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Old July 28th, 2008, 04:04 PM   #1
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How to develop a documentary project

So I have several ideas for short documentary projects.

One in particular is based on the premise of several local people who are like minded in their philosophy, but do specific things that are unique to them within the general framework of the philosophy (sorry to be vague - trying to keep this under wraps for the time being).

I'm a trained photojournalist by profession, and have moved into shooting as a solo video journalist. I have all the necessary gear to shoot with. My problem is getting the project out of my head and into some sort of tangible story board form to begin preproduction.

I feel like I have writers block - I can see the idea in my head for this project - I just can't seem to get it into a form that allows me to move forward with it.

Any suggestions on how to proceed on this?
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Old July 28th, 2008, 06:19 PM   #2
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Read this book:

http://www.amazon.com/Directing-Docu.../dp/0240802705

Then do what it says to do.
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Old July 28th, 2008, 06:43 PM   #3
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Thanks Peter - just ordered the book :-)
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Old August 14th, 2008, 04:58 PM   #4
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Making documentaries

One of the best books I have read so far on this subject is Documentary Storytelling, Second Edition: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films
(Amazon.com: Documentary Storytelling, Second Edition: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films: Sheila Curran Bernard: Books)

You can also find here a summary of making documentaries:
How to Make a Documentary Film | Expert Village Videos
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Old August 14th, 2008, 09:15 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ernest Sams
One of the best books I have read so far on this subject is Documentary Storytelling, Second Edition: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films(Amazon.com: Documentary Storytelling, Second Edition: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films: Sheila Curran Bernard: Books)
I agree with Ernest, I've found Documentary Storytelling to be the strongest book I've read on making documentaries. I have the other ones by Michael Rabiger and Barry Hampe, and they are very good. But I think Documentary Storytelling gets right to the heart of the matter, by helping you shape the story of your doc before, during, and after you start shooting. I had all three on my desk while I was assisting on a documentary with 250+ hours of footage, and Documentary Storytelling was the one that really helped to pull the rabbit out of the hat, if you get my drift.

Michael Rabiger's book is very well rounded, and has better technical and production information. Barry Hampe's book is a gold mine of anecdotal information. But for shaping and fine tuning a story out of a mountain of footage, Documentary Storytelling gets my vote.
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Old August 14th, 2008, 09:31 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Cliff Etzel View Post
I feel like I have writers block - I can see the idea in my head for this project - I just can't seem to get it into a form that allows me to move forward with it. Any suggestions on how to proceed on this?
I'm not an expert in docs, but I've had one rolling around in my head for awhile, and was also putting it off because I didn't know where to start. I just got the whole process kickstarted by buying dinner for one of the subjects and then sitting down to record her stories and thoughts all in the name of "documentary research". Based off that, I was able to form a plan of attack as it helped map out the "story". I still don't have a specific storyline, but I've narrowed it down so I can focus my research on a few key players, events, and actions.
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Old February 10th, 2009, 12:35 PM   #7
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I agree Sheila Curran Bernard's book is the best. I have ordered over 20 books on documentary filmmaking and have returned all but hers. I'm about to buy her new one as well Archival Storytelling. I was asked to do a documentary of historical significance so I'll need this one too. I used the first book for my two latest docs (shot at the same time) and I couldn't have done it well without it. She lives here too and invited me to an event but I couldn't make it.
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Old February 14th, 2009, 08:39 PM   #8
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hey guys this book is free on google

here is the link it is free on google take care .

Documentary Storytelling: Making ... - Google Book Search
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Old February 17th, 2009, 09:55 PM   #9
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I've been thinking all day about a project template for documentary. I'm not sure what you call it: a layout, a script, something else. I'm wondering if anyone else uses something like I'm putting here. I'm hoping to come up with something that ultimately helps me answer the question, "What am I trying to say with this story?" Here is what I threw together in about 10 minutes for a story I'm thinking about doing on our city's water supply system. I know. I know. Does the excitement ever end? I'd love to hear your reactions/criticisms/ideas on this template.

Film Editing Template

Abstract: State the purpose of the film that you are creating.
Ex.: Abilene, like any city that is expected to grow, needed water for its businesses and people. This is especially true of an area like West Texas. So, Abileneians put their head together and found ways to collect and share water. As the city grew, so did the need for greater amounts of water and easier ways to transport water to its final destination. They did this by creating more and larger lakes and better water supply systems. In the future, Abilene, like many other Texas cities, will have to look for newer and more reliable sources of water and transportation systems for that water.

Introduction:
Purpose:
Main Idea presented:
Scene 1
Scene 2
Scene3
Part 1:
Purpose:
Main Idea presented:
Scene 1
Scene 2
Scene3

Part 2:
Purpose:
Main Idea presented:
Scene 1
Scene 2
Scene3

Part 3:
Purpose:
Main Idea presented:
Scene 1
Scene 2
Scene3

Conclusion:
Rehash of main purpose:
Conclusion restated
Scene 1
Scene 2
Scene 3
Closing Credit ( list each person that played a role in putting film together. Include any of the interviewees that are willing to have them name displayed)
Names
Copyright Statement


Do any of you actually lay out a story like this? Or do you just grab a bunch of footage and figure out what you can make out of it in post? Unfortunately, I spend too much of my time doing the later.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
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Old February 20th, 2009, 11:58 AM   #10
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I've made two documentary films each of approx 30 min running time. One was a familiy history story concerning a soldier who died in WW1 the other was a Victorian crime piece.

I am not a scriptwriter or actor/presenter nor do I have any kind of journalistic background, but there was a 'Mike Leigh' in me, I knew in my head what I wanted and without writing much more than a few notes, I shot them both single handed, and even presented the Victorian crime scandal too, which was fun.

I watch a lot of documentaries and I think that is crucial - in the same way that film school students are told watch a lot of movies. I knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted to show and what I wanted to conclude. I had the research done, I took some stills of the area I would shoot and I put it all together mostly in my mind.

I found the tricky bit was in the editing. I had two hours of recording to whittle down to 30mins. and I must admit with the Victorian Crime I ended up doing 4 edits before I was happy with the result.

The family history shoot was easier, there was a story to tell, with content and an outcome - much like the previous shoot - but whether it was because of the subject or the fact this was my second film, I found it much easier - shooting certainly was because I wasn't putting myself in front of the camera as well as being cameraman!

Doing a voice-over is also better than having an in-vison presenter because you can edit better, although I did come unstuck on one particular scene when I didn't give enough clip time for the wordage I had to speak, but managed to make it up by adding a still image for 4 seconds - just enough time!

What I would say is don't think too much about it, just get out there and do it, make sure you film more than you need and you will find it pieces together OK
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Old February 21st, 2009, 01:15 PM   #11
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I've been doing documentaries (short and long) for more than 25 years,
and I very rarely felt the need for some sort of "rough script",
especially in written form.

Here's my "2 cents":
IMHO, it's enough to jot down a few main points -
not even a real & polished outline, just three or four main avenues
you'd like to pursue.
Then you work on contacts, trying to gain people's trust:
that's central, vital, essential, since that's what most docs.
deal with: PEOPLE.

Then you just go out and shoot.
Keep your mind alert, your eyes wide open, your ears receptive.
Be ready to improvise all the time, be ready to compromise,
don't get too obsessed with technical details
(as in: if you get that shallow DOF, fine; if you don't, who cares...).
Be ready to discover and pursue new avenues you hadn't thought of:
they might just unexpectedly pop up. Grab them and incorporate them
into your story.
Be ready to jump at whatever gift reality throws at you.
Remember that reality will very seldom disappoint
an alert documentary filmmaker...

Every once in a while, sit back and stare at the sky or at the ceiling:
that's how you'll connect dots, find new ideas, get "inspiration"
(whatever that means).
Don't let the whole thing stress you out:
as always, what really matters is not the hours you put in,
it's what you put in the hours (platitude?, yeah, but it has
always served me well...).
Grab a beer or a glass of wine and let your thoughts flow:
something good might come out of it;
if not, enjoy the aftertaste of your wine: tomorrow is another day...

When you feel you're done with shooting, when you feel
you have enough material for your "cake", take a couple
of extra days (if you can) and go for the icing, for that little cherry
on top of the pie...

Editing: wow! This is fun time!, albeit it begins
with a lot of rather boring note-taking: carefully screen all your stuff
and jot down what you have in your tapes (never trust memory!).

Trust your gut feeling when you screen your material,
and give "stars" to your clips
(everyone has its own personal way of taking notes;
I make sure to grade my clips or sub-clips with clearly visible
exclamation points: one for "good", two for "very good",
three for "excellent", four for "WOW!!!")
This will help you later in immediately identifying the really worthy segments...

Then the real fun can start.
That's where your doc. slowly gets its shape.
And that's where you'll slowly discover, bit by bit,
how you want to tell your story.

Just my cents, of course
(and forgive me, as usual, for my shaky English)

Best

Vasco
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Old February 21st, 2009, 01:37 PM   #12
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We should all be experts on documentaries by now because we've been watching them on tv all our lives.
If we haven't been watching them then we don't like them and shouldn't be making them.
It's so easy to experiment today because equipment and software is so affordable.
One possible rule - follow your nose.
Generally I agree with everything that Vasco says and he has a lot more experience than me.
But, personally I don't like to use pen and paper to grade my clips for quality.
Why not? Because storage space is so cheap nowadays that you can afford to digitise everything.
Also, I use Avid/Pinnacle Liquid (now obsolete) which allows me to organise my clips on my 24 inch screen like packs of cards on a table and shuffle, grade and preview them for quality and relevance. So I can work with the material directly without having to rely on notes. I prefer to work directly with the material to build scenes rather than use a script or outline document. I am sure that other NLEs must allow you to do something similar.
Storyboarding software does not work for me.
A lot of editing gets done in my head just before I wake up in the morning. Seriously.
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Old February 21st, 2009, 03:27 PM   #13
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Philip, Vasco and Richard,
Thank you so much for your replies. I've read each of them carefully and have found them interesting and helpful. If you don't mind, I'd like to share with you what I've been thinking the last few days after posting my question and as I've read your responses.

One reason I started thinking about laying out the video as I did in my message is that I'm trying to figure out how to sell the video to my potential clients. I have been "meditating" on an idea for several weeks now and have made some initial contacts with some people that have their own contacts in the city and county governments and with philanthropist organizations. As I've put together my notes and thought about the budget for the my next idea, I'm thinking I'd like to charge $5K to $10K for the video. I can make the case to them that they can sell the video in local bookstores and video stores and can also use it on their website, the local TV channel at least and get some marketing/PR value out of what I produce. I keep imagine I'm sitting in this meeting with these "money" guys telling them all this and they look at me and say, "So, tell us more about this video you want to produce." Either that or they've already showed me the door and I'm on the sidewalk in tears. :-) So, I got to thinking that the outline with some areas like the abstract fleshed out and my unanswered questions in black-and-white in front of them allows me to sell the story more effectively. Literally, I hand each of them a 3 to 5 page description of what the video is about. I don't think that requires each scene being mapped out and that may be the main thing each of you would steer me away from. But, I think its powerful to these potential donors if they see I've REALLY thought through what I want to do and how it can help them.

So, what do you think? Am I still over the top? I'm not sure what I'll end up doing but since I've only been shooting video for less than a year and to say I've done a documentary is a bit of a stretch, I really value your opinions.

Thanks in advance.

dave
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Old February 22nd, 2009, 03:29 AM   #14
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Hi David
There's no point giving these people a blow by blow account of how you are going to make your film because they are not going to understand it anyway.
Your template is mechanistic and will probably hinder you from bringing the film to life.
What you need to do is get across the essence and style of your film ie what it is about and how you are going to make it. That's called a treatment and should take no more than one sheet of paper.
You need to relate that to the audience and convince your backers that the film is going to work for the audience.
A budget wouldn't hurt. That will reassure them.
Don't give them lots of detail that they can't understand. You need to instill confidence. In the project and in you.
That's what they will make their decision on: whether this is a strong, compelling idea, whether it will work for the audience and whether they believe that you have the talent, discipline and experience to deliver a good film, on budget.
Your lack of experience is a disadvantage so address that if you can demonstrating the success of previous films and/or by hiring in talent if you need to.
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Old February 22nd, 2009, 08:21 AM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gooderick View Post
Hi David
There's no point giving these people a blow by blow account of how you are going to make your film because they are not going to understand it anyway.
Your template is mechanistic and will probably hinder you from bringing the film to life.
What you need to do is get across the essence and style of your film ie what it is about and how you are going to make it. That's called a treatment and should take no more than one sheet of paper.
You need to relate that to the audience and convince your backers that the film is going to work for the audience.
A budget wouldn't hurt. That will reassure them.
Don't give them lots of detail that they can't understand. You need to instill confidence. In the project and in you.
That's what they will make their decision on: whether this is a strong, compelling idea, whether it will work for the audience and whether they believe that you have the talent, discipline and experience to deliver a good film, on budget.
Your lack of experience is a disadvantage so address that if you can demonstrating the success of previous films and/or by hiring in talent if you need to.
If you're trying to pitch the project a one page treatment should be fine. Also the main characters/people your filming, so that Keep the longer treatment for yourself or at a stage that commissioners are involved in your development process.

Yes, the structure laid out is very mechanical - I know some TV documentaries do try and fit around the ad breaks, but a full round up after each break is boring. You need something before each break that will hold the audience and a hook just after the break to hold any new comers. A good story has dilemmas and the audience is interested how the people involved over come them, basically that "journey" term that's much over used in reality television.
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