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So what's The Story?

Your story should not be one that has a happy ending from the beginning. You must have conflict. Some form of controversy. The world we live in has these elements to it sometimes daily, so to create something that has none of that is really boring.

Just like in real estate, location seems to be everything. That's also true in film making. The location can truly make or break the look and feel of your shots. This is why I have such a huge respect for location scouts. On this blog, however, I wanted to spend just a little time on an aspect of what we do that I am convinced is so important, yet often times undermined: Story, story, story.

This concept may be more obvious to folks working on a short film, where having a script (story) is required and expected. You or your designated writer will come up with a story line, a beginning, middle and ending, when once put together, leads to a complete piece that holds your viewers. For projects where having this kind of treatment isn't as much expected, however, it can often times lead to issues, especially in post.

I want to focus a little on being able to properly tell a story from beginning to end, and being able to make adjustments throughout the process, but never ever straying so far away from the story, that you end up with an abundance of coverage and no real process of putting it all together. A documentary is a great genre where the concept of creating a story may seem like an obvious one, but often times can feel more chaotic than seamless.

Unlike a short film, where there is a script with precisely what each actor will be saying, blocking for their movements and cutaways to make it all flow, a documentary can often times take on the form of news coverage. In news coverage, your goal is...well... coverage. Get as much footage of what's happening, get a sound-bite or two of witnesses, experts and then back to the journalist. When working a documentary, one may be tempted to approach it the same way. Find 5 or 6 key peopler that can offer eye-witness accounts, and expert or two, and perhaps the key person your topic may be about.

A good documentary will be one where each person you interview is able to give you good content, information, and expression throughout their time. A good documentary will have great supporting b-roll, photos, custom designed motion graphics to help sell individual points. A good documentary will have a killer editor who can take the aggregate of all that content, and make good sense of it as he/she edits.

A great documentary, however, will require that you rewind all of this, and start with a unique framework. Ask an important question: What do I want my viewers to feel? The answer to this question will encourage additional questions, and will most certainly get you and your team to a place of having a direction in which you feel your documentary should go. Asking specific questions during an interview will get unique answers that can lead the edit in a specific direction. Asking follow up questions as a result of listening to their previous answers can help spur an emotional response and give even better context to what they say. All these things are super important in getting the right content from each person, and creating jump points that connect each person's experience to the other. Now, you're on to something. Now it feels like you, the film-maker, actually thought through the whole process. Now, as a viewer, I feel like I'm watching something that was fully thought through, vetted and executed very well.

For some, you may feel that "Steering," a documentary in a particular direction feels one sided. It most certainly can be, and is done more often that we know. However, the steering I'm referring to is actually designed to bring balance to the answers you get from your interviews. These answers by default are typically going to lean to one side anyway. So having a plan to "stir up some controversy," in your questions will more times than not lead to some really good content.

The conflict you introduce into your storyline will be key. It gives your viewer a reason to keep watching. "What happens next?" Create that question, and then answer it. Do that 2 to 3 times in the same documentary, and yo've got yourself a dynamic storyline that viewers will want to watch over and over, and then share.


What's the point of this?

What should the takeaway be after watching?

What conflict can I introduce? Inner conflict, external conflict, how do they overcome?

How much is too much? Too much controversy can tip the scales of being dramatic and dynamic, to just being too much and uncomfortable. Know your demographic. (And please don't say you work is for all people!) Be more specific.


A key reminder friends, is that as you go about filming, lighting, etc, keep asking yourself, will this fit into the story that I'm trying to tell? The more times you can answer, the stronger your final edit will be.

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