Production Notebook: First Entry

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by on August 3, 2016 Featured, Lessons


There’s a limit to what we can learn from one another by watching a finished product. That’s one reason I’m starting a production notebook on a video that’s currently in development. By publicly documenting significant moments throughout the entire process, be they obstacles or achievements, my hope is to encourage others to share their experiences on-set and off.

Look back through your project archives. I’ll bet there’s at least one story or lesson associated with each file folder. Imagine an easily accessible collection of producer’s notes, ranging in subject matter and scope, from schools of every size, specialty, and region. That knowledge might make a difference for someone who’s just starting their career in higher ed video, or a university video vet who wants to experiment with new techniques.

With that, here’s my first entry. Reach out when you’re ready to add to the collection. 

From project request to video idea

It’s rare that inspiration strikes when I try to force it. That’s why group brainstorms rarely work. I prefer isolation. But a recent experience has got me re-thinking my approach. The first phase has always been research; study the topic and watch videos with similar subject matter. I have a project request form on Google Docs with a reference material section. If there’s anything I want clients to see, I’ll include relevant links. Filling out the rest of the form happens around this time as well. Listing project goals, target audiences, key messages, etc. can be done in advance of a concept. In fact, it may help lead to one.

Once I’m comfortable with the topic, I’ll turn away from the computer, hide my phone, and start scribbling on a blank sheet of printer paper. Most of what I write (or draw) is complete garbage, but at this stage I’m not looking for a fully formed concept. A single word or image will do. I’ll make just enough progress to “earn” a gourmet coffee or pastry, which requires a walk across campus. That’s usually when the first idea surfaces; during a simple task that permits a steady stream of unforced thought, balanced with just the right amount of distraction.

Because my memory isn’t as reliable as it once was, I carry a notebook and pen so that nascent ideas don’t dissolve before I get back to my desk. Losing a good idea hurts. If you ask David Lynch, it’s grounds for self-inflicted harm.

That’s the closest thing I have to a creative process. Sometimes a useable idea comes right away, some take more than one reward run. (For more on the reward system, read this Fast Company profile on Joss Whedon.)  I’d love to hear how others idea farm. It’s one of the many things we’re expected to do well without much training (see also interviewing). Leave a comment or tweet your idea recipe to @video4colleges.

But over a week had passed since the first request for a new university promo surfaced and my concept sketch section was still blank. The final video will screen at an event on August 26 (I’ll outline more project specifics in a future post) so there’s no deadline wiggle room. Needless to say, that doesn’t leave much time for planning, recording, and editing – steps 2-4 of a chronological, 4-step process.

I finally decided to call together my video colleagues for an old fashioned corporate brainstorm. As I mentioned, it’s not something that usually works for me. But I was eager to experiment with a new technique I learned during the UVA podcast with Mitchell Powers and Eric Duda. Instead of limiting the process to a 30-minute section of the regularly scheduled team meeting or blocking off an hour in someone’s office, we committed an entire day to thinking, talking, and sketching.

A day in advance, I sent out calendar invites, which included a short description of the project request and a call for bagel flavor submissions. That evening, I organized and condensed my research so that everyone could be updated quickly.

After bagels and small talk, I led with the most critical information – what do we want the audience to know/feel/do after watching? To summarize, I felt that our audience should understand and identify with the thing that sets Northeastern apart from its competitors – because of co-op, our students learn more out in the world than they do in the classroom.

That was enough to get the conversation moving in the right direction. I can’t trace all the steps that eventually led to a concept that I’m excited to pitch, but I will say that shutting off the shot clock was a big factor. We didn’t end up needing much more than an hour, but it was nice to know that the extra time was there. Because the rest of the process depends on the quality of the concept, it’s not worth rushing through what might just be the most important and under-appreciated step.

In my next post, I’ll share the finished script, even if it doesn’t get approved.

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