A brief guide to making short form items

This is a serving suggestion, not a recipe.  Like the pirate code, it’s more like guidelines than actual rules.  Where it suggests that there are rules, it’s so you can think of creative ways of breaking them.  Its primary objective is to create debate and introspection.  One of the most basic suggestions is “make your own rules for your piece, then break them.”

So, you have three minutes for your show and tell.
Before you set out, you have all the usual questions:
What’s the story?
What are you hoping to achieve by telling it?
Who is the audience, what are their expectations, and what is the context in which they’ll be seeing what you’ve made?  And who are you, the story-teller?  Are you a trusted source, well established as being reliable, or will you have to convince your audience of your authenticity as part of your story-telling technique?  (Are you BBC Newsnight or some random youtuber?)

Even these simplest of questions are in truth very complex indeed, especially if you answer them honestly.  Your audience might actually be your boss or your bosses’ boss,  and what you hope to achieve is that they be amazed at your talent for item making.   If you’re on a course designed to be teaching you about making TV, maybe you’re hoping to impress your tutors or your fellow students.  If you’re making an item on behalf of a sponsor, you’ll want to please the sponsor and make them keen to want to use you again.  Whatever the politics of the situation, you’d best have them clear in your mind before you start and not be kidding yourself – these questions are crucial, and interdependent.  Each answer will modify all the others.

Let’s assume for the purposes of simplicity that you live in a happy environment where you are an honest broker looking to inform, educate and/or entertain a mass audience with no career ambitions or sponsor’s strings attached.  You have three minutes, a budget and a story to tell with moving pictures and accompanying sound.    What are you going to put on that screen, and what will people hear while they’re watching it?  There are several blank palettes – what pictures, what music, what sound effects, what spoken text – the choices can be daunting.

Let’s look at the key questions one by one – first, what’s the story?   Well, it’s like any movie, so hopefully you’ve read all about story creation in Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”, Robert McKee’s “Story” and all the Syd Field books.  (You probably haven’t read them all, but you should!)
All the same rules apply –
What’s your log-line?
What’s your pitch?
What does the poster for your “movie” look like?

Of course, there is no poster, but it’s best you imagine one, because that’s going to provide you with your Poster Shot.  It’s the first thing to think about, and it’s going to help enormously in the making of your item, because having decided what the story is and what the poster looks like, you can now imagine your key shot – the shot that absolutely must be in your film, and must express what the story’s about.  And in one shot, please, not an event made from a series of cuts.  One shot that tells the tale.  The shot that will be slotted into the tease montage at the top of the magazine show you’re contributing to, or the shot that will be the thumbnail still that gets clicked on to get your video to play.   The shot that gets used on the end of year montage – the one that says “remember this???”  Once you have a good idea of what that shot is, you can plan up to and away from it, because you’re going to need other shots that will cut with it.  In a three minute item you’re probably going to put it somewhere really significant against the music track you’re going to use.  (Maybe not… maybe the moment is so awesome you’ll stop the music for it to happen.) And once you know what that shot is you’ve probably also got a  good idea of what music to use, if any.

You can call it the money shot, if you prefer.  I think that’s a mistake, because that might lead you to imagine that it’s a shot that’s expensive or difficult to get, and it needn’t be.  It just has to look great, and shill for the story all on its own.

It’s tempting to provide examples, but that would muddy the waters.  It’s a pretty simple exercise.  What’s the story… and given that, what’s the poster shot?  It makes everything thereafter simpler.  If your item’s a jigsaw, the poster shot is the edge pieces.  Do those first, and things will start to take shape.

On to the next crucial question – what are you hoping to achieve by telling your story?  Whatever it is, it’ll inform how you structure and shoot it.  The platform you’re making the story for will have a style guide, a list of do’s and don’ts.  And the next question also informs your choices…

Who is your audience, and what are their expectations?   What’s your demographic, and are you going to play to what you imagine to be their prejudices and stick to their reading age or antagonize them and make them think harder than normal?  Are they going to be kept in their comfort zone or taken for a bumpy ride?

Finally, what’s the context in which your film will be seen?   This is absolutely crucial in giving you information about how you’ll make it.  Will it be introduced from a studio, clicked on from a browser, shown in a cinema, played to a large gathering of people?  You wouldn’t make the same film for all cases.  Would you?  I hope not.  If your film is to be introduced by someone chatting and then setting it to play, for example, you’d be foolish not to spend a little time at the beginning settling your audience in, because they won’t pay proper attention straight away.   If you know your film will be played in to a live show you’ll want to help its success by anticipating that the host introducing it might talk a little too long over the beginning… or come up short.  So your beginning must anticipate both possibilities.  If on the other hand you know your item will be edited in to a recorded show, you can be sure that your shock start really grabs the attention from frame one.  Or maybe not – what if the show you’re contributing to has a fancy inter-item animation that takes half a second to clear frame?  Not the time for a big statement at the beginning.   So, before you start, it’s important to have asked yourself…

What’s your story?

What do you hope to achieve with it?

What’s the poster shot?

Who’s the audience,  who’s the story teller?

What’s the context in which your audience will see the item?

Once you know all these things the many choices you’re faced with as a creator of things will be pared down somewhat and easier to make.

And what’s your “style”?  Television doesn’t seem to produce many style guides, but they are useful things and nicely analogous ones can be found, supplied by magazines or organisations.  The Economist has a great one on writing that you can download on PDF.    London Transport has some beautiful style guides for how signs and documentation should look, and why.   Google “style guide” and there are thousands of them to look through.   Read some of them to get a sense of what your own style guide is, and perhaps if you’re editing a whole show, invent a style guide for it.  It’s a useful exercise.

Three further generic thoughts –

One, don’t let the narrative of the order you shot things in or the order things happened in dictate how you put it together.  As you watch through your rushes, always be mindful of where things belong – is that little grab a good beginning, or a good end?  Put them in place.  Sometimes the end of the story is the thing you tell at the start, because it draws people’s interest – they want to know how the hell things turned out that way.

Two, consider how other people will use your stuff.  Trailers and teasers will be made from your item, so best to supply the people who will be making those with perfect material for their needs.  If your item involves the unveiling of something – or any kind of reveal – don’t make the only shot worth having the moment of unveiling, or these pre-users will happily shoot your fox by just doing their job.

And Three – Try to avoid cute and clever reveals in general, unless you can be confident that everyone involved can keep a secret.  (Trust me – you can’t!)  Also, if you rely on a cute reveal, your item won’t be so much fun to watch a second time, and a third… and you want it to be resilient.  Also also… reveals are cheap and nasty story telling devices that these days are mostly get used to sell links to bad websites – She found a secret compartment in her grandma’s old dresser and OMG! – don’t be that storyteller.  It’s… not good.  And as you may have found, the story that follows is often kind of disappointing, partly because you feel you’ve been sold it with a false premise.

So, for the purposes of suggesting how all this generic applies to the specific, I’m going to invent a story of two items that involves a tortuous analogy to make a very simple point.  Don’t ask me why.  Because it’s a challenge and I’m not sure I can pull it off, perhaps.  Let’s see how I do.

So Janet and Jon are two keen young directors making items for a magazine show designed for daytime viewing.  It has a Breakfast TV in the afternoon vibe to it.  It’s an ITV product and the ads in between are for old folk insurance packages, stair lifts and baby food.  It’s on every weekday and has a rotation of six hosts, with a mix-up of two or three of them in the studio every day – sometimes the third one will be reporting from some remote location, live.

Two of this week’s item shoots are allocated to Janet and Jon – item “A” is about one of the hosts doing a piggy-back charity parachute jump.  The show will have access to go-pro footage of the jump from helmet cams as well as a camera crew both on the ground and on the plane.  The charity is hungry for the coverage and exposure so they’re making a film of their own and paying for one of the crews, so of course your team has made a deal to trade footage.  It’ll be an epic shoot and a long edit because there’s a lot of footage to sort through.

Item “B” involves one of the hosts being the star attraction at the opening of a petting zoo.

Jon gets the parachute jump, and much to her humiliation, fury and horror, Janet gets the petting zoo item, which is cut to 2m30secs so Jon can have an extra 30 for his epic parachute story.  And Janet is told to make it simple because the extra edit time for Jon’s item is coming out of her allocation.  Her item is pretty much there to fill the space, and no-body cares about it or expects anything of it.

Jon’s no slouch.  He’s got some game.  He knows his poster shot will be the moment the usually timid presenter leaps from the plane strapped to a gung-ho action and adventure para guy.  Jon’s already got it all figured out before he even gets to the shoot – the music will be a dance epic and the moment the bass kicks in will be where the poster shot goes.   Jon figures that should hit at around two minutes in and the tail of the item will all be flying shots and landing.  Up to that point it’s all nervous nelly host getting kitted up and briefed, getting in the plane, looking terrified, the tension building and building until the parachute drop hits the music drop.  The details of what the charity does will be slipped into the preparation stuff.  It’ll be awesome.

Janet takes the trip with one camera op (you can do the sound, Jan) and the presenter to some dismal inner city estate that looks like it could be the set for a dystopian sci-fi prison.  On an allotment patch there’s a lottery funded assortment of goats, sheep, rabbits and mini-ponies that’s been organized in an effort to give the little kids from the surrounding estates a taste of some kind of communion with nature.  A very dull local mayor, complete with red coat, ceremonial chain and determination to be interviewed at length is paired with a worthy spokesman for the lottery’s good deeding who’s unlistenable to for longer than a sentence because he speaks without any variety of intonation.  They’ve actually organised a ribbon to cut, and the Mayor boasts of being such an old pro he’s brought his own scissors.  They are interminably dull people.  The only hope is the perky and irrepressible woman who’s clearly the driving force behind it all, who’ll be running it.

Now, we can all see where this is going, right? Because we all know what a story is.  If Janet’s item turns out as dull as it looks like it’s going to be and Jon’s is as awesome as everyone on the show hopes, there is no story, so I wouldn’t be telling it.

So, pulling the usual rules about, because rules are made to be broken, especially when everyone knows what they are, here’s the moral of the tale in the wrong place – even a great story can be told really badly.  And a nothing story can be told really well.

Cue the ghost of 70’s and 80’s comedian Frank Carson, with his catchphrase “It’s the way I tell ‘em!”
Stories are like jokes – even a great joke you can kill stone dead with bad timing and poor telling.  And even a really awful joke, a great comedian will get a huge laugh from.  So the way the moral plays is this:  Don’t worry about the story you’ve been given to tell.  Worry about how well you tell it.  The greatness of the story is irrelevant to your craft as a storyteller.  All that matters, whether the story is great or merely ho-hum, is how well you tell it.

Back to the plot:  Janet shoots speechifying by the mayor and the lottery guy, the mayor cuts the ribbon and the kids who’ve been rounded up to be the first patrons of the petting zoo get to meet the animals.  One or two of the kids are cute beyond measure and Janet films them at length interacting with and genuinely fascinated by the animals.  One of the goats is especially characterful and playful and one of the cute kids has a bit of a connection with it.  They get a ton of footage of this.  While the kids play in the background Janet gets the presenter/star to interview the woman who’s the prime mover of the project, who explains why she’s worked so hard to make it happen and what it means to her, which is everything, for all the reasons you might imagine.  She’s overwhelmed by the events of the day and stops talking, then starts to cry.  The presenter knows something about story too, so he lets her well up, and after just the right amount of time, opens his arms and offers her a hug, which she goes in for.  Janet and the camera person run back and get the wide shot of two human beings hugging in the shadow of this dismal, not to human scale, greyer than grey estate and Janet has her poster shot to break 775,000 human hearts with.  Several interactions with cute kids and fluffy animals later, the new star of the show is showing a five year old how to bottle feed a lamb.  She looks like the happiest person in the world, and at Janet’s behest, turns to speak straight to camera and says a heartfelt “thank you to everyone who made this possible”.

Cut back to the studio and there’s not a dry eye in the house.

Next up comes Jon’s parachute story, all according to his plan.  It should be epic.  It’s cut at pace with great music and all the ingredients are in the mix to make the perfect televisual cake.  But the para guy is a bit of a leery twerp who clearly fancies himself and the presenter he’s having strapped to him, and she’s obviously very uncomfortable in his company, several tells of which make it into Jon’s edit, because Jon’s not interested in how people feel, he just wants all his edits to look perfect.  The moment of jumping from the plane isn’t the joyous leap of abandon that was hoped for either – it’s apparent that the presenter is genuinely distressed, but she’s a pro so she’s toughing it out.  When she lands she’s not elated, she’s just relieved, and that’s apparent too.  She’s emotionally exhausted and glad to be free of Mr Para at last, and you can tell because Jon’s left that little awkward interaction in the edit too.  Just a little bit of hoped for eye contact from the para guy that’s declined by the presenter.  If you read it right it’s really embarrassing.  The presenter is furious it’s been left in.  Cutting back to the studio, the other presenters know what they’ve seen and move quickly on.  The congrats to the poor presenter the show’s organized to have chucked out of a plane strapped to a prat are hollow and perfunctory, and everyone seems a bit shame-faced, like schoolkids who’ve just had it explained to them why they’re bullies.

As a side-note to the proceedings, not especially relevant to item making but to TV in general, Jon has committed one of the great crimes available to the producer/director.  He has failed to protect his star.  Which is pretty much rule number one.  Protect your star.  They have to look like a star, and you have to help them do that as much as possible.

There’s a raft of great writing to look into about the craft of story-telling, and it’s all relevant to the making of even a short item.  There are lots of on-line masterclasses too, where experts discuss the various elements of the craft.  Delve in and explore them all, but don’t be intimidated.  To invoke another tortured analogy, you don’t have to be a fully trained opera singer to lullaby a baby to sleep.  You just have to be a human being.  And because you are one, you sort of already know how to do it.

It’s the same with story-telling.

Recommended Reading list:
“Save the Cat” – Blake Snyder
“Story” – Robert McKee
“Screenplay : The Foundations of Screenwriting” – Syd Field.