The Future is Short Form

For the last six months, I’ve been working on History Channel’s new docu-drama series Jesus: His Life. To accompany the series, we’ve also made little short form films, which act either as summaries of the episodes or to draw out a really interesting fact from the episode and explore it further. It got me thinking about the prevalence of short form documentaries and whether that’s the future of factual programming…

I consume most of my short form docs on social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. I love the BBC’s short form docs on Instagram, and I recently came across 60 Second Docs. I actually love the idea that I can learn something new and interesting as I’m scrolling through pics of my friend’s holidays, political polemics or blog posts.

I realise that this is very revealing of my millenial mindset. I’m a classic case: I only sit down and actually watch TV maybe once or twice a week, and then it would be something like a comedy or a drama, something to entertain me when I’m tired in the evenings. But when I’m on the bus in the mornings, or having a break at lunchtime, or waiting to meet a friend, then I relish the chance to catch up with my friends AND see lots of new content at the same time.

And there are hundreds of thousands of me, all digitally literate, all socially aware, and crying out for interesting content. I’m so pleased to see that more and more broadcasters are realising this and delivering short form content for all platforms.

That said, I think there will always be a place for long form content. Nothing quite compares to taking the time to follow a character on a real life journey of discovery that changes them forever and has a deep impact on the viewer. All the game-changing landmark documentaries have been ones that took their time, and were worth it: Making a Murderer, Blackfish, even Blue Planet.

So while I’m pleased to see the rise of short form content, I think there’s room for both short form and long form. At the end of the day, a varied diet is always the healthiest!

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The Future is Short Form

When the Tables are Turned

As you may have already gathered from my previous blog posts, networking is an important part of working in TV. I’ve done a fair amount of trying to make a good impression on important people in the industry, and I know I’ve got plenty more networking to do! But recently I’ve found that the tables have turned: I’m now being asked for advice by new entrants into the industry.

Being on the other side of the proverbial table has given me a whole new perspective on how best to go about networking meetings, and I’d love to share my new insights with you.

First off, do your homework. At the very least, Google the person you’re meeting beforehand. Don’t ask them to recite their CV, and don’t recite yours. Come with a very specific question, preferably one you already know they are particularly well-equipped to answer. Most people are happy to help you, but if you don’t tell them what exactly you want help with, then they can’t help you.

The nicest meetings I’ve had with new entrants have been the ones where there seemed to be no clear agenda, just the opportunity to develop a professional friendship, share opinions and interests, and have a fun and interesting conversation. I’ve come away from those chats feeling genuinely happy, and have actively thought of ways to promote that person or recommend them to others, without feeling obliged to do so.

I hope that helps any readers have a more relaxed approach to your next industry ‘chat’ – I know I’ll certainly go to mine with a different outlook!

When the Tables are Turned

Grierson DocLab

Attention all young people who want to break into TV! Applications are open for the Grierson DocLab scheme, and it’s well worth applying.

I always found it so hard to find opportunities like this when I was looking into working in TV. All my friends who were applying for graduate schemes could go to a website, find out the application date, read the application guidelines, prepare their questions, sign up for email reminders etc. But the trouble with TV schemes is that there are different ones for different genres, the application dates change, there’s often no regularly updated website or permanent contact.

So every time I come across a great opportunity, I’m going to post it on here so that you guys can find them more easily. Today’s case study is the Grierson DocLab, which is for people who are passionate about making documentaries, are 18-25 and who have not yet had paid employment in factual TV.

This is ideal if you’re in your last year of university or school and want to start working in TV in 2020. Grierson DocLab offer some really amazing opportunities, and have partnered with some fantastic production companies, like Nutopia (where I’m working now).

So what are you waiting for?! Read the guidelines and apply here: https://griersontrust.org/outreach/doclab-2019/

Grierson DocLab

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. 

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