Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary

In order to make sure that the shooting style is consistent across the series (we’re using four different directors spread across the eight episodes!), the Series Director asked me to find examples of different scenes that you would find in a typical documentary. I realised that I had essentially compiled a list of what you need to shoot to make a high-end presenter-led documentary! So here they are – and look out for each one next time you watch factual TV…

  1. The Two-Way Interview. This is where the presenter introduces and then interviews someone, such as an expert or witness. Check out my blog post ‘How to Film an Interview’ for more on that.
  2. The Talking Head Interview. This is just a mid-shot of an expert making a relevant point, with a ‘name tag’ appearing at the bottom of the screen.
  3. Two Way Archaeological Investigation. The presenter is taken around an archaeological site, or shown an object of interest, while a resident expert explains the significance of that object or place.
  4. Walking Piece to Camera (PTC) Exploring a Site. This is where the presenter explores a site or shows an object and explains it by themselves.
  5. Walking PTC Storytelling. The presenter walks through a neutral or themed location (e.g. along a path, in front of some ancient-looking columns, down a corridor flanked by statues etc.) while they tell a part of the story of the documentary.
  6. Static PTC. The presenter is sitting down, or standing still, telling us another part of the story, or making an important point.
  7. Presenter on a Journey. This is quite self-explanatory – short sequences of the presenter in a car, on a boat, in a helicopter, cycling – whatever you like – to show them on their way from one location to another. This is particularly important if your documentary takes you to locations all around the world – although it’s perfectly fine to snap from the presenter in front of the Parthenon to a sewer in Tunisia, sometimes it can feel like a sudden and disjointed transition. This helps to smooth it out, and allows for some explanatory narration over the scenic shot.
  8. Wallpaper Shots. These are non-sync (not talking) shots of the presenter walking along, or big sweeping landscape shots, or aerial drone footage, or close-ups (cutaways) of objects, flowers, road signs, whatever you need to fill in some narration time, or just some contemplating time in your documentary. Remember, you can never have too many of these!

The last two in this checklist are often called B-roll. Sometimes they’re shot by a different cameraman or director, and you can have a bit more fun with these – make them pretty, artistic, effective. They’re just as important for building the story as the talking shots – because, as we saw in a previous blog, one image can speak a thousand words.

I’m thinking of making a few of my own short films over the next year, so I’ll make sure I capture these eight different types of sequences when I’m shooting them!

Advertisements
Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary

Drama Queen

I’m now working on a docu-drama, an eight-part series about ancient Rome. This is the first docu-drama I’ve worked on, and it’s really interesting to see how the teams of directors and producers (four teams of two, each allocated two episodes) are working to combine the elements of documentary and drama to effectively tell the story of the Roman Empire. Along the way, I’m learning how drama is written, and I’ll share a few of my discoveries with you.

One advantage of dramatizing parts of history is to bring the complex politics to life. The history of Rome wasn’t all epic battles and gladiators: the key moments of change usually involved covert conversations in darkened corridors, House-of-Cards-style. These are pretty boring to describe or to read about, but dramatize them and you’ve got yourself an edge-of-your-seat political thriller!

One of my tasks as the series researcher is to provide the Drama Producer with character briefs for the casting. This means that I get to profile these incredible figures of ancient history in a way that the actor can embody them, understand their personality and their motivations, and bring these people back to life. It’s a great privilege, and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – my previous experience in directing theatre productions has come in useful too! I find that when I read about the leaders and key figures in history, I can vividly imagine what they were like – little details here and there that we get from their biographies make them jump off the page.

But I’ve been particularly impressed by how the producers and directors are so keen on historical accuracy. It’s easy to get carried away with the sensationalism of the story – but each drama sequence has been supported by and based on at least one reliable historical source. The directors are particularly keen to put words in the mouths of their historical characters that sound believable – I’ve been looking up extracts of Seneca’s speeches so that the director can write ‘in the voice of Seneca’. I’m also working with the props department to make sure that each of the key props in the series are historically accurate – for example, that the drinking cups are typical of status and period.

All these details, coupled with the new archaeological discoveries that we’re exploring in the documentary sections of the series, are bringing Ancient Rome back to life. I’m exploring aspects of Roman life that I never covered in my degree, and what will be an intriguing and informative journey for our Channel 5 audience has certainly been that way for me. I’m so happy to be a part of this project – and I can’t wait for filming to start!

Drama Queen

Tools to Build the Story

Windfall Films is one of those lovely production companies where they nurture their employees and try to provide opportunities for them to upskill. So they organised a camera training workshop run by the Indie Training Fund, which offers all sorts of courses and bursaries for all kinds of skills you might need in the TV industry.

We got trained on a PXW-200 – the model with which Sony are replacing their PMW-200. At the higher end, both Canon and Sony cameras do pretty much the same thing, but the buttons are in different places. So after mastering the buttons and what everything meant on the display screen, it was time to put our theoretical knowledge into practice!

It was a real treat being taught by a highly experienced DoP (Director of Photography). He followed us around as we worked with the cameras, giving us tips and tricks that would help the final product look its best.

But I think the most important thing I’ll take away from that workshop is a clear understanding of how technology and story come together when making great TV and film. The composition, lighting, spacing, angle and focus of a shot can tell far more than a thousand words when you’re building up your story, so when you’re filming, it’s important to know which different cameras have different advantages, and what the technical abilities of the cameras can do to help you build a scene.

Tools to Build the Story

The Long Arm of…Education

Education in Kenya’s Prisons

I was heavily involved with this film – I remember like it was yesterday the long Skypes over dodgy WiFi with our contributors in Kenya, the panicked emails with the fixer who was supposed to get our permissions sorted for us, the heart-stopping moment when the Kenyan embassy tried to confiscate the Director’s passport…so it’s wonderful to see all that work emerge as a moving, poignant film!

The African Prisons Project, run by the enigmatic Alexander McLean, works to educate the inmates of Kenya’s overcrowded prisons, many of whom are illiterate. They’ll teach them through from primary to Higher Education – some even graduate with a Law Degree from the University of London! Along the way, they learn how to defend themselves in court, to stand up against injustice and to help out their inmates and families. This project really is life-changing.

Link

The Day They Came to Me

It was a relatively unremarkable day halfway through January, and things at Windfall were going well. I was working away on some research for a few new science documentary ideas, comfortable in my job and fairly sure that Windfall would want to keep me on. I was planning to ask to be set to work on a production, as I felt I needed a bit more action than the regularity of development.

But with just one email, that all changed. It was from a production company with a very good reputation, one I saw as a giant of factual film-making. And they asked me if I might be interested in working on an eight-part drama-doc about Ancient Rome!

A phone call established that it would be a six-month contract, the longest I’ve ever had, and that I would be working with one of my favourite presenters, Bettany Hughes, and a colleague from my first ever TV job. It sounded like the dream team!

So on that bombshell, I had to go an inform my boss at Windfall that I would be moving on. As lovely as she is, I couldn’t help but come to her with a huge grin on my face and ask to leave her at the end of my contract. For me, this one email has marked a huge turning point in my Trail to TV – now, I’m not searching for the next breadcrumb along the path, rather, a whole loaf of bread has been generously tossed in my direction!

I think back to this time last year, when I was still working night shifts, still struggling to pay my bills, still desperately applying to any TV job I could find – and I’m happy and relieved. It did all pay off after all. My networking, my hard work, my attention to detail. They were worth something after all.

I’m so excited to start on this new project, and am very much looking forward to sharing the highs and lows of my first drama-doc production with all you lovely readers!

The Day They Came to Me

Educating Entrepreneurs

How Uganda is educating their young people out of poverty

Having spent months having Skypes with and writing late night emails to these amazing people in Uganda, it feels so rewarding to finally see them in action!

This episode is about Educate!, an American organisation that helps tackle the 70% unemployment statistic in Uganda by teaching its young people how to start their own businesses. Its emphases are on gender equality, community support and collaboration. It seems like a fantastic initiative, not spoon-feeding help to a country in need, but rather teaching its people to help themselves.

Link

Innovation in Armenia

Armenia: Where Art Meets Technology

Technology is at the forefront of 21st century innovation. But for countries like Armenia, which have only recently gained independence from the Soviet bloc and are struggling to maintain a stable political system, let alone education system, investing in the technological education of their young people is difficult.

This is where the American-funded TUMO organisation steps in. Run by the ever-energetic Marie Lou Papazian, five of these centres offer top-of-the-range technology to students, and run workshops on how to use it. These range from robotics to rock music, and they’re all for free.

It was a pleasure and an inspiration to work with Marie Lou and the enthusiastic, hard-working team at TUMO, as well as the documentary company we used to help make the film. Armenia has a lot to offer in terms of talent and passion, but its younger generation need to be given the resources to make the most of their fantastic brains.

Link