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.
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
CONSTRAINTS & LIMITATIONS
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.
STORYBOARDING AND LOCATION SCOUTING
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.
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.
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.