HOW WE PROTOTYPE MOVIES & TV SHOWS: PART 1

 
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Audiences don’t really know what’s possible and don’t know what they want until they see it. Case in point: The Blair Witch Project, the $60k budget horror film that came from nowhere to take an astounding $250m worldwide.

The industry debate at the time revolved around whether the film-makers were just plain lucky or whether they had unearthed a new repeatable formula for success, leading to a bunch of misguided copycat movies and two very much unloved sequels.

What was incontrovertibly true about The Blair Witch Project, was that at that moment, in 1999, when audiences saw the film, they were scared - so much so that they told their friends to go and see it too. The audience didn’t ask for the film to be made (no collection of data on recent movie successes led to The Blair Witch Project’s invention), but when they saw it, they loved it, and they told everyone about it.

The repeatable formula discernible from The Blair Witch Project has nothing to do with making copycats or sequels - it’s that by spending a relatively small amount of money, film-makers can afford to take great creative risks which might turn into movies that generate genuine word-of-mouth success. This is the formula that we employ at New Forest Film Co, by iteratively prototyping movies and testing them for word-of-mouth potential until they generate it. And we’re going to describe how we do it in this post and the next.

In Part 1, we’ll describe the key concepts, and in Part 2 we’ll describe in more detail how we create 20-minute video storyboards. We’ll describe how we test in a subsequent article.

Audiences don’t read scripts

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A film or TV show is not a script, but an audio-visual experience. A script is a kind of prototype for movies, communicating the story, characters, actions, and dialogue, but audiences don’t sit down and read, they sit back and watch, and if you want to know what they think, a script won’t cut it.

To communicate a director’s (or writer’s) singular passionate, creative vision to audiences, a prototype needs to do more than a script. Audiences, of course, are not professional script readers, but even if they were, when two people read the same script, they are likely to imagine two quite different movies in their heads, and the version the director wants to make might not be one of them.

To communicate the director’s vision to audience members, a prototype needs to be more detailed than a script, demonstrating how the movie will look and sound, how characters will be portrayed, how the film will be marketed, and in order to do that, the director needs to have conversations with key department heads (cinematography, production design, editing, sound design, music, etc …) and actors, and marketers. To put it another way, a really useful movie prototype - upon which key decisions can be made, such as is this film good enough to make? or is this approach working? - needs to demonstrate how the director will direct it.

Scripts have been the prototype of choice since the birth of Hollywood, but nowadays tech has moved on from the typewriter, such that a movie can be shot with an iPhone, and the output of every department illustrated with free software, let alone the burgeoning power of the next generation of AI-powered CGI and movie-making tools. A good prototype must be better, and can be better …

On prototype fidelity

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Let’s be clear, we’re still going to need a script, but the development of the script needs to be seen in the context of the ambition to create prototypes with iteratively increased fidelity. It needs to be a flexible document, as much guiding the creation of the prototype as being influenced by it.

And from the outset, we might not need a script at all. We might just need a concept which can be shown or described to audiences, amongst many other concepts, in order to measure their comparative reactions. Deeper into our discovery process, we might go far beyond the script, creating video storyboards, or even shooting scenes, necessitating the involvement of actors and all key heads of department, creating a prototype far closer to how the finished film might be.

The process we run is to gradually increase the fidelity of our prototypes until test results convince us that the film is ready to make, or that the film should be ditched, and we should move on to prototype other stories. The only principle we apply on fidelity is that each prototype must take no longer than 6 weeks to create with a team of no more than 12 people.

Types of prototype

Here are the types of prototype, at various levels of fidelity, that we develop for testing on audiences.

LIVE ACTION SCENES

The very highest fidelity is, of course, the finished movie or TV show. The level just before we shoot for real, is to prototype our approach with cast and necessary crew. We do this after we have green lit a production and just before we shoot for real. It’s the level of prototype that helps the director test their fully realised approach before shooting begins in earnest.

VIDEO STORYBOARD

Many directors storyboard their films for themselves and their team, working out how each shot might work, and how the film pieces together. Our video storyboards are designed to communicate the beginning, middle and end of a film within 20 minutes to a standard that an audience member can sit back and watch.

A video storyboard typically consists of 75% graphic novel quality static storyboards and 25% rotoscope/animation, with actors performing key moments of the story, shot by the cinematographer, placed within virtual sets designed digitally by the production designer, edited together with dialogue, sound design and music.

In Part 2, we’ll describe how we make video storyboards in detail.

TRAILERS

Whether using live action scene footage, video storyboard footage or shooting new material, a trailer is an incredibly useful prototype for a movie or TV show, a fast (we stick to 1 min) distillation of the audio-visual experience of film which requires clear thought and discussion between the director and team to a video which represents their singular approach to an audience.

POSTERS

Posters shouldn’t be underestimated as movie prototypes. They are fast to make, test and iterate, and they necessitate significant discussion about a story’s title and tagline (core meaning), style, tone and visual approach. We make literally hundreds of poster prototypes as we discover our films, running idea sessions with the entire team, testing them in batches across social media, and iterating again and again.

CONCEPTS

Alongside posters and trailers, we often test concepts, synopses, titles, taglines, even story elements such as ending types in social media. After clicking on posters and trailers, audience members are provided with concept descriptions for their reactions.

NOVELLAS, GRAPHIC NOVELS, AUDIOBOOKS

Audiences don’t read scripts, but they do read books. For projects for which we have not yet formed a prototyping crew, we turn scripts into Novellas to be tested digitally. This is a more long-term prototyping approach, since the testing period is longer (it takes more effort for someone to read a book than to watch a 20 min video), but for projects with longer gestation periods, this approach works well.

A more visual approach is to create a Graphic Novel (something that can be delivered as a by-product of creating video storyboards).

A more audio approach is to create a Audio Book (something we are working on currently in order to test a prototype musical).

Risk

It’s all about risk.

Prototyping enables directors to take relatively low cost creative risks. Testing measures whether those risks might pay off.

The Blair Witch Project took the risk and in one iteration the critical and commercial pay off was huge. Imagine testing and iterating a prototype a few times before committing to shoot. In fact, don’t imagine it. Just do it.