Paradoxical title, many might think! But it’s not just dramas and sitcoms that need a script. All productions do, no matter how ad hoc they look. And documentaries can have a few different types of scripts, so I’m going to go through the ones I’ve come across: presenter led documentaries, and observational documentaries.
Presenter led documentaries
In this kind of documentary, the script is carefully established between director, presenter and researcher. So when I was working on the Mary Beard series, I did the research on the topics for the episode, talked over my research with the director and he would formulate it into a script, coupling what we would see in the visuals with what Mary would say. Mary would then look at the script, give her comments – but once the script was finalised, she would follow it. What she said, as the presenter leading the documentary, would be pre-established.
This kind of documentary requires a strong relationship and strong lines of communication between all three contributors to the script. Because what’s written will most likely end up in the final cut, this script has to explain clearly any and all the information that’s supposed to be imparted in the documentary. Here, what is SEEN supports what is SAID.
Even though you’re supposed to be the ‘fly on the wall’ in this kind of documentary, there still needs to be a script. For the series I’m currently working on with Glasshead Productions, I’ve written out story arcs for each episode. These outline what we would like to see, the people we want to interview and what it would be great if they said. So it’s all very bare bones and a rough outline, but it’s necessary to establish that so that the director doesn’t go into the shoot completely blind and come back with footage we can’t possibly put together in a comprehensive way!
In an observational documentary, you get a much more natural feel for the environment you’re filming. You basically want the viewer to feel like you’re taking them to another part of the world, seeing things they would never have seen on an ordinary day. You want to take them on an adventure, an insight, without seeming intrusive on that environment. So no presenter led questions, engagement with the environment – that’s for the viewer to do, in their own home, their own head, their own time.
But there still has to be an element of structure, not just a series of pictures and soundbytes – because you can get that from Great-Auntie Frances’ holiday snaps! No, this has to be immersive and tell a story – but as though the viewer has discovered the lead characters for themselves. Which means that you have to have discovered them first, and made sure they come across well on camera! Here, what is SAID supports what is SEEN.