Inspiration, Pro Tips

The Film Before the Film: Creating Concepts With Stock Footage

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I have a confession. I never learned to draw. I’m all stick figures, and I’m pretty sure if I had to draw the sun, it would look identical to the ones I drew in kindergarten — you know, like a half-circle with a few lines coming out of it. This makes storyboarding an issue (because cool directors can effortlessly sketch). Yes, there are storyboarding apps that are incredibly powerful, but those can get tedious – what if you could convey the idea of your video by actually creating it from pre-existing footage? Not only is creating a concept of your video using stock footage and audio an incredible sales, pitching, and communication tool, but it also streamlines your production process by helping you make script, casting, and shot selection decisions. Below, I’ll dive into how I pre-visualize my work by doing just that.
 

The Basics

The general idea is to take your script and portray it with pre-existing footage, using editing software to approximate what you have in mind. Most of the time, I’ll have a script written before I dive into creating a concept video. Sometimes, however, the footage I find on Pond5 while brainstorming the project actually helps create my script. This process works best for corporate, documentary, and marketing content that is led by voiceover. You can also pre-visualize scenes from scripted content with this approach, but the results may be rougher around the edges. Regardless of your situation, assembling footage that reflects your proposed final piece is an excellent way to plan your production.

Paris at Sunset by Stockmedia1

Since pre-existing footage exists for most major cities, establishing shots are easy. For the various situations your talent may find themselves in, I would bet good money that they already exist on Pond5. The great thing about searching for shots to visualize your project is that you’ll find inspiration for stage direction and cinematography that you may not have thought of on your own. I often find shots that are exactly what I need, so I don’t go through the time and expense of replicating them at all. I have found this process to be genuinely inspirational to my directing, cinematography, and writing.
 

The Process

I recently needed to create a commercial for a Chicago apartment building. Once I had the story written, I had to share my idea with the other creatives and executives involved. The problem was that what was on paper wasn’t communicating with the non-creatives, who found this whole filmmaking process highly amusing, but strange and difficult to understand. So, I dove into Pond5 to lay out my script with shots, so everyone could understand what I was thinking.

I started with the search terms that were relevant to my project. For example, I needed “millennials in an office environment,” so I started with searching “millennial” + “office” and built from there. These searches led to new searches, and hundreds (if not thousands) of shot ideas that I later incorporated back into my script. Finding clips of millennials that already existed also helped inform our casting process. An easy way to start is with a collection. In this case, I started simply with “People.”

After going through dozens of additional search terms, I created a collection that represented my script from beginning to end. I had a friend lay down the voiceover lines from the script (which is not included in the sample here), and I added some temp music and decided on a shot order. Before I knew it, I had a working model of the script, ready for anyone to see – especially the executives.

My curated “Chicago” collection

After gathering feedback on the concept, we made some changes. We realized that the shot of Cloud Gate was a little on-the-nose (we get we’re in Chicago, already!), the big aerial approach at the beginning was a little too grand for this particular piece, and so forth. The concept became a great common ground for everyone involved with the project to discuss. Also, everyone loved the general idea once they saw it in this form, so it made everything way easier overall.

 

Moving to the Real Thing

We completely eliminated establishing shots of Chicago from our shooting schedule, because it was far more economic to simply purchase the pre-existing shots than it was to send our team to shoot them. This is especially true for time-lapse footage, which is, by nature, very time-consuming. That was a half-day of shooting immediately eliminated. The savings were already piling up.

Scenes that would have our talent in them we had to produce ourselves, but we were able to find many types of shots that we liked and would use for inspiration. If this particular project wasn’t actually about a building, which made the spaces the actors were in the real star, we would have simply used the pre-existing shots, because that would have further cut down on our filming time.

When you look through pre-existing footage, you’ll discover that many shots exist with a multitude of options: changes in angle, exposure, lighting, camera movement, and other aesthetic factors can all change the feeling of any given shot. So, we got a chance to play around with some variety in the filming without actually having shot a single frame. Since we had the dynamic representation of what we wanted a particular scene to look like that we could easily share, we could make tweaks and then discuss them easily.

Because I was also the cinematographer on this particular project, I was able to use the pre-existing shots I pulled for inspiration in my shot list. There are some setups that I would have never come up with on my own – for example, a group of people hunched over a desk looking at a laptop, or the millennials working at a desk, filmed through a piece of glass. It’s unlikely I would have created these shots if left to my own devices. With the inspiration of these shots, we created a shot in our final product that showed people meeting at a desk and shaking hands – shot from the outside of the office, through the glass. So, in addition to being an incredible pre-viz tool, using stock can also help inform shot creation and shot selection. I discovered that there are existing shots that I couldn’t replicate even if I had the budget to – for example, a shot during certain weather or during a certain time of year, or some architecture that’s now changed.

Since we had a limited budget, we were also constrained regarding the number of talent we could hire. Many artists on Pond5 have multiple scenarios with the same actors, meaning we could actually have more talent in our piece than we hired – we could simply use multiple pre-existing shots with the same subjects. This is an incredibly efficient way to add actors without the cost of hiring actors. Granted, you need a specific scenario in your story to allow you to do this, but for us, it was the perfect solution.

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Cut and Deliver

Once we had our shot list, script, schedule, talent, and travel finalized, we went out to film on location. The final gift from this process comes in the edit bay: your project is already cut. This is much better than the mild horror that sometimes wells up in me when I sit down to edit and realize I have a terabyte of footage to sift through and make a story out of. Instead, this is more like painting-by-numbers. I replaced some of the stock shots with the shots I created, then purchased the shots that would eventually be in the final piece. As an added bonus, Pond5 now has editor tools, which include plugins for Premiere and Final Cut that allow you to search Pond5 and test out different footage without leaving your NLE.

From this point forward, it was almost smooth sailing — I eventually did 25 revisions of this piece, because of tweaks to voiceover and music — but the shots remained the same throughout the process, which was a relief. Where we ended wasn’t a particular surprise, because we knew what we were going to make before we filmed a single frame. I’ll share the final piece here as soon as it’s live online!
 

Takeaways

Pre-visualizing with stock footage is a wonderful process that pays dividends through every stage of production, and tees up post-production nicely. Do you have any tips and tricks to share about how you approach concepting and pre-viz? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Top Image: Still from Woman Looking out of Train Window in Autumn by hotelfoxtrot