Film & video

What Is a Pilot and How to Develop One for Your Audiovisual Projects

Learn why creating a good pilot is essential to selling your audiovisual ideas

Screenwriter, editor, and film and TV director Hernán Caffiero is an expert audiovisual storyteller and understands the logic of commercial and executive production. He wrote and directed Una historia necesaria (A Necessary Story), a series of 16 shorts about human rights violation during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, for which he won an Emmy for Best International Short Form Series in 2018.

All projects start from an initial idea, and it is important to know the best selling tool for your project: the pilot. Hernán Caffiero tells us more about it.

What Is a Pilot and How to Develop One for Your Audiovisual Projects 2
Script for Stranger Things pilot, by Sophie Hérail

What is a pilot?

A pilot is the business card of all series projects. It is an episode used as a prototype to sell an audiovisual product (series) to producers, distributors, and large entertainment companies. Its main function is to show what the rest of the season would look like, and serves to introduce the characters and plots. It is subjected to changes aiming to a final product, that is, the episode that will be aired. A great example of this process is the development and changes made to The Amazing World of Gumball, from when the idea was presented, to its first release.

At times, pilots are films, and in this case, they are called backdoor pilots. They are made as a one-off that will be extended to series if they are met with the desired success. Battlestar Galactica and Eureka are examples of this.

Why is it important?

The pilot showcases your abilities as a creator, screenwriter, and director. It may not be the gateway to conversations with potential associates or investors, but it is the element that consolidates the possibility of realizing the project.

Investing your time, money, and expertise into making a pilot will bring more benefits than not making it. An excellent example is Stranger Things: its creators had meetings with 20 producers before sealing a deal with Netflix. The pilot introduces the central concept, the main characters, and the foundation of the story. It even ends with a cliffhanger.

What must you consider when making a pilot?

It is not advisable to film a long episode as a pilot because there is a large margin of error, and there is no guarantee that a production company will pick it. Being visually impactful is not the same as being impactful at a storytelling level. Being able to capture a character or a plot with good development and twists is the most important aspect: creating drama and tension will have more impact on the construction of a pilot.

An example of this is the pilot episode of Game of Thrones: the production costs of the pilot were substantial due to the visual power brought by the magic, fantasy, sex, and violence included in it, but this did not attract many producers.

Remember that your pilot must convey the project identity to possible buyers, so you should always write it before filming and presenting it: study it, talk about it, and discuss it so that it develops and matures as well as possible.

What Is a Pilot and How to Develop One for Your Audiovisual Projects 8
Game of Thrones

Hernán Caffiero teaches the Domestika course 'Development of Fiction Series', in which you’ll learn the methods and tools to transform your great idea into an attractive project for television or online platforms.

You may also be interested in:

- Directing Conceptual Audiovisual Pieces, a course by Jiajie Yu Yan.
- Adobe Premiere vs. Final Cut: What Makes Better Films?
- 5 Professional Tips for Comedy Screenwriting.

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