Category Archives: Video

I’m a celebrity, let’s exploit a penguin!

It’s Christmas season again. You can tell this not by the fact that advent has begun, which it hasn’t yet, but because every major retailer in the country has released their Christmas advert. The reality TV shows are also everywhere, counting down to a Christmas finale of no doubt epic proportions, where an idiotic Irishman will declare that someone who is tone deaf is the greatest singer since Arion, two little Geordie’s will crown a non-celebrity king or queen of the five star jungle and some moody blokes in black ties will say that a dance that none of us have heard of was sequin-tastic.

And whilst I am trying to control my undoubted excitement and hoping that Santa Claus doesn’t fall out of his sleigh, I will change the channel in the hope of finding something more educational for my daughters to watch. My hope will be to find something that is more stimulating than the mind-numbing anti-entertainment that now makes up weekend prime time programming. Of course my daughters won’t care, they will only have eyes for the iPads, browsing for the toys we haven’t bought them for Christmas and then not talking to us for a week because we clearly don’t love them.

Every year is the same. Whilst the rational people use advent as the earliest opportunity to even start thinking about Christmas, the rest of the world starts to get ready just after Halloween. This is the reason I can now read my book at night by the light of my neighbour’s Christmas lights, which could also double as the approach lights for Heathrow. I can hear the whirring of the electrical meter from down the street. But on the plus side Southern Electric shares are going up in price by the hour. We’ve got to get out of this recession somehow. I’m fairly sure though that he has paid for the lights with a Wonga loan!

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Christmas, I like to ‘do’ Christmas and have a merry old time. I like my children to think Christmas is magical and all that, because those memories will stay with them forever. But what I don’t like is that it seems to last for three months now, it is shoved down our throats from all angles and that underneath all this false merriment everyone is basically miserable and moans about everything.

Take TV adverts. John Lewis has for years now been producing high end adverts especially for Christmas. It has become a spectacle that people wait for with baited breath. And on the day the advert appears social media goes mad for it. Last year’s was a touching animation about a bear, accompanied by a mediocre Lily Allen cover of a well loved Keane song. The year before was an equally heart wrenching tale of a snow man and snow woman. The nation universally shed a tear for a wonderful piece of storytelling. This year’s is no different. Monty the Penguin is a visual masterpiece that cost them £1 million to produce and tells the lovely story of a boy’s lonely Penguin in desperate need of more penguin companionship.

But this year John Lewis doesn’t have the monopoly, almost every major brand has cottoned on to the ‘Christmas Epic Advert’. They want a piece of the action and so the marketing boffins have been scratching their heads since Easter to work out what story they can tell that’ll get us all crying. No doubt they’ve been out experimenting, taking candy from babies and poking dogs with sticks to see what is most touching. Well maybe not, but it would seem that Sainsburys probably should have done that, as they wouldn’t have got as much backlash as their Christmas advert seems to have stirred up.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, they have produced an advert that dramatizes the legendary Christmas Truce that took place in 1914. Their treatment is a sensitive, understated and yet very thought provoking tale of two soldiers, one German and one British, who venture out into no mans land and meet in the middle to offer seasons greetings. A football match ensues and there is much merriment, until the idyllic scene is shattered by distant gun fire. The advert ends with the German having a blue wrapped chocolate bar from the Brit, and the Brit a biscuit from the German. But barely had the advert finished than social media was going mad with complaints of outrage. How dare Sainsburys exploit a conflict where millions died in order to make profit? OFCOM say they have received hundreds of complaints about the advert.

So let’s put this into context for a moment. Sainsburys has worked with the Royal British Legion for over 20 years, and made this advert in conjunction with them. Bearing in mind the significance of the anniversary on which this has been released, it is unlikely this wasn’t discussed in some detail on more than one occasion over the last year or so. During that period of planning, which would have been quite in depth for a production of this level, one presumes that some of the members of that organisation, who are uniquely qualified to have a view on such things, might have mentioned if they thought this advert was in bad taste. Presumably no one did because Sainsburys went ahead with it and have also released additional footage about the making of the film as well.

And yet they are apparently exploiting the memory of the war. And yet funnily enough I don’t remember seeing British soldiers strolling across no mans land with hands full of supermarket products. Or the hun coming in the other direction armed to the teeth with toiletries and wearing orange overalls. One assumes the same people who are throwing these accusations around on social media were quite happily chuckling away when they were watching Blackadder, or taking their photos of the poppy display at the Tower of London, which has no doubt enjoyed increased revenues as a result. Exploitation? No. The only product Sainsburys actually displays in its advert is a retro styled chocolate bar in a blue wrapper and, whilst plastering the advert with “Live Well for Less”, their motto, would have been a gigantic an error of judgement, all I remember is simple logo on black of equal weighting to that of the Royal British Legion. Those who are mortally offended that they are peddling their retro chocolate bar in this manner may like to know that the proceeds of the sales of those particular bars are going to the Royal British Legion as well and not into the pockets of Sainsburys executives. No wonder everyone is so annoyed, they really do have a nerve don’t they? How dare they donate money to a veterans charity at Christmas!

The problem is that at Christmas these sorts of stories come out because this is the time of year when we start to take stock of what we have. Lets get one thing straight and do away with the naivety here, all adverts are exploitative. They are designed specifically to make you do something that you would otherwise probably not consider doing, that is the point. This is the reason that in Sweden advertisers are banned from showing adverts during childrens programming. So what is worse, emotionally manipulating someone year on year and dressing it up as a sweet little story about penguins, or showing a well put together and rather touching dedication to those brave men and women 100 years ago, whilst raising money for that charity? If that is exploitation then exploit away because those charities need all the help they can get.

And for those who feel the need to sling accusations at the morally corrupt big wigs at these companies, I ask you to do this. Drag yourself off the crumb encrusted sofa for more than a few seconds, block out the sounds of the morally extinct, obese wastes of oxygen on I’m An X Factor Get Me Dancing and look a little deeper at what is going on. The reason you consider this exploitative is because you feel the need to defend something that you only have a passing attachment to, so that you can take a moral high ground. Your complaint is that a company has produced something for profit, using imagery of something abhorrent. But what they actually did was show a moment of compassion that highlights an extremely important and under discussed moral issue of the war. That both sides were human. They did this as a dedication to those who fought, on the 100th anniversary of a war that we all pledge we will never forget. And they did it to sell the only product they actually feature, for which the proceeds go to help a military charity. Of course they are trying to make profits but so are all businesses. I’m sure if this had been produced as a short drama you’d all love it, but that production company didn’t do it for free either! Or of course you could just sit back on the sofa and smile at the little boy playing with the toy penguins and forget all that morally important stuff. Now where are my ten million watt Christmas lights, I want to be seen from space!

Video like a pro?

My background is in video, that is what I did my degree in and what I have been dipping my professional toes in and out of since I graduated. I have worked as a freelance, producing and directing music videos and private projects working with seasoned professionals. I have also worked on the commercial side of things, commissioning and producing videos for major global companies. I have even setup and run a full video proposition for a major WPP agency. Throughout my work in the various avenues of video, one of the challenges that my colleagues and I have had to face is a lack of understanding about the skill and discipline that goes into making video and how this is pivotal in creating a good video rather than a poor one. Which is why my heart sank when I saw an article describing Moovly as allowing people to “Create Animated Content like a Pro”.

Firstly I will caveat my thoughts by saying that products like Moovly are a great thing. They enable people to make videos, in this case animations, in an affordable way and with video being one of the stickiest content types on the web this can only be a good thing. But I think it is important to draw a line of distinction between tools like this, which no doubt produce decent looking end results, and the work produced by professionals.

One of the biggest problems for people working in video is getting the uninitiated to understand that it isn’t simply a matter of getting a few mates together with a good idea. It is a discipline and a good video requires the skills of good planning, writing, storyboarding, graphical design, editing…the list goes on. This assumption of simplicity is the same stigma suffered by top digital designers or copywriters, or even developers by those who think that a good website can be created using outofapacketwebsite.com style online wizard tools. Well the end result is almost always something that is below par.

So how do you make a good video then? When we were running the agency video proposition we created a hybrid project management / video production approach:

  1. Initiation
  2. Pre-Production
  3. Production
  4. Post Production
  5. Release

This took the standard stages of the normal production process and added and before and after stage, recognizing the commercial aspects that are required to get a project going and the technical requirements in implementing the content after it is completed. Even if you aren’t undertaking a commercial project, I believe this process is still valid for anyone to go through.

In the Initiation stage we establish the need for the video. What is the purpose? Who is it for? Where will it be featured? What are the actions we want to elicit from watchers? The last question is doubly important if your video is going to sit on a website as ultimately it is a marketing tool seeking to engage your users. But once they have finished watching it you want them to do something and if you don’t consider this as part of the planning then it could be an investment down the toilet. So this stage is mainly about the business case and expected outcomes of the project. It is also about establishing the required investment (time and money) and again this is important. Setting out how much you are willing to spend will set your limits for the length of the video, quality of designed elements, time in potentially expensive facilities like studios or editing suites. Even if your project is with mates you will need to factor in transport, locations, equipment, calling in favours, how much beer you owe…it will all add up. This stage is about focussing your mind on what you are trying to achieve and how you can do that within your means.

Once you have established the focus of the project then the real hands on work begins. Pre-Production is where the creative work starts. The most common mistake with video projects is that people rush this stage and don’t fully plan the requirements for Production. This is probably because Production is considered the exciting part, but actually I really enjoy Pre-Production as well. During this stage you will need to be doing the following:

  • Plot key narrative points
  • Write a script (or key script points)
  • Storyboard the key action
  • Plan the production shoots and sessions required
  • Rehearse (if required)
  • Casting and Crew Recruitment

At this point the Initiation stage will start to prove it’s worth. Without a focus and key aims and objectives for the video and its outcomes it is easy to end up going off on a tangent. But with all of this set out from the outset and timelines / budgets keeping you focused in your planning, you should be able to streamline the process and make sure you are making the key important choices for the project.

Production is the stage where all the planning and Pre-Production comes into its own. The only way you can run a good Production phase is knowing exactly what each scene is supposed to look like, but more importantly to know what the scene’s function is. It is this intention that will drive how the scene is directed. Without this in depth understanding you cannot hope to get all the footage you need and will most likely be left leaning on the editor to save you, or having to reconvene for further shoots (and risk the continuity demon popping up its ugly head).

If your approach to the project has been to go renegade and not both planning you also risk not knowing what you have recorded and what you need. A good Producer / Director relationship is the only way to go, with one in charge of running the shoot and one in charge of arranging everything and keeping it running smoothly. When I was doing this I had an excellent colleague and we were able to run like two sides of the same coin. But I have also worked with hopeless Producers who hadn’t done any planning and as a Director this made it almost impossible to get the footage and even harder in the edit suite.

Anyone who knows anything about video will tell you that the real magic happens in the edit as part of the Post Production stage. It is what will make or break a video and is where the skills that take years to learn come in to play. There are so many little tricks of the trade, from the pace of an edit to the after effects applied to it, that make a good editor worth their weight in gold. At this point it is looking back at the intended outcomes that will guide an editor in how they construct a scene. Just looking at comedic re-edits of ‘The Shining’ and others shows you how wrong an edit can go if the intention of the video is not fully understood. This is where the storyboards, narrative plot, script, aims and objectives and the creative vision all come together…not to mention a thorough understanding of the website branding. You don’t want a video that uses after effects that aren’t on brand…little things like this matter! Ultimately if you want a video to represent and work hard for your brand then you want it to mirror your brands look and feel and the tone of voice. Why? Because if the video is features someone other than your own website then you want it to instinctively reflect your brand a not someone else’s.

So then there is Release. This is the stage that most people completely forget but in many ways is the most significant. At this point in the process we would undertake user testing with focus groups to see whether the video is eliciting the responses we want, whether it is enjoyable and holds attention and most important whether it makes sense. This is the last line of defense for your video so if you don’t have a large budget then get your friends around and show them…you can’t afford to find out once your video is live that it isn’t doing the job.

Once you have a video created, re-edited it after feedback, then you need to play it somewhere. This is something that should have been planned in the Initiation stage of the project and there are many ways of doing it. You could use YouTube or Vimeo and embed their player on your website (but you can’t brand their players and you don’t control the end screen and what is linked to – remember, you want to keep people on your message, not send them off to watch other people’s video). You could host the video yourself and use the in built browser players, but this requires a bit of developer know-how. You could have a custom player built, allowing you to track who watches the video and how long for. Another problem with hosting your own video is performance – if you don’t have a streaming ability and the file is large then it may not be a very good experience for viewers and stats show that if a video stutters people are likely not to watch. It would be very annoying to go to all the effort to make a video and then no one watch it. Do you you want a holding slate design so the video looks professional? These are all questions that you need to know the answers to. You also need to think about support – if you want your videos to play in all browsers and devices then you need to have more than just the standard MP4. Think about .FLV/.SWF, OGG and WebM to cover your bases.

So, back to my original point. Moovly and similar tools are all well and good. They will no doubt allow you to put together a half decent video…but this is not a tool that will turn you into a pro videographer over night and if you’re using anything with ‘off the shelf’ parts then your video is not going to be unique anyway. Creating videos is not an easy process. It requires skill and years of experience to get it right…so hats off to all videographers out there.

My advise to anyone who wants to make a pro level video and doesn’t have the background? Take your time. Plan it thoroughly, follow the process above and if you know people who have done it before then ask for advice and help. Assess the tools that are out there as well. Moovly will no doubt provide some of the animation editing you may require, but see if it is right for your project. There are plenty of other tools out there as well. Ultimately, we can all bake a cake by following a recipe and using a mixer…but we aren’t all going to open bakeries tomorrow because we aren’t all Mary Berry…apply the same logic to video!