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How We Make Product Films In-House
Films are a great way to communicate. They have more personality than static images, high energy if you do them right, and the ability to make your audience feel something. They also take a lot of time to make. At Percolate, just like at any fast growing company, we move too quickly to have time for a three month production schedule. The solution we found is to make the films ourselves. It’s a daunting task that requires a wide range of skills including script development, creative direction, set design, lighting, video, audio, motion graphics, and post production. But with the right people on your in-house creative team and great partners on your marketing team, it’s possible.
This post outlines how we went about it for our latest product film ‘Percolate 101’, from the team and equipment involved, to the process and timeline we developed.
1. Starting with the brief
As a creative team at Percolate, we service our marketing team similar to an agency -client relationship. This basically means that the marketing team develops the brief, and we execute the project.
“The objective for our ‘Percolate 101’ film was to create a 90-second answer to the question ‘What is Percolate, and how does it work?’”
Beyond the campaign objective, the brief also provided information about our target audiences, where the film will be used, desired outcomes, and the product messaging and positioning.
To call it an agency - client relationship is a bit of an exaggeration. The fact that we are so close as a team, and sit next to each other all day blurs the lines considerably. At times the brief can seem like an extra step when you just want to jump in and get started. But there is a constant temptation to change direction, increase the scope, and shift priorities along the way.
Developing a solid brief up front takes some work, but it will save you time in the long run.
2. Structuring the script
Dave King, our VP of Marketing, gave us a draft script to use as our starting point. We then commissioned our friend and freelance copywriter, Lauren, to help us bring the script to life. We met for a coffee on Tuesday morning to do the briefing, followed by a round of feedback on Thursday, and delivery on Friday. The final step was for Dave and I to have a Google doc battle over a video call to iron out the final details of the wording.
We asked Laura to create a 90-second cut, a 30-second cut, and a 15-second cut to be used on our .com, as pre-roll, and in various digital advertising. She structured the cuts in a way that allowed us to omit full sentences and sections to create the shorter variations. By taking this approach we only needed to record one full-length voice over, which saves both time and money.
Partnering with a freelancer to help us talk about our product is extremely helpful. Internally we’re so close to it all, so used to our terminology and so excited about our features, that it’s sometimes hard to tell if it makes sense to someone outside our four walls. Laura helped us make the language more conversational and be more disciplined about the amount of information we attempt to convey.
3. Daring to prototype
At Percolate we’ve created a fictional audio equipment brand called Notes that we use for all our product demos. Ed Nacional helped us design the Notes brand identity in 2014, and since then we’ve given the brand a life of its own. In this case, we decided to follow the fictional Notes team as they plan and launch their new wireless ‘Freestyle’ earphones.We developed a storyboard to help us identify the different characters, plan environments to help reinforce their roles, and nail down a product story that would compliment the voice over and drive home our product messaging. We recorded the voiceover on an iPhone and turned our storyboard into a simple movie that we shared with our stakeholders for feedback and sign off.
In my opinion, creating confidence in a solution when it’s still ugly and unfinished is the hardest part about being a designer.
Sharing work early and facilitating a conversation with stakeholders to figure out what’s working and what isn’t working before all the time-consuming and resource intensive work begins is crucial to keeping timelines short and budgets low. It requires a lot of openness from all parties, but once you’re able to build this kind of trust you can move in the right direction very quickly.
4. Capturing the live action
In preparation for the live action shoots we scouted the office for on-camera talent and transformed the space into the Notes headquarters by rearranging the furniture, purchasing (and later returning) props, and printing posters and mock designs. We complimented our office sets with a scene from the ‘Korean Office’ set in my apartment, and a run-and-gun adventure on the Marcy subway platform.
Designing and lighting the set takes up 90% of the time during a shoot. When it’s finally time to roll the camera we made sure to capture multiple variations of the scene, with and without camera movement, over the left and right shoulder, straight on, monitor only, and a range of actions (typing, mouse movement, scrolling, and clicking). Having a wide range of options to choose from when starting to build the sequences in post production is invaluable.
Our strategy for camera equipment is to rent cutting-edge cameras, lenses, and lights to ensure we have our pick from the latest releases while purchasing versatile tools like sliders, tripods, reflectors, and microphones that come in handy on a day-to-day basis recording trainings and producing webinars and photography. Here’s a complete breakdown of the equipment we used to produce this film, courtesy of Percolate in-house photographer Alex.
Things we purchased:
- Video tripod legs/video head: $550
- Secondary tripod head: $199
- Camera Slider: $175
- Zacuto loupe: $200
- Edelkrone pocket rig: $290
- Reflector/Diffusers: $150
- Zoom H5 Recorder: $270
- Shure Microphone: $399
- Studio Headphones: $100
Things we rented:
- 4K DSLR Camera $55/day for 3 days
- Prime Lenses $40/day for 3 days
- Stabilized Lenses $32/day for 3 days
- Dedo LED Continuous Light and Stand $21/day for 2 days
5. Animating the product
We shoot all the live action with blank white screens that we composite the product screens onto in a later stage. We start recreating our product interface in Illustrator and populate them with content. Hayeon, our motion graphics specialist, then exports the vector files to After Effects to be animated.
There are many reasons we prefer recreating the screens and animating them instead of using real product in the live action. It’s difficult to get the white balance and brightness right for both screens and surrounding environments, and even harder to avoid making mistakes and typos while the camera is rolling. Screen recording is another option, but building out content in the real product takes almost as long as recreating the screens in Illustrator, it doesn’t give us as much control, and again it’s hard to avoid mistakes while recording. However, the biggest benefit of animating the screens is by far the modularity: by separating the live action and the product screens our teams are able to work in parallel, and we’re able to easily make updates later as the product evolves.
6. Bringing it all together
We started this phase by recording the final voice over. Finding a voiceover artist with the energy and tone that fits the brand can be tricky. Fortunately Laura, or freelance copywriter, had just that. We spent 90 minutes in a call booth in our office recording a bunch of takes while giving awkward feedback like “could you do that line again with more of a smile?”
By this time, Alex has gone through and categorized all the live action footage and picked the winning shots. Now he did the same with the voice over to put together a full sequence that flowed nicely. The next step was to place voiceover, live action, background music track, and product animations in Premier Pro and start matching it up, selecting angles to fit the focal points of the product while creating a rhythm between voice over, music, and live action cuts.
At this point we shared a rough cut with our stakeholders for feedback. We made a couple of adjustments based on their comments and moved into tracking the screens, masking overlapping elements such as hands and shoulders, and finally placed the product animations on the screens of the various devices. This work was done in a mix of After Effects and Premiere Pro. You can find links to some helpful resources and tutorials below.
After Effects Tutorials
Premier Pro Tutorials
- Composite product screens using the corner pin effect
- Using the “multiply” blending mode to composite product screens onto white screens
Sourcing music tracks
The total cost including equipment, copywriter, voiceover artist, and background music track came down to $3,526. Our team spent four very intense weeks developing this film.
Getting to develop projects like this from start to finish is one of the main reasons I’m so excited about being a part of an in-house creative team. It’s not just about all the skills we get to pick up in new areas like filmmaking, it also has a lot to do with the close relationship we‘ve formed with our marketing team. From the knowledge we acquire about the marketing tactics we use, to the understanding we gain of how our work impacts the business. It’s this partnership that helps us become better at our jobs every day.
Check out the film here.