Short Ideas Blog Post 21 on the stages of creative development

The Stages of Creative Development

The Stages of Creative Development

For creatives working in the commercial sphere, there are general stages of creative development that a job needs to pass through to keep everyone sane and things moving smoothly. Sometimes, though, you don’t have the time to fit them all in — or your instinct tells you that the client is going to feel like you’re being rigid — so you may need to deviate and remain flexible.

If you know the path that your project needs to take, you can afford to take some calculated risks and move it along. It’s really important to have a big picture understanding of all of the elements in an area, even if they don’t always apply — a budget, for example, may have no need for makeup, location rental or SFX line items, or a post production workflow may not call for splitting the editing tasks into offline and online editing. Experience will help you figure out which elements are important, dangerous or can be skipped. Generally speaking, though, any project should pass through the following steps on its path from brief to script.

Stages of Creative diagram

The stages of creative development

Stage 1: Brief

First things first, you’ll have some sort of brief (see last week’s post for further detail). Either you’ve been provided a brief or you talked through it and took your own notes. Receiving a brief can be problematic in its own way, though, as they often have all sorts of irrelevant or conflicting information. It’s very much like those math problems from high school where a paragraph provides a ton of detail and you need to sort out just the important bits to find your answer. I’ve often rewritten a brief from a client’s extensive document into a shorter one for myself to work from, reorganising and prioritising information for clarity. Or at least pull out a highlighter and help the key information jump off the page.

Stage 2: Treatment Begins

You will want to get started on your treatment (which we’ll detail in a future post), re-iterating the necessary information that reflects back to the client that you’ve understood the critical points to be considered in the final video. That done, you’ve really done your homework to give yourself a good steer, and I’d jump into developing concepts.

Stage 3: Develop Concepts

Let your mind wander, ask yourself questions, jot down ideas as they come… expand out and around and then come back, working away until you have as many ideas as you can. Scribble down a few words or find a picture that activates your imagination so that you can remind yourself of the kernel of that idea. If time allows, shake up your physiology and take your mind off the task at hand. Come back later and take another run at it. This process of “constructive procrastination” frees up your mind to churn in the background, and is essential to getting distance from your ideas and allowing fresh perspectives in.

Ideas in hand, give them a look back over and consider how well they suit the brief. If they don’t, can they be elegantly adjusted and still retain their appeal? If not, cut them.

This first triage done, consider the survivors. Start fleshing them out, considering the potential of each one. Again, cut them down to a short list. If you can, test these ideas against someone you work with to sense check their reaction. This should suggest some clear winners, and these are the ones that will move forward. It may also yield some revision suggestions, and you will want (or have to) make some adjustments.

These ideas can now get worked up into single page concepts, explaining the idea in the briefest terms possible and some support images that activate the imagination. House styles can vary, but I like to start with a name for the video that activates the imagination, reminding me of the central theme or concept and why it appeals to me. Then an explanation of the concept, a few notes to clarify any technical concerns, a note on style or tone if it’s relevant, and then perhaps a note on what makes this idea stand out from the others. A couple images can help serve as explanations or conversation starters, and can be really helpful in helping your client get a feel for the potential video.

This all gets fed back into your treatment to complete it, or may need to get put into a deck (ad speak for a powerpoint/keynote presentation).

Stage 4: Creative Pitch

The treatment or deck will get presented back to the client, identifying how well the ideas match the brief. Ideally, everything is on the mark and you can move further along the process. Often enough, the client isn’t happy and you realise the brief wasn’t well formulated for some reason. Back to square one.

Stage 5: Write Synopsis

The concept selected and approved, it now requires further detail. Flesh out a clear explanation of how the story will work, what things will look like from moment to moment, and any other relevant detail.
You may need to deliver a set of storyboards at this stage, depending on the expectations of the client. These are preliminary images that help them visualise how the video might work and aren’t to be confused with the boards that the director will need to plot out moment to moment and discuss with their team. Personally, I don’t like this early set as I believe it’s a red herring and puts false detail to an abstraction. The script should be written before the boards are done. But if you’ve got make ‘em, you’ve got to make ‘em.

Stage 6: Script

The synopsis may again get run by the client. Next comes the script, finally. Traditional cinema scripts are fine, as are A/V scripts with two parallel columns, the video on the left and the audio on the right. The latter is fantastic for clarifying what is happening at any specific moment in either channel, but can take some getting used to. I would encourage you to use one of these established formats and not get creative. And don’t just write it out in Word as a prose document unless it’s more appropriate in your particular case. (We’ll talk further on the writing the script next week).

Stage 7: Creative Pitch 2

The script (or some sort of appropriate detailed information) will get run by the client again. It may be important to highlight what’s important at this stage, as some clients can not understand that if it’s not in the script it won’t be prepared. It is better if that is clear in advance rather than someone explaining on set why they can’t have something. Shivers.

Haggling over individual lines of dialogue or specific words will ensue.

Generate Storyboard & Shot List

The director should be getting involved by this stage at the latest, depending on the agency vs. production company format that is being followed. The script will get broken down into specific shots that are necessary, hopefully the minimum so that focus is applied where focus is required. I would be shy of more than 10–15% “good to have” shots, as you need to be creatively clear on what is required to make the job work. Shot list done, the real storyboards can be drawn, showing how the story is told shot by shot.


Familiarity, expediency or an unusual project may dictate skipping (or adding) a few of the stages of creative, and that’s fine, but the overall structure is sound and should be kept in mind to keep you on track. Nothing in video production can follow a cookie–cutter pattern, but a perspective of where your project is going and how to avoid the most common problems can ensure that your creative lands on the mark, with a happy client and team.




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