Character-driven storytelling

The other day I attended a workshop about character-driven storytelling in documentaries. We live in the Platinum Age of TV: there is a glut of content, excellent content, available to us on multiple platforms, and so a TV show must have a compelling character and a powerful emotional pull to stand out in the crowd.

In scripted TV, you can write compelling characters and protagonists that people want to engage with and follow on their story’s journey – but in documentaries, you have to FIND those character from real life. Not only do you have to find the character, but you also have to find and build their story around them. Interestingly, both scripted and unscripted character-driven stories follow a similar formula:

  1. There must be a protagonist, the hero/heroine whose story you are following. This doesn’t always have to be one person, it could be a group or an organisation. For example, a group of scientists are trying to find the cure for cancer.
  2. There must also be an antagonist, something stopping the protagonist from achieving their goals. For example, in our story what’s opposing the scientists is lack of funding.
  3. There must be an overall desire, motivation or mission: the driving force of the story. This motivation can change over the course of the story. In our example, the overall mission is to cure cancer.
  4. There should also be an internal desire, an emotional element that motivates the protagonist. As above, this motivation can change, or there can be multiple internal desires. In our story, this could be that one of the scientists lost her son to cancer and wants to find a cure to save other mothers from the pain of losing a child.

So what sort of protagonist should we look for when we’re telling a character-driven story? Our character should be engaging and articulate, but they don’t have to be a decision-maker or someone at the top of their tree – in fact, it’s better if they’re not. They should, however, be someone who is experiencing the effect of circumstances or decisions that are influenced by other people. Most importantly, they need to undergo some sort of transformation over the course of the story arc. Our protagonist should not be the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.

Now, how do we find these amazing characters?! The best thing to do is to phone people, talk to them, make the effort to meet them. In a world where a lot of work can be done remotely and online, this is a task that must be done in person. You can use personal judgement here: chances are, if you find this person engaging and compelling, your audience will too. 

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Character-driven storytelling

Science Programming: What Works?

Last week I attended a fascinating discussion about what works – and what doesn’t work, in science programming, and what the future holds for this genre. 

In the discussion, it became apparent that the original landmarks of science programming, such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon – programmes that were designed to introduce people to scientific ideas and explore them in a compelling but stately way, were fast being eclipsed by other formats, such as The Slow Mo Guys on YouTube. Short, funny, entertaining videos on VOD platforms responded to a demand from viewers to learn interesting facts about science, without having to invest in following a narrative for a certain amount of time.

We also discussed the place of epic science documentaries, such as Blue Planet II – which literally changed the world with David Attenborough’s final message. We agreed that series such as these, with high production values, enormous budgets, and huge time investment were perfect for inspiring awe in an audience and bringing science and nature to the whole family. Series such as these buck the SVOD trend: people were excited to set aside time on a given day to sit and watch these beautiful stories.

So does science programming have to be a choice between big budget epic series and fun short YouTube videos? Not necessarily, was the answer we came to. There is one thing that will make a science programme stand out without having bucketloads of money or a quirky format, and that’s having a brilliant, compelling, passionate presenter, like Brian Cox. We all love watching and listening to someone who is clearly inspired by what they are talking about, and that human engagement, that sense of connection, can still be the crowning glory of a science programme. 

Who is your favourite science presenter? And who do you think is the rising star who will inspire the next generation of scientists? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Science Programming: What Works?

One: [Don’t] Pick up the Phone

I’m not afraid to admit that when I started out in TV, I was absolutely terrified of picking up the phone. I’m also starting to realise that I wasn’t alone in this! 

The trouble is, picking up the phone is infinitely preferable to sending an email. Whether it’s to get a quick answer, or discuss something that’s a bit too complicated to write out, or just to create a personal connection, plucking up the courage to make that phone call is often worth the initial anxiety. 

So here’s how I got over my fear of phone calls, and I’ll give a few examples of where you should pick up the phone even before you send that introductory email.

My two biggest fears were that I would not introduce myself properly, and that I would forget to say something important during the phone conversation. The introduction needs to quickly tell whoever you’re on the phone to who you are, where you’re calling from and why you’re ringing – and sometimes, when you’re asking someone for something weird or specific, or if your programme is a bit complicated to explain, that short introduction can be tricky! Often I would listen out to how other people in the office introduced themselves, and then copy their opening spiel. But if that’s not an option, then I would just stick to the formula of:

Hello, my name is [name], I’m calling from [production company], and we’re looking for a [contributor/location/prop] for a new [programme/series] we’re making about [general topic]. 

In order to remember everything I needed to mention in that phone conversation, I used to prepare myself a little post-it note with the following things on it:

  • The person’s name (if you don’t know their name, make a note of the name of the person who picks up the phone, and make sure to repeat their name at the end of the call – e.g. thank you so much Brenda, you’ve been really helpful today!
  • Their phone number
  • An alternative phone number
  • Main question
  • Details needed e.g. date/time/email address/tech

After enough post-it note phone calls, this checklist became a mental one, and the calls started to feel a lot more natural! Another thing I found helpful was to imagine that whoever the person on the end of the phone is, they could become your new best friend by the end of the call. So it helps to engage them in the friendliest manner possible – even borderline flirtatious  😉

Always pick up the phone if you need a quick answer, such as a location for the next day’s shoot. If you’re post-it prepared, you could have it sorted within 5 minutes! It also helps to brief contributors over the phone, as you can discuss the structure and topics of their interview or contribution in more detail and make them feel involved, rather than sending them a list of things in an email. And if someone’s being difficult on email, or has raised a sticky problem, absolutely pick up the phone and talk it through with them straight away.

Let me know if this helps you with phone manner fear – and comment if you have any other techniques that work well for you!

One: [Don’t] Pick up the Phone

Edit Producing

Now that I’m an Assistant Producer, I’m looking to develop the skills that will help me to get the knowledge I’ll need when I reach the next step on the career ladder: a Producer/Director. There are two roles that are useful as intermediary positions between AP and PD, and those are Edit Producer and Story Producer. For now, the one I want to focus on is Edit Producer.

Edit Producers sit in the edit with the editor and put together the programme in a way that most effectively tells its story. It can be quite a tricky role: sometimes you’ll realise that the script doesn’t quite work when you finally get to putting it all together, sometimes you’ll have to think outside the box to find a better way to tell the story, and sometimes you’ll realise you don’t have enough material! As the edit producer, you’ll have to think of a way to solve all these problems within the time frame, the budget, and the requirements of the commissioner. 

When I edited my short film, Painting Freedom, I experienced those challenges. The first ideas I had for how to put together the film really didn’t work, and after getting some feedback from a few director friends, I realised that I had to do a better job of edit producing this film!

The first thing I did was go through all the footage we had, including some that I’d initially disregarded. It’s important to know exactly what your resources are. I then went through all the interviews I’d done with the artist, Hannah, and transcribed everything she said. This is a really handy thing to do, because when you’re looking through material, it’s a lot quicker to read than to watch! 

The next thing I did was to divide the story into five beats. Sometimes you’ll need more than this, but most stories can be easily summarised into five bullet points. The beats you should be looking to hit are:

  • What’s the main event for example
    • the women are painting their portraits
    • the spaceship is launching
    • the king is dead
  • What’s the background for example
    • they’ve survived ISIS captivity
    • the spaceship is looking for life on Mars
    • was the king murdered?
  • What’s the twist for example
    • they’ve never painted before
    • the astronauts are not sure they’ll get back alive
    • the king’s brother wants to seize the throne
  • What’s the next development for example
    • the paintings are exhibited at the Houses of Parliament
    • the spaceship computer starts malfunctioning
    • the king’s son beats his uncle to the coronation
  • What’s the resolution for example
    • the paintings inspire DFID to help the Yazidi women
    • the astronauts fix the computer and make it to Mars
    • the king’s son banishes his uncle to Corsica

I then looked to fill those beats with content, both audio and visual, and laid it out in a simple table with two columns, VISUAL on the left, AUDIO on the right. In VISUAL, I would put short descriptions of the clips I wanted to use, and in AUDIO, I would put the text of either Hannah’s interview transcripts, or my commentary.

And then it was time to put everything together! I gave the editor this ‘paper edit’, as it’s called, and we put everything in place. Over the course of doing this, we would sometimes change our minds about which visual worked best, and we cut down the audio significantly. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings for the sake of a better story!

The final, and arguably the most important step, is the music. In an ideal world, you would want to get a composer to write a score specially for your documentary, but in the real world of tighter and tighter budgets, that’s not always possible! Most companies will have their preferred music archive (ask the production manager which one they use), but for independent projects I love freemusicarchive.org. It’s got a fantastic range of tracks that are all free to use! 

So now that I’ve edit produced my own short film, I’d like to find the opportunity to learn about edit producing longer, more complicated films. I’m going to start by practising paper edits, and I’ll look for opportunities to shadow some of the edit producers on my current project!

Edit Producing

Across the Pond

Having spent just over a year working on Channel 5 projects, 2018-19 is set to be the year of the American projects! I can now count PBS, Science Channel and History Channel in my credits.

So what’s the difference between producing programmes for the UK and producing them for the US? Not much in terms of the basic production process, but the big differences can be felt in the time zones and in the target audience.

The time zones are the trickier ones to deal with. I was working on a large-scale documentary series for the Science Channel, and we had several shoots going on simultaneously in the US across different time zones. It meant that the mornings were quiet, and were usually the times when we’d have our production team meetings, but as soon as the East Coast woke up, right up to when the West Coast woke up at the end of the day, our schedules became rather busy! It resulted in quite a few late nights in the office making calls to LA, and at the end of the project I suggested that we trial a change of working hours to match our contributors – which was well received.

As for the target audience – this changes with every programme and every channel. It is often helpful to put a name and a face to the target audience, such as ITV’s Auntie Beryl! Then as we read each script, watch each edit or interview each contributor, we can keep asking ourselves if our target audience character will like/understand/be engaged by the content that we are creating.

If you are about to start on a US project, my advice to you would be to find out how much production will happen in the US, and also find out from your series producer what the target audience is like. That way, you will be able to offer better editorial feedback on target audience relevance – and you’ll be able to plan for the possibility of work eating into your evenings if filming is taking place in the US!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to learning more about the vast and fascinating American market.

Across the Pond

My first awards ceremony

On Sunday, I attended my first awards ceremony…for one of my own films!

I had spent a year working on this film in collaboration with artist Hannah Rose Thomas. I wanted to tell the story of a group of Yazidi refugees she had worked with in Duhok, Northern Iraq. These women had escaped from ISIS captivity, where they had been kept as slaves and traded in ISIS’ sex trafficking rings. What they had gone through was beyond awful. Hannah’s workshop aimed to give them a way of telling their stories through art and sharing it with the world.

The Yazidi women’s portraits, together with Hannah’s paintings of them, were exhibited at the Houses of Parliament. I was able to get access to film the exhibition and people’s reaction to them. The result was very positive – the exhibition sparked a conversation with the Department for International Development about finding a way to help the Yazidi women!

I entered the film into a number of competitions, including the Young Filmmakers Award, which anyone under 25 can enter. I was over the moon when I got the email that it had been shortlisted for the award!

So my husband and I booked flights to Belfast, where the screening and awards ceremony would be hosted.

At the screening of all the films that had been shortlisted, I was so impressed with the high quality of the other films that had made it this far. Many of the other documentaries were also striving to tell the stories of underrepresented people and to make a difference through art.

I came away from the award inspired by all the other brilliant young filmmakers out there, and proud to be able to describe myself as an award-nominated producer! My next effort will be to get this film shown in as many places as possible, and use it to raise awareness of the Yazidi women we featured, and all others like them.

Click to watch Painting Freedom

My first awards ceremony

Drama Reconstruction

Three days. Two nights. One country house. A lot of fun.

That’s basically what happened last week. We did a drama reconstruction shoot at a wonderful house in Suffolk; we stayed overnight in their bedrooms and filmed in their drawing room, dining room, library, and another couple of bedrooms. I was responsible for the costumes, which involved a lot of trying on Victorian dresses and working out which to put on first, the petticoat or the corset. Then there was advising the art department on props, a last-minute dash to find a Queen Victoria costume and a fiddly time learning how to tie ghillie brogues (I failed and pinned them into place).

But it all worked out in the end! Even though we were shooting drama, the atmosphere had a very ‘documentary’ feel about it: everyone chipped in, helped each other, made suggestions, found solutions, and although we were all tired by the end, it felt more like the end of an active holiday than a shoot.

I loved the whole experience, and I think the footage looks pretty good too. I would love to try my hand at a bit more drama reconstruction, as I think, if done well, it can really bring a documentary to life. Let’s see what the next job holds!

Drama Reconstruction