By Doug Gritzmacher
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films, Denver, Colorado Google+
In the late ’90s I interned at a production company that made a half-hour program for PBS each week on various foreign policy and national security issues. The other intern and I lobbied hard to have a crack at creating an episode on our own. Our superiors eventually relented and we were assigned a story on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Pretty dry stuff, which is probably why they gave it to us. Be careful what you wish for.
We did this assignment just before the dawn of non-linear editing, so when we got into post-production it meant working with videotape decks. The way it worked in those days is once you had a completed script you popped a blank videotape in one deck and the interview master videotapes in the other deck. You would fast-forward through the interview videotapes looking for each soundbite that made it into your script. Once you found the bite, you hit play on that deck, then record on the deck holding your blank tape. In between soundbites you left a certain amount of blank space on the videotape.
Once you were done with that you had your “A-roll,” which was an assembly of all your interview bites. In those blank spaces that were left you then recorded in your “B-roll,” which were all the visuals you had collected.
(If this sounds like the dark ages, I agree.)
What this amounts to is a program driven by words first, pictures second. Since video and film are visual mediums, it would seem this process has it backward. And it is. And it dominates the medium. How did this happen?
The ability to exploit that is what makes us filmmakers, otherwise we would just be writers.
The historical answer is because television was borne from radio. Radio is a medium driven by words. Since no one was familiar with how to tell stories with pictures when television was invented, early scripters turned to the practices of radio for direction. And this is how we got stories for a visual medium that puts pictures in the back seat … and how we got that dreaded term “B-roll.” Ugh.
Because stories constructed in this fashion dominate the motion-visual media landscape, it is what we have all come to expect, including our clients. This means most of our videos are going to start out word-driven. Key term there being “start out.” While we may all expect word-driven video, we still all are most impressed and moved by visuals. After all, the ability to exploit that is what makes us filmmakers, otherwise we would just be writers. So while we make sure there is a logical flow of thought in terms of the words spoken in our videos, we still use visuals for the heavy-lifting.
But first you need the words. How do you write a script for a video?
We recently completed a series of nonprofit videos for the Braille Institute at their headquarters. It was a project that got me thinking about the answer to that and proved to be an perfect example for my personal video script-writing process.
For the videos we interviewed eight people among their staff, management, and students. Each were about 30-60 minutes. That amounted to a rather thick transcript. Here is our step-by-step process for breaking that down into a script.
1. PREP THE MASTER TRANSCRIPT
First assemble the transcripts from all your speakers into one document. Make sure you have time stamps included on your transcripts.
The transcript will have “Speaker 1” or your interviewee name attached to each answer. Replace these with the speaker name (if not already included) and add a number in front of the name so that each interview soundbite is numbered sequentially. So you have “1 Jane” “2 Jane”, and so on.
2. GET ANALOG AND GET COMFY
Print out the transcript, grab a highlighter, find a comfortable spot to sit, and highlight those passages that you like. For this stage I like to be relaxed and comfortable so I can just focus on reading. You could simply just highlight on the computer docs and skip the printing, but I personally don’t like reading that much text on a screen and I like being able to get away from the work station for this stage.
3. BACK TO DIGITAL
Duplicate the highlighted passages you have now on paper to those docs on your computer. In the formatting bar of Microsoft Word you can highlight a passage with a color from the drop-down pallet. Then cut and paste these highlighted passages into a new document.
4. IDENTIFY YOUR THEMES
Now create new documents, one for each theme you want to address in the video. For the Braille videos, we had themes like “Camaraderie”, “Braille”, “What it’s like to go blind”, etc. Cut and paste the soundbites into whichever theme they match up with.
5. LET THE SCRIPTING BEGIN!
For this stage you are going back to paper. Print each theme. I like to be able to see everything at once so I find a big surface and lay all the paper out in front of me. As a first step in actually getting something of a script going, I place the categories out in front of me based on the order I think I want to address them in the video. I then take a pen and a blank piece of paper. I take the soundbites I like and then using my shorthand chicken scratch I write them down on the paper in the order I like.
I prefer doing this with paper and pen because I find it more liberating and more conducive to creativity than using the computer. I can also move closer to the speed of my brain using a pen than I can using a computer. This stage is the most crucial and so I don’t want anything to get in the way of a great idea.
6. BREAK THE SCRIPT INTO SECTIONS
Once you have the soundbites scratched down in the order you like, write a number next to each section. Transfer that number back to the soundbite on the theme pages you printed out.
7. PREPARING FOR THE EDIT
Open back up the master transcript on your computer. Take your printed-out pages of themes and search through the master transcript to find each soundbite. The master will have the timecode included with it. In your editing software, create a timeline called “script.” Create black video clips and label each one through however many numbers you ended up with after step 6. Using the timecode from the master transcript, locate the soundbite in the footage, then drop it in on the timeline under its corresponding number from step 6.
Once you’ve got all your soundbites laid out on your “script” timeline in the order you want them in from step 6, place this timeline above your master timeline for the video. This will allow you to pull down the soundbites you’ve chosen into your video as you construct it.
Congrats! Now you are ready to dig into the actual edit. I have a method for how I organize my visuals, too, which I will save for another post. But remember that the words you’ve collected here are just the spine of your video. The visuals are the meat you put on the bones and what will ultimately move your audience most.
Are you a nonprofit director looking for a fundraising video? See more examples about how our scriptwriting process leads to great Denver nonprofit videos.