Television Broadcasting Tutorial 29

Introduction to Documentaries

The 15 key principles of filmmaking

This is an introduction to a series of tutorials about the making of documentaries that will combine to offer a comprehensive understanding of how to produce and direct non-fiction films. It will reveal how to research and develop story ideas, how to create compelling and engaging narratives and how to achieve access to the subject of a film.

Journalistic skills are encouraged to engage a viewer emotionally and intellectually. The story is grounded in fact, not fiction, but is subjective and not objective. This is because active, subjective choices are made throughout the filmmaking process, no matter how balanced, fair and neutral the filmmaker tries to be. But this doesn’t detract from the power of the film, or its worth as an accurate and honest account of a subject of interest.

1) Decisions: who tells the story and how, and which content is included in the story and which elements are excluded.

The filmmaker has choices in terms of style, tone, point of view and format. If there are different points of view that need to be considered to properly understand the story then they should be sought. The filmmaker makes choices about what to include based on how he/she wishes to focus the story, whilst being careful not to exclude a fact that will have an impact on an honest understanding of the subject.

2) Subjectivity: this is not the opposite of objective, because the filmmaker can seek different opinions, but the film can still have a point of view and be journalistically sound. This is only if the filmmaker’s point of view is transparent and the evidence is chosen and presented to the audience fairly and truthfully.

3) Bias: the aim of the filmmaker is to present evidence for the audience to make their own conclusions. Bias leads to distortion, falsehood and deception, so should be avoided at all costs. The filmmaker strives for fairness, accuracy and transparency.

The audience should trust that the events have happened in the way they have been presented in the film, and that the evidence has not been distorted or manipulated to make a narrative point appear stronger. Facts or evidence must not be interpreted out of context to mislead the viewer.

4) Storytelling: this process starts with the initial idea, when the filmmaker asks the following questions:

  • Who are the central characters?
  • What do they want?
  • What are the stakes if they don’t get it?
  • Where is the tension?
  • Where is the story going?
  • Why does it matter?

The filmmaker’s role involves the selection and arrangement of reality into a film based on choices about story, structure, character, style and point of view. These ideas become outlines, then shooting treatments, flexible enough to allow for inevitable surprises. Decisions take place throughout the programme-making process, concluding with the completion of the voiceover at the end of the edit.

5) Exposition: the information that anchors the audience within the narrative of the film: the 5 Ws – who, what, where, when and why.

The filmmaker reveals the information when it best suits their film. It could be in the beginning or at a natural segue within the narrative. Good exposition builds tension and suspense. This can be done via voiceover and a number of clever, seamless devices, such as newspaper headlines and archive at appropriate segues.

Used in the correct way, exposition enriches the audience’s understanding of characters within the documentary – why they do what they do – and raises tension at peaks in the narrative.

6) Theme: the general underlying subject of the film: what it is about? These themes emerge during research and impact upon what is filmed for the documentary.

7) Narrative arc: the way in which the storyline develops with twists in events; how events of the film transform the characters – how they change/grow.

The narrative arc can be driven by character or plot. The action of the film can directly relate to the wants and needs of the main character; or, the characters are secondary to the events of the plot. Often, films combine an emphasis on both character and plot. It may chart the chronology of an event, but also offer revealing insights into the central characters and the ways in which events impact upon their development.

8) How audience experiences the story:

  • It’s about somebody with whom they sympathise
  • It’s about somebody who wants something badly
  • This something is difficult, but possible to do, get or achieve
  • It is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation
  • The story must come to a satisfactory ending (though not always happy)
  • The character’s mission must be strong enough that the audience cares about the ending

9) Point of view: the perspective or position from which the film is told. These are usually the views of the main characters of the film; or, could be the point of view of the filmmaker.

10) Telling detail: documentary-makers search for ‘telling detail’ that is revealing. The storyteller’s eyes and ears should be open to detail that offers texture and context to the story. Detail can also be useful for the voiceover narration.

11) Difficult but achievable: the goal must be difficult to achieve because if something is easy, the narrative lacks tension. Without tension, there is little incentive for the audience to keep watching. Tension happens when issues or events are unresolved, and the audience demands ‘what happens next?’ But the goal needs to be potentially achievable for the audience to believe the thrust of the narrative.

12) So how is tension created? tension is sometimes inherent in a story (for example, sport documentaries which contain success and failure). There can be a tension between the protagonist and an external/opposing force. Because of an emotional involvement, the audience probably wants the main character to succeed. If the audience cares about the sides involved, the emotional storytelling is more powerful.

13) Emotional impact: evidence or information is presented to allow viewers to experience the story, allowing them to anticipate the twists and turns of the narrative themselves in an active way. The filmmaker should create a structure that will allow peaks of conflict, climax and resolution (moments of achievement, loss and reversal). But the audience doesn’t want false emotion, hyped-up music or narration that warns of danger. Instead, they want genuine and accurate storytelling.

14) Raising the stakes: if something is important, this should be made clear to the audience. The stakes may rise because of increasing danger or time running out. The tension increases due to the way in which the film is structured.

15) Resolution: this can be unexpected or inevitable, and resolve the story set out at the start of the film. The ending should be a satisfying conclusion. But to reflect the reality of a situation, the ending doesn’t have to be upbeat or tie up all the loose ends. Life isn’t always that convenient.

Further reading on this subject: Documentary Storytelling by Sheila Curran Bernard

Sheila Curran book

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