Friday, October 24, 2014

Telling Your Story on Film

In the last post I spent some time thinking about audience and the writing process. Assuming that because you are reading this post, you must be interested in making a film. So far in this series I have talked about thinking visually to tell a story on film and remembering to pitch the level of your script to a mass audience. That is not to say you should not write a fairly specialist documentary film, for an academic audience. Such a project would by nature be very specialized and would contain relevant technical terminology and discipline specific jargon. However, for the purposes of this blog, I will focus on projects aimed at a broad, general audience and in either case, the project should tell a story.

So with this post I want to write about the process of planing and crafting your story.  It might be helpful to explore the way my writing partner Andrew Devenny and I approached the scripting for America From the Ground Up. To begin with I created to project to tell a unique version of the American story typically taught in an undergraduate course. We initially planned to go up to the end of the American Civil War, but several compelling reasons led us to abandon that plan. Some of our reasons were artistic, and others purely practical. First and foremost, due to budgetary and time constraints we were unable to film in locations out West.  We also wanted to maintain the focus on the frontiers of Colonial New France.  I think that in the end the project was much stronger because of that decision. So in the end it was decided that the Civil War story would fit better in series 2 where we will focus on the American West, thereby allowing us to explore lesser known narratives of the Civil War in the West.

Which leads me to another point: every project has its strengths, constraints and these come in all types. Play to your strengths when you plan your story. In our case, Andrew has a PhD in History and I have one in Archaeology.  I have a background in Public History having worked in the museums sector. Andrew is a very good creative writer, better than I am at least. Our Director, Dan Bracken has significant experience in audio and video production. Dan was helpful in the process because as a non-specialist he was able to spot weaknesses in our story.  Use the strengths of your human assets.

Working through the project I learned that you write your script four times. Each at a different phase of the project.

  1. When you develop your initial story
  2. When you draft your shooting script
  3. In the field when you conduct your interviews
  4. In the editing suite

No one phase of the scripting process is more important to the final project than another. However, you have to be flexible and understand that change is necessary. In the field the people you interview will invariably give you more to work with if you ask them open ended, leading questions and allow them to reply in their own words: to tell their story if you will. As an aside, I hate scripted responses from an interviewee. Why bother with them if you already know what you want to say? But I digress... When all the filming is complete you head back to the studio and piece the video and images together. This is where the critical phase begins. It is in the studio that you craft the final narrative. Be flexible and use the best stuff you have, even if that means tweaking your story.

More next time.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

It's the Audience Stupid: why academics suck at writing

Picture the scene if you will. We focus in on the corner office in the hallowed halls of Ivory Tower University. There, in the wee hours, toils the idealistic academic. A pure soul, full of reverential love for [insert relevant division of the humanities here] who has spent decades polishing their writing skills, stripping the text of each extraneous word, honing the narrative, and crafting the critical message that will impress the editor of [insert your dream journal publication here]. Congratulations, you my learned colleague, have made it! You have achieved the pinnacle of success in your field, your every word impresses your colleagues, who, when they read your utterly brilliant piece on Some little known aspects of English Public School Ties: belonging and ritual among the elites of Upper Strata.. Well, something like that. At any rate you've made it. "OK you patronizing smart ass," -you might mutter if you have been paying attention -"what is the point?"  Well, my point is that while you are the Shizzle of Academia, you suck as a writer. Or rather, you suck as a writer of anything the general public will be interested in watching.

"Why Monty" you hiss, shocked to the core. "My sentences are so sharp they could give that chap with the razor a run for his money. My paragraphs so pointed they prick the very soul of meaning..." But, I would point out that you are not writing for your colleagues. You have decided to look beyond the ITU walls and engage a wider audience. Think back to your salad days of undergrad bliss. That idealistic era when you were struck with terror the first time had to write something longer than an essay. The first thing we were all taught was to "remember your audience." In many ways you are now at that terrifying point yet again.

Remember your audience. Remember that newspapers are written for an education level of about the 8th grade. I had a hell of a time with this. During the writing process (more on this in a future post) my friend and colleague Dan Bracken hammered me for using technical jargon and writing above my audience. Dan knows of what he speaks- he has 30+ years experience in TV and radio as well as spending time in the classroom -and he was right.  My writing for television was turgid and too academic. I had to change.

My co-writer Andrew Devenney and I set a goal of writing at a 10th grade level for the series. We failed. The best we could do was 12th grade.  In the field while filming, the crew was an invaluable asset to the writing process (sorry, more on that in a later post). I had asked them to stop me and or our interviewees anytime we veered off into jargon or academic speak. The reason the crew was so helpful was because they were an audience of non-specialists. Smart, resourceful and creative, but not experts. Just like your audience.

So I will leave it with that. Our audience is smart, creative and resourceful, but they are not the expert: we are. And we need to respect our audience. Obviously I was being annoying as hell with my patronizing tone earlier.We can't do that to our audience.  As a producer, a writer or a creator of content, we have to find a way to talk to them, not at them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dox Populi: Documentary Film and Academics (Film 101)

I should start this blog off by introducing myself. My name is Dr. Monty Dobson and I am an archaeologist, historian and documentary filmmaker.  My first documentary series for Public Television called America Form the Ground Up is being broadcast nationwide on PBS stations and in the UK on the Community Channel.  Five years ago I knew nothing about filmmaking, television distribution deals, lighting etc. I am fairly certain I could have pointed a camera in the right direction, but probably couldn't turn it on. I decided early on in the process that I wanted to execute my vision for the series. I am the Executive Producer, creator, head-writer, host and control-freak in charge. That's not to say I did it my self, far from it. Film is nothing if not a collaborative process and I am deeply indebted to a number of people who taught me, helped me and flat-out nannied me through the project. But at the end of the day, it is the project I wanted, not that of a commercial production company (a blog-worthy horror story for another day). Which leads me to the point of this blog. How and why should an academic get involved in film? You wouldn't be here reading this if you weren't at least a little film-curious.

The title of the new blog, and this post, are both a lame pun on documentary film and the 'public' voice of academics. For a number of years I have been interested in exploring the public role of intellectuals in American popular culture- even if, at the moment, the terms intellectual and popular culture seem hopelessly disparate. That being said, it does not give us license to retreat into the ivory tower, pulling the drawbridge up behind us.  On the contrary, there has never been a more urgent need on the part of the academy to reach out to the wider public and communicate the value of what we do.

While pursuing my doctoral work at The University of York I became interested in finding ways of communicating with a wider audience.  Since then, my career has leaned toward public history/public archaeology and I have spent as much time working in museums as I have in universities. One of the things I learned from working in a museum is that the public loves a good story. For that matter, so does everyone. And that is the first lesson I learned about filmmaking: tell a good story, and do it with great images, but the story is the key. No one but you wants to hear your conference paper read over pretty pictures.

So lesson 101 on the first day is this: The best tip I can give to anyone who wants to make a film is learn how to tell a story visually and the best way to do that is to break down the story telling in silent films. TCM is a great resource. Tivo a bunch of silent films and use your finely tuned research skills to learn the craft of visual storytelling. Vimeo has some great resources in its film school section. You should also check out the blog No Film School for basic info about cameras, gear and technique.

Over time I hope this project becomes a valuable resource for academic filmmakers, so bookmark it and check back often.  Follow me on twitter @lemont where I tweet about film and television producing and culture.