A student lies on the grass and reads a book beside a river.

Student riots in Berkeley, 1965. Student anti-Vietnam riots in 1969. Students battle with the police.

Here, the whole argument is made visually, with the commentary providing the lightest of frameworks. This point needs stressing because it is one of the most important things in script writing: You can write with words, and you can write with pictures, but very often the pictures will make your point much more powerfully.

I wrote earlier that there were few laws for scriptwriters. I was wrong. There is one immutable law: The good scriptwriter must be visual as well as verbal. Failure to attend to the visual side of things accounts for many boring documentaries.

One of the pleasures of visualization is the fun you can have finding the pictures to match an open text. Let us assume that we are making a film about the brain and need to make a simple statement in the commentary. "One of the main differences between humans and animals lies in the development of speech. We have it and, except in a primitive way, they don't. And what we do with it is incredible." This comment is very simple to illustrate, and we could do it in a hundred ways. A random choice of visuals might include the following:

• Chaplin singing a nonsense song

• A man on his knees making an eloquent proposal of marriage

• An Italian and a German yelling at each other in their respective languages

• Kenneth Branagh reciting "To be or not to be"


Once the student lived what was almost the life of a monk. Solitary and studious, devoted and disciplined.

That idea seems just a little bit strange today.

• Hitler haranguing the masses

Just for fun we might want to finish off the sequence with the line "Language is golden, but thank God we can turn it off." I leave it to you to decide what visual we use with this line.

Visualizing Sequences

For many documentaries, maybe the majority today, you shoot a developing scene and then later, if necessary, write a commentary. Your visuals are "given" in the sense that you are following things as they happen. But a lot of the time in documentary, particularly in essay or historical films, you have to plan. What we did above was plan shots to illustrate commentary lines, but more often you try to visualize entire sequences. Again, your task is to think of the best situation to flesh out the script idea and then describe the elements of that situation in as much helpful detail as possible. That may mean writing notes regarding setting and characters, including the characters' dress and actions. This is standard practice for the "invented" industrial film, but it is also useful for the film based on more or less real situations. This is particularly true when you have researched a story and know what's likely to happen. Your writing helps the director see where to put the emphasis in a scene and what you want to get out of the scene.

An old script of mine called A Certain Knowledge illustrates some of the above points. The script dealt with a four-day encounter between two groups of teenagers — one black, one white—from Los Angeles. The object of the film was to show that stereotypes could be broken and that suspicion and antagonism could give way to friendship if only some of the mental barriers could be removed. I wanted to go for a simple observational film, but the sponsors wanted more. They argued that the film was not simply a documentary but had the specific purpose of encouraging other schools to participate in the encounter. To that end, they wanted realistic situations written into the script.

Obviously, one had to isolate the situations, known from the past, that would reveal the initial antagonism, then indicate the change of attitudes. I explored the basic four-day program and suggested the following for the script: First, I wanted either a basketball game or a volleyball game close to the beginning, with whites against blacks. This would set up the concept of opposition, and such games often took place. Later in the film, I

wanted to repeat the scene with racially mixed teams. I also suggested a closed-circuit video session in which we would show clips of police brutality against blacks in the South and other clips of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan railing against whites. Here I suggested recording the on-the-spot reactions of the two groups for use later as voice-overs against the video viewing. I also wrote in an open discussion to follow the viewing session.

For the latter part of the film, I suggested home visits, blacks to white families and vice versa, to be followed by a half-day hike in rugged terrain. My thinking here was that the home sessions might be awkward and tense and that we could use the hike to break the tension. The hike also served another purpose, and I wrote in some notes for the director regarding its shooting. I asked the director to concentrate on filming groups in which one helped the other across rocks, in which hands were stretched out in assistance, or in which they sat on the grass and ate and sang together.

I wanted the visuals to be very positive but realized there was a danger of the film becoming saccharine and unreal. To counter this, I suggested we put in a number of voice-overs in the last sequence. While some would indicate a positive change in black-white attitudes, a number would still be skeptical and doubt the lasting quality of the friendships and the value of the long weekend.

Visual Resonance

No matter how many years I've been working, I still find it enormously helpful to study the work of other documentary directors. Looking back, I find that one director above all others has influenced my thinking. He is Humphrey Jennings, the classic English documentary director of the early 1940s.

Jennings's greatest film is often thought to be Listen to Britain, and it can serve as a veritable textbook regarding visualization. The film provides a sound and visual portrait of Great Britain in the middle of World War II. What gives the film its power is the emotional resonance of its visuals. Again and again in Listen to Britain, Jennings and his collaborator, Stewart McAllister, choose shots that have not just an immediate meaning but also cultural and emotional resonance. It is this hidden effect that makes the Jennings and McAllister films so powerful, and you can see it at work in the playground sequence from Listen to Britain:

1. A middle-aged woman is in her bedroom looking at a photograph of her husband in uniform. We hear the sounds of children singing.

2. The woman looks out of the window and sees, in long shot, a group of seven-year-old children doing a circle dance in a school playground.

3. Cut to close-ups of the children dancing in couples.

4. The sound of the children singing merges with the sound of a bren gun carrier (an open half-track vehicle with a light machine gun mounted next to the driver). We then cut to the bren gun carrier rattling through the narrow streets of an old English village.

5. As the bren gun carrier passes, we see more fully the ancient thatched roofs and the Tudor style of the English cottages.

The images are open to many interpretations, but given the purpose of the film—to boost morale in wartime Britain—I think the intended resonances are very clear.

• The woman looking at the soldier's photograph sets up the idea of the loved ones who are absent but who are protecting us.

• The children represent the protected but also stand for the future.

• The bren gun carrier asserts the immediate protection of the British way of life.

• The background of the village, with its Tudor gables and thatched roofs, suggests the wider culture and history that is being protected. It also recalls an earlier crisis, when Elizabethan England stood alone against the Spaniards and defeated them. The parallel to England and Germany in 1939 is clear.

The sequence lasts only forty seconds but engenders a whole series of emotions and responses that build throughout the film.

The importance of resonance is worth keeping in mind in any documentary writing. Every visual you use may have both an immediate and appropriate surface meaning and an additional emotional resonance that can add tremendous depth. I am not talking here of obvious symbols — the American flag and so on—but of scenes and sequences rooted in cultural memory—for example, the Saturday Little League baseball game; Christmas shopping; high school graduation. Used well, such scenes can evoke powerful memories and moods that can obviously be of enormous help to a film.

There is, however, one point to keep in mind when going for "the resonance effect." The emotional echo of a scene may be specific to a certain region or culture and may be meaningless to other audiences. Jennings's work, which is so powerful in the English context, comes over as far weaker in the United States. Nevertheless, resonance is a tremendous addition to a filmmaker's bag of effects.

Film Making

Film Making

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