MI5? MI6? No, MIQ!

As I was writing the story arcs for each episode of this six part series, I got some advice on structure from the series producer. I had already established and written out the ‘beats’ of the storyline (segments, topics if you like, for what will be covered in the episode), and he recommended that I continue structuring the script by establishing the MIQs (Main Intentional Questions). These are the questions that each beat should answer, and if you pull together all the MIQs in an episode, you should get a good summary of the whole episode. Another thing he recommended was to find the conflict in each beat, or an overall conflict for the episode. No conflict is an instant recipe for boring telly.

Then, next to each MIQ, I would describe the scene. What we were going to see in the episode, what might be said. At this stage, what might be said was purely conjecture – the interviews would be natural, not pre-established. The characters would partly be pre-identified, partly discovered while on the shoot. So in the next column, I wrote in the characters I already knew we would see, leaving room for others we would encounter. And finally, I established the locations.

And that is the formula for planning out, as accurately as possible, the structure of an observational documentary! So remember, answer the MIQ, find the conflict, and make sure it’s really visual.

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MI5? MI6? No, MIQ!

Scriptwriting for Documentaries

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.

Observational Documentaries

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.

Scriptwriting for Documentaries

On Location

The production I’m currently working on involves shoots in six different countries. And most of my job involves setting up the logistics for the filming out there. So as I’ve been working on it, I’ve boiled down most of my organisation to a checklist of things you need to sort out when setting up a shoot abroad:

  • Flights
    • What are the best deals?
    • How much does extra baggage cost, for all the filming equipment?
    • How much would it cost to change the flights once you’ve booked them (almost inevitable!)
  • Geography
    • Where is everything/everyone you’re trying to film? If they’re all really far away from each other, you’re going to have to think about how to get between them and how much time out of your shoot days that will take.
  • Transport
    • Do you need a driver or a hire car?
    • How do you know they’re reliable?
  • Accommodation
    • Where is your crew going to stay? Does the hotel have free WiFi for communication and for ease of uploading footage?
    • Again, where is the accommodation? Is it conveniently located for what you’re planning to film?
  • What’s the weather going to be like? Any considerations we have to take into account, such as monsoon season?
  • What’s the filming itinerary?
  • What filming permits are needed?
  • What inoculations are needed?

Most of the time you’ll have a native ‘fixer’ to help you with these things, and one advantage of documentaries is they may be so invested in the value of the documentary you’re making they might do it for free, or for very little. Basically it’s like planning a ridiculously organised holiday – for someone else! If anything goes wrong, it always has a knock on financial implication, so the more carefully you can plan, the more money you save. And with TV budgets gradually getting squeezed tighter and tighter, especially for documentaries, this is becoming much, much more crucial.

On Location

No Such Thing as a Free Brunch

My phone buzzed. I checked it – I had a new follower on Twitter, yay!  I followed back, and got a DM inviting me to brunch. Well only a heathen says no to brunch, so I went along…and discovered a bit more about my mysterious follower. She is a model, dancer, actress – and campaigner who has just launched the #NOFREEWORK campaign, tackling exploitation of freelancers in the arts industries.

I volunteered to help in whatever way I could, raising awareness of the campaign. As you will know if you’ve been following my blog, I was appalled at the amount of free work I was offered, and felt I had no choice but to accept, even after I had graduated and embellished my CV with some excellent experience already.

Later in the week, I had a chat with another member of the #NOFREEWORK campaign, who explained that TV is one of the worst industries to exploit freelancers and entry level candidates. So I’ve got a few facts for you to help prevent you readers being exploited in the future. If you’re on a work experience placement that’s not part of an educational requirement, you are entitled to ask for minimum wage (some employers offer expenses – it’s up to you whether or not you accept that). If you do get offered a job after a work experience placement with the same company, I would advise you to ask to be back paid for that time of free work (that’s what I did at Zig Zag Productions).

And if you want more information or want to follow the campaign, please check out the No Free Work campaign and have a look at their website: https://thefreelancerclub.co.uk/resources/blog/post/no-free-work

No Such Thing as a Free Brunch

Paying Off

It was coming to the end of my initial three month contract with Zig Zag Productions. I’d been told from the outset they would be likely to extend me, but I’d made a note in my diary to speak to my boss about it anyway. But as fate would have it, just the week before my contract expired, and before anyone had said anything to me about an extension, a very, very exciting email plopped into my inbox.

It was from Glasshead Productions, a company I’d done a bit of development work for as a favour, as I knew the CEO and he was struggling to get some projects off the ground. Well, the project I had worked on had actually been commissioned, and he was asking me to come back and work on it full time!

Now this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It’s a series for Al Jazeera about education, which plays directly into my experience as a children’s presenter for my mum’s English language teaching materials. I had fallen in love with the project idea when I’d worked on it before and I was over the moon to be able to come back to it!

After a meeting with Glasshead Productions, a few more details about the job became clear. I was to be the series researcher, working closely with the producer to coordinate shoots across six different countries. I would be paid much more than my job at Zig Zag – and most importantly, I was able to get back into production!

However, until I started, I didn’t quite realise how very hands on this job would be. The production has a miniscule budget…which means that between myself and the producer, we cover the jobs of researcher, assistant producer, production secretary, production manager AND producer all in one! It was a lot to get my head around, and I have to admit I’ve had one of the most intense weeks in my whole life. But having said that, I love it. This is exactly what I want to do, I’m learning so much and I really feel like my skills are being used to their maximum capacity.

But there’s another twist…on Friday (bearing in mind this was three days after I’d even started the job), the producer went on holiday. It was just me. Taking over the whole project. For the next full week. And breathe…

Paying Off