HOW TO CREATE A TV SPOT

1. Have an idea that’s good for the medium. Note I didn’t say “Have a great idea”. I did that because TV can be deceptive. I have found from experience that sometimes things that SOUND good on paper lose their magic in execution. They were great on paper. Conversely, I have found that sometimes ideas that sounded terrible on paper turned out brilliantly on film.

2. Leave room for improvement. It’s a classic amateur mistake to write, shoot and edit your idea on paper. To have an idea of what your spot SHOULD BE and hold onto that idea even in the face of better alternatives. The saying that you write film three times applies. You write it once when you write it. You write it again when you shoot it – circumstances will change, be ready to adapt your idea. And you write it a third time when you edit your film. Again, be ready to lose things you thought would work in theory but don’t in reality.

3. Nobody gives a shit. This is the most important lesson. Nobody cares about you, your stupid idea, your stupid brand or anything else. You have to make them care. Surprise and delight your audience or don’t bother at all. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you and your idea are competing with everything that’s going on in people’s lives and the torrent of awesome that is the internet.

4. Don’t try to be funny. Trying to be funny is the fence at which most ideas fall flat on their face. Before you attempt to be funny, ask yourself this question: are you funny? Everybody thinks they’re funny but only a few people really are. But beyond that there is a huge difference between being funny in day to day life and KNOWING what will be funny on the screen. I’ve often been amazed at the gulf between how funny certain people are in real life and how unfunny their ideas can be. You’re not going to be on TV, your idea will be.

5. Thirty seconds goes by in the blink of an eye. You don’t have time for character development. You basically have time for one thing to happen. What is the one thing that happens in your film? One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that if the viewer has to struggle to make sense of your idea, even for an instant, you will lose them. The spell will be broken.

6. Enter late, leave early. Legendary screenwriter Bill ‘Butch Cassidy’ Goldman used this principle a lot. Basically what it means is you start in the middle of something. So for example, if your film is set in a bar you don’t need an establishing shot of the exterior of the bar. It’s a bar. we get it. get on with your story. So you start out IN the bar. This way the viewer feels on the defensive slightly and they feel they must focus to make sense of what happens next. You hold their attention and involve them from the first seconds. This is vital.

7. Film is about what happens not what’s said. Dialogue is secondary to action. Again what sounds good on paper isn’t necessarily great on film. I always underplay dialogue and have my characters speak the way people speak in real life. Most people don’t talk flashy. Use the words to help out the action. No need to be David Mamet.

8. Realize what’s important. Alas, this one only comes from experience. I always decide what effect I want to have early on and let that guide every decision. This way I know what I want and I know what’s important. There are a lot of things that might seem important but really aren’t. And there are things that might seem insignificant but are are crucial to the effect you want to achieve. If you don’t know what really matters you will be in for a very stressful time indeed my friend! Poor you.

9. Trust your gut. Now the dilemma here is that you, or someone you know, might have lousy instincts. And that is fatal. Because the brutal reality is that creating film is an art. And gut instincts are what make the difference at the end of the day. So if your gut sucks, either work with someone whose gut is good and shut up. Or develop your instincts by working with people who have the magic skills to lead you to the promised land.

10. Choose the right director for your job. I’ve addressed this before. This is also tricky. Experience really helps here.

19 responses to “HOW TO CREATE A TV SPOT

  1. All very true Vinny, especially 2.3 & 5.
    I had to learn those the hard way, too.
    They should give this list to every creative team, producer, and client.

  2. Damn Vinny. I thought it was a lot easier to make a 30 sec shot. I thought you cranked these out in no time.

    • it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. i’ve shot and edited ads in a week. but there’s a lot of variables and it can all fall apart with one bad call. and there’s a lot of money on the line. it’s a lot like poker!

  3. BTW Vinny. You are not aware of this. But for quite a long time now The Escape Pod has officially been Sky Pulse Media’s TV Division. (Alien Powa) The reason you don’t know is because I haven’t been asked for a referral or pursued a campaign that includes TV/Video work yet. But they will come. All I ask is for an Escape Pod Pen and be allowed to watch filming on the set when I get you the first one.

  4. Great advice, but point 3 stands out for me Vinny. If only I could quote that verbatim…

  5. glad you like phil. but of course you can quote it verbatim. it’s fun to say the real truth!

  6. Hey Vinny,
    Just found this via Ad Contrarian. Great post. Reminds me what an education it truly was at DDB on Bud and Bud Light, seeing how the pros do it, learning what matters in a script, what doesn’t. A foundation I feel lucky to have. Definitely sharing this post with some Juniors I work with now. Thanks again.
    Wade

    • hey wade! how are you? glad you liked.

      yeah DDB Chicago was like going to film school. we shot so many spots and had tons of creative freedom. lucky us.

  7. Great post. Thanks for the wisdom.

  8. You know? you’ve reminded me a few things here, especially the part “nobody gives a damn”. That’s so true.

    Maybe I would just drop a suggestion. Leave people out, or use similes. I just didn’t get “No need to be David Mamet”; I would have clearly got “No need to be as ________ as David Mamet.” Some people read the Internet from abroad. =)

    • I’ll have no foreigners on my blog! ;-) Thanks for pointing that out Tedel. Mamet is known for his flashy film dialogue (Glengarry Glen Ross etc). So…”No need for verbal pyrotechnics a la David Mamet”

  9. great post. to your point #7, i always like to remember that it’s tele-vision, not tele-talk. (found your blog via the ad contrarian.)

    • thanks steve. obviously there will be brilliant exceptions to everything but to truly take advantage of TV ideally you’d have some ballet dancers on fire. and build it from there ;-)

  10. Great post! I’ll be passing this on to the rest of my team. Love 2, 3 and 4.

    “Before you attempt to be funny, ask yourself this question: are you funny?”

    Classic.

    -Jeremy

    PS: Found via Ad Contrarian.

    • thanks jeremy. glad you liked. that ad contrarian attracts a higher standard of ad person. myself being the exception. ;-)

  11. Great post.
    We give much of the same advice when we do video for clients.
    Especially the comedy point. Trying to be funny is like jumping a canyon on a motorcycle. Fall just a tiny bit short and you crash & burn.

    ‘Almost funny’ never is.

    • true doug. but even beyond achieving actual funny is doing it in a way that sells what you’re selling and uses the right comedic tone. best left to the professionals ;-)

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