. Throughout the process, we’re taking notes on our impressions and perspective. We write them down so we can have a barometer and can reflect on our progress. Impressions change as a project progresses and may diminish in importance, or fade to the back of our memory only to come back with renewed significance.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort by nature, and this is one of the most important parts to collaborate on with clients. We’re at the intersection of having done enough research where we can have detailed conversations about the space and problem with clients (conversational but not experts), and still in pre production where clients can still provide responsible input without telling us how to do our job or what to shoot.

At this stage, we’ll write our ideas down into what we call treatments- short descriptions of our story, characters, and plot. This is usually about page in length contains enough detail to get a good understanding of our story, but not too much as we need the freedom to remain  creative.

We love using Google Docs and storyboards for this activity. Themes, guiding principle, and keywords should all support one another as a solution to our problem and linked to our research. This is why collaboration at this stage is imperative.

As we discussed in Part 1, our process is fluid which allows  us to discover and then develop ideas. Admittedly, sometimes we go into the discovery phase with a hunch of what the solution might look like.This only takes us so far in terms of actually supporting that solution by putting it into practice.

I’m never surprised by where our story takes us and how often this changes between a project’s kickoff and post-research. Our solution isn’t limited to a short film- this can be expanded into a series of deliverables, or traveling to new locations or chasing stories we didn’t know existed beforehand.

When we work on a retainer basis with unknown deliverables, this discovery process continues to pay dividends despite the fact that it’s largely intangible. Having the insight and knowledge combined with our expertise and experience means we can seamlessly add value while moving quickly.

Wherever we end up at the end of our discovery phase, it should support our solution to the problem. In clearly defined problems we can craft one or multiple solutions. Straightforward problems yield straightforward solutions. But this is almost never the case.

When a problem is vague, for example increasing overall brand awareness, we’re left with something complex. In this case, we might have a concert of groups working towards this goal inside an organization.

Capturing the aspirations of the organization is an important part of defining the problem. Understanding the culture and history of the company can be huge in determining what story to tell that supports an increase in overall brand awareness.

We also want to consider the future road map of the company, what can we take from this and how can this support the company as a leader in an industry or field?

Increasing brand awareness was a problem that Peter Harsch Prosthetics faced. As a new business they didn’t have much of a brand to leverage at all. In fact, their brand was in such bad shape we ended up rebranding them as part of our project.

We quickly identified themes, our guiding principle and keywords. The guiding principle for our project stuck as the company’s tag line and hashtag:

Active Life Goes On

When telling their story and during our shoot, it was about handicap veterans who lost part of their limbs and how they continued on to living an active life.Peter opens the video with a quote, “Some people just want to be able to go to the grocery store, others want to finish an ironman.”

This is not only engaging and curious but also sets up our story to increase their brand awareness among targeted audience and support our guiding principle.

Our keywords for Peter Harsch Prosthetics were:

Heart, Mobility, Friendly, Supportive, Endurance



All projects have restraints or limitations. There’s so much of what we can do, but what can’t we do is the question identifying what’s viable and what’s not. Being curious folks, we find ourselves reeling back from different possibilities that might be out of reach, but also stretching and finding ways to make something work.

We’re always pushing, and the psychologists in us want more, want us to go deeper. Our guiding principle is story leads us and we’re always searching for the story angle or hook that completes our solution.

The most familiar limitation on any project is always the same. Budget.

Discovery usually accounts for 30-50% of our overall budget. At TAR Productions, we don’t work off a rate sheet or subscribe to industry rates, which sets us apart in our industry, budget is determined by the size of the problem and importance to the organization.

Our story is impacted by where we can travel to chase a story, the number of days we have to capture the assets needed, the tools and resources(such as crew we have available to us on location).

Time is another constraint we’re constantly battling, however, it’s also a useful constraint. Without a deadline, we can go on doing research forever and be unaware of when we reach the point of getting diminishing returns. Time constraints dictate if we need to sprint and  when we need to conclude research and move onto production.

More commonly, we’re working in conjunction with a product launch or event. Missing deadlines can have drastic side effects and respecting the time each phase (pre production, production, post production) takes to complete is paramount.

Needs are an unrealized constraint. Time and money let us focus on needs and allows us to prioritize our story to solve problems. We can discern between must-haves and nice-to-haves.

Another constraint we’re commonly faced with are available resources, such as gear, locations, crew and leadership. Budget determines our lighting package and lens options. If our story calls for a lot of movement and shallow depth of field, we need a remote follow focus and focus puller to make sure the shots recorded are usable and support our story.

Team leadership is especially important on long term and retainer projects. A creative director and Producer/Project Manager are incredibly critical to a project’s success. Having someone who is up to date on the project is a critical  asset in inspiring the team to push forward.


Westfield film storyboard


The final steps in pre production are about visualizing our story coming into focus (hehe).

Storyboarding helps us see the flow of pre-visualized scenes before we shoot them. This helps us identify shots we need to cover a scene while keeping our story flow going.

The benefit of storyboarding is that we can rearrange shots and sequences while editing. At this stage (before we’ve shot anything) we’re not locked to anything which  freedom and flexibility during production.

Storyboards help everyone get on the same page for production, the communication between the director, director of photography, and other crew are paramount. Storyboards help clarify our vision, align them to our goals and solution.

Storyboards help provide a lay of the land as some productions don’t allow for in-depth location scouting with multiple or all crew members.

During a location scout, we’re looking for interesting aspects that play a role in our story. Location scouting is far more involved than just looking at where we’ll be shooting- it’s about potential. We ask ourselves how we can photograph a scene to fit our story. For example, we take note of where the windows are located and how the light will affect the mood of our shoot.

behind the scenes men of march ucla

If we need to bring in extra lights or grip equipment, we have a better idea of what we’ll need to shape the light or create the feel we’re going for.  Light control is one of the biggest drivers about a story’s feel yet also very subtle and overlooked. To the audience, light control is almost invisible, something they don’t even notice. This is a form of subliminal messaging about how we react to our characters.

For example, in our shoot for CBS Sports’ Men of March, we were limited to shooting in the basketball arenas for a few interviews. We knew the environment matched our story, but the lighting of an arena is far from flattering on camera. We were able to light our interviews in a way that gave us the feel and mood we were going for. See the connection to our keywords developed above?

A favorite app of ours to use when location scouting is SunSeeker, which allows us to track exactly where the sun will be on our shoot day, down to the minute. If we know that we’ll be shooting a scene outside at 2:30pm, we’ll know where the sun will be and how to shape the light to our liking.

Video crew with lighting equipment
sun tracker app

Finding themes, writing a guiding principle and defining keywords are tangible steps that take place during discovery that help refine a vision. Creating storyboards bring filmmakers, stakeholders and crew on the same page allowing us to move seamlessly to solving our problem. In Part 4, we’ll discuss how to conduct pre interviews, interviews and a few production tips for interviews.


Complete Guide to Authentic Story Discovery Part 2

This is Part 2 in a 4-part series on Authentic Story Discovery from your Emmy-Award nominated friends at TAR Productions. In Part 1 we talked about our Problem-Solving approach to story. You should read that post before this one.


Pre Production Research

If you’re familiar with ethnography, some of the research we do as part of our discovery process might ring a bell. Ethnography is an approach to communication and anthropology that seeks to best understand how people live their daily lives by researchers becoming part of the in-group, observing, taking notes, and asking open ended questions that are non-directive. This is something that we heavily value during the discovery phase.

Ethnographers seek to understand people in their natural setting to truly understand their attitudes, beliefs and culture which is so much of our driving force throughout our discovery process. Ethnography has proven to be successful and has been implemented into corporate and business settings to better solve and understand problems and find solutions.

Research during the discovery phase is paramount. On any given project we have several research options we can take and depending on the specific situation, some make more sense to pursue than others.

The discovery process is fluid, one that moves congruously and swiftly as many channels are developing at the same time and overlap. We never know where discovery will take us (remember we already removed all predispositions on what possible solutions could look like, as we discussed in Part 1), but our curious nature never fails us and in result, we end up with the required information to solve our problem through the methods outlined below.

There are various types of research we perform. While not every type is appropriate on all projects, here’s a breakdown of what we usually do.

types of research authentic stories


Interview Stakeholders

A stakeholder is anyone who has a say about what goes into the project and cares about the outcome of said project. We’ll have more tips on interview techniques about conducting pre interviews and interviews in part 4.

Domain Research

Our clients will always be the experts in their space, however, with collaboration and a clearly defined guiding principle we can better accomplish goals as a unit. This means getting up to speed as quickly as possible and learning their product lineup or service from the inside out. Essentially, we work like sponges and aim to become experts in our client’s space as much as possible. When we’re viewed as an asset or extension of our client’s team, we can better position ourselves for success.

During this step, we review collected data with stakeholders and refine our findings. Sometimes our findings are deemed insignificant, and other times, revealing. This is what discovery is all about- figuring out what we don’t know.


Past Work & Work Already Started

Reviewing previous efforts let us know what works and what doesn’t work. Are there any takeaways from these findings? What failed and why?

Oftentimes, brand identity and style guides are overlooked but are valuable pieces that are helpful for us to create matching or supporting assets.. The look/feel/mood of our films should be on brand and relevant to the target audience. A great deal of parallel work is done during brand creation and voice, so naturally this is important information to review and consider.

We also look to see how customers, employees and users are onboarded. What does this process entail? When was the last time this was overhauled? These questions and findings can spark an idea or provide insight into company culture and behavior.

user research authentic story

User Research

This is one of the most important research methods we implore on projects. Our research i similar to the ethnographic approach to communication/anthropology where we talk to customers about their experience,opinions and life. Of course, to perform this with any kind of confidence we have to do domain research first.

We create a set of initial questions to ask that provide concrete data that’s comparable on a user-to-user basis allowing us to identify trends or patterns. It’s important that when talking to users we don’t sound scripted or are constantly looking down at our notes. In order to get true answers we have to know our questions and ask them conversationally. Remember, story leads us, so it’s not uncommon for us to deviate when asking follow up questions to go deeper- this is a good thing. This is another trait of ethnographic research.

Finally, when talking to users, we challenge assumptions and think that’s ok especially when given vague answers. “Works great,” and “Yes, I love Product X” are too vague for us to get any kind of clear support or story direction. We have to know what is great about the product and why a client may love it so much. From here we can expand and further allow the story to continue to lead us.

Suggestions on an action or behavior give us the opportunity to ask “why” while exploring the deeper meaning and potentially revealing valuable insight. This is where we find our story, this is how we get users to identify what exactly they like or love.

PHP office coffee shop authentic story
PHP Office coffee shop authentic story


Talking to stakeholders and customers provide unique insight into a company and/or its products/services, but what about our unique experience trying it? We can’t ethically stand behind a story we share without experiencing  it for ourselves. This is where we once again implement an ethnographic approach to our research. By immersing ourselves and becoming part of the environment, we are much more able to understand our users and stakeholders.

We love to do this in a natural environment. For example, Peter Harsch Prosthetics (PHP) told us their office was more like a coffee shop than a medical office. Prosthetics was something we had no prior experience with so  this was hard for us to grasp initially. How could a medical office feel more like a coffee shop? We had to experience this for ourselves to understand.

So we hung out at PHP for a few hours at a time and observed. We showed up at different times of the day, on different days of the week looking for patterns or anomalies. We didn’t just sit there and act as a fly on the wall. We participated and blended in with the group. Again, this might right a bell to those familiar with ethnographic research.

Within a few hours, we could see what they meant about the office being more like a coffee shop. We learned that these patients are more like family. We learned their jargon, got insight into military life, struggles of life with half a limb, and made friends with them.

We can’t ethically stand behind a story we share without experiencing it for ourselves.

Bilateral, A.K. What does this mean? We had no idea either before hanging out at the PHP office for a bit. Our prior research on prosthetists didn’t reveal what this mean, and the patients were tossing around terms like this constantly.

A bilateral, A.K. is an double amputee above the knee, hence A.K. Once we figured this out we were able to grasp so much more on the conversation. We were no longer outsiders, we were another person to laugh with, and, sometimes, were made fun of. That’s what a family does, right?

Although we didn’t experience getting a prosthetic fit, we experienced what life was like at their office, and these patients spend a great deal of time there and it’s a huge part of their life. This activity alone lead us to many important creative decisions in their final film- which was incredibly effective, landing them a huge contract with a foreign government.


biker authentic story


Space and Competitors

Evaluating the space and competition gives insight into how a company are uniquely positioned and what storytelling assets we can take advantage of. The key to identifying this is taking a holistic and unbiased view of everything.

We often hear something along the lines of “our product is the best/highest quality/fastest/etc.” And while we have no reason to doubt this claim, we need to be able to explain this to  the target customer with an engaging story. We need to know  how we can back this up, or what makes this true, and our outside perspective allows us to do this in relation to our guiding principle and solving of our problem.


The Big Picture

Throughout the discovery process, we meet and talk to a lof of different people. Our intuition and guiding principle leads us  on deciding who would make a good character on  camera and who plays an important role in our storytelling. But we have to step back and ask how all this fits into the bigger picture.

Taking notes and identifying themes we can analyze and complete our discovery process. We ask questions such as:

  • Does everything make sense?
  • What needs more clarity?
  • Does our view of the problem and solution differ than our clients?
  • What are the customers saying about the product or service and how does that change things (if any)?

By looking at the big picture, we’re constantly asking ourselves who would be a good fit on camera and in interviews. We don’t buy into the stereotypical notion that the CEO has to be on camera because she is the CEO. Sometimes CEOs aren’t charismatic on the camera, sometimes the target audience doesn’t care who the CEO is or feel it’s important she is shown.

There are situation where this does make sense, but the point is we follow the story and come to these conclusions based on our research.

Problem solution authentic story

Going back to solving our problem, what needs to be included and what can be included. What limitations do we have in terms of locations, scheduling and budget?

Our process allows us to consider the worldview or frame of mind for our targeted customers and how this fits into their lifestyle. The discovery process is done to yield insights allowing us to create something natural and appreciated by the target audience. Creating something that represents the target group and  it’s culture that won’t be viewed as cliche or selling out can’t be overstated.



Knowing who our intended audience is helps us define what’s appropriate for a final film. This step is usually one of the first talking points we have with stakeholders. It’s an important discussion that leads us to talking to the right users and space.

We find that most brands or organizations don’t know their customers as well as they think they do. This is challenging as many companies don’t want to leave anyone out, but this actually creates  an adverse affect.

In Part 1, we mentioned that stories are successful when we solve a problem. Being specific about the problem and the personas that represent the audience create success.


exploration discovery authentic story

“College educated, 24-39 years old, male and female, middle class” is not knowing your customer. It’s semi descriptive but it doesn’t help us identify or solve the problem.

For example, Patagonia should know the following about it’s customers:

  • What do they do for fun?
  • Why are they motivated to support environmentally friendly goods?
  • Who do they look up to? Athletes? Activists? Groups? People who are just like them, i.e. Average Joe?
  • What objections do they have about your brand?
  • What are your competitors doing that your customer like?
  • Why would a customer continue to buy from you?
  • If a scandal were to happen, how would your customers react?

Answering these questions provides insight needed to move in the right direction and conduct appropriate research. Understanding who the audience is, what they believe and how they see the world is the first step in creating empathy and influence. This is also referred to as personas.


mobile phone movie watcher
movie theater authentic story

Finally, we have to consider how the audience is watching this. Viewing something on a 40’ screen at a movie theater is different than a mobile phone with a screen measured in inches. The former suggests mixing in 5.1 surround sound where the latter could mean small earbud headphones at best, or possibly with the sound off altogether.

This leads to many story-driven critical decisions. Some say sound is 50% of a film, other suggest it is more important.

These are just a sample of the considerations we make during the initial discovery phase and how we develop our story. There isn’t a set formula that works for every situation other than allowing your creativity to further your discovery process. It might sounds obvious or cliche, but it’s the truth, and easier said than done.

When we feel we’ve done an extensive amount of research and good enough to move to the building phase of our story, it’s important to remember that we don’t expect to be domain experts at this point. What’s important is that we have more insight than when we did when we started and documented the process in a manner that shows this growth and understanding. Our initial ideas and perspective are still valid. The arc we arrived at can be similar to the final story arc in the film.

Knowing the space and audience provide us the qualitative and quantitative data we need in order to creating a story that supports empathy and influence. In part three we’ll review how we build a story and what we do with all this data we’ve collected.

Complete Guide to Authentic Story Discovery Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series on Authentic Story Discovery from the Emmy-Award nominated team at TAR Productions. You should read Part 2 once you’re done with this section. 

Our Process of Learning & Finding Story

We know that story makes a difference in business. When we’re able to connect with customers we can create a bond that is nearly unbreakable, paying dividends for years. Story can bring more than a simple ROI, yielding a broad range of results from positive word of mouth to sharing and promoting of your brand to friends and social networks.  

Here at TAR Productions, we live to tell stories and work with brands that truly believe in their purpose. Often times, it seems some brands are made to tell a story (think Patagonia or Apple) whereas other companies don’t think they have a story to tell at all, or have one that is interesting, at least. For example, we recently talked to a company that makes rock… they thought “What kind of story does a rock company have to tell?!” It’s especially easy for small businesses to get caught in the trap of feeling or thinking like they don’t have a story to tell.

In working with hundreds of companies throughout my career, I can tell you that is simply not true. We all have a story to tell- the engaging part comes in how we tell it. Patagonia has no better a story to tell than a rock company, but it’s in how we unearth the story, no pun intended.

The process of discovery can make or break a story. This is the first step in telling a story and it’s often times overlooked or worse, bypassed altogether. If you want your story to engage and resonate with your audience, then you need to understand them, their problem and the possible solution, and this happens in the discovery phase.

For us it’s not just work, it’s a labor of passion and purpose.

At TAR Productions, we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the industry by following our uniquely developed discovery process. Pretty images and trends are great, but they’ll only get you so far. Storytelling in a problem-solving environment is what creates results.

This is why our work lasts for months and years, not weeks or days. Our process of discovery is specifically designed with purpose, meaning all creative decisions are supported by said purpose. For us it’s not just work, it’s a labor of passion and purpose.

This is part one in a series of posts where we go into detail about our distinctive process and why the stories we tell are successful. Stories don’t appear out of nowhere, they’re found, or discovered. We’re here to unearth them with you.

The best stories solve a business problem, and the following process is how we do just that.


tar productions behind the scenes authentic story



Stories fail when stakeholders (anyone who cares about the outcome of the project) and filmmakers are not aligned on the understanding of the problem. If you’ve been a part of a story that didn’t live up to it’s potential then this part is for you.

Stories are successful when we connect with an audience and solve a problem. But before any project begins we have to understand the problem first. How does story solve a problem? Let’s first define what a problem is.

A company’s problem is not merely to “sell more pants” or, maybe  something more in-depth yet ambiguous, “to launch a new product line.” ” These are goals or challenges.

A problem is to make more money, generate more leads, increase signups.  A problem is to educate, resonate, entertain, reveal, surprise, customers, and industry, fans or even take advantage of opportunity

Biology tells us that story connects us- a brand to a consumer, a human to another human, or feelings to a cause. Without knowing it, many companies are constantly seeking to build a stronger connection to customers. Some call this brand growth/awareness, some see this as simply as increasing sales.

Questions we may ask ourselves when trying to solve our client’s problem:

  • What is going to be the hardest part of this project?
  • What are the desired results?
  • What is being measured in the success of this project?

We don’t necessarily enter the discovery phase knowing what our client’s problem is either. We usually have goals in mind, for example, to sell more pants, but that doesn’t necessarily define our problem, but rather our challenge. So, we have to ask ourselves, how do we sell more pants? What’s preventing us from making a connection so strong with our targeted audience and what will make us top of mind when they’re looking for pants? How do we get our customer to think of us when they realize the need to buy pants. Or, going one step further, how do we create lust for pants?

field notes

Science tells us that when we trust someone (or a company) we make purchasing decisions. Once this trust has been established, we remember facts and figures so much more, and then make rational decisions; i.e. which pants do I purchase?

We, the stakeholders, understand a problem and decide on an appropriate decision through a process called discovery.

When we take a problem-solving approach, we’re mindful of so much more than just a story. We’re considering the outcome that we want our audience to experience- after we’ve established trust, of course.

Tools are tactics, stories are strategic.

Discovery leads us to creative decisions too, such as the look/feel/mood of our final product (more on this in part 4). These findings dictate which tools we use (such as camera and lenses), how we use them and also the pacing of the edit, the tone of the music and even the final length of the film. Tools are tactics, stories are strategic. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which camera you use to tell your story. What matters is how you use your tools and what they allow you to do creatively.

This is what we want our audience to feel when watching our films- do we want to motivate them? Inspire them? Educate them? Make them happy or empower them?


framing composition

You don’t have to know the answer before a project begins- that’s the beauty of our discovery process. This is what makes discovery interesting, it’s being aware there’s a problem and conquering to find the best manner to solve it.

Testing potential solutions before production is part of discovery, and we do that by framing the problem and solution. Hence, the problem-solving. This is extremely useful when the storyline is complex, ill-defined or unknown. Framing allows us to understand the problem and solution in human-centric ways.

One of the best ways to do this is through storyboarding (more on that later in this series) and brainstorming. Storyboarding provides insight into our story and audience, allowing us to make sure our film flows and reaches our goals. Often times, during production we have a lot of resources and tools on hand with limited time (usually just a few days) and we need to create all the assets needed for our solution. Because the stakes are high, we must be prepared and aware at all times during this step.

filmmaking process


Discovery is a process that allows the filmmaking team and the stakeholders to get on the same page. Discovery builds the foundation for understanding the problem, creates clarity around the objectives and considers the constraints involved.

Yes, it’s intangible but also an incredibly valuable benefit for any relationship or project, which inherently makes this process rather rigorous. When beginning a new project with a client, we must sometimes admit that we aren’t experts in their field while still acting like a sponge and soaking up as much knowledge as we possibly can.

For us, it’s okay if we’re initially wrong during the discovery process because learning is part of the exploration process. Being wrong during discovery is ultimately better than going through the effort, time, and expense of making a film only to find out you were wrong from the beginning or got started on the wrong foot during production, which in return affects the entire project.

filmmaking process circular

Similar to doctors and lawyers who are continuous learners, the discovery phase is also an ongoing process in that we’re often learning throughout the course of a project. We all want to be continuous learners; ask yourself, do you ever stop learning about your industry? For filmmakers, continuous learning is part of our job descriptions. In filmmaking, you have to be prepared for anything. Having a solid foundation makes us proactive instead of reactive when it matters most, out on location or on set. So yes, discovery is constant and continual, just like medicine and law is filled with continuous learning and is constantly practiced.

Discovery also helps prioritize. On any given project there are a number of things we can do, and on the other hand, several things we can’t do. The process of discovery let’s us plan goals efficiently, helps us see what’s possible considering restraints (available locations, characters, number shoot days) and allows us to budget accordingly.

Knowing what’s available and what’s already been done is helpful too. Analyzing past efforts can reveal findings that make us more efficient during our research phase.

Truth be told, discovery is more of a mindset rather than a phase. By nature, curious people and never truly stop discovering. Throughout any project, we’re constantly peeling back the layers and seeing where our story takes us. We want to know seemingly simple things, such as why something has “always been done this way.” It’s our job to challenge assumptions and remove predispositions. Being curious and asking simple questions can lead us to discover new elements and characters that change the course of our story altogether. This is what we call problem-solving.

Projects can be in the works for several months and knowing how to lead and inspire the team all comes back to wondering why we are doing this to begin with. Discovery let’s us do just that and the impact this can have on how a production goes is significant.



During the discovery process we like to define a guiding principle for each project- a simple yet profound statement that reminds us why we’re embarking on this journey. We get there by asking a series of questions with stakeholders, customers and others involved. A guiding principle should directly support our problem-solving efforts. Once all this data has been collected we ask ourselves the following:

  • Why does this story need to be told?
  • What kind of impact will it have on the audience/community/company?
  • How is this company changing the landscape?  

While these all seem generic and overarching, the hidden gems lie in the answers we receive. We’re looking for how someone responds and we uncover unique details or attributes from there. This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned peeling back the layers and being curious.

At TAR Productions, we have a Guiding Principle that reminds us what we do and why we’re doing it. Filmmaking can be challenging and can take us to the brink of wanting to stop or give up. For example, when a project takes us to a jungle filled with mosquitos or a desolated beach in a third world country, (and we are cursing ourselves for getting into this situation) we remind ourselves of our own guiding principle:

Story leads us.

In everything we do, we follow the story, wherever it takes us. We know the impact a project can create will be better off when we give it our best effort. And sometimes that’s all we need to remind ourselves to keep going, and pushing further.


The Problem

In order to understand the problem we have to learn about the space: the audience, customers, or users. We can’t connect with the intended audience if we feel and act like outsiders, so immersing ourselves is par for the course. How can we fully understand the problem without putting ourselves in the targeted audience’s shoes? Learning how something feels and experiencing the problem / product gives us unique insight and perspective.

Letting go of predispositions of what a solution could or should look like is an early prerequisite we must always be mindful of. It’s easy to assume what the “right” solution is based on trends and jumping to conclusions, but this can limit creativity and opportunities. We don’t yet know what characters or locations are available to us or where our story can take us. Letting our process guide us is the best way to a natural and authentic solution.

This is how we are guided to a unified solution. We take into account our unique, albeit outsider, perspective, our experience and findings from customers and stakeholders alike. Even if we end up with a story that is conventional, we take with us the confidence that our discovery process was useful and that we didn’t have a lack of imagination.



Although discovery is an intangible benefit, it’s an asset that doesn’t extinguish or become invalid at the end of a project or short film. Discovery yields another benefit; the ability to quickly execute and refine the content we create together. This is especially beneficial on projects that are long term with multiple or undefined deliverables, for example, if we partner with a company on a retainer basis.

filmmaking reality graphic

We can let content percolate and build upon initial success allowing us, and our client, to create additional leverage in a flexible and fluid manner. This constant flow of learning increases our team’s understanding of the product and how it fits into the world and the speed in which we’re able to do this in. We can continuously improve our films while growing a library of content. We can act quickly and create more profitable solutions without much lead time while increasing the quantity of content.

If our problem is to increase brand awareness, this is a great solution.

It’s easy to see why and how this approach is valuable for the long term and better than hiring a new team or an inexpensive one that doesn’t have the same understanding.


We may not be making world changing films but they do matter to someone, and that’s who we make films for, someONE, not everyone or anyone. Whoever our targeted audience is deserves our best effort and following this process is how we arrive at that solution.

In Part two, we’ll go in depth in our pre production research reviewing the different options before coming up with creative and how we define our audience.