Few Extra Pointers

Much of the advice for proposal writing can be applied to the entire production, including the editing. From my own experience as a consultant and proposal writer and my experience as a proposal reviewer, here are a few tips Accuracy is important. It's standard practice for potential sponsors to send proposals out for review by people who know the subject well. If you spell names incorrectly, get titles and dates wrong, or misrepresent factual information, it will (and should) be held against...

About the Author

Sheila Curran Bernard is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and consultant with experience in the creation, development, and production of documentary programming for national broadcast, theatrical release, and museum and classroom use. Her work has been honored with an Emmy Award for writing, the George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, and the Eric Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the...

About The Book

The idea for this book emerged from my experiences as a documentary filmmaker, writer, and consultant on a range of projects, large and small. I've worked with established as well as emerging filmmakers on productions intended not only for broadcast and theatrical release but also for museum and classroom use. It became clear to me that underlying issues of story and structure can generally be applied regardless of a project's style or length. It also became clear that despite the growing...

Act Three

The worst is yet to come, which is part of what makes the third act so strong. (Contrary to a common misperception, the stakes should continue to rise in Act Three, until the issue or conflict reaches its most extreme point. Only then, in the last minutes, should there be resolution.) T. T. Nhu has to leave, so a new translator is brought in to help Bub through a lengthy and painful family meeting in which all of the misunderstandings come to a head. Bub's brothers ask her to bring their mother...

Act

T. Nhu and Heidi Bub head to Vietnam. Bub begins to worry she's been 101 percent Americanized and has no earthly idea of her family's expectations. In this act, the filmmakers show how out of place Bub is in her native Vietnam they set up her nervousness about meeting her mother, and her high hopes for what this meeting will mean. It's going to be so healing for both of us to see each other, Bub says. It's going to make all of those bad memories go away, and...

Act Two

In the second act, the experiment really gets under way. Fortunately for Spurlock, he was asked on Day 2 if he wanted to super size, and by the rules he's established, he must say yes. (There might be a temptation, in a film like this, to let Day 4 stand in for Day 2, if it provided an opportunity like this. You can't. You don't need to give each day equal weight some days are barely mentioned and you don't need to show all meals each day. But the time line of these meals needs to be factual,...

Advisors

The input of academic and nonacademic advisors can be crucial to a project. These people offer their insight and experience behind the scenes some of them may also be asked to appear on camera as experts, if that fits the program's style. On any film that's intended to be the least bit authoritative about a subject, advisors can help tremendously by getting you up to date quickly on current research in the field and directing you to people, places, and content to be explored. They can help you...

Advisors Meetings

On some larger-budget documentaries and documentary series, funds are raised to enable at least one in-person gathering of filmmakers, advisors, and invited experts. These meetings might take place as the funding proposal is taking shape, and maybe again as production gets under way. With Eyes on the Prize and other major series produced by Blackside, Inc., production began with what was called school. Production teams, researchers, and others joined invited scholars and other experts in panel...

Ancillary Projects

These are sometimes also called related projects, which makes for confusion. An ancillary project is something that you're developing to bolster your film's shelf life and reach. These might include web-based materials, radio broadcasts, material for educational outreach, and or material for community engagement, which uses media as the catalyst for action and discussion within and between community groups. At a time when the television landscape is cluttered with choices, including documentary...

Approach

If you gave any group of filmmakers some gear and the same general story, you'd end up with films that were very different in style, tone, point of view, focus, and more. These differences describe the approach how you present a story on screen. Do you intend to create a half-hour special or a 10-hour series Is your tone humorous What production elements will you use, such as live shooting, recreations, a narrator, time-lapse photography, or animation It's helpful to begin thinking about your...

Backstory

Backstory is a form of exposition, but the two terms are not always synonymous. The backstory includes the events that happened before (sometimes long before) the main story being told it often includes material a filmmaker thinks is critical for the audiences to understand in order to get the story. Backstory can be conveyed in a number of ways, including title cards (text on screen), interviews, narration, and conversation. To some extent, backstory involves the details of exposition that are...

Be Organized

You'll need to keep track of the material you're citing. If you are taking notes on published text, make it clear that you are copying. Note the source, put it in quotes do whatever it takes to make sure that six months from now, you don't go back to this material, think that you've written it yourself, and incorporate it into narration, only to find out that you've lifted entire sentences from Stephen Hawking or Alice Walker. Note the source. An article that's not referenced is a waste of...

Be Your First Audience

A mark of a good storyteller is the ability to look with fresh eyes the audience's eyes at material each time a new cut is available, and to honestly assess its weaknesses. If you see problems, don't ignore them. Audiences are uncanny in their ability to see that one flaw you thought you could gloss over or the transition whose absence you thought you'd masked with some fancy music and images. At the same time, you can't cut a film or tell a story with a critic on your shoulder. Don't...

Case Study Daughter From Danang

Daughter from Danang, nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, is roughly 78 minutes in length. As discussed elsewhere, the film tells the story of Heidi Bub, an Amerasian woman raised in Tennessee who travels to Vietnam to meet the birth mother who gave her up for adoption. Elements of the film include live-action shooting, archival footage and stills (including personal artifacts), and interviews. Filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco shot in Vietnam for about a week with Bub and did...

Casting

Not all documentary filmmakers would call it casting, yet all would agree that the people you see on screen whether they're interacting with each other, talking to an off-screen interviewer, or acting as narrator or host need to be researched, contacted, and brought onto the project with care. Decisions about who will be filmed, how they will be chosen, and what they're expected to contribute to the storytelling are important. Even the people who appear through archival means, whether in...

Casting for Balance

Balancing the point of view of a film does not mean simply presenting opposing sides. In fact, it almost never means that. Two opposing sides talking past each other do not advance anyone's understanding of an issue. When the opposing sides are actually very uneven, such as when a majority of credible experts takes one position and a small (and often fringe or invested) minority disagrees, then giving these two views equal time and weight creates a false impression that the issues are more...

Collapsing And Expanding Time

Filmmaking, from shooting through editing, is a process of expanding and or collapsing real time. Filming real life is a constant struggle to distill reality into a meaningful subset of itself, into the telling moments, the telling gestures, the lines of dialogue that will suggest the rest of the scene without actually having to see the rest of the scene, says Steven Ascher. The event needs to be covered with the editor in mind, so that there is enough variety of shots, cutaways, and...

Collapsing Interviews

There are two primary reasons to edit an interview to focus information and to shorten the time it takes to convey that information. A person will talk to you for 10 minutes, an hour, maybe two or three hours, and you'll usually end up using only a few bites, unless the entire film is a conversation with. You must condense the interview material in a way that does not alter its initial meaning and remains true to the intent of the speaker. For example, here's the raw transcript of a witness...

Conducting Interviews

Everyone approaches interviewing differently. Some people work to put the subjects at ease, starting with more comfortable questions before easing into material that's more touchy. As mentioned, filmmakers whose style is more confrontational may show up with the cameras rolling. Sometimes you're asking someone to relate an event he or she has told many times, and the story's taken on a polished quality that you want it to lose it may take getting the person riled up, or challenging something...

Creating Visuals

Not all film ideas are inherently visual, especially those that concern complex or technical issues. If you haven't found a visual story through which to explore these issues or if your stories alone don't sufficiently cover the subject, it's likely that you'll try to find general visuals that will at least put some images on screen as your experts and or narrator speak. For a story on educational policy, for example, you might spend an afternoon filming at a local elementary school for a story...

Developing The Story

Once you've decided that your idea is worth pursuing, you'll need to start refining the story and planning how you'll tell it. There's no single way to do this, and furthermore, it's a process that tends to continue from the moment an idea strikes you until the final moments of postproduction. In general, depending on the needs of the project, the budget, and the schedule, you are likely to write some form of outline, treatment, and script, and or several drafts of one or all of them. Many...

Do Your Own Research

One of the problems of faster and cheaper filmmaking is that original and up-to-date research is often beyond the scope of a project's resources and budget. It's much easier for producers to rely on a few articles or books rather than explore what's new in a field, who's doing innovative work, or what a more diverse group of storytellers might add to the audience's understanding of a familiar topic. The same tired experts are approached time and again to speak about the same subjects, in part...

Documentary Storytelling

Armed with an understanding of story, how do you apply it to an idea you have for a documentary Suppose, for example, that you're thinking of doing a film about Elvis Presley, a diner in your home town, or images of Islam in American popular culture. Something about the topic has caught your interest, and you think you want to take it to the next level. First, ask yourself what it is about the topic that grabs you. As the initial audience for your film, your gut reaction to the subject is...

Dont Be Afraid to Ask Basic Questions

Although you should gain a thorough grounding in your subject, you can't possibly, in a few days or weeks or even months, become an expert. Don't, in the interest of appearing professional to your advisors or experts, fake an understanding that you don't have if you're confused, speak up. Your expertise is in knowing how to communicate a complex subject to a general audience it's important that you understand the subject well, and that's why the experts are there. Most people who have spent...

Dramatic Storytelling

Because dramatic storytelling often refers more specifically to character-driven stories, it's worth looking at some of the basic elements that make these stories work. As set out by authors David Howard and Edward Mabley in their book, The Tools of Screenwrit-ing, these are The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy. This somebody wants something very badly. This something is difficult but possible to do, get, or achieve. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and...

Editing

Many of the storytelling issues covered elsewhere in the book come into play again in the editing room. On the majority of films, story and structure do not truly come together until the editor begins to assemble and pare down filmed material. Several versions of the film may be cut before the best point of attack is identified you may be cutting toward one ending for weeks before you realize that, in fact, the film ends on an even earlier and stronger note. Although every project is different,...

Entering Late Exiting Early

As you edit, try to enter a scene at the last possible moment and leave at the earliest possible moment. This doesn't mean chopping the heart out of a scene or losing its context, but it does mean figuring out what is the most meaningful part of that scene, and what is just treading water on screen. Suppose you've filmed a sequence in which a mother goes to the grocery store, chats with a neighbor or two, fusses with the butcher over a choice cut of meat, waits in line at the checkout counter,...

Fact Checking

Fact checking means being able to footnote your treatment and eventually, your script. Any fact stated, whether by you as the filmmaker or by someone on camera, needs to be verified through not one but at least two credible sources. Even authors of highly reputable sources make mistakes, and bias and inaccuracy can be found in both primary and secondary sources. Have you ever been at a rally that seemed packed, only to hear it described on the news as a small number of protesters Or sat through...

Film Length

If you're creating a film for which you have a specific venue in mind, length is something you want to plan for from the beginning. A theatrically-released film will tend to run around 80 to 90 minutes or longer. A film for broadcast has to meet the length requirements of the programmer, leaving time as needed for series credits, packaging, and, in some cases, commercial breaks. The subject and story, too, will suggest appropriate length. When I'm helping people to develop ideas, one of the...

Filming Over Time

In some cases, a documentary's complexity comes not only from its immediate story but from an opportunity to check in on characters months or even years later. A recent example of this is the Spanish film Braceros. The film begins in 1994 and follows a handful of determined emigrants who risk their lives in order to reach the shores of the United States, traveling on dangerous, makeshift rafts. Some don't make it far offshore others are picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and held in detention at...

Foreshadow Important Information

The American troops battling the British in the Revolutionary War were promised in July of 1776, when the fighting broke out, that they would all be discharged by December 31. Don't wait to tell the audience this until it's December 31 in your film's chronology. Tell them in July, when they won't think it matters remind them in September, when the war is dragging on. That way, when winter sets in, it will be on their minds just as it must have been on General Washington's mind when the troops...

Format And Methodology

The sections of this book are intended only as a guide. For instance, there may be information throughout the book not just in the section on editing that will prove useful to someone editing a film. Generally speaking, Part I introduces the concepts of story and structure and applies them to the initial stages of a film's conception. Part II looks further at the development of a story from idea to treatment. Part III looks at storytelling in the field and in the editing room. Part IV includes...

Getting To Rough

The interaction between producer, director, writer, and editor (or some combination of these) differs with each project. Some teams watch the rushes (the raw footage) all together and discuss which interview bites work, which scenes are strong, and how material might be assembled. Some editors screen the footage alone because they want to evaluate the material without being influenced by the producer's ideas of what worked or didn't work on location. I really like to just look, says Jeanne...

If You Already Know Your Story Wont Your Presentation Be Biased

Knowing your story (or at least the germ of it) at the start of a project is not the same thing as knowing exactly what you want to say and how. It simply means having an idea of the narrative spine on which you could hang your subject and having at least some idea of themes you want to explore. From there, you need to research, develop, and shoot your story with questions and an open mind. Give the opposition a fair hearing. Building on an earlier example, as sympathetic to the diner owners as...

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the event that sets the action of the story (the actions that relate to the train, not the subject) into motion. It may be something that's occurred before you start filming. In Troublesome Creek, for example (discussed in Chapter 16), it's the decision of the Jordan family, faced with debt, to farm one more year before auctioning off everything but their land. It's this decision that sets the story of the film in motion. In Spellbound, the inciting incident for each of...

Insufficient Casting

You may discover, in editing, that an important voice is missing, or that someone you've interviewed is filling a storytelling role that would be better filled by someone else. If possible, you might shoot an additional interview, trying to match its tone and look to your film's style. Otherwise, you need to find another way to bring this point of view forward, such as through archival voices or the way a scene is edited. It's also possible, as your story becomes more focused, that you've...

Intended Readership

This book is for anyone working in documentary filmmaking (and across the spectrum of nonfiction programming) who has an interest in understanding how story and structure work. It's written with both the experienced and novice filmmaker in mind, as well as people who enjoy documentaries or use them in their work. It's my hope that by understanding the storytelling choices filmmakers make, viewers will become better and more critical consumers of nonfiction programming in general. They'll have a...

Introduction

These are exciting times for documentary films and filmmakers. Changes in technology and the way media is produced and consumed are creating new opportunities, and documentary stories are finding new audiences both locally and globally. Not just documentary films, documentary stories. Look at the films that have been winning acclaim recently at Cannes, at the Academy Awards, in Banff and Berlin and Bergen. Born into Brothels. Grizzly Man. March of the Penguins. Super Size Me. These films...

Manipulating Time

People watch it from beginning to end, with one shot following another, one sequence following another, until the film is over. I've never seen an even vaguely successful documentary film that does not move forward through time, says filmmaker Jon Else, citing a number of disparate examples. Night and Fog has an absolutely traditional, very simple forward chronological motion through the late 1930s to the end of World War II. Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs's film, appears...

Moving Forward

Research of every sort will be ongoing for most of the film's production, but there comes a point when the filmmaker has to decide that it's time to move to the next stage production. But first, at least some of this information must be put down on paper, whether for your own use (a production treatment), for funding, or for the go-ahead (the green light) from a supervising or commissioning executive. Knowing when to stop researching, at least for now, can be tough. There's always more to...

Not Enough Breathing Room

In the rush to cut a film down to time, to get everything tight, and to make every point, it's possible to trim interviews or scenes into oblivion. The production team doesn't necessarily notice they've been looking at this guy day after day and week after week, so they know what he's going to say, they've heard it before, and the joke is no longer funny. Or they realize that they can say in two lines of narration what that scene takes nearly two minutes to convey. It's important to resist this...

Observations

In preparing both editions of this book, I screened a wide variety of films and spoke with a range of filmmakers, many of whom raised the same basic points The availability of lower-cost digital video technology in many ways increases the need for filmmakers to shoot smarter. It's very possible to shoot everything and end up in the editing room with nothing. Time is an increasingly rare commodity for filmmakers, especially during preproduction and editing. Yet time is often what enables a film...

Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi Wambu was born in Nigeria and, following the Nigerian civil war, moved with his family to the United Kingdom. His publications include A Fuller Picture Empire Windrush Fifty Years of Writing about Black Britain (Ed.) and (forthcoming) Under the Tree of Talking Leadership in the African Context (Ed.). He is a former editor of the Voice newspaper. His documentary credits for the BBC, Channel 4, and PBS include Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, Africa Out of Darkness, Deadly Bliss, and...

Outlines

An outline is a sketch of your film, written to expose its proposed structure and necessary elements. In most cases, the outline is a working document for you and your team the prose doesn't need to be polished, and you can use shorthand if your meaning is sufficiently clear. For an hour-long film, a detailed prose outline might be four to five double-spaced pages. It would include a synopsis (one or two paragraphs) of the overall film story, and then a program outline broken down by acts (if...

Part IV

Many documentary filmmakers, including those interviewed for this book, work in a range of job capacities and film styles, so identifying any one of them with any one type of storytelling is difficult. With that said, there are some organizing principles behind the following conversations Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (Massachusetts) were asked about their two feature-length documentaries, Troublesome Creek and So Much So Fast, which they describe as nonfiction novels. Victoria Bruce and...

Paying Your Subjects

The general rule in journalism is that if you start paying for stories, people will come up with stories for which they want to be paid. There is a big difference between paying an actor to portray Thomas Jefferson and paying a scholar or expert to discuss him. One is a craftsman in an art frequently supported through freelance employment such as this. The other is usually a career scholar and or author who benefits by advancing his or her expertise and, in many cases, published work, for whom...

Pitching

A pitch very quickly lets the listener or reader see your film and understand why it needs to be made. An ineffective pitch introduces the topic but not the story, as in This is a film about the ethics of genetic testing and about how some people face hard choices. An effective pitch does both. This is a film about genetic testing in which we follow an actress making the tough decision about whether to be tested for the disease that claimed her mother's life. The pitch works because it compels...

Pitching on Screen

At times, you'll run across programmers who would rather see footage than paperwork, and many times people want to see both. What this means varies, depending on the scale of the project. Sometimes, you only have to provide footage of other films or tapes you've made, as evidence of your skill as a filmmaker. But it's not uncommon for people to want to see even raw footage of your story as a way of seeing your characters in action. In any case, a good, short promo reel can be an effective way...

Pitching to Hone Storytelling

Outsiders aren't the only ones to whom you might be pitching. On some projects, producers pitch their stories at in-house development meetings, not once but several times as the films or series take shape. The following is adapted from an in-house pitch that I helped to construct for the opening hour of I'll Make Me a World. The six-hour series told two to three stories in each hour, and the hours themselves were arranged sequentially, in an order that was both chronological and thematic. The...

Plot And Character

Films are often described as either plot or character driven. A character-driven film is one in which the action of the film emerges from the wants and needs of the characters. In a plot-driven film, the characters are secondary to the events that make up the plot. (Many thrillers and action movies are plot driven.) In documentary, both types of films exist, and there is much gray area between them. Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line imitates a plot-driven noir thriller in its exploration of the...

Point Of View

When crafting narration, it's important to choose the point of view from which to tell the story, for example First-person narration is when the narrator speaks of him-or herself. I needed to find out. This point of view is generally limited to what the narrator knows at a given point in the story. Second-person narration may be found more often in print than on screen. It has the narrator addressing the audience as you, as in He asks if you want a soda, and you say yes. Third-person omniscient...

Preface to the Second Edition

Documentaries are many things to many people, often simultaneously. They are a form of self expression, like novels, songs, or paintings. They are a form of journalism, independent and unmedi-ated. They are tools for bridging the divide between cultures or exposing the harsh realities of a volatile world. They inspire, motivate, educate, exacerbate, and entertain. Documentaries reflect all that is great, challenging, disturbing, and humorous about the human condition. But first, they must reach...

Professional Conferences

Another way to conduct a lot of research quickly, as well as find potential advisors or candidates for on-screen appearances, is through attending professional conferences in the subject you're researching. For a film she was developing to help teachers and other education professionals understand and protect the civil rights of gay and lesbian students, filmmaker Liane Brandon and some colleagues attended an all-day conference that allowed them, as a group, to immerse themselves in nearly 40...

Proposal Writing

Many filmmakers in the United States complain that they spend more time writing proposals than they do making films. Proposals are the documents you submit in order to request funding from grant-making agencies, whether public or private. In general, the following are stages at which financial support might be available prior to the completion of your film planning, scripting, production, postproduction, and finishing. The first two fall under the category of development and can be very...

Protecting Your Ideas

When you become passionate about an idea, you're convinced that it's great great enough to steal. The truth is, ideas are cheap, and it's the whole package your experience, your treatment of the idea, your ability to make the film happen that will sell the project, not the idea alone. With that said, there are ways to protect your work. In the United States, the first is through copyright, which is a form of intellectual property law. You cannot copyright an idea, but you can copyright your...

Quoting People

Suppose you know whom you want to interview, but you haven't spoken with them yet, either in a pre-interview or a filmed interview. You should never make up quotes based on what you hope someone will say, even if you have a good idea of what it might be, if only because the world is small and if Professor X finds out that you attributed a statement to him that he hasn't or wouldn't make, the chances the he will cooperate with you in the future are slim. Instead, there are a few options for...

Reapply the Rules of Grammar

As with proposal writing, narration writing must be grammatical. Common problems include the following Dangling and misplaced modifiers. Three sheets to the wind, the police officers stared up at Rodney as he stood on the window ledge. It's Rodney who's drunk, not the police officers. The line should read Three sheets to the wind, Rodney stood on the window ledge as police officers stared up at him. But what if you're writing to picture What if you see the police officers first, and then Rodney...

Rough Cut To Fine

As the film moves toward completion, footage is dropped and hard decisions must be made. Is the story working as filmed, or is new material needed Does the story that was set up at the film's beginning pay off at the end Is it being told for maximum audience involvement Is this the kind of film that people will talk about Will it keep an audience watching If the filmmaker hopes to convey important but difficult concepts, are those concepts being communicated accurately and well To get the film...

Science Films

The approach to science filmmaking varies widely, with one standard being set by the long-running PBS series Nova, which in turn was inspired by the BBC series Horizon. Michael Ambrosino says that when he created Nova in 1973, American broadcasters were skeptical. People thought that a science series would be nice to have in the schedule, Ambrosino says. It probably wouldn't get a big audience, but it was something that should be done. He was convinced that the show would not only succeed but...

Screening Tips

You want to invite a manageable number of filmmaker colleagues, scholars, and a general audience of others to these screenings. If you have a very small screening room, it may be necessary to show the film more than once to get an adequate cross-section of reactions. Before the screening starts, make sure everyone has paper and pencils for note taking. You or an appointed moderator should explain what stage your film is at, mentioning, for example, that it's running several minutes long, that...

Scripts

Documentary scripts tend to evolve over the course of production. In the case of programs that are significantly driven by narration (whether spoken anonymously, such as actor Peter Coyote's narration of Enron, or as voice-over by the filmmaker, such as Werner Herzog's narration of Grizzly Man), the script might begin to take shape during preproduction, only to be significantly revised and rewritten during editing. For most programs, narration augments visual storytelling, so scripts are not...

Sequence

A sequence is a collection of shots and scenes that together tell a more or less continuous story of an event that is a piece of your bigger story. Something like a book's chapter, a sequence also has a beginning, middle, and end. Note that a turning point at the end of a sequence will usually be bigger than one at the end of a scene or a shot. Story expert Robert McKee says that ideally, each scene creates a shift or reversal that is at least minor each sequence, a change that is moderate and...

Serendipity

It's not unusual for filmmakers to begin one project, only to be drawn by the characters and situations they encounter toward a film that is both different and stronger than they anticipated. In publicity material for the film Sound and Fury, director Josh Aronson says that he initially intended to film five deaf individuals whose experiences covered a range of viewpoints on deafness. But in his research, he discovered the Artinians, a family in which two brothers one hearing, one not each had...

Shooting From The

It can takes months, if not years, to raise enough money to do films the right way. Unless you're a name filmmaker, chances are that the path between you and that kind of movie will be littered, as discussed in previous chapters, with proposals, rejections, more proposals, more rejections, and the occasional but still-too-small grant. At least that's the way it is in the United States, where a relatively quick time line for a higher-budget independent project to move from idea to broadcast can...

Shooting With The Editing In Mind

It's important that footage be shot in a way that it can be edited. There needs to be sufficient coverage to give you options, and to let a scene play. You are not shooting news, where one shot per scene might be enough. Think of shooting your documentary the way you would shoot a dramatic feature Within any given scene, you want wide shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways, making sure that shots are long enough and steady enough to use. You want to be able to create visual scenes that...

Shooting With The Story In Mind

You want to go into the field with a clear sense of your film's story and approach so that you can maximize the quality and impact of what you get, and so you'll be better able to recognize and take advantage of those moments you couldn't possibly have anticipated beforehand. Some films require more visual planning than others. As mentioned, watch the making of documentaries on the DVDs for Winged Migration and March of the Penguins, about the challenges of making those films. Read interviews...

Statistics And Other Forms Of Data

Statistics must be scrutinized and put into context. It's always a good idea, when you come across a statistic you want to use, to trace it back to its source. Suppose you find an article in a magazine that says that a certain percentage of teenagers smoked in the 1950s. Somewhere in the article you may be able to find the source of that information, such as according to the National Institutes of Health. You should always question someone else's interpretation of raw data, meaning that if you...

Story Rights

In general, if you're using books and magazines solely for research purposes, you don't need to obtain any of the underlying rights. When the film is indelibly linked to a book, however, as was the case with Enron, Cadillac Desert, A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris's film built on Stephen Hawking's book), or A Midwife's Tale (Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's film built on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book), you will need to come to a legal arrangement with the author or copyright holder. Consult with a...

Storytelling Not Writing

Documentary storytelling does not refer specifically or exclusively to writing. Instead, it describes the conceptual process that begins at the moment an idea is raised and continues through production and postproduction. A film's author is the person (or people) with primary responsibility for the film's story and structure, which often means that person is the producer and or director, working as or in tandem with a writer and editor. (It's unfortunate that many documentary festivals have...

Structure

We've all sat through documentaries that seemed pointless and meandering. Maybe they had great beginnings, but then they seemed to start again, and again, and again. The film seemed to be about one thing, but the rousing conclusion was about something altogether different. The story started in the present, and then quickly plunged into background and never resurfaced. Or the situation and characters were so weakly developed that we found ourselves caring little about the outcome. These are...

Subjectivity

The power of documentary films comes from the fact that they are grounded in fact, not fiction. This is not to say that they're objective. Like any form of communication, whether spoken, written, painted, or photographed, documentary filmmaking involves the communicator in making choices. It's therefore unavoidably subjective, no matter how balanced or neutral the presentation seeks to be. Which stories are being told, why, and by whom What information or material is included or excluded What...

Susan Froemke

One of the nation's leading direct cinema (also known as v rit ) filmmakers, Susan Froemke is currently completing a long-term project about addiction for HBO. Her company, Susan Froemke Productions, creates corporate and independent work. When we spoke in 2003, Susan was chief administrator and principal filmmaker at Maysles Films in New York, a company she joined in the 1970s. Her first production with Albert Maysles and his late brother, David, was Grey Gardens, a now-classic portrait of...

Tailoring the Pitch

If you're pitching to a specific program or foundation, you'll want to emphasize those aspects of the story and your treatment of it that meet the needs of that group. If you were pitching the film about genetic testing to a foundation concerned with issues of medicine and the public's ability to make informed choices, that would be your emphasis. The exact same film, pitched to a television executive, might play up the emotional aspect of a young woman facing tough life choices. Tailoring the...

Telling A Chronological Story But Not Chronologically

As a documentary storyteller, you decide where to begin and end the story. You can begin in the middle, go back to the beginning, catch up with your story, and then move ahead to the end. You can start at the end before moving to the beginning to ask, How did we get here You can flash forward or back. The only thing you can't do, in a documentary that's driven by a narrative sequence of events, is change the important facts of the main underlying chronology. Suppose you've unearthed a story in...

Telling An Active Story

A significant percentage of the documentaries on television these days are about events that are over and done with. You still need a narrative to unfold over the course of the film one solution is to keep the storytelling (and interviews) in the moment. You build the story and tell it in ways that leave the outcome uncertain. Witnesses, for example, do not say I found out later he was fine but at this point I got a call from somebody, Andy I think it was, he later became mayor, and Andy told...

The Shooting Treatment

A shooting treatment, if you create one, is the culmination of your work prior to shooting. If you did a treatment to raise development and scripting funds, a shooting treatment reflects the research and creative thinking that those funds enabled. Usually, a shooting treatment is for use by the filmmaking team if a preliminary treatment got you some development funds from a commissioning editor or executive producer, a shooting treatment may be required to get the go-ahead to head out into the...

The Telling Detail

Facts are not just something to ensure accuracy they can also be the lifeblood of the telling detail that will enrich and inform your storytelling (depending, of course, on the kind of film you're making). Facts can be a source of humor and irony they can illuminate character, heighten tension, and underscore themes. So throw the line in the water, pull up what you can, organize it and file it, and then throw the line back in. Bess Myerson is known as the first Jewish Miss America. She was also...

Thinking Visually

Will your film be dependent on interviews and narration, or can scenes and sequences be played without sound and still convey story With live-action filming, unless a member of the core team is shooting, the best way to ensure visual storytelling is to involve your cinematographer and not to simply use him or her as a shooter. Being able to frame images beautifully is not the same thing as being able to frame meaningful images beautifully. Boyd Estus, a director of photography whose credits...

Three Acts in Five or One or

Whether your film is described as having five acts or one, it can still follow dramatic (three-act) structure. There are many practical reasons to divide a story, including breaks for commercials (television) or audience intermission (theater). But one-act plays and five-act television specials can often still be divided into three acts. For example, while David Auburn wrote Proof as a fictional, two-act stage play, the action can easily be broken into three-act dramatic structure. Auburn's...

Too Many Beginnings or Endings

The film opens with a look at the farming industry and the cultivation of wheat. The narration offers some information as to what's being presented, and the audience thinks, Oh, it's a documentary about farming. Then it seems to start again with a look at the processing of wheat into bread. Oh, it's a film about food as big business. But then it starts again, and gradually it becomes clear that your film is really a look at the health issue of wheat intolerance or sensitivity. An unfocused...

Too Many Characters or Story Threads

You didn't want to give up the incredible research you did or the wonderful people you found, so now you find yourself telling the stories of eight people, all with different goals but perhaps a common thread maybe they're all recent college graduates looking for work in the United States. But your film is only an hour long and everybody is getting short shrift, or audiences can't keep track of which person was having trouble with his neighbors and who was being investigated by the Immigration...

Transcripts

If you've conducted interviews, you should get them transcribed, accurately and thoroughly. Not a summary (Dr. Fisher talking about gravitational forces ), but an exact transcription of what is said, including the um, um, he said, he said, um, well, let me back up by saying that what gravity is not, is This will save you a lot of time later, because you're likely to go back to these transcripts repeatedly during the editing process in search of story solutions, and an inaccurate or incomplete...

Treatment

Many financiers want to see some form of written treatment in order to consider a request for scripting or production funds. A treatment is a prose description of the film as you envision it in other words, it is not a research document, but a good read that conveys, in print, the film as it will unfold on screen (more on this in the next chapter). Depending on where you are in your research and development, this treatment may be fairly preliminary. Even so, it should be well written and make...

Treatments

Unlike an outline, a treatment has to show, not tell. In other words, your outline is a working sketch of your film, and you can discuss what's in it and why. In contrast, the treatment is your film, or at least the paper equivalent of it as it exists most likely in your imagination at the time you write it. There are many reasons to write a treatment, and they differ in length and style because of this. As discussed in the previous chapter, if the treatment is your detailed pitch to a...

Treatments As A Classroom Exercise

I recently led a seminar that looked at the presentation of history on screen. It was a nonproduction course, and only a few of the students had film experience. I wanted them to evaluate the storytelling in others' films and learn how to apply it to their own (hypothetical) documentaries. For the first half of the semester, we screened and critiqued several historical documentaries as well as three fictionalized histories, Mississippi Burning, JFK, and Glory. During the second half of the...

Use Telling Details

A well-placed detail can convey a tremendous amount of story information. If there were any doubts about the need for a campaign to register voters in Selma, Alabama, they were dispelled in Eyes on the Prize by this fact More than half of Dallas County citizens were black, but less than 1 percent were registered to vote . Details can set a stage where visuals are insufficient, as in The Civil War series Sherman began his march. Sixty-two thousand men in blue were on the move in two great...

Variety In Narration

At times, filmmakers narrate films without speaking, through the use of text on screen. This usually means using either title cards (text on a neutral background) or lower thirds (text over a scene) to add information that's not otherwise evident. This technique is generally used in films that are strongly v rit (action unfolds on screen) and is always used sparingly. Filmmakers who use title cards generally use them to set up the film and then, on occasion, to establish time and place or to...

Visual Archives

Depending on the story you're telling, you may or may not need to explore what's available in terms of stills or motion picture footage in the archives, whether public (such as the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) or private (such as Corbis). Extensive visual research is most commonly done once a film is at least partially funded the visual research becomes part of the overall research and development leading to a shooting treatment, and often continues as needed (or begins again) as the...

Watch Out for Anachronisms

If you are telling narration from a point of view within a story, stay within the boundaries of that point of view. This means respecting the limitations of your character's frame of reference, including time and place. An example of narration that fails to do this comes from When Dinosaurs Roamed America, an animated series from the Discovery Channel. Narrator John Goodman is speaking from the point of view of a dinosaur, trying to size up a new beast he's encountered. The raptor's never seen...

What Should Come Across in a Treatment

A basic treatment should draw the reader into a story that begs to be put on screen. From the treatment, your reader should understand Who or what is the film about, what the goals and obstacles are (story) Where you're starting the film and how it's organized, at least as you begin to shoot (structure) Why you're telling the story (themes and your personal connection) Who the major characters are and what role they play in the story (casting). Treatments for an hour-long film may be 5 pages or...

When Do You Research

The amount of research you do, and when you do it, varies from project to project and depends, to some degree, on your chosen topic, your approach, and your strategies for fund-raising. Some public funding sources, as well as some private foundations, require that your grant application include evidence that your film project is built on a solid and current academic foundation. Projects that are funded in house by public or commercial broadcasters directly may be less rigorous in their up-front...

When to Pitch

There is no single way to raise money or support for a project. Some filmmakers pitch an idea verbally or in an introductory letter. Others walk into a meeting with a handful of ideas, none of which has, as yet, been significantly researched and developed. It can be very difficult for independents to get financial support for development, but the odds of doing so increase as you establish a solid track record in production. In addition, you may find yourself pitching as a staff person, or you...

Who Writes The Narration

Film writing is a different skill than magazine or book writing. While some prose writers make the transition successfully, not all do. Writing to picture writing words that will be heard rather than read and structuring a film story within the confines of the time allotted, whether 30 minutes or eight hours, are specialized skills. Just as a great poet might be a terrible screenwriter, a great print journalist might not write a good movie. On many documentary projects, the film's producer is...

Whom To Cast

For a film that requires experts, it's wise to cast a range of viewpoints. This means that instead of just shooting five experts on a subject, you know how each of the five differs from the others in expertise and outlook, offering a means of adding complexity and balance to the overall film. There are only so many people an audience can follow in a half-hour or an hour, and you don't want all of those people talking about the same issues from the same perspective. One way to think about...

Writing To Picture

The camera pans across a sepia-toned still photograph of a wagon train on a dusty road. To the side, an old farmer stands, watching as the wagons pass. The shot ends on a hand-painted sign tacked to the back of one of the last wagons Califna or Bust. As you watch this shot on screen, which line of narration would be more useful to you The wagons set out along the dusty road. On August 4th they set out four men, five women, and eight children determined to find gold. Which narration breathes...

You Start One Story and End Another

A related problem is that the film starts one story and then drifts onto a different track. As discussed in earlier chapters, outlining the film story can help, along with an openness to changing your initial concept of the film, given the natural direction it has ended up taking. Otherwise, you need to accept that the film you now wish you'd shot just isn't covered in the footage and either go back out to get what you need for the story you want to tell or make a different story out of what...

Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes

Although their fathers had been lifelong friends, Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes did not meet until shortly before they began their first film, The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt. At the time, Victoria was a science writer with a master's degree in geology, and the author of No Apparent Danger (HarperCollins, 2001), about a tragic expedition into a volcano in Colombia. Karin, a graduate of the University of California in Los Angeles, was working as an associate producer in Washington, D.C....

Writing Narration and Voice Over

Narration is not the worst thing to happen to a documentary, but bad narration might be, which might explain why so many filmmakers want to avoid it at all costs. We've all seen films that were talky, preachy, hyperventilated, and dull. But there's also narration including extensive voice-over commentary, such as that spoken by one of the film's subjects or by the filmmaker that makes films funny, sarcastic, spare, poetic, and elegant. Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, Super Size Me, Grizzly...

Interview Styles

Interviews need to have an energy and immediacy about them, as well as a credibility. They also need to serve the story being told. Watch a range of interviews and you'll see that they can be very different. Is the interviewee talking about a subject from a distance, or is he or she speaking as if the event is ongoing It's not only experts who talk about subjects people often shape stories after the fact, especially if they've told them before, and it creates a kind of distance between the...

Jon Else

Jon Else directs the documentary program at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His films, which have earned him four Emmys, several Academy Award nominations, and a MacArthur Fellowship, include The Day after Trinity Yosemite The Fate of Heaven Sing Faster The Stagehands' Ring Cycle and the PBS series Cadillac Desert and Eyes on the Prize, which is where we first met. He has served as cinematographer on hundreds of films, including Tupac Resurrection. He is...