|VIDEOMAKING: IT STARTS WITH A PENCIL
By MARK FREEMAN
First there was the word. The act of creation starts with an idea, a
concept or at least a clue. Video is primarily a visual medium, and a
(potentially) powerful communication tool. A well constructed script is
the most important -- and the most cost-effective-- element in the
production of informational videos. These are reality based programs.
The story of your family reunion, an industrial training tape, or an
investigation of pollution in your children's school yard: these are
programs designed to inform, motivate, instruct or otherwise enlighten
viewers. They are designed with specific communication objectives in
mind. All the techniques and craft of videomaking ---camerawork and
sound, lighting and set design, graphics and editing -- are at the
service of the script. Nothing can compensate for a script that is
overwritten, unclear, disorganized, confused or unfocused. But many a
production snafu is resolved with just the right word in the right
Some producers are writers too. Some are not. What's essential is that
a competent scriptwriter become involved in your production at the
earliest stages of development. A scriptwriter is a strange hybrid.
She or he must combine a thorough understanding of the technique and
craft of videomaking with the practiced skills of effective writing.
The scriptwriter must walk a fine line. On one side lies the bottomless
pit of meaningless (and often expensive) video tricks; on the the other
--undisciplined, unskilled writing ---- a confusing whirlpool, impossible
to navigate. A good script is a reliable map across an uncharted sea.
Often the writer's first assignment is a proposal. What is the program
about? How will it be used? What is the intended audience? Why should
this program be produced at this time? Whether it's an in-house
production or a sponsored program, a cogent proposal is vital.
Research is the key. Throughout pre-production and development, the
writer/researcher works like a journalist. What type of information is
required? Where can it be found? Read widely. Interview effectively.
It's the writer's job to understand the material in depth and determine
how to present and "translate" it for an audience. This is a three-
step process: Analyze. Simplify. Visualize. These three steps are the
essence of scriptwriting. It doesn't matter if the production has yet
to be shot or if 50 hours of documentary footage are in the can. It's
the same process regardless of the stage of production. The writer is an
information processor. Information is the raw material. And it must
first be sorted and analyzed.
Analysis proceeds along several axes simultaneously. The first is
Importance. Rank the elements (i.e. interviews, factual information,
locations, effects etc.) in order of relative importance. This gives a
clue to the relative proportions of each "ingredient" in the final
"recipe" (script). Group the elements. For example everything shot in
a certain location might be contained in a single sequence; or pairs of
opposites might provide an organizing principle. Does the video
include a process? A sequential structure might be required in order to
understand the procedure. A thorough analysis of the elements of the
story gives the writer the ability and the freedom to creatively
arrange and re-arrange them. Before a coherent structure can be
created, the writer must have a thorough understanding of the components
of the video "under construction."
Video is a linear, time bound medium. Most people look at a tape once
in strict sequence. They have limited attention spans, and they don't
return to a tape to check facts or confirm instructions. 30 seconds or
30 minutes: You always have more information than your audience has
time. Make each word, each frame, each scene count.
Respect the needs of your audience. They expect to be entertained and
informed. It's counterproductive to squander viewer attention and
interest on information that is too complex, unclear, unnecessary, or
better presented in another format and context. Only by ruthlessly
paring down information to its essence do you have a chance of capturing
an audience and holding their attention. In video scriptwriting "less
is (almost) always more." The more straigtforward the script, the more
streamlined the production. (Not an inconsequential consideration --no
matter what the budget.) Short simple scripts are more cost effective,
easier to shoot, and given limited time and resources, more likely to
have greater viewer impact.
A video production has to start with images. It's the effective use of
images that deliver your message on a visceral level. Although this is
very obvious, its importance cannot be overestimated. Movement and
action are much more compelling than yet another "talking head."
Information that doesn't have a compelling visual counterpart usually
doesn't belong in a tape. Manuals, charts, lists of instruction, and
precise legal technicalities probably are better dealt with in print.
Pictures, music, and sound do more than support the words of a script.
They convey information and shape feelings and attitudes in a way
difficult to ignore. It's pacing and rhythm which make these elements
The writer gives life to cold concepts and ideas. The scriptwriter must
be able to imagine the transformation from ideas and words to concrete
images. Allow the images to take on a life of their own and the script
will become a dynamic, organic creation. Remember that excitement and
energy are often created at the edges --in the juxtaposition of shots and
images, in the transition from scene to scene, in the push and pull of
the rising action. A good writer develops an intuitive sense about this
energy -- like a surfer on the wave.
Style and Approach
After completing the essentials ---analyzing, simplifying, visualizing--
a writer knows what the program is about, and knows what information is
critical. The next step is to determine how best to tell the story. The
tone of the tape must be appropriate for the content and for the
intended audience. Humor, exaggeration, outrage, earnestness -- the
writer creates the emotional tone and point-of-view which best represent
the intent of the program.
Don't shortcut the importance of ethics and fairness. The urge to
create a dramatic program within the time and budget available is
formidable. All scriptwriting depends upon creating a condensed,
heightened reality. In choosing the style and approach for your program
It's essential to consider your responsibility to the subjects
of the tape. Cheap shots and distortions have a way of backfiring and
undermining the credibility of the program you've worked so diligently
Outlines. Treatments. Storyboards. Scripts.
Scriptwriting like all creative enterprises is a process. It unfolds in
increments. All writers are familiar with the steps. The most basic is
an outline. Sometimes outlines are only implicit. Almost all writing
benefits from the process of committing an outline to paper. Fuzzy
connections and unsupported transitions should be mercilessly exposed.
The outline is a blueprint for the script to come. It's incomplete
unless it clearly indicates a motivated beginning, middle and end. Your
outline is crucial to the construction of a coherent script.
Once the outline is completed and approved, the Treatment follows. This
is a summary, based on the outline. If each talking point in the
outline becomes a short paragraph, the treatment for a half hour program
might run about 3 pages. Often the treatment is incorporated into a
proposal for a potential client or financial backer. In this case the
treatment is also a selling tool. It should present the description of
the proposed program dynamically -- giving a sense of color as well as
content. By all means avoid distancing the reader of a treatment.
Avoid constructions such as: "....and then we see....." or "...next
the camera shows/pans/zooms...." Straightforward descriptive exposition
is much more effective.
The Storyboard is an illustrated version of the script. A storyboard
resembles a vertical comic book. Line drawings are made for each camera
set-up on the left half of the page. Audio descriptions and dialogue
accompany each drawing on the right side of the page. This can be a time
consuming and expensive proposition. A storyboard is a not essential
for most productions. It's particularly useful in illustrating the look
and camera angles of difficult or unusual shooting situations. And
storyboards are confidence builders for skittish clients --assuring them
that the script will produce a visual product meeting their
There are a variety of script formats. The formal, elaborate, full-page
script with camera and scene directions included is best left for
feature films. The extra wide margins of a live action television
scripts aren't often necessary. The simplest, most common, and most
useful script format for a nonfiction video production is two parallel
columns--the AV Script. The left side describes the Video; the right
the Audio. Reading down the page it's possible to get a sense of the
development of the story. It's not necessary and often counter-
productive to specify particular camera angle or set-ups. Leave this to
the director. A good rule of thumb: one page of script equals about
one minute of completed video.
After the script is finally approved, it's a simple matter to rearrange
this sequential presentation into a Shooting Script. The shooting
script groups set-ups by location and personnel to be taped. It's much
more efficient to shoot all the action taking place in one location
before moving to another.
Scriptwriting demands more than a command of basic writing skills. Good
grammar, an active voice and sensitive ears are all required. The best
scripts are Concise. Punchy. Specific. Sentence fragments have their
place. Each word counts. And must be chosen for both content and tone.
Jargon, cliches, buzzwords and unnecessary technical language burden a
script. Nothing dates a program more surely than yesterday's fashion:
"Read my lips." Parallelism, symmetry and in some cases repetition are
often successful structural devices. Audiences tend to be insecure and
inattentive. A false step in narrative structure too often leads to
sudden death by terminal confusion or asphyxiation by boredom.
Narration is often the tape's primary voice. It guides viewers and
reassures them that there is indeed a point to the story they're being
told. A narrator adds authority to a presentation. It's vital that
narration be written for a particular person. Envision the narrator as
a character of a certain age, race, sex, and economic level. A narrator
who brings a sense of personality to a reading is more believable than a
faceless, colorless disembodied voice. A "voice-of-god" narration is
rarely, if ever, effective.
The narrator's credibility can come from a variety of sources. A
celebrity narrator can bring fame and a reputation for excellence to a
production. A CEO has certain kind of authority. (An authority who's
also a celebrity ---Lee Iacocca for example--might be appropriate for a
certain kind of program.) Often it's the "voice-of-experience;"
sometimes the "voice-of-reason" which supplies the necessary
credibility. More than anything else, it's the narrator's voice that
draws the viewer into your program. Choose carefully.
Writers are often called upon to work closely with video editors. A
good editor appreciates well-written transitions, and understands how a
a judicious explanation can save valuable minutes of screen time.
Likewise writers need to appreciate the power of a wordless montage, the
utility of (visual) symbols and the tools and craft of editing.
Flexibility and imagination are the keys to successful rewrites in post
production. Writers need to let go of words that slow down the pace
and rhythm of a program. Breathing space, music and sound effects all
can speak eloquently. These are tools that an accomplished scriptwriter
learns to appreciate.
An accomplished scriptwriter is able to "write to picture." Language
sometimes must conform to a particular pictorial order and duration.
Writing must be made to measure. Careful honing and pruning usually
yield the required effect.
To paraphrase a favorite writer (Dorothy Parker) --"Writing well is the
best revenge." Practice, as always, is what's most required. Let me
suggest a couple of exercises. Get a tape of a program similar to one
you'd like to write a script for. Ask a friend to briefly summarize
the program. You need a good general sense of what the show is about.
Now watch the program with the sound turned off. Make a shot list
describing the visuals in a 5 or 10 minute section that seems
particularly effective. Working from the shot list, write an
accompanying narration. See if you can stimulate interest in the
material, create appropriate transitions, and stay within existing shot
lengths. When you're finished with your script, review the program with
the audio turned up. This time transcribe the audio from the program
to your script/shot list. See if you can identify the devices used in
the script. Are they effective? Could this material be organized
differently? What captures your interest? How do the visuals advance
the action? How does your imagined narration compare with the actual
script? You'll soon see that there are many effective ways to organize
In the final analysis it's usually a familiar dramatic structure that
makes a program work. Fiction or nonfiction, video or print, it's the
human story that audiences are interested in most. Some facts, a
personal point-of-view, and a sense of humor out perform expensive
technology. "The writer is the wizard; the pencil, a magic wand."
Mark Freeman is a writer/producer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He
has written scripts and narration for Eli Wallach, Studs Terkel and
Robert Redford. Over the past five years he has developed and taught
Nonfiction Scriptwriting Workshops. His most recent production The
Yidishe Gauchos screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival, the
Melbourne Festival and received a Gold Apple at the National Educational
Film and Video Festival.