When Vimeo asked us to do a guest professorship for their Video School, we didn’t have to think twice about the focus of our series: storytellng. While everyone who makes a film is trying to tell a story in some way, Stillmotion is particularly dedicated to putting story first in all of our films — from commercial work to weddings — and we always let the story drive the decisions we make throughout the production process. But we know how hard it can be to really materialize that concept and develop a concrete plan, so over the years we’ve found that our very specific pre-production process is what allows us to tell stories best.
We’re also especially dedicated to education, so we were really excited to make a series that would combine our love of storytelling with our love of teaching!
Storytelling The Stillmotion Way covers every step of our pre-production process:
- The Four P’s of Storytelling
- Discovery and Keywords
- Storyboarding and Final Prep
- Shoot Day!
At the end of the series, we issue a challenge to you: using everything you’ve just learned about pre-production from Stillmotion, tell a 1-2 minute story about a person or group of people who are actively doing what they love.
When we originally released this challenge, we issued some awesome prizes to the top three finalists — you can see their submissions here.
By doing the challenge now, you will receive only one prize: the prize of invaluable experience and discovery. Progressing in this industry is all about challenging yourself to do more, and just get out there and make film. Following this series through the end is going to push you to do just that.
Part 1: The Four P’s
Characters are what make us emotionally invested in a story. You’ll want your audience to root for your protagonists and against your antagonists. Also, keep in mind that your characters don’t always have to be people. Don’t limit yourself when it comes to choosing your characters.
2. Place: Where does the story take place?
Location can add depth and intrigue to your characters and story, and it can visually communicate a great amount of information in a short period of time. You don’t want anything to distract from the story you’re trying to tell — so it’s important that you pick a location that establishes context and setting. This will keep your audience invested in the characters and plot, rather than wondering “where the hell are these people supposed to be?”…
3. Plot: What is the conflict and the journey?
We believe that every piece, even a commercial, needs a conflict to drive the narrative. That doesn’t mean every story needs a villain. Conflict and tension can come in many varieties.
4. Purpose: Why should anyone care about this?
The Stillmotion mantra here is “know what you need to say before you speak.” Throughout the production process it’s important to always be going back to this essential purpose, reminding yourself why you’re telling this story and why others will care about it.
Part 2: Discovery & Keywords
Now that you have the basic information, it’s time to begin the process of in-depth discovery for your story. Regardless of what the project is, we always use the same discovery process to develop keywords that help us stay in line with the story we’re trying to tell. We really can’t stress the value of keywords enough — they might not seem like a big deal, but they are so essential for keeping the vision of your film organized and focused.
Research, research, research! Dig deep and find out everything you can about your story, and of course try to get an in-person or phone interview with your characters. Once you’ve spoken with your characters or talent and Googled all you can Google, it’s time to choose your keywords. These are 5 words that really get to the heart of the story you’re trying to tell, and they must illustrate your purpose.
Conduct some pre-interviews to figure out which characters will represent your keywords the best. Once you’ve narrowed down who you want your story to focus on, you can start to work out the details of your film and plan around your talent.
Choose your location based on things like light, foreseeable audio issues, and how comfortable your characters will be in this particular setting. And remember: your location must fit into your keywords!
There are going to be several ways you can approach your story, but they all should have a beginning, middle, and end. Come up with three potential journeys or conflicts your character could face, and discuss your options with your team to decide on the best one.
Part 3: Storyboarding & Final Prep
A storyboard is a way to organize and visually represent the main shots of your film. Making a storyboard allows you to be more thoughtful about composition, lens choices, and transitions and to be prepared for the big day.
In addition, it’s helpful to share a storyboard with clients and your crew in order to let others involved in on your vision, to promote discussion and generate feedback. Sometimes a full storyboard isn’t necessary, and a shot list might be better.
To make an efficient shot list, write out a list of the key shots in each scene, include camera movements and lens choices.
Now it’s time to schedule your shoot! A great resource to help you and your crew stay organized on the day of your shoot is a call sheet. A call sheet is a simple one-page document that includes the contact information of everyone in the crew, shoot locations, and a minute-by-minute breakdown of what to cover and when. Even if you’re shooting solo, it’s still a good idea to estimate how long it will take you to shoot each piece, and in what order you’ll be doing so.
We’re getting closer! Now it’s time to plan out your gear. Lenses, camera movement, and lighting can greatly influence the overall tone of a piece, so the more thoughtful and deliberate you can be with these choices the better! Here are four things we always keep in mind:
- Remember your keywords. Handheld and available light for a raw, documentary feel? Or steadicam and a full on light kit for a sleek, high production value feel? Make sure the tone matches the keywords you’ve set!
- Review your storyboard. What gear will be required to bring these shots to life?
- Limitations of your location. How much space you have, and other physical restrictions, will shape which tools are available for you to use.
- People’s comfort level. Be mindful of how long it takes to set up certain gear, or how intimidating your setup appears to an outsider.
Ok, it’s call time. With all the time and thought you’ve put into pre-production, you should be pretty well-off on production day, but as anyone who has made a film before will tell you, things never go according to plan. Keep these tips in mind when complications arise:
- Be present at all times. Remember that your interactions with your characters define their experience and influence the material you capture. Make sure to engage with your characters and environment so that you can maintain a productive atmosphere and adapt to changes.
- Keep it simple. Don’t try to over-complicate things! If you’re faced with two choices and two equal outcomes, choose the simpler route. It will help you to remain present.
- Three over one rule. Try to cover everything in sequences of threes. You can think of this in terms of beginning, middle, and end, or close-up, medium, and wide shots. Make sure to capture a variety of shots and to cover the entire story so that you have options in post.
- Get in there! Where you put your camera is where you put your viewer, so get in the action and bring the viewer even closer to your story.
You’ve already learned how to develop our story and purpose, choose compelling characters, make the most of your locations, and come prepared with a storyboard or shot lists to know exactly what you need to get for your story. Next you’ll put what you’ve learned to work. In session four we’ll be challenging you to go out a tell a specific story using this process.
Part 4: Our Shoot With Coava & The Stillmotion Challenge
It’s time to show you how everything comes together, step-by-step. We did a spot for Coava Coffee Roasters here in Portland, and now in our final video of the series we show you how we put the Four P’s to work.
In this fourth and final installment of our series, we also administered a challenge to YOU. Our actual challenge is over now, but we encourage you to challenge yourself anyway (if you want to be successful, you’re going to have to do it all the time) by taking the Stillmotion Storytelling Challenge.
The challenge: Using the storytelling techniques you’ve learned in this series, make a 1-2 minute film telling the story of a person or group of people who is actively doing what they love. And if you want some extra help applying your new pre-production process, we’ve created this spiffy 7-page workbook that’ll help you select your People, Places, and Plot!
To start off our discovery process, George walked down the street to check out Coava. He got a sense of the setting, and talked to as many people as possible about their jobs and coffee. We also scoured the internet for articles, blogs, and reviews on Coava.
Through our research, we came up with these 5 Keywords:
With these keywords, which represent the Purpose of the film, it’s time to start establishing the other three P’s:
Guided by the keywords Relationship and Collective, we chose to showcase a variety of faces at Coava, as opposed to showing just one perspective.
The keywords Craft, Precision, and Journey helped us decide to tell the story of a bean — from roasting all the way to being poured. Although not an explicit conflict, we chose to center our story around peoples’ perception of coffee, and to tell the story that coffee is much more than you think.
We decided to shoot the video at the corner of the coffee bar where drip coffee is made because it fit all five keywords. Not only was it relevant, the counter was also comfortable for the subjects, and production friendly with lots of great natural light.
Next it was time to make a storyboard and shotlist, and select our gear. We used our keywords to develop a visual style and cut any scenes and shots that didn’t fit the story we were trying to tell. We then used these materials to create a call sheet.
Once again, the keywords, especially Precision and Craft, were at the forefront of our minds when we selected gear:
- Movement: Tripod and slider for precision.
- Camera: Red Epic for slow motion to get inside the process.
- Lighting: Profoto HMI and Westcott Icelight for speed of use and comfort of patrons.
- Lenses: Canon 50mm Cinema Prime so viewer feels like they are in the scene and Canon 190mm Macro to get inside the process.
When it came to shoot day, we stayed present, kept it simple, varied our shots and coverage, and we weren’t shy about putting ourselves in the right place to tell the story.
Now it’s your turn.
We hope you’ve found this series helpful, and you will continue to use it as a resource to challenge yourself to tell better stories.
And what’s the most valuable takeaway from this whole thing?…
Pre-production. We truly cannot stress the value of pre-production enough — it really makes all the difference on shoot day, and throughout the process you’re going to make new discoveries that might change your whole story.