At some point in your communications career, you will be faced with writing a video script. It comes with the territory. How you respond to this distraught pleasure will say a lot about you and your understanding of visual media.
What makes writing an av script hard is not knowing how easy it can be. By the very nature of the written word for a visual medium, the key to success is less, not more.
For one thing, you’re writing to be heard, not seen. For another, the medium is a visual one, which means it prefers the visuals to do the talking. Finally, a script for video needs a lot more than just words. It must provide visual direction, audio direction, and the essential creative blueprint that leads to the success of the project.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say that your goal is to write a short script about a new software program that helps people track their spending. Let’s call it “Fast Money”.
It’s a simple, easy to use program which can help people budget, save, an ultimately have the money they need to fulfill their dreams.
The goal of all video productions is to engage the audience by appealing to their desires. You could talk about how “Fast Money” has been written by coders certified in C++, how it is delightful in its use of a user-friendly GUI, and how it automatically sends back error messages to “Fast Money” HQ so that the program can be constantly improved.
But you’d be talking to yourself, because the potential buyer doesn’t care about any of that. They care about money. Their money. Their life. Their future.
SO you need to create a hook. A way to start the script that talks right to them and their needs.
SO you begin writing:
ANNOUNCER: You want to make Money! VISUAL: Picture of Dollar Bill. SOUND EFFECT: Ka-Ching. MUSIC: Money, by Pink Floyd.
Well, it’s a start, if you want to hit your audience with a sledgehammer.
Hitting audiences with sledgehammers doesn’t create intrigue. But this is often the approach an unseasoned writer will take– they’ll cover all the bases.
The good news is, luckily, you don’t need to know or present all those technical facts. What you need is a way to engage the audience on their terms.
Instead, try writing without using words– ie, skip the narrator for now and create a scene instead.
SCENE: Slow zoom in on man working at kitchen table, He has a yellow legal pad, a checkbook, and a calculator. He looks worried and is wiping imaginary sweat from his brow. A woman, his wife, walks in behind him and looks over his shoulder.
HE: It doesn’t look good.
ANNOUNCER: Too familiar? It’s hard to save a buck these days.
VISUAL: Alternating close-ups of the couples faces, cutaway to their checkbook showing small negative balance, cutaway to pile of bills.
Now, that was fun! Instead of a litany of facts and figures, suitable only for the engineer that developed the product, we’ve now created an emotional scenario almost anyone running a household can identify with. They’re ready to hear more.
And we didn’t use corny music, jangling cash registers, overblown prose, or dollars marching off a cliff.
Now you’re on your way to being a scriptwriter. Yes, you should know the facts. But no, the audience doesn’t need all of them. They need reasons to care. And you’ve just given that to them.
Now, they’ll listen to more– even if there are a few facts thrown in.
For more than a decade, my Aunt Virginia Lee ran the Prudential Theatre in New Canaan, Connecticut, called the New Canaan Playhouse. My father’s family lived in Norwalk, Connecticut, and New Canaan back then was about a half-hour ride down a two lane highway. So I, my brother and my sister alternated taking “vacations” with the Lees of Stevens Street. My grandparents, being grandparents, and having worked in the hat factory most of their lives, would on occasion persuade “Aunt Ginny” to take the visiting minikid to the theater with her, to give aging Ma and Pop Lee a few hours off.
This was the best thing that ever happened to me. Starting at age 7, and ending at age 15, I spent a few weeks, then a few months every summer at the theater. The last two summers, I was employed as an usher and learned how to walk backwards with a flashlight (when theaters were still truly dark). And a saw a lot of movies. In those days the Playhouse was a single screen theater, there were two or three shows a day: 7pm and 9:30pm, and on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a Matinee as well. My grandfather worked the matinees as the ticket taker, resplendent in his starched shirt and bow-tie.
Of course, as I spent more and more time at the theater, I got to see some great movies, as many as 16 times in a row. Some of the those films really affected me, and I’m here to list the top five and why.
This is now regarded as one of the great science fiction films of the fifties. It uses an all-electronic score, even for the opening credits, which were credited as “tonalities” not music.
It is the story of a spaceship from our planet (led by square-jawed pre-Airplane Leslie Nielsen) going to a remote planet to retrieve a scientist who is the sole survivor of an exploratory crew sent 20 years before. Leslie falls in love with his daughter (miniskirted Anne Francis), the doctor has strange mental powers, there are weird howls and images of large lions jumping through the air It’s all because of some left-behind technology by a prior civilization, who built a giant underground machine to pump up their intelligence.
For a 7 year old, it was frightening. Sitting in the tenth row, I actually called out repeatedly to my aunt when one of the monsters showed up on the screen. She wasn’t happy.
But this wasn’t a creature from outer space movie. It was actually a take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and very thought provoking, even for a seven year old. Repeated viewings much later via dvd and vhs proved that to me.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Kirk Douglas is a cowboy lost in a modern (the 1960’s) world. He’s the last of a breed, and wanted by the law. The film is a study of a man trying to adapt to a new world, one which he has ignored most of his life in favor of the “old ways”. But modern police methods, big city traffic, new attitudes and the pace of a new world are seemingly too much for a man on a horse. I only saw this one once, and I don;t remember the ending. But the empathy you feel for Kirk and his own view of the world are very real, and you root for him to elude capture (if I remember, he doesn’t but I may be mixing it up with “Cool Hand Luke”).
Irma La Douce (1963)
Well, if I hadn’t already reached puberty, this would have done the trick… Shirley MacLaine as a Paris prostitute. This was a Billy Wilder film with all of his typical humor, and features Jack Lemmon as a naive cop. Shirley teaches him a few tricks. It also features Lou Jacobi in the role that really made him, but that’s another story. Great music track, basically studio shot (I know Paris streets can be small but not that small). I only saw this a few times, so I don’t remember the whole thing, but took a look at a few minutes on Amazon the other night and got reacquainted with my Catholic guilt.
A Shot in The Dark (1964)
Now we start the summer where I worked for three straight months, and these are the films I saw 16 times each. Let’s start with a “Shot in the Dark”, the second Pink Panther film and this time I fell in love with Elke Sommer, the femme fatale of the movie. Peter Sellers is in his prime as police detective Inspector Clouseau, and Herbert Lom is his long suffering commander his first appearance in the series). George Sanders is the perfectly oily villain, setting up Elke Sommer to take the fall for a murder. And speaking of falls, there are plenty, from the tumbles in the suprise practice judo attacks of manservant Cato, and all kinds of pratfalls , both dry and wet, by Sellars. Also, in this film he began using the exaggerated French accent that he would use for the rest of the series.The main theme by Henry Mancini uses an early synthesizer as the lead instrument, and is perfectly paced for the cartoon vignettes that used to populate the credits in comedies like this. I can stil laugh at this film!
The Carpetbaggers (1964)
Was a fifteen year old boy ready for this film? No, but I loved it. “This is the story of Jonas McCord”….so begins the narration, and so begins this story, really, of Howard Hughes, as Hollywood would see it. There is sex, big time fights (Jonas and Alan Ladd as Nevada Smith– his last role), more sex, an unrequited love, crazy airplane daredevilry, and lots of alcohol. The music by Elmer Bernstein is incredible– pulsating western motives, in a big movie large orchestra style. Get the soundtrack on CD if you can. I never stole any f this music for my early slide shows but I should have.
EXTRA: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
My Aunt told Headquarters she would have nothing to do with it! So I went to see it that summer in Pleasantville, New York with my friend Dave English. I would have preferred seeing it 16 times at the New Canaan Playhouse.
The New Canaan Playhouse was a single screen theater back then, and the last time I was there (begging to be let in for a looksee) it had been split into two theaters. It is now run by BowTie Cinemas, which is a good sign.
During my run as an usher, I broke up two lovemaking sessions in the balcony, ate a lot of candy working at the candystand, read and collected a lot of press kits (where I was introduced to the world of blatant PR), and spent an inordinate amount of time in the projection booth with Jimmy, the potbellied old man who I had to assume worked there forever. I also learned to drink gallons of coffee in paper cups from the variety store next door.
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This is the most popular form of “first time” video use in the corporate world. I say “first time” because everytime a new marketing manager or multimedia corporate manager is hired, this is their first video, even though it may have been produced by others dozens of times. But time marches on, and the basic “Corporate Overview” is never out of style. Humble beginnings, incredible growth, state-of-the-art products, remarkable people, and of course, god-like management who can see the future– these are the basic story points. And as for the future– we’ll be there.
Our Country, Our Company: We Grew Up Together!
If your companyhistory is boring, this is the way to jazz it up. Dress up your company’s minor accomplishments by surrounding them with parallel happenings from history. To open a meeting for a boiler company whose product hadn’t changed much in 45 years, we did just that– did a decade by decade rundown of world wars, pop culture events, moon landings, wars, and, oh yes, the one or two acquisitions the company had made and pictures of their aging sales agents along with a dash of “Aren’t We Great”. It was an unbelievable success. The company’s current sales malaise? We blamed it on the hippies.
New for The (Insert your decade here)!
When your decade gets past the five year mark, it’s time to start talking about the next decade and how much greater the company will be then. New technologies, new ideas, new products, new marketing– it’s all around the corner. Couple this with flying 3D text and psychedelic motion backgrounds, and you’ve just made it past another sales meeting.
You’re Not the Slug You Think You Are!
Getting more out the company’s people is the job of the Human Resources Department. Every so often, it comes time to remind the employees that they are an important part of something REALLY BIG (and it’s time to get their collective asses in gear)! So you come up with a theme for some posters and then decide to do a video based around that theme– Let’s call it “Dare to Be Great!” Now it’s time to toss around phrases like “Exceeding Expectations” and “Paradigm Shift” and “Core Competencies” and blend them with employee interviews with scared, shell shocked (those lights are bright) employees trying to say something positive about the company. You’ll save it at the end with a nice, motivational montage of workers waving at the camera.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread! (Alternate: Even Better than Before!)
It’s time to roll out the new products. (If your product is actually a first of its kind, skip to the next section). Next year’s model has…uh… a NEW logo, an incredible 1% increased efficiency in the deeblewopper, and a new model number. This calls for sexy slow pans across the product, every damn inch of it. Big music tells the audience this is important, and, if this is at meeting, maybe impress the audience with a 10X scale model of the Dominator 3000 (always use next century in your model numbers). And, oh, yeah, dry ice all over the damn place for that foggy glow.
He’s 75 Years Old, Let’s Give him a Tribute Before It’s Too Late!
Someone at corporate has just discovered Willard S. Smocks, a store manager in Staten Island, is 75 years old and has been with the company for 50 years. Time for a nice tribute. Send a crew out to get shots of him at work, record nice words from his fellow workers, and gather old pictures if there are any. Make sure you get the passing of the plaque from the regional assistant director (that’s all the company can muster) to Willard surrounded by his loving co-workers. At the shoot, you discover he’s camera-shy, kind of grumpy (he never made it to corporate), and his co-workers are hanging on for his oft-threatened retirement to vie for the store manager position. Fix it in post with a freeze frame of his half-smile and the words “Congratulations, Willard” underneath.
For Better Lighting, Soften Things Up. A popular inexpensive light for on-camera or light stand use is the Neweer 160. It is a relatively small LCD that comes with a couple of color slides-ins to soften or change color temperature. I have a couple.
But even with variable strength control, it causes glares if I try to use it for a tutorial or quick video.
The answer is the Neweer Softbox for the 160, available on Amazon. It fits over the light, diffuses and softens it, and should have a definite impact. I get mine Wednesday… I’ll try it and let you know.
Ken Burns has been credited with devising the “smooth moves on stills” effect that has permeated his various award winning productions. But, for history’s sake, I’d like to claim that this effect was developed simultaneously across the country by “multi-image” slideshow makers.
I’ve written here previously, and in my book “The Videobiz: A Practical Guide for Video Startups”, slidemakers using 2 or more projectors and the capability to transition smoothly between each image pushed the envelope to imitate motion. This, coupled with a great soundtrack, often convinced audiences they were seeing “movies”.
The slide shows often used historical still mixed with original photography. The historical images were shot on a camera stand, first manually– cranking the camera up and down to frame the picture– then, automatically, using programmable copy stands manufactured by Marron-Carroll and others.
The smart director would ask the camera operator to shoot three or 4 shots in a row “pushing in” to the picture (or pulling out) or panning left or right or diagonally. Combining these sequences with dissolves or cuts between the pictures simulated a sequence that added visual interest to otherwise static medium. Above is a short excerpt from such a show we produced in 1977 for Cleaver-Brooks.
Eventually this became second nature, and became part of the language in “multi-image” slideshows. It was a phenomenon I used to call “spontaneous combustion”– the fact that many people working along similar paths wouldld develop similar techniques and solutions to keep progressing along those paths. In other words, we in Milwaukee weren’t the only ones doing this.
In early 1978, we were asked to produce an opening “module” (as we used to call them) tracing the history of the credit union movement for the Credit Union Executives Society based in Madison, Wisconsin. This was our fourth or fifth assignment from them, having produced multi-screen slideshows for their annual and marketing meeting the last few years.
Feeling a bit bored, I suggested we should do the opening module in video instead of slides. Video projectors were pretty rare back then, but we had successfully used video projection for advertising awards shows in the past. That way we could show commercials that had been produced on video in their native format, rather than transferring them to film, which wasn’t cheap.
Renting the projector wasn’t cheap either, but the manufacturers of the one giant projector that coud actually do the job was willing to cut us a break on the $9000 rental cost in order to expose it to an audience of advertising pro’s. Yes, $9000. This giant behemoth, which stook five feet by four feet, had to be transported by train or truck. And allow two weeks.
So we worked out a deal with the manufacturer, got approval from the client, and went about starting to produce the video opener. We rented a video camera, and borrowed a Sony u-Matic editing system from the owner of the local Milwaukee Sub Sandwich Shop Suburpia. Why exactly he had such gear I still do not know. But it had come up in conversation at a bar, so I took advantage of that.
Soon we had hundreds of great black and white photographs detailing the history of the credit union movement. Now, what would we do with them to make this opener visually interesting?
Well for one thing, I had already developed a rather quick paced edit style in slide shows, so I wanted to keep doing that, only with video. We didn’t have any graphics or special effects capability other than quick cuts, so whatever we wanted to do would have to be done in camera. No problem. Photographer (now videographer) Linda Barton and I arranged our pictures chronologically, including shots of United States events to give it a universal flavor. Then, we proceeded to choreograph pans, zooms, pull outs, tilt-ups– anything we could do with camera movement and the zoom lens– and shot the historical video section of the video sequentially in camera. Live video was shot in a more traditional style, but still allowing for the long shot, medium shot, wide shot cutaway basics. It’s interesting to see this now (a short segment is below (sourced from vhs; please excuse the dropouts) and compare it to the earlier Cleaver-Brooks slide show– especially since we used some of the same historical photos.
Editing was then done to a soundtrack assembled– for the first time– as part of the edit. (I had done the majority of our soundtracks up to that time, so this was a natural extension for me.)
When it was all said and done, we had a video. We created some special title effects at a local “real” editing studio– it took all of an hour at most– and inserted those into the opening and close of the video.
Perfecting the Technique
Six months later, we were working on our first documentary– the life story of Eugene O’Neill, in concert with the Milwaukee Rep. By this time we had film editing equipment, and one of my partners, Rob Riordan, did similar magic using stills shot in a faux “rehearsal” by my other partner Ric Sorgel. It turned out beautifully, and that short segment in shown below.
I don’t remember when Ken Burns emerged on the scene, but I do remember mentioning to my wife at home watching one of his beautiful videos, “That style looks familiar.” I’m sure many slideshow makers across the country were thinking the same thing.
If you’re trying to reach potential customers, you have two ways to do it: digital and physical.
If you’re young, you probably know about digital. Facebook groups, Instagram, websites, Reddit…. and if you’re older, you’re more comfortable with the physical (in person) approach. Joining clubs, attending functions, taking out booth space at business conferences, direct mail, and that old favorite– cold calling.
Of course, a mix of the two is the correct choice. I must emphasise to those younger (much younger) than me… making REAL contact involves you showing up somewhere in person and having a business card ready.
A short conversation, a request to follow up, an exchange of business cards… BAM! You’ve got a lead.
This doesn’t matter whether you’re into corporate work or consumer work. People don’t like talking to machines, and the web is full of noise, so people are for more cynical about things they can’t see with their own eyes in real life (IRL). Any personal contact can become a lead! Even at Karaoke!
70 is just a number. But in terms of mortality, it’s a decent number. I’d rather be younger, but I’m happy to be here. And at 6:25 this evening (2-27) I will be, in fact, 70.
At a family birthday party last weekend, my son Matt asked me what inspired my move from multi-image slideshows into video production as the primary medium for “audio-visual communications”.
We were waiting in the car for his bus back to NYC. Just as I was about to start spewing whatever popped into my head, his bus rolled up. As we said our goodbyes, I remember that I had written something about that move way back when. It was for the magazine “Multi-Images”, which was published by AMI, the Association for Multi-Image, the trade group for those in the multiple slide projector show business.
I found the article, scanned it, and sent the PDF to him the next day. It was written five years after I left my first business to start a second business on my own, bringing some staffers from the first business with me. Date of publication was 1987 or so. What I wrote was basically honest, although I simplified the motivations for starting over somewhat. Anyway, the PDF is below, and if you’re up for a magazine article sized read, you’re welcome to indulge and comment.
David Harnish, longtime manager of Walgreens’ Meetings and Media Department, has passed.
It is devastating for his wife Nancy, brother Paul, and his Walgreens co-workers of his expansive career at Wilmot Rd.
My fellow employees at Brien Lee Creative Solutions / VideoStory know how devastating this is for creative types throughout the Chicago and Milwaukee markets.
I last saw David at his retirement party in 2016. It was an amazing gathering of his fellow employees and bosses, closest suppliers, and by videotape, a procession of current and prior Walgreens CEOs.
I first met David when he and his then department head came up to Milwaukee when I was working at Visuals Plus. I had hosted a show and tell in Chicago of the then magic video box, the TVL. The TVL Director, as it was called, was a precursor to today’s big-time video graphics boards. It allowed for limited computer video editing, special effects, smooth speaker support, and timed audio-visuals shows comprised of images and a soundtrack, much like the enhanced slide shows that had preceded it.
The owner of Visuals Plus was attracted to the boss, naturally, but I figured out who the power player really was– David. He knew about technology; he seemed to understand meetings. After the boss duo had grabbed an elevator, I said to David, “I know who’s really running the show.” He smiled.
Over the course of the next few months, we hit it off, and what started as a new way to create slides became an opportunity to create a couple of “modules” for their upcoming managers meeting. Here’s the thing– David didn’t tell anyone he had contracted for this. Up until that time, he had used “rental modules” produced in multimedia widescreen slides to start and end his meetings. No one, not even the President of the company, was aware of what he was doing.
The two three-screen videos we produced were an opening Americana piece, showing how Walgreens was a coast-to-coast part of American lives, and an original rock song which featured a wide range of Walgreens people mouthing the words to the song, some in humorous situations.
They had a major impact. For one thing, they codified Walgreens’ corporate image. For another, they made the audience feel good about themselves and their role in the company.
That started a nearly 25 year partnership that bi-annually answered the question, “How do we top that?”
Every time a meeting was announced we met at the Greek Restaurant in Gurnee, Illinois to come up with a creative direction, usually based on a theme (for instance, “The Magic of Balance”) that the execs had dreamed up.
And everytime, there was technological and creative growth.
The other part of David’s impact on me personally came after Visuals Plus closed its doors suddenly in 1994. When 1995 arrived, I was working for TVL as a Marketing Director. It was a home office job, and by this time others at Visuals Plus had started their own companies. But I felt the rug had been pulled out from under me, and didn’t take any creative job offers that had come my way. In fact, I convinced TVL to rent an inexpensive office in Milwaukee so I could do Demos.
Then I got a call from David. “I have a meeting coming up.” We jointly decided it would be advantageous to bring the gang together once again. I started a new business, which David named “Brien Lee Creative Solutions” and we picked up where we left off, now fully into video meetings. Our best work was yet to come, including a mixed media stage show celebrating Walgreens’ 100th Anniversary. (I love anniversary shows).
David was always the guy Walgreens came to for communications advances. We partnered on many of these, like interactive DVD’s, starting up the in-house video network, e-learning systems, video compression for the network, non-linear video editing and more.
I was especially proud when David’s boss, Jim Schultz, invited my small company to attend David’s 25th anniversary party at Walgreens. It had incredible meaning for my staff and I.
In 2011, David was asked to do a timelapse video of the buildout of a new Duane Reade store at the Trump Building near Wall Street in New York. This was so successful, it lead to two more “time lapse stories” for store new stores in San Francisco and the “Net Zero Energy” store in Evanston, Illinois.
This brought us to 2014.
Those who knew him know what a talented, sweet guy he was. I know he worried about everything, partially because of his drive to be more creative, a better boss, a better husband and friend, and the best “Keeper of the Flame” Walgreens will ever see. The only words I could think of when I learned of his passing was “HE WAS A GIANT.” My condolences to Nancy, Paul, and all his friends and cohorts– we all are better for have knowing David.
I am attaching below two things: David’s 50th Birthday video, and a write-up I did in 2007 recalling most of the work we had done together until that point. Both bring back memories of David driving through empty ballrooms in his golf-cart. You’ll find both below.