This video is from my (now defunct) Promo Workshop website. I’ll get around to updating the video one day; for now I’m putting it here so it has a home online.
It’s part three of a seven part video series; the first two are here and here.

This video is all about the production technique from yesteryear known as the paper cut.
As I explain, you can use the paper cut to teach yourself how to write TV promos; movie trailers; even regular TV advertising. The best part is, you can do it at home without any fancy equipment or any particular expertise, which makes it great for beginners.

This step-by-step process will teach you the basics of promo script writing from scratch:

  • the promo producer skill set
  • scene selection & writing
  • introduction to the paper cut technique
  • paper cut process: step 1
  • paper cut example
  • why paper cuts
  • TV promo types

a note about “writing”

It’s not unusual for students of a profession to discover that the profession in practice differs greatly from the one they studied in theory. While watching this video training series you will come across certain moments where I flag these differences.

The biggest example is the concept of promo writing, or copywriting in general:

  • what you think it might mean;
  • what I think it should mean;
  • what the industry thinks it means.

I have submitted to the popular term writing here so people can find this course online. But now that you are here, I need to indicate that writing isn’t really the best description of what a copywriter/promo producer does.

Almost any bright-minded person can have an idea and write a script. But there are many, many, many other facets to consider in the process.  For example:

  • Has the idea been done before; or at least, too recently?
  • Does the idea actually demonstrate the product/service?
  • Can the idea be adequately demonstrated in 30 (or less) seconds of TV?
  • Is the idea bigger than the allocated budget?
  • Is there enough time until deadline to produce the idea?
  • Does the production company have the expertise to produce the idea?

Copywriting is as much about solving these problems (and dozens more) as it is “creative writing”.  Just as there’s far more to being an architect than drafting, there’s far more to being a copywriter than merely writing. A script is (or should be) more like a plan.

There are many excellent producers who are able to plan everything mentally. Without ever putting pen to paper, they can simply envisage how they want their finished product to come out.

This skill, by the way, is necessary; and develops over time the more finished products you make. I can work this way––usually when I’m short for time––but this is not my preferred modus operandi.

However the end result is achieved, the quality of a promo producer depends on how well they can corral the many and varied aspects to creating effective promos; whether on paper or in their head. Or both.

So, while I sadly acknowledge that paper cuts aren’t something you see a lot in working promo departments; I still categorise paper cuts as best practice… and certainly recommend doing them if you’re, like me, not good at keeping a thousand plates spinning in your head at once.

One way of training yourself how to make promos, trailers or TV commercials is to know what a plan looks like (mentally or otherwise)… then paper cuts are necessary practice.

a mini rant about editing

I should also say here, in spite of what the industry would condition you to believe, that there’s more to promo production than just editing.

Many working producers these days use the editing software’s timeline to visualise their promos. Again, this skill is necessary, and will develop the more promos you make.

However, this production methodology by its nature emphasises TV promos as a visual medium which is a grave error.

Sure, promos need to look slick and professional and consistent with a channel’s stated brand values. But it’s the words (soundbites+script) that the audience hear that do the actual selling. The pictures may capture the attention, but the words communicate the ideas and sell the show.

Unless you have a photographic memory, the only way to “edit” soundbites and scripts is with written words.

Video editing software timelines can only give you a command view of the visual channel of the communication; even then, mostly only in real time. Word processing software (or pen and paper) give you an at-a-glance command view of both channels; especially the most important one: the aural channel.

But wait, there’s more.

The cheapness and ubiquity of video editing software has created the open plan editing complex; where rows and rows of operators click and generally fidget with frames for a living.

Bringing editing (and graphic design) into the general office environment has made the production process more accessible than ever before, allowing more coordinators to meddle with the production than ever before.

As the video editing software timeline can only represent visual elements of the communication; over time the emphasis shifts to visual elements; eventually making the whole job about visuals.

This is one of the key operational reasons why so many promos are just so ineffective…  and why production techniques have misguidedly and wrongly come to override ideas as the real tools of audience engagement.

the paper cut for working copywriters

Working copywriter/producers may scoff at the notion of doing what I suggest in this video; but as I said, what I’m talking about is best practice. So, if you’re a working copywriter, I’m compelled to suggest a few reasons why you should.

Here goes: when you see a promo (or ad, or trailer) that you think really works, why not go through the process outlined in the videos, for exactly the same reasons I suggest it to newbies. Compare it to the scripts you write Monday to Friday.

I am 100% sure you will find something in your transcribed paper cut that you can borrow for your promos.

Secondly, A paper cut doesn’t even have to take the word-processed form as shown above. You can write notes about promos/ads/trailers almost anywhere; no computer required. I’m more of a visual thinker. So, personally, I am a big fan of the A2-sized art pad, using a combination of text and pictures that I scribble out quickly with a pencil.

There is one last point that has to be made about paper cuts that makes them worth mastering. Once you can “see” what a promo looks like on paper, once you’re familiar with the form of them, you will find paper cuts a ridiculously fast way of rendering ideas. Desktop editing—as convenient as it is—still doesn’t come anywhere near close to the speed of creating promos on paper.

So it turns out, technology has yet to rival the creative fluidity of a good old fashioned pencil… which is exactly why I still use paper cuts for every spot I work on.

Posted by Charley Holland

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