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Old June 19th, 2004, 04:39 PM   #1
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how to write a documentary?

I notice after most documentarys that i see, there are writers! Now, besides writing narration and titles, is there some specific format or approach to writing a documentary? Is there even a way to organize it? (besides planning shooting and interview dates) I thought your supposed to think with you camera in the field and think with your head later?
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Old June 19th, 2004, 04:54 PM   #2
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Most documentaries have a script, some are even acted.
Just going out and running the camera will not tell the story, and a story it is, even though it's not fiction.
There are some good books on the subject, look at Amazon or Focal Press or do a Google.
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Old June 19th, 2004, 05:27 PM   #3
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"I thought your supposed to think with you camera in the field and think with your head later?"

That, plus a little pre-planning. Most documentary makers I know have a central thesis they set out to prove or disprove, or some grand question they're seeking the answer to, and their interviews and narration are molded accordingly.

In general, one never knows what one's going to get from an interviewer, even one who is heavily published and whose opinions are already public. A documentary maker shapes his or her questions beforehand in logically arranged trees, much as a litigating attorney prepares for depositions, and follows different lines of questioning, slowly pruning the tree until only the trunk (central thesis) remains to be hewn down, and (if the documentary maker is luckily) the root system exploded in a grand climax. Unlike a good attorney, who should never during trial as a witness a question the attorney doesn't know the answer to, a good documentary filmmaker will allow himself or herself to be surprised, and follow up such surprises.

So, the "writing" comes not only in the narration, but also in the central thesis/question, and the editing and ordering.

Aside from the occasional dramatization/re-enactment, I've never heard of a documentary maker going into the process with a script and rehearsing interviews. It seems unlikely that a "hostile witness" interviewee would abide, but moreover, even agreeable sorts appear insincere and/or apathetic when they're just trying to spit out lines from recall, rather than doling out good old fashioned pieces of their minds. That's what makes acting such an evolved talent: it's tough to be believably mendacious.
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Old June 19th, 2004, 07:39 PM   #4
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It seems like a logical way to do it would be to research the crap out of your subject, conduct interviews based on said research, then sort of "build" your script around a combination of the research and interviews, and go out and shoot your b-roll/reinactments based on the script you've written. Probably better than just "shooting everything and hoping to pull a story out", if you want one of them classy documentaries (a la Errol Morris), but maybe you don't. That's how I do it, though, if it were my baby. Seems like you'd waste less time and be more efficient this way.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 02:50 AM   #5
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Along the same lines as Josh's point, it definitely depends on what kind of documentary you want. If you're making a documentary to prove a point or to make a statement, then it stands to reason that you would do a great deal of research before hitting the red button, and have a general idea of what you're going to get (even if some pleasant surprises come your way in the process).

However, if you're making a documentary to learn more about a subject yourself, you might just have a large question that you don't know the answer to but hope to find out.

Since I just saw it last night, Supersize Me comes to mind. It was a mix of both these approaches; nobody knew what would happen if you put yourself on a 30-day McDonald's only diet. The rest of the documentary was more focused on a statement which he had in mind beforehand, which he then targeted interviewees and tailored his questions carefully.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 07:57 AM   #6
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I've written a couple of documentaries. They were not written in the traditional narrative script sense, but they were written out before shooting. Basically the script acts as a plan of attack, a sort of pre-viz or storyboard or "logic tree" as Robert points out. I even write out what I suppose the interviewers answers will be in broad general statements.

Of course, once the camera is rolling it's imperitive to follow your nose in the course of the interviews.

I think it's especially important to have a script written when you're spending serious money... especially someone else's money on crew, equipment and access.

Having said that, I am currently working on a Doc that I did NOT write a script for. I went at it with a theme in mind. I have 9 hours shot, and I will need an addition 9-15 to get what I think will be adequate footage to distill the story. Since I am shooting this as a one man band, and the cost is minimal... I feel comfortable with this arrangement. The script is "written" in my head already... so I don't need to show it to someone for approval and budgeting.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 11:01 AM   #7
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wow, thanks alot...this is really helpful.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 01:25 PM   #8
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A great thread. My thanks also.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 07:16 PM   #9
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Interesting thread--There is a scriptless school of documentary filmmaking---the kind of Cinema Verite work done by the Maysles, Pennebacker, and Wiseman. I was fortunate enough to interview Albert Maysles and during that interview he spoke of hitting the documentary jackpot. In other words, he picks a subject then begins to shoot---hopefully something interesting happens. He sited to me many instances where nothing interesting happened and he ditched the project. That's why he shoots in DV now. He loves the fact that if he doesn't hit the jackpot, he hasn't lost as much.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 08:33 PM   #10
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Interesting factoid from the old recesses: George Lucas was a cameraman for the Maysles in his youth. I've never been able to determine whether he captured the infamous Altamont footage in Gimme Shelter.
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Old June 20th, 2004, 11:01 PM   #11
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You should check out this book:

Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos: A Practical Guide to Planning, Filming, and Editing Documentaries of Real Events
by Barry Hampe

From Booklist
Hampe has indeed written a practical guide to filming real events, but, as with many such books with "user-friendly" titles, the user should have some background in filmmaking to appreciate and incorporate the documentary film techniques Hampe advocates. Hampe introduces the core of the book with a section, integral to the rest of the text, that includes an insightful discussion of verisimilitude in the documentary. The section launches the discussions of the preproduction (developing ideas, writing at various stages, scheduling, etc.), production (recording picture and sound, directing, interviewing, etc.), and postproduction (preparation, editing, and the wrap) phases of filmmaking. As in most expository works, the author uses examples throughout; Hampe increases their effect by having them illustrate multiple principles. His use of examples defines his taste as well: An American Family (the television "drama" about the Loud family) interestingly exemplifies ineffective documentary filmmaking. Knowing his preferences is extremely useful to a filmmaker in formulating his or her own values. A good book for professional filmmakers and film students.
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Old June 21st, 2004, 08:14 AM   #12
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Indeed Lucas did shoot for the Maysles but according to Albert Maysles, his footage although excellent, ended up on the cutting room floor.
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Old June 21st, 2004, 08:35 AM   #13
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I've read the Hampe book and second the reccomendation. It's useful to get you thinking and organized.

Hampe does have some negative things to say about the talking head style of documentary. He associates it with PBS, but one sees it everywhere today.

I agreed with him for awhile, but I've come to think his view is a little too rigid. If you get very interesting people who know their subject they are going to be effective and entertaining. If you get boring interview subjects they are going to be boring.

So another question might be how one goes about "casting" a documentary. The worst thing is to schedule an interview and then find out the subject is not comfortable on camera or not very articulate. Vetting people to use on camera is a very importaing part of the process.
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Old June 21st, 2004, 12:14 PM   #14
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yes, well i see now how to organize a documentary, and how its important to be in the right place at the right time...but I was watching a documentary on PBS last night, about Iranian smugglers. There was probably no way it was staged (someone actually got killed), and yet they had wonderfull sequences such as this: The smugglers were returning from the sea, being swiftly chased by the authorities. A boy was up high on a building, flying a kite, he spotted the boat zooming home through the water, and started screaming "Boat! Boat!". Now this is where I dont get it...There was a camera with the men driving the boat, the women of the village, and with the boy. As the boy was screaming boat, he was telling the villagers to come help with the illiegal cargo it was carrying, so the boy ran through the village. There were at least eight shots of the boy running down through the village to the water. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?! The material was obviously not staged (to me anyhow) So how could there be eight shots of the boy RUNNING?! Were there eight cameras?! Did the guy with the boy keep running ahead of him, setting up the tripod, getting right shutter and f-stop, wait for the boy to go by, and then run after him to do it all over again?! Or the footage of when the boy was on the roof the only legitimate stuff, and the camera man asked the boy to run through the village screaming boat at a different time, and then patch the fake stuff in later? I just dont get it! This documentary was probably done....I dont really know...but sometime in the 70's or 80's because it was on 16mm. It was shot by an iranian film club or company or something, and as far as I could tell would be very hard to stage....
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Old June 21st, 2004, 12:40 PM   #15
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Alex,
"How does he saw the woman in half??? I mean, obiously he is not cutting her with the saw, there was no blood or anything... but it looked SO REAL!!!"

All good magic is looks "real".
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