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!

Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary

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

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.


How to Film an Interview

My last post covered how to film a fictional narrative. But I want to specialise in factual television. So how do you create the same kind of story in an interview? And believe me, it is a story. Everything is about telling the story, as I said in one of my early blogs.

There is a formula: first of all, you set up your interviewee. Have a shot of them walking into the room, or sitting down, or getting out of their car and coming into the interview location. This introduces the viewer to the interviewee. Then conduct the interview – and it helps to have two cameras here, one on the interviewee and one on the interviewer. This is the master shot. In the master, you keep a steady mid-shot to cover everything that your interviewee says. But fifteen minutes of just someone talking is, of course, going to get a bit boring. Which is why you need to make sure you have the opportunities to cut back to the interviewer.

After you’ve done the master, then it’s time to get some ‘listening’ shots – both for the interviewee and interviewer. Not too much nodding and smiling here, it looks fake, just listening. Then a ‘non-sync wide’ (sync meaning talking), such as a mug on a table in front of the contributor in focus, with everything else blurry. Then maybe some cutaways of the environment of the interview: flowers in vases, glasses, books they might be talking about, other objects.

This may seem like a lot for just an interview, but it’s this kind of detail, this kind of building of a situation and scene that makes television different from radio, and gives it an advantage over radio.

So next time you have a coffee with someone, think about everything your eye touches on. The moment your friend walks in to the café. When you notice they’ve got a new bag. When your coffee arrives. When you look around as you’re talking and notice the couple at the next table, or the painting on the wall. That’s how you see the world – and that’s what we need to take into account when filming, so that it feels as realistic as possible, so that we can get involved in the film just as though it were our real lives. Because that is what can make factual television as absorbing as the immersive nature of fiction.

How to Film an Interview

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.

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