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...

Casting Opposing Voices

How do you get people to participate in a film when it's likely that the viewpoint they hold is contrary to yours or the audience's A primary way is by making it clear that you are open to what they have to say, intend to treat them fairly on screen, and believe that their point of view, while you might disagree with it, is important to the subject at hand and the public's understanding of it. Don't misrepresent yourself or your project just to gain someone's cooperation. If you want to explore...

Defining Documentary

Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. A presidential candidate in Colombia is kidnapped (The Kidnapping ofIngrid Betancourt) children in Calcutta are given cameras and inspired to move beyond their limited circumstances (Born into Brothels) executives and traders at Enron play fast and loose with ethics and the law...

Structuring Multiple Story Lines

Although you can only tell one primary story, it's possible to follow two or even three story lines within that story. In Hollywood terms, these are A stories, B stories, and possibly even C stories. The A story carries the primary weight and is the story around which the piece is structured, but the other stories should also have emotional peaks and valleys. Most importantly, the stories should inform each other, meaning that at some point they should connect to form a coherent whole and...

Recreations And Docudrama

Many filmmakers use what are known as recreations to suggest an historical past, either to augment a sparse visual record or because the recreations better serve their storytelling (and at times, budgetary) needs. There are many ways to film recreations it's a good idea to watch a range of styles to decide which works best for your film or determine an innovative new approach. You may choose to shoot partial reenactments a hand here, legs marching, a wagon wheel. Human figures may be kept in...

Act One Title Sequence

Zeroing the counter (00 00) at the first frame of action, the film begins with text on screen (with music in the background) that sets up basic information In 1975, the U.S. government launched Operation Babylift, through which over 2,000 Amerasian children were brought to the United States for adoption. Archival images of the war follow, as a voice-over begins in Vietnamese, with English subtitles There were so many rumors. I was so frightened. If I didn't send my child away we now see the...

Pitching and Proposal Writing

Chances are, you'll be pitching your story until the day it's broadcast or screened, if not after. Your pitch is the way to excite people about your project, which you need to do in order to get them to fund you, work with you, work for you, give you a broadcast slot, or distribute your film. Your pitch is your first and best ticket in it's also, it turns out, a very good way to see if you really have a good film story. There are exceptions, but in general, if you can't pitch your story clearly...

When Is The Narration Written

When you write narration varies from project to project. A film adapted from a book might begin with the text. Sometimes a narrative device doesn't suggest itself until well into the editing, as happened when the producers decided to use voice-over excerpts of an old diary as the narrative spine in Yosemite The Fate of Heaven. In general, if you are using narration to seam together visual images, interviews, and perhaps archival material, the final narration (or voice-over) won't come together...

Finding The Story During Production

One of the biggest misconceptions about documentary filmmaking is that it happens spontaneously. In fact, it's fairly common to hear filmmakers talk about the story revealing itself over the course of the production or even in the editing room. While this may be true, with experienced filmmakers this tends to mean not that a filmmaker has simply shot material without any story in mind, but that he or she alters the story's focus or, more likely, its structure during production and...

Who Wants Documentary Stories

In today's documentary marketplace, nearly everyone is looking for strong stories. A small sampling From the website for the Sundance Documentary Fund In supporting independent vision and creative, compelling stories, the Sundance Documentary Fund hopes to give voice to the diverse exchange of ideas crucial to developing an open society www.Sundance.org From the Discovery Channel website for producers, a list of Required Materials includes One- to two-page treatment that describes the proposed...

Script Format

Don't go out and buy a commercial screenwriting software program these are designed specifically for dramatic feature films and serve that function well, but they're of little use for documentaries. Most documentary filmmakers seem to use Word or WordPerfect files cross these platforms without much difficulty , using them to create scripts that are formatted in either one or two columns. If two columns are used, one is for visuals, the other for audio. With a single-column format, visuals, if...

Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan

Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan have been making documentary and fiction films for more than 20 years. Jeannie recently served as series producer of PBS's Postcards from Buster. Her previous credits include coproducing and directing Running with Jesse for the PBS series Frontline, editing two films for the acclaimed series Eyes on the Prize, and editing dramatic films including Blue Diner, Lemon Sky, and Concealed Enemies. Steve Ascher's work has appeared on networks around the world, and his...

Case Study Super Size Me

Nominated for an Academy Award in 2004, and one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time, Super Size Me is a science documentary that's funny, thought-provoking, and fast-moving. The film is probably best described as an essay, but there is a protagonist filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who won the Best Director award for the film at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and goal to see what happens if he eats only at McDonald's for 30 days . He faces opposition not from an individual, but from the...

The Narrative Spine Or Train

Films move forward in time, taking audiences with them. You want the storytelling to move forward, too, and to motivate the presentation of exposition. In other words, you want the audience to be curious about the information you're giving them. When exposition involves backstory how we got to where we are now it's often a good idea to get a present-day story moving forward even if the story is in the past before looking back. This overall story your film's narrative spine has been described by...

Films

Many documentaries, including not only recent releases but also classics from previous decades, are now available for purchase through online vendors, such as Amazon and PBS Video. A growing number are also available for rental through online companies, such as Netflix and Intelliflix, which have their counterparts worldwide. Through the web, viewers may also be able to find information about specific films, including official press kits, teachers' guides, and outreach plans. Transcripts and...

Sam Pollard

Sam Pollard has been working as a feature film and television editor and documentary producer director for nearly 30 years. He and I worked together on two documentary series for PBS, I'll Make Me a World and Eyes on the Prize. His other documentary credits include Goin' Back to T-Town and the series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow and American Roots Music. Sam has edited several dramatic features directed by Spike Lee, including Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Girl 6, Clockers, and Bamboozled....

Case Study Murderball

Winner of the Documentary Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Editing at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Murderball is a terrific example of a modern documentary. Underneath an energetic soundtrack and some athletic competition is scientific information about spinal cord injury and an unsentimental look at disability. Like Daughter from Danang, Murderball generally follows a three-act dramatic structure. During the shooting, we discussed fiction films, not docs, said co-director and...

Sample Pages From Broadcast Films And Series

In the pages that follow, I've included some sample pages of outlines, treatments, and scripts for a range of programs that have already been broadcast. The samples reflect diversity in the program styles and the varied uses of the print material. The editing outline for Lalee's Kin, for example, was created for in-house use only. In contrast, the treatment for Getting Over an hour of the six-part series This Far By Faith was submitted to numerous public and private funding agencies, including...

Crew Size

The actual configuration of a documentary crew can vary widely. At one end of the spectrum, a filmmaker as renowned as Spike Lee might set out with the kind of crew more likely to shoot a Hollywood feature than an independent documentary. Normally when you shoot a doc, it's you as the producer, camera, an assistant if you're shooting film , sound, and maybe a production assistant, says Sam Pollard, who edited and coproduced When the Levees Broke with Lee. But when we flew out of Newark the day...

Nicholas Fraser

Since 1997, Nick Fraser has been series editor of Storyville, which each year presents up to 50 documentaries from all over the world on BBC Two and BBC Four. Roughly a third of the films are bought as completed films, while the rest are prebought or commissioned jointly with other broadcasters. For example, Storyville coproduced So Much So Fast. The film's credits read A production of West City Films in association with WGBH, ZDF ARTE, BBC, with support from TV2 Danmark. In the United States,...