In the world of music videos, commercials, fashion films, and other short-form media, there is rarely, if ever, a script — no written document that the entire cast and crew must read before production begins in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This is when having a good treatment is most important.
Thanks to programs like Adobe InDesign and online tools such as Pond5 and Pinterest, written treatments have given birth to an entire new subset of pre-visualization documents. These tools have made it easier to browse, search, and repurpose material to convey aspects of your project. To explore this progression, I sat down with some fellow filmmakers here in New York City — artists who have had a lot of success in pitching their ideas and getting them funded and produced. I wanted to know about their processes for creating treatments. They had a lot to share.
What Is a Treatment?
I first heard the term in college, in reference to script treatments. Any explanation that I could get seemed to say that a treatment was not a synopsis — it was kind of like an outline, but not really. I didn’t get it. That was only made worse after the first time I read a full script treatment. It was 60 pages long and written in prose, like a short novel written by somebody that doesn’t write novels. It wasn’t until I sat down to write my own feature-length script that I suddenly understood why a treatment was useful: it helped to guide the script.
Writing a feature-length script is a massive undertaking. It can easily be a year from the initial idea for the script until its completion. Often, that spark of inspiration that sets us off down the path of creation is intangible — difficult to describe, but we know it when we see it. A script treatment is the intermediary between that initial idea and seeing it developed into a final form. It helps your script stay guided and it helps you to hit your target.
The definition that I now personally use is that a “treatment” is essentially a pitch. It’s intended to present the idea clearly and in the most intriguing manner. If you had the opportunity to pitch your film to a room of people, you wouldn’t want to plainly read off blocks of text. You would want to capture the audience’s attention by describing in great detail the greatest aspects of your idea. You’d want to give them a sense of the characters involved, how the story will unfold, and what type of feeling they will be left with in the end.
Mood Boards, Edits, and More
A good first step to starting your treatment is to create a mood board, an arrangement of images, text, and other materials to convey a particular concept, feeling, or idea. Jump on a website like Pond5, Flickr, Tumblr, or Pinterest. Browsing these sites is a great way to discover a wide variety of quality content very quickly.
A mood board for a music video about the chaos of living in a big city. We selected imagery that conveyed those feelings and worked it into a more refined document with text.
Tom Basis is a pitch production artist at The Mill. “It’s so up for interpretation,” he explains. “Every director, every creative is going to approach it differently. I get treatments from directors for music videos all the time and it’s just text.” Tom’s job is then to take that text and spin it into a document with pictures, storyboards, and whatever else is within reach to convey that particular idea. He packages it all up nicely, and they send it out to the client.
Some projects require a more specific approach to framing and mise-en-scène, so the director might sit down with an illustrator and create storyboards for each frame of the project. You can include these hand-drawn images alongside images you find elsewhere.
Tighe Kellner is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, responsible for creating his own treatments so he can constantly be pitching to bands and brands. He often uses collage-style treatments in addition to heavily storyboarding the frames.
“With the boards, I know what is going to cut to what,” he explains. “I know how shot sequences will flow together. I basically have a first cut of the film in my head and on paper.”
A frame from Tighe Kellner’s music video for the Rosebuds’ “Blue Eyes” compared with the original storyboards by Jim Penola.
A frame from Moonrise Kingdom used for Tighe’s treatment for “Blue Eyes.” This was used as a reference for the storyboards.
Some projects, like fashion films, rely heavily on motion and editing, so they might benefit from what is called either a “mood edit” or “animatic.” This involves bringing these storyboards or footage into editing software and creating a previsualization edit that will help gauge the pace and energy the film should have.
A “Clip-O-Matic” trailer for the film Looper directed by Ryan Johnson and starring Bruce Willis. This is partially what helped Johnson to get his film funded.
If you’re pitching a lot, I definitely recommend getting access to Adobe InDesign. It’s what Tom Basis uses at The Mill. “The great thing about InDesign is that you can create templates and master pages,” he explains. The template is a full treatment, start to finish, with placeholder images and text neatly organized and easily swapped out for the images that you’ve collected for your story. Master pages is a function that adds things like logos, page numbers, and project names at the top or bottom of every page — it’s a way of branding your deck. Tom calls this a Ghost Book.
Working in this way, the majority of the heavy lifting has been done already and you can start plugging in content, re-arranging when necessary. It takes Tom about one day to put together a treatment once he has all the materials at hand. For Tighe, there’s a similar pace. “When I first started writing treatments, it took me two or three days,” he says. “Now it’s two or three hours. I’ve learned, especially with text, that less is more. People don’t want to read that much. I keep the pictures big and powerful, and have one or two lines about what’s happening underneath.”
Another great trick to finding your way in the treatment process is to break your story down into sections, which is a way to highlight specific elements of the film. For example, you might create a section in the beginning to address specifically the cinematography, or color palette, or set decoration — you might even invoke a reference to a film that you feel captures the essence of what you’re trying to convey by including frames from select films. This is one of the most powerful tools I have seen in creating these decks.
A frame from Boogie Nights used for the treatment for the “Blue Eyes” music video.
A frame from the Rosebuds music video “Blue Eyes” directed by Tighe Kellner.
Winning the Bid
The element of “winning the bid” does play a considerable role in the formation of the final treatment. “A potential job will come in and we’ll then create a pitch on it,” Tom says. “They’ll assign a director and a designer to it. I have to figure out what our strategy and resources are for creating the most compelling treatment possible in the time available.”
Tom compares it to the feature film world, saying, “For a feature, you’ll have 120 pages stapled, just text. That is your script. Then you’ll have a PDF that accompanies the script called an ‘investor’s package.’ You’ll put images in it to explain the character and the locations, how you’ll be shooting it, and what it will look and feel like. Its mostly images, almost like a mood film.”
The idea is that the investor is confronted with an image of what the final form of this project could be, not just a bunch of words on a page. It’s potentially the best way to give people that “Aha!” moment — that moment where they say, “I get it.” The same holds true for short-form media.
After the Bid
Creating a good treatment is useful way beyond just the pitching phase. As Tom points out, “It’s not only the point of sale, but also a blueprint for where the project is going.”
Having a clear and compelling treatment helps guide your film so that you hit your target. It becomes a roadmap for everyone involved and ensures that they all agree fundamentally on what the project is about and how it will look and feel. “If we can, we’ll hire an animator to come and go through an exploration of what something will look like. This way, we get to set, we open this book, and there it is.”
A good treatment elicits a similar reaction to that of a good verbal pitch. Hopefully you haven’t been boring, your personality or voice has come through in your words and gestures, and your characters and plot are clearly understood. In the end, you want the audience you’ve gathered to nod their heads in appreciation of the grand scope of your project. Whether they like it or not, they get it.
Jon Conklin is a New York-based filmmaker and visual-effects artist. He received his BFA in Transmedia at Syracuse University and is co-owner of Novelty Hat Productions. You can follow him on Instagram @mrjonconklin.
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