This article is for companies who want to tell their own story and want to tell it well.
Typically I don't like revealing industry secrets, but with the ever increasing demand for brands to be 'always on' for their customers, content needs to be delivered promptly and effectively.
There are also fluctuating budget constraints for varying sizes of companies and there's actually a lot of content that brands and startups can make for themselves. But before you start getting out the iPhone, I've written down some of my top pro tips to help get you started.
After thirteen years of experience in writing, directing and producing narrative-driven branded stories and commercials for companies like Clarks, Unilever, O2, Selfridges and Virgin - I have seen a big change in the marketing ecosystem of brands, agencies and filmmakers.
Brands are bypassing their agencies to work directly with filmmakers and production houses. Even large advertising agencies work with storytellers and directors through in-house production units, and similarly some brands have their own video content producers and departments.
Essentially there is a move towards ownership of your content.
Less links in the chain ensure less friction and a faster, more efficient process. However what remains the same is the requirement for the idea creator to tell a good story and deliver the staple technical requirements of film production: which is to create a high quality end product.
If you have not written your brand story or production script check out my article on storytelling tips
1. Who Are You Talking To?
Instagram followers? Digital Mums? Millennials? Is it an internal PR video to raise morale and shout about your successes? Or a glossy commercial that needs to look incredible and win engagement?
You need to know why you are making the video in the first place before you can decide on the creative and technical elements that I will discuss below. Creatively, a lot will depend on who you are talking to and what platform you intend to distribute on.
For example the tone has to feel right for the target market and media channel you have chosen. So a more colourful, youth oriented video will likely perform better on Instagram than on LinkedIn – where a more thoughtful, corporate message may yield sharper cut-through.
It's really important to get this question right from the start because it informs every decision you will make from that point and will greatly affect your budget and timeline.
2. Pick A Great Cinematographer
A cinematographer is another term for a director-of-photography. There are also cameramen and camerawomen – who typically own gear and are proficient with cameras.
In my experience an individual who calls themselves a DOP or Cinematographer is typically, but not always, more creatively minded, whereas a camera-person could be someone well seasoned in shooting factual content for the BBC or with live interviews.
You may indeed be shooting an interview or a factual piece and then a camera person would work very well. I am assuming that you are going for something that looks a bit more 'branded' – which one can assume looks more polished, filmic and discernibly composed in terms of shot selections.
It may sound obvious, but pick a really good cinematographer. Unless you have one in-house, or you know a professional, then make sure you check out their website and their portfolio. Try to find the visual style you want somewhere on their reel, or at least see if they have made stuff in the right tone.
A pro tip: it's hard to beautifully light an interior set and compose a shot sequence really well – I think that's why great cinematographers are hard to find and those who are good are extremely busy.
So have a look at what interiors they have lit, especially night scenes and analyse their frame composition for close-ups and interviews.
It's also a very demanding job, dealing with heavy cameras and lights, multiple camera and lighting assistants, demanding directors and talent – so make sure you interview the cinematographer first to ensure they are calm and friendly.
They can help set the tone of a set – and you don't want anyone to pull a Christian Bale on you!
3. What Camera Should You Use?
A good place to start is to see what other competitors and pioneers in your industry are doing to see the prevailing benchmark of quality.
For example, if your brand is in the luxury industry and Chopard is a competitor, then you probably need to invest in hiring a good camera to match their prestige level of film storytelling.
It is often said on a film set that a lot can be done in post-production, but it is not true and it's an expensive backup option - filmmaking is not just-add-filters, it is the art of moving images.
Also if it were that easy we would have a lot of high spec ads and Netflix movies shot on phones and pro-sumer DSLRS (I will explain these below) – but we don't because like any piece of high-end technology, there is a difference in quality, which depending on the camera set up and lens can be very large indeed.
The good news is, if you hire a great cinematographer – they will advise you on this and on what lens to use, and if you are lucky they may have connections to a camera rental house, or even own a good camera and lens themselves.
If they do promote using their own camera gear, just make sure you are happy with the set up matching your brief, and if so you may get a great all-in-one deal.
So here is a list of high quality cameras and situations where you might use it. I've also put a few links to rental houses in the UK that I have used personally or been recommended, as well as a link to an iPhone camera lens which I use to improve my personal videos.
On a budget but want a high end look:
Good quality cameras for interviews, corporate films, social media videos, selfie-style videos and startups on a budget. Try these prosumer and Digital SLR cameras: Panasonic GH5 and GH4, Sony FS7, Sony A7S, Canon C300
Black Magic 4K – I really like this camera. It's less fiddly then it once was, and gives a nice raw look with good colour grading options.
Canon C300 or the Arri Amira – if your DOP can handle it, go for an earlier but bulkier model - but make sure it has the latest software upgrades and you may get it a little cheaper.
Cameras for commercials, animation, short films and cinematic documentaries
Arri Alexa, Arri Amira, RED, Sony F55
iPhone X & Mobile Phones – you can make some really great stuff with the top of the range phones. I personally would stick to making personal films with them, not because of quality, but because of the limitations of the lenses, depth of field and tracking.
However you can still make nice videos by buying a lens adaptor case and a gimbal. I recently bought a lens from Moment App – you can check them out and see videos from their community.
Lenses: This will depend greatly on the camera, what mount it has and what kind of film you're making. Rare anamorphic glass can cost thousands to rent, we shot a Shakespeare short film on old vintage Leica glass - or a standard Carl Zeiss or Canon set would save some of your budget without reducing the quality too much.
We recently used the Samyang/Rokinon lenses which are cheaper than top level prime lenses and achieved a great look for our commercial for Adidas
Rental Houses in the UK:
Fat Llama – a gumtree style marketplace for technical items – you can get a bargain and it's fully insured
4. How to Direct A Brand Video
Wear a baseball cap, grow a beard (if you can) and generally look quite self-important.
That might be what you think of film directors but the truth is it's not actually that hard to direct if you know what you want.
That's the hard part – having an unshakeably clear vision that you communicate to the crew and talent on set and then follow through in the post production process.
You are juggling the script, performances, managing the sound person's near-unhealthy obsession with planes, and thinking two steps ahead to the edit and film's release.
A good tip is to first storyboard the script on paper. It doesn't matter if you can't draw, use stick people or do a mashup using online images. Then use visual references and watch other commercials and films that have a similar tone or style to the film you are making.
As a director, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of making a film for me because I get to watch films and commercials from some of the best filmmakers. Time to squeeze the juice out of your Netflix and Amazon subscriptions, and watch as much as you can on YouTube and Vimeo for free.
Remember to take screenshots or photos of the best shots or scenes, so you can show them to your cinematographer and put them into the shot list: this is quite literally a list of the shots you need to capture on the shoot day to ensure that you tell the story (see below).
Ideally you should use excel or a spreadsheet program, which sounds antithetical to watching nineties Hong Kong art-house cinema for inspiration, but this is filmmaking and you need to balance creativity and technique.
You should iterate on your shot list, as you go through rehearsals and have discussions with your cinematographer and producer, and as a result of any budget or technical constraints.
A final tip - highlight the key storytelling shots in your shot list in a bright colour – so that if all else fails, those shots would still tell the story of your ad. In the worst case, if you run out of time on the shoot day, you should prioritise those shots so you leave the set with a coherent film.
It's common to put too many shots in the list, and a good producer or assistant director will help cut it down to a more realistic and manageable level.
5. How to Work with Actors and Performers
“What's my motivation?”
Unless you have the fortune of working with Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep then you will have to know how to pull a great performance from the subject of the video – assuming there is one. Even if they are untrained, or it's an interview with the boss – you should still always be well prepared.
If you are directing, then they are in your hands during the shoot and you have to guide them carefully and sensitively. Yes, talent can be quite delicate and self-conscious – I imagine you would be too if you were being filmed and soon to be presented to the world in a glaring close-up, but what I've found actors and performers most need is clear, concise and confident direction.
No hesitations, no misuse of your words and no confusing directions such as,
“Erm, can you be more happy but sad?”
“Erm. No. Not really,” said the befuddled actor.
Continued in the next article…
(…The final 5 Tips will be released in Part 2 of this article next week. Subscribe to my updates on my blog to get articles delivered into your inbox the day before they are published to the public!)