Demystifying Preproduction, Part One: Harnessing Creativity to Conjure Arresting Visual Stories

Any working professional knows that each job has its highs and its lows. Well, video productions are my highs. Every time we start a new video project, our team powers through the preproduction phase, brainstorming creative ideas and nailing down logistics, all eagerly awaiting the proverbial game day: that is, production.

But, in my opinion, what makes production days so exciting is the level of hard work and forethought put into preparing during preproduction. “Preproduction” as a term is often pushed aside and excused as being a vague way of saying that you’re planning a shoot. However, here’s the not-so-secret key to a successful, high-quality video, film, or sketch: the highest production value videos are the ones with an intense amount of time and effort spent in preproduction.

For instance, last week, we wrapped production for a client’s Kickstarter video. The product is called MyAppiom, which is an app that collaborates with a hardware component that connects to the router and helps parents manage their family’s online activity from their phones.

appiom product install

Here’s a shot of our client coaching Sterling director Wes Warfield and our actress how to install the product while on set.


Kickstarter videos are as rare as sand on the beach, but the quality of these videos (and the success of their respective campaigns) vary. We wanted Appiom‘s Kickstarter video to successfully hook Appiom’s intended audience by telling a story that it can relate to. To make Appiom’s Kickstarter video truly compelling, we needed to craft the story well before we got behind the camera and started rolling.

Now, what exactly is preproduction?

Preproduction can be a long, labor-intensive phase, so I’m breaking all this handy information into a three-part series. This first blog post will cover the initial steps. Reading this should enlighten you on how to focus creative brainstorming to form a structured storyline and well-written script.

Brainwriting vs. Groupthink

In Appiom’s case, we knew that, at the foundation of whatever story we told, we would need to center the plot around a family, as that’s who Appiom had in mind when developing the online activity-managing app and hardware. Our team joined the client in a conference room and spent a solid fifteen minutes in silence, each individual writing as many creative ideas and story lines as they could think of before time ran out.

While traditional brainstorming (going around the room, verbally sharing ideas) can be effective, we’ve found that, when it comes to brainstorming creative ideas, the last thing we want to do is hear a single idea and spend the majority of our brainstorming time building up a single story. So, we’ve adopted “brainwriting,” a term coined by management professors at the Kellogg School Thompson and Nordgren, as the new way to brainstorm and prevent groupthink. Once the fifteen minutes were up, we went around the room, each person sharing every single idea he or she wrote to paper. We compiled the lists and allowed the client to consider the 16 (SIXTEEN!) ideas, requesting that they select two.

The long list of ideas we came up with in a single 15-minute brainstorming session.

A great list of Kickstarter video ideas developed in a single 15-minute brainstorming session.

Turning Ideas Into Stories

Appiom selected two ideas, both of which were pretty similar to each other. These two ideas circulated around a family with disconnected kids and a husband whose eyes were glued to the email on his phone, with a mom as the spokesperson. Noting their similarities and differences, we wrote three treatments.

In film, treatments are thoroughly written outlines or first drafts of the screenplay. At Sterling, we use treatment writing as the guide for all creative direction moving forward. The treatment generally describes the visual aspects of the story as it plays out, snippets of essential dialogue, and any directorial style essential to telling the story. Here’s an example of the treatment we wrote for Appiom, which saw a few more revisions:

Mom, in the center of the frame, sits still on a couch. We see her in real time. Everyone else is a blur in time lapse at her feet, to her sides, and behind her. She begins with, “These days, all this networking and technology,” as she gestures to the devices used by her family, “can cause families to actually disconnect.” One kid plays games on the TV. Another watches Netflix on an iPad. Dad works on his laptop. A daughter use a tablet for selfies. Mom stands up in front of a pedestal with a router on top. “Want to know how I got my family back together again?” She looks at the router. Its lights blink. She reaches into one pocket, pulls out the Appiom device, plugs it into the router. She reaches into another pocket, pulls out her iPhone, and taps button on an app. The game turns off. That kid slows to normal speed, gets up, and goes to the dinner table. Mom presses another button. Dad slows to normal speed and does the same. Mom presses a third button, “slowing down” another family member. And presses one more button, “turning off” the last blur. With everyone at the table, Mom puts the phone in her pocket. We see she has the Appiom app. Mom or narrator then describes Appiom to the camera. Cut to the device and app as needed. Potentially add cast-driven kicker at the end.

(As we go through this blog series, you’ll be able to see how this treatment evolves throughout and guides the process, culminating in a finished product.)

Writing the Script Like a Playbook

Okay, so now we’ve got this great idea. But what are the specifics? What will each frame look like? What is the actress who plays “Mom” actually going to say? Sure, we all know what a script is and what it should look like. But a script is more like a playbook than a guide. Come game day, the cast and crew will do exactly what the script dictates. If it isn’t in the script, we don’t shoot it. If it’s in the script, we do. Simple as pie. That being said, it’s essential that everyone can agree on the final script. It’s even more important that we as a team are able to visualize the script and determine that, yes, it will flow well, before we give our stamp of approval on the final draft.

Wes reading the script

Sterling director Wes Warfield reviews his notes before a take.

The Balance Between Storytelling and Corporate Messaging

When it comes to client work, the script needs to find the perfect balance between having a compelling story and successfully delivering the client’s messaging. Sometimes, clients are worried that the script doesn’t have enough messaging. However, the risk of loading a video with the sales pitch is that it turns off your audience, and the story is lost. On the other end of the spectrum, a common problem with ads is that there’s a lack of messaging, leaving nothing but a pretty picture or a good story (and no pitch whatsoever).

For instance, take a look at a Kickstarter video we did for the Skydog app and router, which perfectly blends its messaging with a relatable story. The script’s skilled storytelling, paired with excellent visuals, led to Skydog’s Kickstarter campaign reaching its fund goal by day eighteen; in fact, Skydog was able to raise $121,812 of their $75,000 goal and is ranked in the top 1% of successfully funded Kickstarter projects. Watch the video below:

So, are you writing a script? Ask yourself these key questions (and be 100% honest with yourself):

  • Does this tell the story well, in a compelling manner?
  • Does this effectively inform the viewer of your client’s product?
  • Does this effectively convince the viewer why he or she should care about your client?
  • Are there any gaps in the story?
  • Are there any gaps in the messaging?
  • Do you direct your viewer to act by the end of the video? (This could direct them to a link or contacting a sales representative.)

Ask yourself these questions through every round of revisions your script goes through. Trust me, this list helps prevents finding any holes or missing elements on production day.

So You’ve Got a Story…Now What?

Hopefully you now have a good grasp on what it takes to turn a thought (or a few thoughts)  into a compelling visual story. In our next blog post, I’ll cover the next steps — that is, visualizing the story before you actually begin filming. After all, you can’t have a compelling visual story unless it’s first and foremost visual! Feel free to leave comments and questions below. See you next week!

Rosie Brown can be reached at You can also follow her on Twitter at @lilmsrosieposie.