Here's an older post that still gets a lot of views - thought it was time to polish it a bit and put it on top of the pile.
The agency likes what you do - that's why they've called you in to take a brief, but they need to be confident your vision for their TV commercial is aligned with what they want. They might ask you to write a Treatment. A Treatment is a pitch - a selling document to win across the agency and client to your vision for their ad. It's your opportunity to show that you totally understand the advertiser's requirement and that you are able to deliver it in the most compelling way.
1. Listen up
Ask a lot of questions so that the brief is crystal clear. Try to gauge how flexible the agency is about the story and visual style. This is important - the amount of creative freedom you have on a TVC can vary. Some briefs will be very specific, with little room for additional creative input. While at the other extreme the agency will have one of those "no idea" briefs that's gonna rely on your creative chops to flesh it out and make them look awesome. Understand who your audience is. Find out what the client likes - and doesn't. Find out if it's gonna roll out on social media as well - this may influence your storytelling.
2. Is the ad Story or Spectacle?
If it's story then it should have a beginning, middle and end, with at least one character. The objective of story is to engage the audience with a plot that resolves at the end with the advertiser's message embedded. If it's spectacle there is no story - the ad is eye candy that relies on attracting the audience's attention with appealing visuals and sounds. In a spectacle the audience is a spectator, unlike story where the audience is a participant. Story doesn't need visual extravagance to engage the audience - but if you're not telling a story then each shot has to be more interesting than the previous one to keep your audience on board.
3. Get your story essentials in place
All stories must have a CHARACTER that the audience can identify with. The character should have a GOAL - he/she/it wants something. Finally there should be CONFLICT - an obstacle to the character getting what she wants, which must be overcome. STRUCTURE is equally important. The beginning is where the character is introduced and the setting is established. Then a problem or incident moves the story to the middle part, where obstacles are overcome. Finally the story resolves and the character is much happier now that (thanks to the product) the problem is solved. Cue the logo and park it for the last second. If your TV commercial has these basic story elements in place, you're in good shape.
Ask yourself these questions - will it fit into the duration you have to work with? Can it be funnier/scarier/more dramatic/whatever? Can I withhold some information from the audience until the end to give them a surprise? Is the main character appealing enough? Raise the stakes - what will happen if he can't get what he wants? Will the audience connect with him/her/it? Could I add a prop or setting that makes the story more interesting? What about the technique and visual style - how can I make it look original/quirky/retro/ whatever. Search for images and videos for inspiration. Identify a theme - a single word that embodies what the story is really about - this can be a useful guide to keep you on track.
5. Getting it down
Start with a brief recap of the objective of the commercial, and how your treatment will get the desired result. Reassure the client how this commercial will integrate with existing content and branding. Give the impression you know the product and what it stands for - but don't over analyse this - the client knows their product way better than you do. Write with confidence and with intention to influence - make it a good read - inject it with your personality - don't be too formal.
Next take the reader through the story beat-by-beat (a beat is the smallest element of a story). Write in such a way that the reader can visualise it. Don't get technical with descriptions of camera angles or visual effects - just tell the story as it is. If your treatment is a spectacle, then keep the description brief because a MOOD BOARD (see next point) will better describe what you want to say.
Write about how your proposed visual style will give the commercial a unique look, and make it stand out. Mention the colour palette - the three main colours that will dominate the commercial to give it a certain look or mood, and how it fits with the brand. If there's a special technique you are proposing, this could be the place to get a little technical (don't overdo it) about something unique you are bringing to the spot that's going to make it special.
Write about the sound. Is there a VO (voice over)? Why - and what kind of voice? Will there be music - what kind? Will the music drive the commercial or will it be used subtly, as sound design, to accent story moments? How will the sound and the visuals integrate to work together?
Explain how it will also work across social media - if that's part of the media plan.
There should be only one main message in a TV commercial. Your client might insist on trying to squeeze 10 product benefits into 30 seconds - this never ends well. An agency worth their salt will back you up on this one. And keep it brief - one or two pages.
Finally, close with a short summary to wrap up your treatment and drive home that you and your team are going to make this commercial a hit.
6. Make a Mood Board
A Mood Board is a montage of images you have borrowed from the internet, that create an impression of the visual style, colour scheme and brand values that you want to bring to the commercial. Your mood board might be one or more full pages of your PDF document. It might be projected at a pre-production meeting. The design of the document itself is a statement about the aesthetic you are bringing to the project - so make it look good.
Author: Steve Bristow lectures in Story and Screen Language, has screen credits as a Director, Creator and Story Editor, and has produced or directed hundreds of TV commercials and web videos.
Here’s a handy list I put together originally for the Malaysian artists on the Saladin TV series, then later expanded and updated for the animation teams on the Sherazade TV series - who were spread across India. With so many animators of different backgrounds and skill levels spread across the country - we had to get them on the same page when it came to facial animation.
STAGE EXPRESSIONS CLEARLY
1. Make strong poses (expressions) - animated character expressions are more exaggerated than human expressions.
2. Hold the pose - allow it to change in intensity if the dialog or situation calls for it, but don't change the pose until it is time to go to the next pose.
3. Don't overdo movement on the face - keep the expressions clear and simple. Once you have created an expression hold it while the mouth moves for the dialog.
4. Make sure the poses are different enough to notice the change of expression - the poses should contrast to show the character's thought process at work.
5. Make sure the audience notices the change of expression - don't change an expression during a fast body movement, change it just before or just after the movement.
6. Be careful not to hide expressions behind a big nose, moustache or unfavourable orientation to the camera.
7. Do not let the expression conflict with the dialog. The expression must reflect the emotion in the dialog.
8. Have you created the optimum expression - are all parts of the face working together to relate this one thought - the brows, eyes, eyelids and mouth?
9. Generally avoid symmetrical expressions. A character's personality will come across better with asymmetrical expression quirks such as a curled lip or a raised eyebrow.
10. Remember the face is only one part of the whole - the expression must be captured throughout the whole body.
11. Tilting the head is powerful way to make a pose stronger. Tilting to one side will improve a questioning or curious expression. Tilting forward will improve a stern or serious expression. Tilting back will improve a surprised expression.
12. Tilting the head the wrong way will weaken a pose. For example avoid looking up for a frown. A slight tilt down will make a frown more powerful. A head that tilts down during a smile will change the meaning from a friendly smile to a sinister smile.
13. The duration of an expression change is important - an excitable fast-talking character will change expressions quickly. A sinister devious character might change expressions slowly.
14. The duration of an eye blink is an indicator of emotion. An excited character will blink quickly, a tired or sinister character will blink slower.
15. The thought is slightly ahead of the dialog. So actions (manifestation of thought) will generally precede dialog by a few frames. For example a head-turn will precede accompanying dialog…
16. …and eyeballs move as fast as thoughts - so an eyeball turn will precede the accompanying head turn by a few frames. Eyeballs always lead any change in expression.
THE EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL
17. Use eye blinks on the expression changes, eye direction changes and head turns.
18. Ensure eye direction is accurate. In 3D animation, constraining the eyeballs to the target with a locator may not necessarily give the best result. Use what looks right rather than what is geometrically correct.
19. Eye direction can indicate the thought process: Eyes looking up and to the left or right indicate remembering an event or trying to recall an image or incident.
20. Eyes looking to the left or right indicate recalling something that was said or trying to think of something to say.
21. Eyes looking down to the left or right indicate some internal dialog where an emotion is being held inside, such as embarrassment, sadness or shyness.
22. Eyeball scanning is another way to indicate thinking (life!). When eyeballs look in a direction they seldom stay still for long. Eyeballs will subconsciously scan their subject with a quick small movement to a new position, stop for a while then move again, and so on. Some animators call these 'eye darts'.
23. An exception to the scanning eyeball is for a character who is focussed, driven or in concentration. It is better to hold a stare for this character to create more intensity.
24. The mouth, as well as performing dialog is also an indicator of emotion. Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise can all be expressed with the mouth. Avoid symmetrical timing and poses - let one side of the mouth lead the other to resolve to an asymmetrical pose for a more natural look.
25. The position of the brows probably convey more information about an emotion than any other part of the face. Utilise them fully to extract the most emotion out of your character. Avoid symmetry in timing and posing.
EVERYONE IS AN EXPRESSION EXPERT
We humans naturally understand and communicate with expressions. Since we were children we learned to associate certain emotions with certain expressions. In our daily lives as adults we are engaged in a continual dialog of communications of which expressions form an integral part. We are all experts in interpreting expressions. For this reason, even the slightest discrepancy in your facial animation will be noticed by your intuitively expert audience, diminishing the performance. Your own face is the very best resource for experimenting with expressions before committing them into key poses in an animation. Use a mirror to rehearse and try different expressions when working with your dialog track.
By Steve Bristow
Image from Sherazade The Untold Stories, initially developed by Hahn Film.
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