This article is adapted from the ten-part series, “How to Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial,” by cinematographer Ryan E. Walters. It was first published on Zacuto.com, which offers numerous tips and tricks as well as other great information for filmmakers.
As part of my series “How to Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial,” I shared the behind-the-scenes process of how we at the production company Bleeding Thorn Films make a project happen, warts and all, from script to screen.
During the pre-production process, one of the most valuable steps is creating a storyboard.
Before I begin storyboarding, I will either create a formal shot list, or I will have a rough idea in my head of the shots I need to tell the story. Then when I visit the location, with the script in hand, I will begin the storyboarding process.
My preference is to location scout prior to storyboarding. I put scouting first because, as a visually oriented person, I will come up with ideas and compositions based on what the location provides. When I put storyboarding first, I come up with ideas that are impractical at the location, or I try to force an idea to work when there is a more compelling option provided by the location.
There are key questions I ask, or otherwise find the answer to, while I am location scouting that relate to sound, lighting and planning the shots:
• – Is the location in a flight path, construction area or highway? (These are all sound-related issues.)
• – Are there any other sound issues I hear? (Maybe the neighbor has a dog that never quits barking.)
• – What is parking like?
• – How easy is it to access the location? (Will it be difficult to bring gear in and out, etc?)
• – How is the location orientated in relation to the path of the sun? (This will affect the lighting.)
• – Where are the windows, how big are they and do they have blinds?
• – What kind of power is available at the location?
• – Where is the circuit breaker, what are the amps of each circuit and how are they distributed?
• – Is there a dryer outlet that I can access?
• – Can I rearrange the room? Is it visually appealing to begin with?
• – How big is the location? (This will inform the equipment choices I make.)
• – What is the layout of the location? (I’ll take photos to document this.)
• – Are there any special issues with the location? (Is there a dog that will get in the way, is it filled with expensive antiques, etc?)
• – Are there any time parameters I need to be aware of? (Like automatically locking doors, or alarms.)
• – What are the light levels like, and what kind of practicals are there? Can I swap out the bulbs in the practicals?
During my scouting trip I take notes on my iPhone or iPad, and I take as many reference photos as possible. Two apps that come in handy during the scouting process are Sun Seeker and Photosynth. I use Sun Seeker to map the position of the sun at the location. The Photosynth app allows me to make a 360-degree picture map of a location so that I can view it again later. This is extremely helpful after I’ve left a location and I’m trying to remember the placement of specific items.
I begin making a storyboard using the iPhone app Artemis Director’s Viewfinder. I have found this app to be invaluable in the storyboarding process, as it allows me to actually see what angles I can get at a location. By placing the phone in the environment I’m shooting in, I can tell if it will be physically possible to fit the camera in that space and get the lens and camera movement I need. With each saved reference frame in Artemis, I can note as much metadata as I want.
When I first began using this app, I would enter in everything. But over time, I have found that this slows down my creative process. Now I don’t bother with it, and instead focus on trying different framing choices and camera movements. If I feel a dolly or jib move is needed, I’ll take multiple pictures throughout the move of the camera. If you are having trouble knowing where to begin, start with the basics—the wide shot, medium and close up. Then think about any detail shots you might need to cover the action.
As I am storyboarding the script, I am not running around taking thousands of pictures. Instead, I am constantly thinking about the script and how the placement, movement and framing all affect how the story is told. What I decide to leave out is as important as what I decide to leave in every frame.
Mapping the Story, the Shots
When I feel that I have captured enough storyboard images at the location to properly tell the story, I’ll gather my things and head back to the office to create a formal storyboard. By the time I’m in front of my computer at the office, I have usually come up with some other ideas or changes I want to make. And having the freedom of not having a client looking over my shoulder allows me the opportunity to play around with the order of shots, as well as with the framing (by adjusting it in Photoshop, if needed).
When I’m happy with the storyboard, I’ll make it into a formal document that I can share with the client as well as with my crew. The amount of detail I put in each storyboard varies depending on the client, the needs of the shot, as well as how much information I need to jog my memory about what is important about that shot.
As I review the shots in the storyboard, I am also paying attention to the set design. Just because I am shooting in a practical location, it doesn’t mean that I have to use everything at the location. My goal is to use only things that enhance the story, add anything that might be missing and take away anything that is distracting. For example, in one location I scouted for a commercial there is a bookshelf that has its back to the desk and is covered with a white sheet. The white sheet draws attention to itself, so that has to go. But even then, the back of a bookshelf doesn’t look appealing, so I’ll have the bookshelf turned around prior to the shoot. That should add some additional texture to the frame. A white chair on the side of the frame also needs to go, as it doesn’t fit the esthetic of the rest of the scene. Finally, the desk and top of the bookshelf will need to be cleaned up. I don’t want a perfectly organized desk and bookshelf, but my photos show there are too many objects that take away from the look I am after.
Now that I know what I need to shoot in order to tell the story and I know what the location has to offer, it is time to move into the next phase of pre-production: creating the lighting diagram, then the shooting schedule and call sheet.
To view the full ten-part series “How to Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial,” visit the zacuto.com and its Tips and Tricks page.
Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters began telling visual stories at the age of 7 with his comic strip series “The Flip Side.” Years later, this same drive for storytelling has evolved and taken him around the world, working on projects both large and small. For the last 15-plus years, he has worked on feature films and commercial work for companies like The Travel Channel, adidas, Nike and Autodesk. He maintains an extensive blog where he freely shares his insight, filmmaking tips and experience. To read Walters’s blog or view his work, visit www.ryanewalters.com/Blog/blog.php.
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