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Documentary Production:

Documentary (interview-based, broadcast news magazine style – think 60 Minutes on CBS) Commercial Production is nearly the same flow as a Narrative.  There are nuanced differences that are SUPER important but there are not too many of them.  The additions/changes to the workflow are as follows:

Develompent:  

Check on the way into the project so that you have a reasonable belief that you will gain access to the right people/places/artifacts you need to feature.  You may learn about more along the way but usually, you are going into this type of work on a mission to make a point – often a testimonial or a story of success.  Be sure you have a shot at the goal. 

Pre-Production:

You can’t write a script before you have interviews “in-the-can” (filmed).  If you do, you will end up asking interviewees who are non-actors to act.  You also may be putting words in their mouths and causing them great discomfort. You may even accidentally set them up to lie. And if they are nice and compliant people, you may not know until it’s too late.  

Let me tell you a quick but important story on this note.  I was on set once where our project was to get career profiles for an education group to share with students.  Essentially, these were videos to help guidance counselors inspire kids about careers.  I was DP (Director of Photography) and the producer who was asking the questions was on a mission.  She knew which topics she had yet to get for her overall project and she arrived on the set with preconceived notions of what the interviewees did at work. She proceeded to ask questions and get true answers that frustrated her because they didn’t match her preconceived notions.  She pivoted to feeding lines to the interviewees.  The interviewees told her that they don’t actually do what she required them to say. Nevertheless, she coaxed them into just spitting back her version of their world (It was all men being interviewed and she was young and pretty – I don’t think I’d have gotten away with this).   

Sadly, a few bad things happened.  First, the interviewees were made to lie. Second, because of this, they were very put off by the experience which is bad juju at the very least.  Third, and likely the biggest tragedy, is the fact that kids are now viewing videos about careers and the information is false.  What a mess!

Avoiding that mess takes some diligent pre-production which MUST be done.  This pre-production work looks like this:

  1. Write an outline of where you think your script may go.  Verify it with your team and the client. Iterate quickly but don’t linger. 
  2. Call every potential interviewee and PRE-INTERVIEW them. This is not a lite task and the calls are not 5 minutes to get name spelling and home address.  Instead, these are in-depth conversations with real emotion, real stories.  This will tell you if they are articulate people. If their perspective fits your needs, you’ll know.  If it doesn’t, you may get to place them elsewhere or thank them and pass on their participation.  You will build rapport with them – and if you don’t, then you’re doing it wrong.  It’s the producer’s JOB to build as much rapport as possible.  This is because in this type of work, it is THE PRODUCER who interviews the people.  It’s also usually the producer who writes the story.  The PRODUCER IS THE DIRECTOR in this line of work. If you think you are the Director in a documentary setting, just be real with yourself and know that you’re not unless you are willing to do heavy lifting as a producer.  The roles are not able to be separated in this genre.   
  3. After pre-interviews (and copious notes from the experiences), fill out your outline with notes so that you have a detailed, annotated outline.  This will give you information you need to make notes on the needed B-roll. It will also give you a “pre-script” to run past your client to verify that the likely results of your work will pan out to their liking.  
    • B-ROLL: This is a term that I’m surprised I have not used yet but it’s a must to know.  B-roll is the supporting footage that you film to enhance a story being told.  If the head chocolatier of Hershey’s is telling about making Kisses, you better have a B-roll of a kid eating a kiss and more B-roll of molten chocolate oozing into a gooey mound of goodness.  This is your B-roll.  Interestingly, the main footage of the interview is never called A-roll.  Nobody knows why. It just isn’t a term people use. 
    • Fun Note:  Watch the show “How It’s Made” on the Discovery Channel.  The ENTIRE show is B-roll.  If you ever want to get ideas on B-roll creation and ways to deliver on it for business purposes, that’s it.  
  4. Production:
    • Actually, there are no major changes here except for the fact that oftentimes the crew size plummets.  It’s often just the Producer, DP, Grip/Gaff, Audio Tech, and PA (production assistant).  That’s it. 
    • Locations tend to be non-studio and various; not a rule but more a matter of the fact of what type of content you are focusing on. 
  5. Post-Production:
    • The big change here is right after, data is dealt with.  You don’t have an actual script yet, so you need to get to that point.  Here are the steps. 
      • Have your editor set up a timeline with ALL interviews chronologically lined up.  No editorializing.  This will be the master timeline that you render and send to a LEGAL TRANSCRIBER (the online services I use most right now are Rev.com, Temi.com and Otter.ai).  You will get a time-stamped document with every word said by the interviewer and interviewee.  This is your content to write from. 
      • The producer takes the transcript and begins to populate the Pre-Script (annotated outline) with real quotes.  He iterates until the script feels like a logical and clean flow.  This is sent to the client for review, comment, and discussion.  Revisions are done as needed before sending it into the post-production flow.  

Then the producer moves the outline over to a proper A/V style script with appropriate timestamps associated with each quote and notes on B-roll pairings. Within the AV script you’ll also begin to note needs such as B-roll pairings with specific quotes, graphics needed (which include Lower 3rds, Title Sequences, Supporting Graphics, CGI moments, and more), and Voice Over inserts. 

That’s it!  Therein lies your big difference. To basically sum it up: you don’t know what the interviewee will say on camera so you can’t really write a script, but you can pre-game it!  

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