BBC Current affairs shows are notorious for what appears a surfeit of staff. Just watch the roll call of credits and if you’re not privy to the current affairs methodology you’re allowed to ask, ‘What do all these people do?’
In current affairs, on shows I have worked on very little is left to chance. The shoot is pre-scripted, so the film’s producer, programme producer, executive producer and series editor are aware of the film’s outcome working to tight deadlines (often 10 days turn around).
This can be problematic for fresh practitioners of current and affairs, those who’ve not passed through the system, and the independently free spirited who attack their subject matter with serendipity and happenstance.
On the film on the left, we had a good idea what would emerge, so the film was visualised before the shoot.
In the case of serendipity and happenstance, Cinema Verite is a container for the chance-happening. The filmmaker may have a general outline, buoyed by conflict or precedent, but the film evolves around a series of construal events. In Claiming the Real, which is a must read for students Professor Brian Winston talks about the process of Robert Drew fashioning his films from realms of rushes — not an easy process.
Back in the edit room, a skilled editor working with the filmmaker attempts to piece together a structure. This is how the editor earns her keep, but it can be an arduous and time consuming process.
Commercial filmmaking and pre-shoot
In the commercial world of current affairs and docs, foresight and behaviour science play various roles to shape what’s perceived to be the film proper.
The pre-shoot script serves an important purpose. It ensures the filmmaker has thought critically about the film and has anticipated the possibilities of ‘sods law’. If it can go wrong it will, as well as getting the best out of your subjects.
For instance, on a documentary made for BBC Radio 4, my producer and I spoke about how we would confront our interviewees, and where best to interview them. True to form, interviewing them just before they went to bed produced some of the most candid discussions and raw behaviour I have experienced: one got angry with me, the other cried.
Pre-thinking for the pre-shoot script is the equivalent of an athlete, a bob sleigher or hurdler, expressively mind-mapping the bends and curves in front of them before their run.
The pre-shoot script emerges from a thorough amount of research from the idea. At television production meetings you’ll often find the designate researcher armed with a notebook capable of answering every potential eventuality.
Inevitably, the pre-shoot script can lead to criticism, particularly with TV News in that the story is written before the journalist leaves the office. But at best, it’s a true account of what you’re pursuing or at worst should be a framework.
The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen spoke eloquently about this at a BBC conference in which he hung up on the editor who thousands of miles away could not possibly understand what was happening in the field to direct the BBC’s multiple award winning Middle-East Correspondent.
With the appropriate research before hand this shouldn’t be a problem. The pre-shoot emerges from the research, but when the story changes in the field, the pre-shoot should accordingly.
Overcoming the problems withe digital age
An achilles of the digital age in which tools e.g. iPhone are readily accessible and production training largely consists of skills rather than what educationists refer to as epistemology (knowledge, philosophy and experience) is the gradual erosion of pre-cognitive and cog thinking.
As a doc maker who grew up through the system and now trains and lectures Masters students, the most difficult aspect for newcomers to grasp is the discipline of pre-thinking.
So here’s a short guide to help you in your iPhone, DSLR, or Canon shooting. Yes, it’s not the equipment per se, but the knowledge of doc making that also matters.
- After the pitch — discuss with your supervisor/producer your intentions.
- Carry out the requisite research that will hold together the type of doc you’re making.
- Map out a bullet point plan. This will force you to think through its structure. It also allows easily accessible intervention of your structure and enables an expert ( producer/supervisor) to make key suggestions
- Write out the pre-shoot following the 3 or 4 grid format to show how your structure ties together with voice over and scenes. Be aware this more detailed process often yields ‘closed knowledge’. It’s the equivalent of a thesis. You become an expert on the subject ( not the process) so in order to assist your team, show them how the bullet structure has changed and reference the overall pre-shoot script. To than end the bullet structure for those of you versed in dissertation writing is the same as the Table of Contents. It gives clarity to the structure.
- Film the events accordingly. If your research is thorough, there should not be sizeable changes.
- Revise the form structure after a shoot. Is it still in place? Always have the doc, neatly typed out and up to date. If the fonts and paragraphs are inconsistent this acts as an inertia to reading and enjoying the script by a third party.
- While in the field there are likely to be changes, so be aware how that may alter your film’s tone and structure. Weigh up its seriousness. If the changes are profound consult your supervisor/ producer.
- Collaborate with others. Perhaps the most damaging fallacy of digital is that self-knowledge negates sharing and critiquing.
- Plan a detailed diary that you share with your team so you all know each other’s working times.
- Use google docs — to share data. But have your print offs ready for the meetings and submissions.
Pre-shoot scripts emerge from interrogating your subject matter before it’s shot. However, the more experienced you are the more you’re find that you can create scripts with various arcs, or otherwise as my PhD thesis showed, some very skilled doc makers can rebuild and retain a structure that changes dynamically. I’ll speak about this process in the next post.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah lectures in advance story form as part of his research. He lectures on the MA docs at the University of Westminster and is a leading expert on cinema journalism and video, which includes using an array of cameras. He’s worked for the BBC and Channel 4 on his 25 year media career.