Documentary Style Producing & Writing
by Joshua C. Pies, Producer & Writer (The SoundTank.com)
In my last article I covered writing for live action narrative and graphic videos. They are the top styles in the for-purchase church video world. You don't see too many documentaries or broadcast news style videos in the for-purchase market. I attribute it to the difference between universality and specificity. For-purchase products need to be universal in order to sell. We all celebrate Christmas – it's an easy target. Making Christmas sellable means that the content has to be as universally accessible as the manger scene. You never see a video on WorshipHouse that includes, “Christmas service at Elim Gospel Church are at 8AM and 10…”. Elim would be the only potential buyer!
This brings me to the point of this article… There are nearly infinite reasons to produce church specific content. It's content you won't EVER find for download which puts you in the producer's chair. If you want to produce a narrative with church specificity or a graphic video of the same then the writing principals in my previous article apply.
There's another style of video though that you ought to know. The documentary style of video (I came up in the business calling it “broadcast news magazine”) is a must-master style. One obvious reason is that there are testimonies that must be shared. Salvations, healings and miracles, inspirational testimonies, and even a church's calling can all be expressed in dynamic ways through this style. The problem for many a young producer is that you may be used to starting with a script, yet, in the interest of truth, you cannot.
The work flow in producing a narrative, as you may recall, I've previously defined as:
Idea – Script – Pre-production – Production – Post – Distribution.
The work flow in a doc setting flops Script and Pre-Production and separates it by Production . Here is a fairly typical documentary workflow:
Idea – Pre-production – Production – Script – Post – Distribution.
The reason we move Pre-production before Scripting is because you are working with opinions and fact in a non-fiction world. We don't get to make content up, we react to it. In Pre-production a producer operates without a script and pursues an outline instead. To that end, it's imperative that you pre-interview every interviewee to learn their stories first hand. You cannot have a full sense of what they are going to tell when the cameras are rolling unless you ask them in advance. Once you pre-interview them you can work out an informed outline of what your video will look like. In a simultaneous effort you can also create a list of interview questions which you will use in Production.
Most producers conduct the pre-interviews themselves. For this reason, the producer should be the interviewer since there's a rapport already built with the interviewee. Consider the alternative to this situation. The interviewer who is thoroughly unprepared without having built a rapport asks uninformed questions that meander and fall short. The interviewee can get confused, frustrated, and possibly even clam up. It sets a production up for a very difficult edit and most probably a mediocre or even un-viewable product. Do not forget that Pre-production still includes all of your other usual tasks of sourcing finances, gear, crew, locations, etc. Documentary style work adds to a producer's work load – it doesn't subtract. In fact, you should try to schedule in a site survey to scope out where you'll conduct your interview and even get ideas for B-roll that you might pursue. It's more work but it's important.
In Production there are important facets that I ought not go into as I am not a full time DP (director of photography). What I can tip you off to though is that there is a specific style of basic lighting – 3 Point (key, back and fill) – which is common to most interviews. There are tons of tutorials online to help you with this. Another key point, one which helps your writing and your editor immensely is, and write this down… USE 2 CAMERAS.
TIP #1: USE 2 CAMERAS! Shoot your interviews with two different focal lengths and open up space to edit out the “ums”, “ahs”, and long pauses. If you cannot access another camera then it puts greater importance on high quality B-roll. You'll need B-roll either way, but now it's even more important.
After you've captured some high quality, well informed interviews, use the information you've gathered to inspire what B-roll you shoot.
Tip #2: Shoot B-roll after you interview. This is not always possible but when it is, you'll greatly appreciate the work flow of interviewing and then capturing B-roll.
So you now have interviews and B-roll in the can. It's time to write a script. Do NOT just send your editor content and ask him to tell a good story. I've seen this method; it's really unfair to your editor and it rarely works well. The best next step in the process is to transcribe each interview. Time stamp every 30 seconds or so. You will need this to write your script.
Recall that in pre-production you wrote an outline. Odds are, you'll look back at it and see new opportunities and things that need modification. Do that now and from instinct. You were there, you conducted the interviews, you should know where things are headed. After your revision of the outline, start to fill the outline in with quotes you pick out of the transcriptions. You'll modify the outline even more as you add quotes and that's a good sign – you're working from a place of inspiration. A fair warning is due: This is a time consuming process. I suggest you brew a pot of coffee and get out your comfy slippers.
Once your outline is filled in with quotes from the transcriptions and you've tweaked the flow of your outline to tell a story – you now have a script (kinda). Since it's still in outline format it's not clean, but it is indeed a script. The next step is cleanup.
Begin an AV script (Celtx.com offers a free scripting program) and input all of your sound bites into the Audio column. Your video column is probably blank right now. What visual in your shoot can fill out your story? Start to dream – add B-roll. Add other ideas – lower 3rds, graphics, text, etc. Where you can, get specific and even add video file names with your visuals. When you add file names it mimics what is known as an EDL (Edit Decision List) and your editor will buy you a muffin (hint hint, editors). Work back and forth from Audio and Video columns, stretch your creativity and you'll eLnd up with a script in which you can be proud.
Tip #3: When you send your script to the edit suite, be sure that you send the raw transcription files in high res accompanied by a print out of the transcription. It helps the editor when he is working from your AV script and struggles to find a specific quote. Let him do some on the fly forensics instead of tracking you down to find it for him.
Documentary/Broadcast News Magazine style video is a highly creative art. It has it's rigidities due to the moral boundaries of truth telling. The beauty is in the creativity you employ within those rigidities. Now go tell a story!
Joshua C. Pies is a Producer/Writer for The SoundTank (TheSoundTank.com) and Executive Producer at C47 Film Associates. His video productions have collected numerous Silver & Bronze Telly's, CINE Golden Eagles & Special Jury Award, as well as festival wins. Josh penned the best selling “I Fought For You” for The SoundTank, available at Worshiphousemedia.com and SermonSpice.com. Contact Josh through JoshPies.com