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How to Find the Story in Your Documentary

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    Finding the right angle on a story can be as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. However, knowing your limitations and some factors that affect their potential can help you to find a story angle that is achievable and interesting.

    Video Transcript


    There is no doubt that one of the hardest things in storytelling is knowing which one to tell. Since there are literally thousands of potential stories all around us, finding a new and exciting angle in one is the main ingredient in making a documentary that appeals to a large audience.

    Though you may already have a compelling subject for a documentary, finding where the best and most intriguing story lies can seem difficult and fleeting. However, there are some important factors which can help you to quickly determine which story to tell in your documentary. These factors include limitations like location access, budget, resources, and time; as well as research such as looking at existing projects, and determining audience type, and story timeliness.

    Our world is full of limitations. From forces of nature to distance and time, the world has many factors that limit what we can do. In the same way, documentaries also have limitations such as access to locations, budget, resources and time that every documentarian needs to consider. Even so, with a strong will and smart decision making, almost any limitation can be overcome.

    The first limitation to consider is whether or not you will be able to get access to locations in which the story needs to be told. In the documentary Encounters at the End of the World, director Warner Herzog attempts to capture the strange life and beauty of people living in one of the coldest places on earth, Antarctica. In order to do this though, he had to find a military plane that would take both his crew and his gear out to the remoteness of Antarctica. For some, going to Antarctica would be too expensive and logistically difficult. However with persistence and a friendly relationship with those in charge of granting permission for this location, Warner Herzog was able to realize his dream of capturing activities at the end of the world. At the same time, not having access to locations can become part of a story as well. In the documentary The Cove, director Louie Psimoyos shows how his group of activists are denied access to the beaches of Taiji where fishermen are catching and killing dolphins. This denial helps the director to give the audience a sense of wrongdoing on the part of the fishing business in the city and sets up the main tension for the story.

    Another important limitation to look at is the amount of money that can be raised for the budget. Documentaries such as Earth which was sponsored by both the Discovery Channel and the BBC, have large budgets that allow them to get great footage of the animals they are featuring as well as an excellent narrator and musical score to intensify the emotion of the activities on screen. However, great documentaries can even be made on small budgets. The documentary Surfwise was made on a budget of only $10,000 due to the amount of stock video and pictures that were available to it's director, By using the stock footage, the director was able to get the most out of what he had.

    Picture, audio, and video resources are another important limitation to be aware of in documentary storytelling. For Ken Burns' documentary, the Civil War, Burns ran into a problem of not having pictures to represent the writers who were featured in the series. As a result, he was forced to sometimes use pictures of anonymous people to represent the writers. A huge advantage that Ken Burns had was that most of his pictures were copyright free. In reality, many archival resources can be protected, and as such could end up costing you a lot of money. As such, it is always a good idea to make sure that you include extra money in the budget for stock resources.
    (d)Time - The last limitation to consider is if you have the required amount of time to make a documentary. As an example, Spellbound, a documentary that follows a number of contestants as they make their way to the national spelling bee, would take a long time to shoot and edit as the time it takes to go from local to national spelling bee takes several months and requires a lot of footage. Whereas a documentary like Capturing the Friedman's uses archival footage of a family to tell the story and as such does not take nearly as much time to gather.

    It is true that limitations can determine whether or not a documentary can be done but a little bit of research into your subject and audience type is the only way to determine which is the most captivating angle to take.

    One of the first things any documentarian should do is to be aware of documentaries that are similar to the subject they hope to capture. If there are none, the documentary has a good chance of getting funded. If there are some, it is still possible to look at the event or subject differently and thus, have an original story to tell. For instance the story of Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, had already been told by various news organizations and even in a previous documentary. However, the director of the film, Werner Herzog, told a different story about Treadwell where he focused more on Treadwell's personality rather than his tragic end.

    Another factor of great importance is to decide who your audience is going to be. A documentary that is shown on public television will be going out to a vastly different audience than one shown in film festivals. As such, deciding on an audience type can shape the pacing, music, interview subjects, and message of your documentary.

    Lastly, it is also a good idea to make sure that your documentary can be done in a timely manner that will keep your subject relevant. Some subjects such as those found in most of Ken Burns' historical films, aren't under tight time constraints. However, contemporary topics such as those found in Standard Operating Procedure, necessitate a faster completion before the subject becomes out of date in your audience's mind. If you want to be more meticulous about facts in your documentary and don't want to feel rushed, it may be better to pick a story that doesn't lose relevancy over time.

    Finding the story in your documentary can sometimes resemble finding a needle in a haystack. Nonetheless, by knowing your limitations, and deciding on a number of research factors, you can easily narrow down your story options to just a few captivating possibilities.