Making a Documentary Film

Some of the things that I like to consider at the start of a project, i.e., if I am involved in consulting from an early stage are:

1.  Tell me the story.  It is a good litmus test to see if it is possible to give a compelling, coherent shape to the topic or issue in verbal form. The tendency is to go for plot elements–global warming is releasing huge amounts of methane from the polar ice caps and we need to act now: that’s good, and the follow up question would be, How does it become a film since this good be an op-ed, essay, or even a fiction film about a corporate plan to let it occur thinking it can be captured and marketed only to have a catastrophe, sparked by a bitter rival, ensue.  Though simkple, this step can take some time.  Boiling it all down to a good, clear story line takes work, more than most of us can pull off while riding in an elevator although, once done, it will seem obviously clear and necessary. So,

2. What form will it take?  Docs aren’t all the same. There are models (essays, diaries, histories, editorials, reportage, etc.) that can be one basis for the form and there are modes (expository, poetic, participatory, etc.) that are cinematic ways of giving shape to an idea: eg, the methane story could be interactive, with the filmmaker interacting with others via interviews or direct participation in an action, as we see in The Cove, or it could be expostiory, with a voice-over commentator (Peter Coyote?) sketching out the issues and guiding us through an approach to them, or it could be observational, following but not ineracting with a research crew in Hudson’s Bay, say, as they try to measure methane leakage from a given area and talk among themselves about the results.  The filmmaker needs to think about form since it will guide what they shoot and what the gather up, and whether, or to what degree, they need a script (an exposition clearly has to be written up ahead and that may guide the search for images to accompany it).

3. Can you write this up in a 2-5 page treatment?  This would not be a shooting script but a clear statement about the goals and techniques and the sequencing, the order of events that might be expected to unfold to move us from a beginning to a resolution.  As a narrative form, doc (as narrative non-fiction) typically has a beginning, middle and end–unlike life which just goes on and leads to chronolgies rather than stories.  it might instead have a statement, perspective or argument to present/make, but here too there is usually a beginning that gets us thinking, a middle the deepens and elaborates on the issue and an end that offers a solution or possible action.

This trio of things is not sacrosanct. It could be otherwise, but they are a good general start for many projects.  A fourth, which I may say more about at another time, is context: what has already been done or said on the issue or topic, in terms of content, and what has already been made and seen that suggests valuable cinematic techniques and appraoches.  Refinements and elaboration can develop from these starting points as can preparing pitches or grant applications.


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