Documentary filmmaking is a glorious endeavor imho, so I’m eternally grateful I was able to work making documentaries for so many years. Last night I re watched a show I did way back in 1985 and want to share it with you.
If I do say so myself, they don’t make ’em like they used to! Not because they can’t. Because they won’t.
- Television news has deteriorated significantly over the decades and there is ZERO CHANCE a local tv station would produce shows like the Documentary Unit of the WSMV TV newsroom did back when I was lucky enough to work there. This show on severe head trauma was one of the larger, but still routine projects for us, not an anomaly at all.
How to Make a Video Documentary
Mending Shattered Minds was the name I chose for a one-hour documentary on the effects of severe head trauma. It seemed like the perfect title, but watch the show and you be the judge. 🙂
I produced, wrote, and edited the show, plus shot about half of it.
We profiled three patients at different stages in recovery. All were under age 20 and had barely survived horrendous car wrecks.
Profiling people who have experienced the story you are trying to tell is one of the best ways to tell a story using video. It is the essence of what we did as a documentary production unit. Real people. Real stories, told in depth.
Here in this post, I’ll lay out the basic process of how a show like this is put together. If you can get past laughing at the 1985 graphics and cheesy royalty free music, you can see lots of excellent, classic video storytelling in this show.
Sequences galore with multi-angled matched cuts, all shot on the fly as it happened, heavy on the nat sound.
The show also used a total of 14 interviews, which included family, caregivers, medical experts, and one of the patients. For a complete look at your topic, I think it’s important to interview as many people as you can who are directly involved and affected by the situation in one way or another.
Showing all the different perspectives is often where journalism flourishes. A brother is going to look at a situation differently from a mom, which is different from the doctor. A well-rounded show weaves together multiple perspectives from every conceivable angle. Since this is a one-hour show, it helped to have so many of interviews.
In documentary making, the interviews form the framework for your show, so getting warm, revealing interviews is critical. It’s not always easy with the hot lights and intimidating cameras. Some people are better at it than others. When the camera rolls, do your best to make the subject feel as comfortable as possible. After interviewing thousands of people over the years, I guarantee the subject’s comfort level is the #1 important thing to getting a good interview. I tried to make them forget the camera was even there.
Where Do You Start When Makes a Documentary Video?
First is deciding on your topic, obviously. This particular show came out of another documentary I had made a year earlier on the most fascinating organ in the human body, the brain. Science nerd that I am, I began reading about how the brain is central to our behavior and moods in high school. It’s still one of my favorite subjects.
In the first show, we traveled to the NIMH and interviewed cutting edge brain scientists, which I found thrilling. The novice video storyteller in me learned to admit that interviews of scientists are almost always snoozers, at least judging by what the mass audience wants to watch.
Journalism outlets often assign reporters to speciality topics, which is called covering a beat. You could be on the crime beat, education beat, medical beat, or consumer beat. I was on the Brain Beat. Bless my boss at the time for allowing such an unusual situation to exist in the vast wasteland known as TV news.
The more you explore your beat, meeting more people with different experiences, the more well-rounded your reporting will be.
It was clear to me after doing the first brain documentary, the best way to demonstrate how the brain is fundamental to who we are as humans, was to tell the story of individuals whose brain had essentially been ripped to shreds by severe trauma.
It’s tragically obvious how critical the brain is to how we behave and respond to the world when you see how severe brain damage changes people forever in one excruciating second.
Start with people who know the subject, when you probably don’t. SMEs!
Generally speaking, to produce a show on any subject, you should first contact experts in the field. In this case, it was the head injury rehab center, which worked with a nearby hospital. We videotaped at both locations many times.
Experts provide the information piece of your show, obviously. Perhaps even more helpful, experts are usually your conduit to all kinds of other people worth speaking to. In this case, the folks at the head injury rehab center who put me in touch with all of the patients and families I included in the show.
The station gave us about three months to do a show of this length. In addition to the one-hour documentary, we made five individual segments to run every night for a week. Those were anywhere from three to eight minutes. That’s an eternity in TV land! The documentary ran on Friday night. At the time, our shows got high ratings for news programing. WSMV was a bastion of real journalism in that time period. That changed considerably as the years went by and ownership went from local to out-of-state corporate.
Preproduction included lots of phone calls, and one phone call leads to another, to another. Ask everybody you speak with who else you should speak with. Speak to them all and take copious notes. This is how you fill out your show, approaching it layer by layer.
When you arrive to shoot video, there has been generally zero preplanning beyond when and where you’re getting together. This is completely different from commercial production where it’s likely to be storyboarded, shot for shot.
To videotape whatever happens in any developing situation like tv news photographers do, you have to be on your toes and instinctively know what you’ll need to create sequences in the editing room. You rarely have time to make the lighting perfect.
One of the patients we profiled, Scott, was extremely unpredictable with volatile behavior, so videotaping him was a huge challenge.
One of the photographers was actually attacked by Scott and knocked over while filming. Like a pro, he got right back up and kept shooting. The still frame shows the patient pushing his mom a few seconds later. The tantrum lasted about five minutes and turned out to be pivotal.
Head injury patients commonly have rage fits they never had before their accident, so being able to document a rage fit is a vital part of the whole story and certainly not preplanned or expected. In fact, the poor mom was mortified and I felt dreadfully bad for her. In situations like this, families endure unbearable pain. It can be difficult to witness and document, but I firmly believe it serves a purpose. The people involved with this show were passionate about the purpose, so were willing to expose themselves.
You’ll notice the sequences with Scott tend to feature lots of camera movement, and that’s due primarily to his erratic behavior and the speech therapy room was tiny. In news, you have to film where the action happens, so you do your best in rooms the size of a broom closet.
The camera movement helped us capture long bits of storytelling natural sound. We didn’t want to cut the scenes with Scott to pieces because that messes up your natural sound. Eratic camera movemet went with erratic behavior.
Contrast the camera technique used with Scott with the way the sequences were shot with the female patient named Lisa, who was in a comatose state. Those sequences are rock solid steady, shot off a tripod. They all have multiple angles and multiple scopes, matched cuts, and detailed, story-advancing images using natural sound up full.
Filming Lisa was an easy compared to filming Scott. Action that naturally repeats itself, is predictable, and doesn’t move around is an easy action to sequence. You almost always have adequate time to move the tripod around into multiple positions and get a huge variety of shots.
These sequences with Lisa were all shot under natural light coming in the window of her hospital room.
Natural sound works spectacularly well with a story like this. When you’re lucky and film that magic moment, nat sound conveys infinitely more than a narrator ever could. It puts the viewer right there. It’s one of the best ways to show what’s really happening. This show uses a remarkable amount of natural sound. It was either picked up with a wireless microphone attached to the main subject, or the camera was close enough to pick up the sound with the onboard shotgun microphone.
- TV news photographers always have at least one microphone going at all times, usually a shotgun microphone that records sounds at a distance for unexpected stuff and all background noise like bird tweets or traffic.
Where Do You Get Information and People to Interview?
Associations are always good sources of information and contacts. I interviewed Marilyn Price Spivack who formed a head injury advocacy group after her teenage daughter suffered brain trauma. She’s a perfect example of an excellent source found by contacting her organization. She knew everything about the subject from any perspective one could think of.
- No matter your topic, you’ll find a group somewhere that’s dedicated to it. So in the beginning of your planning, look for the associations and advocacy groups. Even tiny causes have informational groups. Double checking credibility is always important, especially these days.
Post production starts with transcribing everything you have recorded, including all interviews word-for-word. Today that’s easier than ever with digital voice transcription, but we did it the old fashioned way with pen and paper. It was the most tedious task you can imagine, but so incredibly necessary.
The interview transcripts become the backbone of your script. As you piece the whole story together, you’ll refer to these transcripts constantly, to refresh your memory on precisely what was said. Highlight parts of the interview you might use with a color coding system to readily identify topics and sub topics. Each individual clip you might want to use is referred to as a soundbite.
A good sound bite is revealing, well-said, and concise. The word soundbite has gotten a bad rap, but it’s standard lingo.
In a nutshell, script writing is piecing together all of these soundbites in a logical way, then writing narration to fill in the blanks and propel the story forward. You pair narration with appropriate video that complements it and demonstrates the situation. Natural sound and other storytelling elements like graphics for names and locations are usually integrated.
A good documentary – or any story – needs to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. You introduce the people in your story, then piece by piece, let details of their story emerge. A good documentary lets the people involved tell their story. The camera and microphones are just there to document it.
My motto was to tell their story as honestly and gracefully as I could, in a way the audience would appreciate and want to watch.
I am gratified when looking back on much of the work I did while working in TV news. Today newsroom bean counters would laugh if you even suggested a project of this magnitude. Back then, we did them all the time.
I find that not only sad, but am quite convinced the demise of journalism is destructive to the soul of our nation.
That’s another blog post!
Thanks for reading VPT. Keep on making documentaries.