The role of outlines, treatments, and even scripts in documentary storytelling varies from project to project, but their basic purpose is the same. They're to help you and others see, on paper, the film as you imagine it at various points in production—while you're raising funds, before you shoot, before or during your edit. Taking the time to express yourself coherently in print, thinking through what you're doing, how you're doing it, and why, can save you a lot of time, effort, and money.
There is no single way to work. The level of detail in these documents depends, to a large degree, on your schedule, budget, and reasons for writing them. For some filmmakers, it's necessary to write out the story (usually in treatment or preliminary script form) because a potential financier requires it. For others, such as those shooting a film designated for a specific series or broadcaster, a treatment or script may be necessary in order to get the go-ahead to film. But even for filmmakers working more independently, creating written material at various stages can focus the storytelling and ensure that a team shares the basic vision for the project. Better to see gaping holes in logic, casting, or tension on paper than to find out about them in the editing room; if you're 60 pages into your treatment for an hour-long film on China's Cultural Revolution—and you're still not through Act One—chances are your history is a little too sweeping.
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