Writing a Video Script Hollywood-Style

November 30, 2017

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Jordan Wellin


It’s no secret that we’re big proponents of writing a script for every video you produce, whether it’s a 30-second company culture video, or a detailed product update that takes weeks of pre-production planning.

Inspiration for your next video can come from pretty much anywhere, from a stylish commercial you catch while flipping channels, to something you see on the sidewalk, or even our Video Inspiration Gallery. But have you ever thought of reading a script from one of your favorite movies to get inspired?

Take a look at any Hollywood screenplay (or independent screenplay, for that matter), and you’ll find a detailed blueprint for writing dialogue, location, and even camera placement and movement.

“Take a look at any Hollywood screenplay, and you’ll find a detailed blueprint for writing dialogue, location, and even camera placement and movement.”

We’re taking cues from 5 of our favorite screenplays from the past decade to give us a better idea of how Hollywood screenwriting pros use sharp, precise writing to help guide the shooting process. When possible, we’ve included examples from both the script and the finished product.

So grab some popcorn, recline your seat back, turn your phone on “silent,” and let the writing inspire you.

Show, don’t tell

It’s an all too familiar adage, but showing first and telling second really boils down to a single question: Do you trust your audience?

Telling is easy. Writers love to pen exposition because it gives them control over what they’re good at. But if you spell out every little detail, you risk losing your viewers’ attention. Yes, action-oriented writing is harder to pull off, and it requires exercising a different side of your brain. But it’s much more exciting for your audience to follow as they watch. Let the visuals do the heavy lifting.

How Hollywood did it:

In Personal Shopper, one of the more critically acclaimed films of 2017, a stunning 15-minute sequence set on a train from Paris to London shows Kristen Stewart’s character texting a stranger who might be her dead brother (I know, I know… but hang with me here). Part of the sequence is analyzed in this clip:

What’s so remarkable about the scene isn’t just that it’s rife with tension about who this stranger might be, but that the script has full confidence in viewers to follow Stewart’s panicked state as she receives and reads each text message sans any exposition that spells out her thoughts. Who knew texting could be so terrifying?

How we did it:

We put this principle into practice with a product update video featuring Brendan, our CTO and co-founder. Instead of going into the not-so-thrilling details about how the new update works, we wanted to show it in action.

Make the camera a character

When you’re a lowly writer in Hollywood, including details about camera movement in your script probably isn’t the best idea. Usually, it’s the director’s job to envision the shot sequences, and the last thing you want to do is encroach on their territory.

But when you’re a video team of one or even a few, you can wield that extra control by writing specific shots into your script. This can help cut down on planning and production time, as well as ease up the editing process.

How Hollywood did it:

A great example of this sort of visual writing comes from the 2007 film Atonement. While the film might be better known for its now legendary 5-minute tracking shot on the beaches of Dunkirk, the opening shot and accompanying script prove how easy it can be for readers to visualize a sequence simply based on text.

“A doll’s house, in the form of the Tallis house, an enormous Victorian Gothic pile. The CAMERA moves from room to room, from the nursery and spare bedrooms on the second floor, to the main bedrooms on the first floor, where puppet versions of mother, daughter, son and baby sister are neatly ordered, to the ground floor with its library, drawing room, dining room and kitchen. Finally the CAMERA moves to the hall through which a young gardener puppet wheels a wheelbarrow. The CAMERA PULLS BACK through a downstairs window to reveal the whole impressive facade.”

Now, take a look at how part of that opening scene plays out on camera:

How we did it:

When we shot our Soapbox launch video earlier this year, we knew we wanted to film it in a single uninterrupted take. By scripting that concept into the shoot from the get-go, it helped our on-screen talent know how to better prepare… and tipped off Chris that he’d better start practicing how to hold his laptop with a steady hand.

We’re saying goodbye to Soapbox on 9/1, but you can still [record video] (https://wistia.com/product/video-recording) with Wistia.

When in doubt, turn it into a montage

Have a sequence of shots that cover a period of time, but not sure how to fit them all into one cohesive edit? The montage is your friend.

Frequently used in everything from animation to action movies, montages are instantly recognizable and often utilize music to help tie the sequence together (remember the opening of Up?).

“Frequently used in everything from animation to action movies, montages are instantly recognizable and often utilize music to help tie the sequence together.”

Because you can’t always plan for when a montage might work best, sometimes inspiration won’t hit till you’re knee-deep in the editing process. But if you can plan ahead, it’ll save you a lot of guesswork to write them into your script.

How Hollywood did it:

In the 2016 intellectual thriller Arrival, a key series of events that take place in the middle of the film are laced together through montage.

Normally, a writer’s first inclination might be to use exposition to clue in the audience to what’s transpiring. But here, the dialogue is paired with visual aids and music to form a fluid, far more digestible sequence that covers weeks worth of plot in the span of a minute.

Here’s how the film’s editor first got the idea:

How we did it:

We may not have Oscar-nominated editors and writers at our disposal, but we like to think we know a thing or two about writing and editing a great montage. Take a peek at how clip selection, music, and (song)writing all played into creating our 2016 recap.

The sound of silence

Few things are as effective at drawing your audience’s attention as something that’s unexpected. So why not eliminate one of the most fundamental part of most videos — dialogue — to make your viewers sit up and take notice?

How Hollywood did it:

While we could turn to any of our favorite silent films to depict this concept, we went with a more modern example from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 script for There Will Be Blood. A nearly 3-hour epic that covers the span of multiple decades, the film opens with a wordless series of incidents that tell you everything you need to know about the main character’s ruthless quest for oil and wealth.

If you employ this tactic, remember that just because you don’t have dialogue doesn’t mean you won’t need a script. In some ways, the script will become even more vital to lay out specific blocking and actions you’ll need to shoot.

“Just because you don’t have dialogue doesn’t mean you won’t need a script. In some ways, the script will become even more vital to lay out specific blocking and actions you’ll need to shoot.”
How we did it:

You don’t need words when you’re trying to convey the horrors of seeing an untidy UTM code, as Brendan proves here. By amping up the music and background noises, a heightened atmosphere is created, making the video all the more cinematic.

Lighten it up

Sometimes you just need to add a spark of silly to liven things up. Talking about what your business does might be exciting to you, but conveying that message to your audience in a digestible, engaging way isn’t easy.

How Hollywood did it:

Take a cue from the 2014 sleeper sci-fi hit Ex Machina, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay. In the film’s most memorable (and GIF-able) scene, Nathan, a mad scientist played by Oscar Isaac, breaks out into a full-blown disco with a little help from one of his A.I. creations.

It’s tonally jarring and simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. Yet the scene shows how injecting just the right amount of humor into an otherwise by-the-numbers scenario can grab your audience’s attention, and make your message reverberate long after your video has ended.

Here’s how the script lays it out:

CALEB turns. NATHAN has entered. He’s holding a drink. His words are slurred.

NATHAN: “However. You would not be wasting your time …  if you were dancing with her.”

Immediately, the lighting in the room undergoes a complete change. Transforming from the discreet and tasteful low light of evening, into the coloured glows of a night-club. Simultaneously, from unseen speakers, DANCE MUSIC starts playing.

CALEB stands - frozen by the surrealism of what has just happened. KYOKO starts walking to the center of the room. And once taken position, she starts dancing.

How we did it:

Trying to explain the inner workings of the Wistia architecture is no easy task. But turning that explanation into a spritely skit that has echoes of film noir and screwball comedy? Now we’re talking. You might not entirely grasp the information even after watching the video, but it’s certainly livelier than your average product explainer video.

Have a favorite screenplay that’s inspired one of your videos? Let’s hear about it in the comments!

November 30, 2017

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Jordan Wellin


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