“In our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities of film and video, I think we’ve partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it’s time to renew our romance with the word.” -Steven Spielberg
One of the most fearsome sights in the world is the blank page.
Acres of empty space, waiting to be filled with brilliant ideas representing our loftiest thoughts, our innermost demons. And so we place them there, and there they lie. Waiting for acceptance, for accolades of praise, for the occasional, inevitable avalanche of devastating criticism.
Creating a script can be a bittersweet experience. We experience joy when we’re lit with ideas. We labor through the writing, feel relief at completion, with much trepidation present it to the world.
The script is a blueprint, a plan expressing the creator’s vision. Without a script, a film or video will likely end up a series of sequences with little motivation.
Often videomakers, confusing camera with pen, shoot and edit blindly, believing a cohesive, brilliant, entertaining visual sensation can somehow, magically, be achieved.
Not to be. For it’s a rare individual who can make something from nothing.
Both Sides Now
But how, one might wonder, can a documentary be scripted when the shots are unknown? Begin with research, the documentarian’s best friend. Some of the hardest work takes place long before tape rolls through the camera.
In a documentary about U.S. debate over Panamanian control of the Panama Canal, I wished to present both sides without bias. My first step was researching political, historic, geographic and economic issues. Consultants provided information, so did U.S. Senators, Panamanian representatives in this country and Panama, Americans living in the Canal Zone, Panamanian citizens and Canal workers.
I decided to stricture the film thusly: narration would explore the history of Panama, bridge certain portions of the film and sum up at the end. The bulk of the dialogue would come from the participants. Visually, I would cut from pro to con, giving each side equal time. Each person who agreed to appear on camera received a set of questions designed to elicit specific responses.
I hired a crew in New York to record an interview with Panama’s U.N. Ambassador. The director had the questions along with a description of how the production should look. I travelled to Washington, where I directed a local two-person crew in interviews with members of the Senate and the Panamanian Ambassador to the U.S.
The interviews were later transcribed and, after careful review, broken into segments which related the story I wanted to tell. I next took a camera operator to Panama, where I ran sound, directed and interviewed individuals according to my original outline.
By the time the project was shot, I had a complete script. Historical footage and stills opened the film beneath a short narration. The production then segued into modem Panama, where the pro and con debate ensued. Participants were seen briefly, with corresponding action footage illustrating their comments. The end came with a narrative summing up.
During the shoot I discovered powerful visuals which were incorporated into the work. No outline or script is caned in granite. Moviemakers have to take advantage when opportunities arise.
Pick Up the Pieces
What happens if footage is shot before the production is scripted or outlined?
It’s not unusual for documentaries to be written to footage that already exists; this sort of thing appears on television regularly.
Start with the knowledge that most programs are thematic, with a cohesive beginning, middle and end. First look critically at all the footage, decide what should be said.
Break down the footage and play with the pieces. Before computers, we used index cards. Some of us used the “lay-it-out-on-the-floor” technique, others the “pin-them-on-the-wall” method.
Today neither is necessary: all that juggling can be accomplished via computer.
Put the pieces together, discarding as much footage as you keep. Use pieces belonging to one scene in another. Video gives you the ability to manipulate time and space in order to tell a story.
In his Poetics, Aristotle wrote, “a likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” We can provide essential truth, or merely flicts. Facts often give only surface details.
Essential truths explore wider issues within the context of a story.
Facts ought to be placed against broader concepts. Many times, the big picture is best told using stories we can identify with personally.
Pick a point of view and stick with it. As a scriptwriter yourjob is to make the audience feel what it’s like to be inside the character.
Writing the World
Making creative use of the camcorder takes a great deal of thought, talent and energy.
A still camera in hand doesn’t make Ansel Adams. Pen alone won’t produce Moby Dick. And turning on a motion picture camera won’t make you John Huston.
Before producers can plan, directors auteur, actors emote, or distributors deal, there must first be a story. The writer is the prime creator. Everybody else functions as recreators.
Writers have the original vision. They create new worlds, and imbue those worlds with laws, gods, people and machines.
Writers create a mythical planet from which a child escapes to Earth able to “leap tall buildings at a single bound.” Writers send spaceships to the heart of the sun, walk obsessed detectives through the heart of New York. They bring lovers together on the streets of a never-never Las Vegas where fantasy blends with reality.
A few writers begin with an idea and let it carry them as far as possible. Most outline their stories carefully to determine the beginning, middle and end. Outlines provide answers to holes and inconsistences. Many writers develop character biographies before a story is written. These elements may find their way into the script and become part of the narrative.
Outlines and biographies aren’t absolutes. The creative process evolves. Imagination ought to allow for surprises along the way. Every world operates by its own set of rules.
Most screenplays embrace the three act structure. The first act sets up the conflict. The second introduces conflict, the third provides resolution.
The most common conflicts are person vs. person, person vs. nature and person vs. self. Almost all stories fall into one of these three categories.
The three-act structure works with fiction as well as documentaries. While the unexpected makes stories fascinating, interesting, intriguing and sometimes unforgettable, twists should motivate from within the story. They shouldn’t be dropped in for convenience to solve unanticipated problems. Surprises have to make sense.
Get alternate viewpoints. I work closely with a good friend who’s a fine director and writer. We trade material back and forth in order to glean fresh, objective insights.
Success in video requires patience, perseverance, attention to detail and talent. Talent is a must to achieve a masterpiece, but without the other elements talent often goes nowhere.
Michael Halperin writes for television.