Making a Startup Promo Video

This is a comprehensive process post about what goes into making a promo video for a startup. This post will cover all aspects of the project, including: concept development, script, style, preproduction, casting, crew, the shoot itself, motion graphics, sound and final delivery.

Overview

Our most recent project was a promo video for the launch of Ionic Security. This post will detail what that process looked like from start to finish. The video above covers the same topics, but with more moving objects.

Ionic wanted a short promotional video to accompany their launch and later to live on their marketing homepage. They hired Moonbase to produce and shoot the video. The goal was a 1:30 promo that introduced Ionic as a new type of cybersecurity—a new way of approaching the problem.

To view the final video, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Concept

The first step for our video projects is the development of a set of conceptual options. These are presented as a set of three briefs (one paragraph each) that quickly explain what form the video could take. They don’t get very specific, but they hit key details: where it would take place, how the message could be delivered, the general mood, and what happens.

The process of developing these potential directions usually takes a few days. In this case, we had around 20 options that we widdled down to the three we presented. As Ionic is targeting C-level executives of major corporations, most of the concepts were buttoned-up and didn’t stray too far afield. The option they chose is pictured below.

The chosen option hinged on a famous quote that we thought summed up the problem of cybersecurity pretty well: “There are two types of companies: those that have been hacked, and those that have been hacked, but just don’t know it yet.” It’s a great, succinct way to describe the problem while also instilling sense of urgency. This quote would be the conceptual anchor for the project.

The concept was to use this quote to frame the situation and visualize these two types of companies. One company would be chaotic, in the midst of a hack, and the other would be calm—perilously ignorant of the hack happening under their nose. The twist would be that the calm company had in fact implemented Ionic Security and was calm not because they were naive, but because they knew their data was finally safe.

There are two types of companies: those that have been hacked, and those that have been hacked, but just don’t know it yet.

Style

Once the direction was chosen, the next step was to write the script and start preproduction. The script needed to convey a sense of security without instilling fear; feel trustworthy and professional, yet not be terribly boring (like most corporate videos).

Script writing is an arduous process of sculpting a message down to its essential parts. 1:30 isn’t actually a lot of time; each sentence must have a purpose and not be repetitive or extraneous. The language must be accessible and engaging, and ideally, devoid of buzzwords and phrases that have become weightless over time (“the best way”, “simple and beautiful” etc).

An example sentence would be “Rather than buttress the crumbling perimeter, Ionic protects the data itself.” which appears about halfway into the script. This sentence tells you a lot in a small amount of time: Ionic isn’t a traditional execution of cybersecurity, traditional methods are flawed, and Ionic protects the data not the network. It’s a packed sentence. A word like “buttress” is interesting, which is good and bad. Good in that it’s unusual, but bad in that it causes the audience to work a little harder.

Generally during this process, there is a lot of back and forth with the company to ensure we know exactly what they want to convey. If there are product specific points they want to hit etc. The main thing with this script was that it needed to paint a picture of what it would be like to work without the fear of security breach. It took about a week to write and dial in to the client’s liking.

Using the audio we had prepped prior to shooting, a visual wireframe (often called a previs) was created. This provided a visual reference point which all parties involved could use to dial-in to the style (not to mention, to get accurate client approval before shooting). The wireframe was used throughout the writing process to sculpt the script, and eventually as the primary informant for the shot list and plan.

Location

The biggest challenge with this project was finding an aesthetically pleasing office that was also ammidable to a large film shoot. Of the nearly 30 we contacted, exactly two were warm to the idea. SF isn’t LA — offices here aren’t used to having film crews take over for a day or two. We’re not talking about a couple guys and a camcorder; this is truckloads of gear, and around 30 total people.

We’ve found that some of the best office locations are corporate furniture showrooms: places that look the part, but aren’t full-on working environments susceptible to disruption. We chose the OneWorkplace showroom in Santa Clara for the shoot. The only downside was the warehouse-looking ceiling. We needed to cut around that, but otherwise it was a great match for the clean, corporate look we wanted.

Crew and Cast

For all of our projects, we crew up according to the scope of the concept. For some, we only need one person, but for this one, we crewed up big. This was necessary for a number of reasons: 1) to fill out an office, you need a lot of extras. Managing them on set requires PAs. 2) To achieve the level of visual quality required, we needed dedicated lighting and camera teams, and 3) the accelerated timeline required a lot of production details to be handled at once, which required extra producers.

The camera and lighting teams on this project were superhuman. Donavan Sell was our DP and Joe Mendoza of Little Giant led the lighting crew. These guys are extremely talented and pulled off some truly beautiful images in a short amount of time. It was our first time working together and it was a pleasure. A solid tech scout a few days before ensured that everyone knew where we’d be shooting, the look we were going for, and the basic plan.

To achieve the level of visual quality required, we needed dedicated lighting and camera teams.

Casting, as always, was crucial. We needed a variety of 10 extras, around 35-60 years old, that had a professional, wise look. Acting experience was key as well–even though they wouldn’t be speaking or doing anything too complex, we needed to ensure that they wouldn’t freeze up on camera. It’s amazing what a camera, lights and the record-light can do to the untrained.

We used Casting Networks and got around 300 submissions for our project. We held a small casting a few days before the shoot and chose 15 of our favorites. 90% of the people we saw at the casting made the cut. We’ve gone through agencies before, and while the average quality is higher, so too is the logistical headache (more paperwork, fees and process).

Shoot

A good plan is crucial to a successful shoot. A shot list was prepared that matched up against the location scout we had done a few days before. There were eight locations for the day; each place had about 5-6 shots to setup and shoot. In addition to the planned shots, we also let the camera run and pick up little random moments which could be used as filler later on. *Coverage* was the motto of the day.

Per location, the typical sequence unfolded like this: DP, Director and Gaffer determine next location, camera and lights move into position and get set up, AD and Director discuss the shots, how long it should take, and what’s required, AD gathers extras, and personal, Director discusses scene with actors, start shooting, Director watches on monitor and makes adjustments, 75% of the way through, about half the team starts prepping the next location.

We shot everything on the RED Dragon with Canon L Lenses, at 5K and 36fps. For the intro shots, we shot at 120fps which crops in a bit on the sensor to 2K. Final delivery was 2K; the footage was edited at full 5K resolution and scaled down on export to xH.264.

Overall this shoot was extremely efficient. We only had one day in the space and absolutely had to get everything done in 12 hours or less (one of the best ways to stay under budget is to shoot on one day if possible. Most labor and locations bill on day rates.). We ended up finishing a few hours early. Our ability to move quickly was a result of good planning, a talented team, and ruthless time management.

A good plan is crucial to a successful shoot.

PostProduction (Visuals)

You can divide any promo project up into three sections: preproduction, production, and postproduction. Each is complex in its own way. In the case of this video, the visual postproduction consisted of four elements: the edit, color correction, intro and logo motiongraphics, and screen replacements.

We edited in Adobe Premiere in a 5K timeline. Proxy files weren’t used; the MacPro machine we use is able to process the RED .r3d files so long as playback is limited to 1/4 resolution (which is more than enough for editing). We try and do a lot of our editing on set, while shooting, to make the edit process at the end that much easier.

The colorist on this project was Carey Burens. You can see an example of his work on the before and after image below. Our main goal was to try and tug this away from looking like stock footage. To do that, we avoided oversaturating the images, put some stylistic blues into the shadows, and generally graded a little more aggressively.

The intro graphics were done in After Effects using the Newton physics engine. The idea was to simply and graphically portray each of the two companies from the quote. We decided on two boxes to represent the companies, and a light grid inside to represent their data (or more broadly, their assets). The one on the left is breached, and comes apart completely; the one of the right is in peril, despite its borders maintaining their integrity.

In the intro, a laptop screen is used to tie the shots of the two companies together visually. As such, the intro graphics needed to link to the screen in some way — a simple flash cut would work, but didn’t sound very interesting. We decided instead to pull back, out through the screen, revealing the graphics to be occurring on the screen of the first company. This move was accomplished using both a physical dolly-move backward, combined with a keyframed scale in post, using After Effects.

PostProduction (Audio)

The audio of a promo is just as important as the visuals. For this project, we worked with Pilotpreist to compose some truly beautiful pieces that were timed specifically for the script. The initial concept and script was a little darker and more ominous, which paired terrifically with the composed music. As the project unfolded however, the client wanted to make sure that the overall vibe was more uplifting and aspirational. Given this, the script was altered and the music was changed too. It matched the new script better, but we were bummed to not pursue the darker version.

We auditioned around 35 people for the voiceover. The client, having heard the director’s voice reading the test script, preferred his voice. Using the director’s voice made things easy: we recoded his voiceover on-site. This ended up working really well as he was the most familiar with the script and well-aquainted with its ebb and flow. The vocals were processed in Logic using T-Racks, Waves SSL Compressor and EQ, and Altiverb.

The shoot was dramatically less complex due to the fact that we didn’t need to record any sound on set. All sound was done after the fact, and mostly before the shoot even happened. This allowed us to know exactly how long we needed for each shot, what content would match best with each section, and the overall vibe we were going for.

Final Video

Ionic launched on April 14th 2014. The final promo video is below

While this post is long, it doesn’t come close to touching on all aspects that go into the production of a short commercial. The goal was to provide a brief overview of the process and illuminate some of the steps required for a project like this to take shape.

If you have detailed questions, comments, or feedback, please feel free to reach out on the channels below.