Honing your Ideas

TypewriterKeysIf you're like most videographers you probably have more project ideas than you can shake a camcorder at. So with a little talent and the right equipment, you should be able to produce top quality video work, right?

Right. Then why do so many great ideas fizzle out somewhere between that first blinding spark of inspiration and the final credit roll?

The answer is simple: before the lights come up, before the cameras roll, even before you write the script, you must take two essential steps if your video is to find and follow its true course:

Step One: clearly define your concept.
Step Two: write a concise treatment.

A concept nails down your program's primary message, and the manner in which you will deliver it to your primary audience. Later, as you navigate the wind­ing curves of production, you'll think of the concept as your destination. A treatment is a written summary of the video's purpose, storyline and style. It will become your road map. These tools will help you maintain solid and continuous contact with the video's intended direction every step of the way.

These are probably the most overlooked steps of pre-production, but if you conscientiously pursue them on every project­no matter how simple-you'll save time and add polish, propelling your work to new horizons of quality.

Developing the Concept

How does a concept differ from a raw idea? Let's look at a couple of ideas and watch how they change as we develop them into concepts:

1. The Trees of New England; and
2. Car Repair.

Each ofthese has possibilities as a video project; but if we were to pick up a camera, or to start writing a script at this point, we'd suffer a false start. Before we can set out on our creative journey, we need a clear understanding of our destination.

Admittedly, many ideas don't deserve to survive. Who among us hasn't pulled the car off a crowded freeway to jot down a "great idea"-only to read it later and find that great idea somewhat less than overwhelming.

Take our first idea: The Trees of New England. This sleeper might die right on the drawing board. Why? Because, for the videographer trying to earn a buck, it lacks profitability. And for most hobbyists, it involves too much time and effort. The visual effect could no doubt be stunning, but who would purchase (or finance) a video about trees when public television carries a variety of nature shows that fea­ture similar subjects every week?

To succeed in the marketplace, your work must effectively deliver a primary message to a primary audience. To prove worth the effort, The Trees of New England would have to distinguish itself from similar programming through style or content to appeal to existing markets. Another option: The Trees of New England could deliver its message in a way that would captivate audiences in a new market niche. Note: if you can see a way to make money with this tree idea, please feel free to run with it.

You may find yourself shelving many ideas that survive this kind of initial scrutiny; these ideas typically lack some element necessary to a profitable video, such as reasonable production costs or a viable market. Or through research you may discover that someone else has already pro­duced your idea. That's okay; you can always generate more ideas. Don't get too caught up in creative decisions dur­ing these first stages of exploration. In the process of transforming a germ of an idea into a viable concept, necessity will make many decisions about a project's direction for you.

How about our second wannabe video: ­Car Repair? This one offers a multitude of development possibilities. But remember, you can't please all of the people all the time. Avoid the temptation to create a "do-all" video. As producers, we always want the largest audience we can get-up to a point. Create a repair program that appeals equally to master mechanics and interior designers, and you'll get a show without a specific destination. In other words, your project could end up running out of gas in the wrong town. Your first move: define the audience.

Let's find a target group who could use some information about car repair.

Brainstorm A-comin'

Here's where brainstorming becomes indispensable. There are as many ways to brainstorm an idea as there are people, so there are no hard and fast rules. Basically, you need to distract the left (logical) side of your brain so that the right (creative) side can come out to play.

Here's what works for me: I speak my thoughts aloud, no matter how silly they sound, while bouncing a rubber ball off the concrete walls of my basement office. This technique gets the creative hemi­sphere of my brain churning; my subcon­scious coughs up ideas from a well much deeper than the one serving my logical hemisphere. I write down the more coher­ent mutterings on a dry erase board as they erupt. All in all, it's probably not a pretty sight, but you're welcome to adapt this method to your own brainstorming technique.

Here's a condensed version of my brain­storming session for the car repair idea. I flip the ball. It hits the floor, the wall and then slaps back into my hand.

"Repair," I say to myself, as I continue to bounce the ball. "Maintenance ... mechanics ... men ... women ... children ... women ... smart women ... independent women ... car maintenance ... where's the need? ... when would they have the need? ... college! ... BINGO!

When young women go away to college, they no longer have Mom or Dad around to watch the oil level and check the belts. The same is surely true of young men, but I decide to target women as the larger of the two potential audiences. Should I go after both in hopes of selling more tapes? Absolutely not. Since the buying characteristics ofthe two groups will be different, I must tailor the style of the production to one audience or the other.

Through brainstorming, the original idea "car repair" has now become its simpler cousin, "car maintenance." Do we have a real concept now? Not yet, but we're getting there; we know our target market and our message. Still to be considered: the produc­tion's style, or the best manner in which to convey our message. This will eventually encompass shooting style, lighting style, acting, wardrobe, makeup and dozens of other factors. For now, however, we'll break style down into two parts: 1) getting the viewer's attention; and 2) keeping it.

Hook, Line and Profit

A hook is the attention-getting element that yanks viewers away from their busy day, and into our product. The need for a good hook is the same in every communication medium, whether it's an advertisement, a popular song or a training video. Human beings are frenetically busy creatures; you must seduce them into giving their atten­tion away. After delivering this interest­ing hook and convincing them to look our way, we must follow through and give them a storyline that will hold their inter­est for the duration of the program. There are a number of ways to engage and keep the viewers' attention:

Shock value
Self-interest
Visual stimulation
Glitz and glamour
Comedy

To decide which combination of elements will work best for our car maintenance video, we need a better understanding of our target market: 18- to 22-year-old females needing to perform simple car maintenance themselves. As with many aspects of concept development, most of our decisions are made for us as we dis­card what will not work-which leaves us with what will.

My gut says to skip shock value in a pro­gram that deals with cars. Self-interest is definitely an important consideration for a young lady who is both: 1) trying to assert her independence for the first time (ego self-interest); and 2) living on a budget (financial self-interest).

Visual stimulation? Our target group comes from a generation accustomed to the kaleidoscopic imagery and lightning fast cuts of beer commercials and music videos. Let's use this one.

Glitz and glamour are obvious shoo-ins for this age and gender. Comedy can be an excellent tool for communicating many subjects, as long as you execute it well. Let's keep humor in mind, too.

Simply being aware of these tools is not enough. More important is an understand­ing of the ways they will impact our target audience. If we can effectively use one or more of them in our production (and our marketing package), we may just have a moneymaking project on our hands.

To recap: we need an eye-catching (visu­ally stimulating) presentation that offers college-aged females something they clearly need (self-interest) in a manner consistent with their accepted versions of self-image (glitz and glamour). If we can discover ways to enliven this delivery through the use of comedy, all the better.

Even if we are unable to meet all these criteria, we must be aware of them, so at the very least we avoid working against the psychology of our target audience.

More ball bouncing is probably called for at this point to help us predict how we'll apply these general ideas to our intended audience. But rather than put you through that again, I'll just tell you what I came up with for our sample project:

A Young Woman's Guide to Minor Car Maintenance. The package resembles that of a concert video or a compact disc more than an instructional videotape jacket. Lots of neon colors surround a snazzily dressed college-aged woman, who leans confidently over the open hood of a small automobile. Her posture says, "I have the world by the tail, and so can you if you take a closer look at this."

The back of the jacket explains that you'll need no tools to perform most of the tasks covered in the program. These tasks are simpler than you ever thought possi­ble, even fun once you give them a chance. Best of all, you'll feel an exhilarating new sense of independence after you master these simple skills.

Next month:  we begin Writing the Treatment

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