By Pete Campbell, Writer, Videographer, Senior Producer, Post Production Supervisor and Director.
In the background of a lounge room set a special effects bookcase would collapse at a precise moment, and a beat after that a stunt man dressed as a carpenter, who was hanging from the ceiling just out of shot, would drop into the lap of the hero talent who was seated on a lounge.
In the early days of my writing career this was some of the action for a script that I’d written for a Gumtree TV commercial, the online local classifieds owned by eBay. This was in the early days when it was a new brand. The general manager, who I still count as one of my favourite clients, was brave and willing to take a chance on some crazy ideas to really get his new brand noticed. He loved the script, it was really funny, on brand and would work with our demographic. The bad news was that I was also the producer and now I needed to not only pull off this script but three more just like it all in one day. Yeah, that was four 15 second commercials all with stunts to shoot in 10 hours. That project (and many more like it across my career) have taught me so much about writing for video:
1. Put the money on screen
If you’re a producer then the above action from my script was probably anxiety provoking to read. We needed to cast featured stunt talent as well as regular actors, shoot in a studio that is safety rated for people hanging from its trusses, and that has a high enough roof, hire plant equipment to rig the stunt and drive that equipment across the sound stage floor without cracking it, get a full risk assessment, medical people on standby and do a whole lot of blocking and rehearsal. That’s before you even start thinking about the picture itself. It’s not ‘money on screen’ in the sense that a lot of these expenses will not translate directly to a ‘better picture’ for the viewer – it’s just stuff you need to get to the point of rolling on your first shot. I’m not saying that it’s best to think small and not do cool stunts but it has to match the budget and the shooting time. I’m lucky in a sense that I was the writer and producer so I knew I could push it right up to the limit of what is possible and then control the variables, but my luck could have run out if things didn’t go as planned.
2. Show it don’t say it
For a creative writer this is perhaps the hardest part of writing for screen. You need to be able to write in such a way that your words create visual images in the mind of the viewer but not so much that they get in the way of the actual images on screen. There are different types of videos of course. Sometimes the copy is the hero and the images are there to support and demonstrate those words. At other times the script is like a very thin frame around the image; perhaps only a few words and a tag line. It can be hard for a writer to pull back and to essentially write less. To hit send on a script that has so much white space in it. For a fifteen second commercial it can almost feel embarrassing how little the script is on the page. Everyone knows it’s been written and rewritten, edited, polished, revised and rewritten again but still the black to white ratio for a screen-piece can feel odd. It can feel like you are holding something back, and in a way you are, because it doesn’t stand alone – it needs images to be complete.
3. Write about the writing
Sometimes you’ll worry that your idea hasn’t been fully communicated, after all how could it be with so few words? A trick I’ve used a few times, especially if I am not going to be in the pitch room, is to write an introduction to the script that explains the style I’ve chosen, the structure and the psychology of how I think it will be heard and interpreted by the audience. Another idea, if the script is going to be a voice over, is to do a quick voice recording of the script on a smartphone. This will demonstrate the pace, emphasis and can help make sense of a script that doesn’t read well off the page. This might happen because in advertising it’s totally fine to start a sentence with a conjunction and even end with a preposition. As long as it sticks in people’s minds and moves product off the shelves no one is going to correct your grammar to be that of the Queen.
4. Write for the talent
Before you get too far into writing a script that has interactions between characters and especially dialogue, find out what the producer is roughly spending on casting and talent fees. Just because they are called ‘talent’ it doesn’t guarantee that they are going to be good at telling their face what to do. As a director myself I’m especially aware of making it possible to execute the script on set, by not setting the emotional bar too high for the level of talent that I think they are going to end up with. There are other ways of setting a mood or communicating an emotion other than relying on an actor to say something in a way that is convincing or show it on their face. If you have the wonderful benefit of knowing who the talent is before you start writing, especially for a non-fiction piece, you can research the way they speak, the kind of phrases they use, so that your words don’t feel strange in their mouth. This way the script will come out sounding like the person just thought of it themselves. That’s when you as a writer disappear all together. Which is exactly how it should be.
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