What I’ve been reading: Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen

This is the first book that I read cover to cover since starting my Masters program.  It is pretty easy to read and it is filled with a wealth of information describing first what documentary story telling is, through describing the structure and component of story to the nitty gritty of research, shooting and editing. I can imagine that I will consult this book over and over again when I get to the point of creating of the key things to do and when.  As a new filmmaker, having this kind of guide will be invaluable.

However, one of the things that struck me most when reading this book  that despite the first 230 pages offering awesome advice on how to do things, when reading the interviews with successful documentary filmmakers in the last third of the book is that, like everything else the rules are made to be broken.  Each filmmaker had developed their own style and way of doing things.  For example, some of the filmmakers seemed spectacularly structured ensuring that they had a 60 page treatment going into a film (James Marsh) whereas others did not like to do any advance preparation but instead live in the moment and record what they are experiencing for the first time (Kazuhiro Soda).  I think i will likely be somewhere middle road.  It is always great to be prepared, if you have the basics covered I think it likely enables you to be more spontaneous in reacting to the unexpected, but I think for me, too much preparation (like if you have memorized a powerpoint presentation word for word) makes me too rigid and possibly missing out on opportunities which are off script.

Whilst there were obvious differences in approach, the thing that came across in all of the interviews was the passion and enthusiasm that each had for their craft. Believing in the subject of a film will (hopefully) make you find a way to creatively tell that story to your audience and make them engage too. I really like the advice offered by Cara Mertes about not necessarily knowing what or how you are going to say something going into a project, but know why you want to say it and it is important to say.  That is great advice which will hopefully  stop me focussing too much on the presentation of my ideas for my Masters program and instead drive me to a great story.

I guess time will tell what my style when making films is, for now I am glad to have this great resource.

Here is a little bit of the key learning that i am taking away:

  • In order to make a good film you have to be motivated by the story, as do your audience.
  • One of the best ways to be able to convince someone on an intellectual level is to appeal to them emotionally: make them engaged in the film and care about the characters.
  • In order for emotional impact to occur, you should show, not tell.
  • Whilst documentary films do not necessarily have to abide to the the classic dramatic three act structure, they still need to be compelling, have some tension and a central theme which drives the film forwards.
  • “casting” is super important.  If someone on screen is going to help tell your story you need to think about what they are portraying. Ideally you want multiple people revealing the shades of grey within an issue rather than just black and white.
  • Totally obvious for film but think visually.  The wider scene can give context and exposition.
  • The book had some interesting information on shooting: for a interview you may want be close to the subject (not only to make them more comfortable being interviewed) but then if they move in the frame it creates a great sense of movement and stops things feeling static.  A tiny figure in a big frame could portray someone feeling overwhelmed (perhaps sometimes true for how patients feel when attending a hospital), a very close cut shot could imply someone is feeling claustrophobic. The colour of a shot can make an environment seem cold and detached, or warm and friendly.
  • Shoot with editing in mind: what types of shots do you need to get to the the story that you want to tell?
  • When editing use transcripts and paper edits to first create the rough cut of to film on paper.  This can be much easier than fiddling around with editing software and likely save time later
  • When you are getting close to editing, involve others in a screening to get their honest feedback.
  • And, as already discussed, have enthusiasm.

At the end of jetlagged week, I am a little tired, and confused about what path I will be taking forwards, but I definitely have the enthusiasm and drive. 🙂

References:

Bernard, S.C (2016, 4th edition), Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, New York, Focal Press

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2 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading: Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen

  1. Fantastic blog post Clare!
    As you know I am also reading the book at the moment and it has helped me very much to structure our documentary.
    Top 2 takeaways that you note for me were:
    – One of the best ways to be able to convince someone on an intellectual level is to appeal to them emotionally: make them engaged in the film and care about the characters.
    – In order for emotional impact to occur, you should show, not tell.

    Liked by 1 person

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