This post is to go over my method as a director for planning the making of a tv documentary. I hope that there are some things in it which might be useful for you.
Everyone is different and I find it’s useful to find out how other colleagues approach the task, in order to expand my own frame of reference, find my blind spots and continue to develop my approach and learn.
Although the majority of people who trained me started off in film, the techniques I learnt still continue to work for me. This is about the structure of your work as a director and how you approach it - and now, as then, it involves planning, working to a budget, working with contributors, getting footage, organising that footage, navigating the note taking process and putting it all together in order to tell a story.
Working as a director on broadcast documentaries, you often have a clear shape of the resources you have at your disposal.
The budget, through the Producer and/or Production Manager will give you a view on how many days you can shoot, how long the edit will be, whether you can hire a second cameraperson or a soundperson for larger set-ups, how much travel you can afford, what kind of gear you will get to use and how much you will get to spend on your lunch before it comes out of your own pocket. (£6 for lunch and £16 for dinner, for freelancers working for the BBC.)
Part of your job is to argue with the producer in order to get the resources you need to make as good a programme as you can. Sometimes you won’t get anywhere but it is worth keeping this as a standing point on your agenda. If you do manage to get more resources don’t squander them, producers know pretty well when something you ask for will add value to what you see on the screen.
Budgets are tight and commissioning rounds are competitive, so it’s worth bearing in mind that a producer, or the owner of a Production Company has to balance creating a good product with paying the bills, keeping the client happy and staying in business. So part of your job is to support the company in these aims as well as delivering your own vision.
I guess what I’m getting at is that this is a large responsibility, which can affect a company’s relationships with Channels and Commissioning Editors, as well as their bottom line. Do not, as a colleague of mine did once, hire a helicopter without telling anyone. Do not set things on fire without any fire extinguishers. (This isn’t a metaphor.)
This is one of the reasons that I think that directors should know what they’re going to film when they go out on location, they should know roughly where what they're going to film fits into the story, what they need to get from contributors and what cover they need so that their shots can be cut together.
The other reason is that having a plan means you don’t end up on day one in the edit, with a hundred hours of footage, wondering where to start.
You have colleagues working on it who are deserving of you having an idea of what goes where. It is no fun for an editor to sit there wondering how on earth it’s all going to go together, or trying to make sequences when you haven’t got any footage for cover. One editor I know had to try and cut something out of an hour long close-up shot of an appendix operation. No close-ups, no surgeons’ faces, scalpels, machines, wide shots of the operating room. Don’t be the person who comes back to the edit with just a shot of an appendix.
Cover is an important concept - and although I’m fully aware that there are times when cover isn’t needed ie YouTube films where you can jump cut a person talking to camera multiple times without any shots over it, it’s going to feel pretty light if you haven’t thought of this side of the visuals. And anyway, it's one of the fun bits. So if you’re doing an interview, think ‘what cover do I have for this?’ and ‘where does this interview fit into my sequence?’ We’ll talk more about sequences in a following post.
The third thing is that if you can create good programs, within budget, keeping contributors and crew happy, keeping the production company and funders happy, you will get more work. People will come to you because you are a safe pair of hands. How are you going to achieve all of this then? By having a plan.
You will have a plan and can share that plan with people. You won’t just wander out for a day of filming and ‘see what you get’, you are a professional television director who delivers. You, have a plan.
Of course, I’ve worked with people who don’t have a plan and some of them do great documentaries and are great to work with. We must always allow for serendipity and the act of creation in the moment, the option to change your mind and pivot, if you discover something which casts a different light on your story. With everything that’s riding on it, though, I’d suggest creating a plan.
This plan is also a form of protection for yourself. You can show it to your producer at different stages of the process and they can sign off on it. So when they’re sitting in the edit giving you notes, like “I was hoping there would be kangaroos in it”, you can say “we didn’t have that in the plan we agreed. Neither was flying to Australia or getting archive of kangaroos in the plan.
They'll say "I mentioned it when we were in Starbucks once." And you'll point to the wall, and there on the wall is a four square metre copy of the plan, with their signature at the bottom.
And the producer will say something like… “but I just really like kangaroos.” And then you’ll gently remind them that this is a program about penguins.
It’s easy to readjust your plan or change it totally in light of what you're learning through the process. But if you have no plan, and then add in a lot of wonderful potential directions and additional information, you can get lost in the woods pretty quickly and all your hear is the distant muttering of editors making tea for themselves and comparing other horror stories, another one of which you have furnished for them.
I’ve done this myself, of course. I was lucky to work with camerapeople who knew their craft, they’d go off and get everything that was needed to bolt something together and I wouldn’t have to talk to them for an hour while they did that. I once passed the whole day at a banquet in a Polynesian village and didn’t really say anything to the cameraman. But that was luck on my part.
So, there’s a lot riding on you knowing what you need and how you’re going to get it, so that brings us back to the plan.
How do you start planning it all? It’s overwhelming. What if I miss something really important? What abut this part of the story, or this part? So anyway, here are some of the things I think of.
Initially I think of the broad overview. It might be one of your own ideas, but it’s also likely that you’ve been given a brief and a subject. This is the time to start asking questions, tha main one being - what’s the story?
What’s interesting? Who is interesting? Is there conflict? Is it entertaining? Where’s the emotional centre of the story? Is it a single contributor? Or is it story you’re telling through a number of contributors?
If I have different contributors, which parts of the story will each of them tell? Will they appear at different times throughout? Or will they just appear for a certain block or story point?
What’s the timeline? Do I tell this linearly or can I move back and forth through time as the story demands it? The theatre director Vicky Featherstone told me once about two different ways of approaching this - do you tell the events sequentially, or do you order the timeline of events as the story needs it?
If you have a main contributor, what is their emotional journey? What do they want and what is stopping them getting it? Is there a narrative shape to their journey or story? Where do we meet them? This is basic story shape.
Has it all happened and you’re telling it looking back, or are you moving through time with them, filming them and watching (hoping) that the story unfolds and that you can get a bit of narrative shape to it.
What kind of shape? Again, that’s an open question and part of the fun. Will it be in three or five acts, with lots of little surprises followed by a big surprise (as Joan Littlewood put it when asked what acts were.) Or is the strength of personality of your character so magnetic, that we’re happy to watch them no matter what.
You can see already how the mind map is starting to grow. All your answers will be found in the interrogation.
Write it all down, all your ideas, no matter how you feel about them at this stage. Don't judge your ideas. Make a mind map, how do things connect? Show the different story elements, how do they move from point A to point B and so on?
Get large pieces of paper and draw the relationships between things.
You also have to balance these artistic questions with practical ones. When will this go out on the telly? Who is the channel and what are they looking for? What audience is it for? When does it need to be finished?
As you question more, so the shape comes. These are example questions, you will of course come up with the questions you need to ask yourself for your particular idea,
This is a good book to read during this stage of the process:
"Imagining Reality - The Faber Book of Documentary" by Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins. (This is a picture of the book.)
In the follow-on post, will write about the shoot, filming sequences, working with contributors, the edit… and a few other things.
Thanks for reading!