Television Broadcasting Tutorial 30

Documentaries: Part 2

The Story

The very first thing that every documentary filmmaker has to think about is the story: what the film is about and why it will engage an audience. Is it an interesting perspective on the world, or will it provide access to a section of society rarely seen on television? Most importantly, will someone care about the film or the characters in it? And who is the intended audience?

What about how the film is made: what is the hook of the story? What is the essence of what makes the subject interesting? Is it a visual story? If not, can it made visual? These are some of the questions that will be discussed within this series of posts that will examine the production process.

Production Process

  1. Start with a plan. This will be basic to start with but should be put in place before filming begins. The structure of this plan will take shape during the filming and editing process because you can’t predict where real life will take you, and the focus and themes of your story may change as a result, but you can anticipate potential outcomes before you even press record. Your detailed research could prove invaluable in the field. And be honest about your limitations: what can you realistically achieve with the resources available?
  2. Does your story provide access to a world that would interest your potential audience? As you develop your idea, you must establish that you can gather the content required to tell the story effectively and with authenticity. Have you been granted access to this would with a TV camera? Have you been able to gain the trust of the subject of the film, or the person who can enable the access required? A filmmaker often grows close to the subject of that film if total access is granted to their world. You should respect that trust, so be truthful about yourself and your intentions for the project from the very start.
  3. Be passionate and curious. A passion in a subject means research is thorough. But you must also be curious, to avoid one-sided storytelling that leads to biased perspectives. Views of people who agree and disagree with your convictions on the subject should be encouraged as you explore the complexity of a subject. Even if you think you already know the subject, try to maintain an open mind and shoot your story with questions. Seek out conflicting information to help you deicide upon the most accurate way to tell the story.
  4. Who is your audience and will they care about this subject? This thought should be central to the filmmaking process. Perhaps ask yourself the question: would you watch this if you were part of the audience? Be honest with yourself here… The more effective and truthful the facts and narrative of the story, the more the audience will trust you.
  5. Active storytelling. Keep the story ‘in the moment’. The events may have taken place in the past, but voiceover is in the present tense as we lead the audience through the story in real time. Let the viewer travel with you through the experience, which builds tension. Telling an active story means that you can interpret the past. This could be achieved through micro and macro stories. A smaller story about characters or specific events that reveal a bigger, more important point about the world in which we live.


  1. Sell your story. Can you encapsulate the essence of your story in a two-paragraph pitch? Could you deliver the classic ‘elevator pitch’ to a TV commissioner if you were stood beside him/her in a lift? It is important that you have clear idea of the main point (the core idea) of your story: what makes it a story worth telling.
  2. Narrative spine. This is the single thread that develops from the core idea of your story. This is the action, the question or the argument that drives your story forward. It offers a framework for the unfolding content of the documentary. Once you have established a strong narrative spine, you can detour off it briefly to explore exposition (the 5 Ws), complex theory, new characters or backstory.
  3. Narrative development. Think about how you express the core idea with plot or visuals – which includes ‘the hook’. The best films appeal to our emotions before our heads.

Building Blocks of Film

  1. Shot: This is a single take of an image. It can be static or contain camera movement; it can be a close-up, midshot or wide; it can be a pan or a tilt. A single shot can say the following to an audience: a point of view, a time of day, a character or a theme
  2. Scene: A consecutive group of shots within the same location. This is more than merely a snapshot; it is a self-contained element within the jigsaw of the overall film. Scenes contain a beginning, middle and end, often culminating in twist, turning point or segue in the narrative.
  3. Sequence: A sequence is a collection of shots and scenes that combine to tell a continuous piece of narrative within the bigger story. The sequence also has a beginning, middle and end, on a bigger scale than the scene. Like the chapters in a book, each sequence should be different, with a unique role of play within the overall storytelling. Scenes and sequences combine to establish and vary the pace and rhythm of the film.
  4. Act: An act is series of sequences that build towards a dramatic turning point within the narrative. It should also set up the sequences to come within the next act of the film. Each act plays a vital role within the overall storytelling, with the tension and momentum increasing.
  5. Inciting Incident: The inciting incident sets into motion the action of the film and its narrative spine
  6. Point of Attack: This is the point at which your story begins. The first frames that lead the viewer into the world of the subject, with its themes and characters. Where you begin the film is very important.
  7. Backstory: This is a form of exposition that covers events about the subject that are not seen on screen. Backstory helps the viewer understand what is going on. Backstory is included if it: enhances and enriches the story, adds depth to the characters and their motivations, illuminates themes and issues.

 Traditional 3-act structure: not just dividing story into 3 parts

Act 1: covers the bulk of the story’s exposition

  • usually ¼ length of film
  • introduce characters and the problem
  • contains the inciting incident
  • also first turning point in the film
  • by the end of Act 1, the audience knows what and who story is about
  • drives to an emotional peak and launches Act 2

Act 2: the detail of the storyline

  • this is the longest act in the film
  • about ½ length of story
  • in Act 2, the pace of the storyline increases because exposition in place
  • complications emerge and twists appear
  • but must not become ‘and then this happened’
  • ends with emotional peak even greater than that which ended Act 1
  • launches Act 3

Act 3: builds to a climax, and then the film’s resolution

  • usually slightly less than ¼ of the film
  • darkest moments may unfold on screen
  • tension intensifies
  • then moves to a resolution
  • story could be resolved in the last moments of the film, with loose ends tied up
  1. Multiple Storylines: A, B and C storylines. Story A is strongest and the one around which the film is formed. The different storylines should connect to create a coherent whole. This allows the filmmaker to form complex narratives.
  2. Hours Shooting for a Documentary – an average of approx. 70hrs per 1hr of documentary, which is a ratio of 7:1. You have to overshoot in the field to be confident that you will be ready to tell your story in the edit.
  3. Interweaving Chronology: Interweave between chronological and non-chronological events to create a cohesive whole. But you must not rearrange the chronology to mislead and intentionally create a more interesting cause and effect within the film
  4. Cause and Effect: Be accurate when describing cause and effect within the film.
  5. Collapsing and Expanding Time: Filmmaking is a process of expanding and collapsing time in the edit, so filmmakers should collect cutaways and transitional material for the editing process. Techniques for editing can include: dissolves, time lapses, music transitions and montages.
  6. Collapsing Interviews: The filmmaker focuses on the main points of the interview, shortening the time needed to convey the information. Use a paper edit to decide how a quote weaves into the storyline of the documentary. But be careful to remember that how a quote is written on paper is not the same as how it is delivered on camera. The tone in which something is said can add weight to the significance of a quote. Also, never take a quote out of context and thereby distort its meaning.

Sheila Curran book

Further reading: Documentary Storytelling by Sheila Curran Bernard




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