The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

The worst advice I've ever seen

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The very fact that I have chosen to teach storytelling seems to offend some people. This comment came from an experienced documentary maker:

I can save you all a lot of time and money - the way to make your documentary work is simple. "Get a good camera operator, get a good sound recordist, get a good editor. Then don't get in their way way". Works for me.

One Diagram to Rule Them All

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My very direct son recently asked me if, now that he's gone off to university, perhaps I might stop doing stuff and just... I'm not sure what, but I think he felt my productive days were numbered.

Karaoke Culture

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My piano teacher, Phil Best, coined the phrase "Karaoke Culture". He is obsessed with teaching his students to be fluent musicians, and he has a very specific problem with how music is currently done.

Our 9/11 Doc Emmy Nominated - the success trap

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I've been lucky enough to have a few Emmy nominations for my films. The latest was a couple of days ago (the second award nomination for the same film). I've also had a few wins in other well-known competitions and a few which I had never heard of….

Learning by analogy

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Analogies. Elon Musk hates them:

"The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy," he said. "[With analogy] we are doing this because it's like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there."

The Perfect Story

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If I were a perfect writer and director with a perfect documentary, then every choice would make a difference. If not, then why decide to do it in the first place?

Film making and mental health

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Mental Health is obviously a broad issue that can occur for numerous reasons in numerous ways. I just want to talk about one area - the challenges it can present when working in the media.

The Fear of Working Alone

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One of our new students was very honest when introducing herself to our community. She told us that she had moved from the city to upstate New York and “was a bit isolated at times”.

This can be a disadvantage in a number of ways.

What does it mean to be 'professional'

I regularly listen to a film podcast where the interviewer always asks the interviewee about writer's block.

It's a problem in drama. Writers create their stories out of thin air. By that, I mean they might take the ideas from real life, but they have to construct scenes from that material that feel convincingly like real life in all respects. That's hard.

It's not really an issue for documentary makers.

How caring too much can make things worse

One of the hardest things to do is separate your subject matter from the telling.

Sharing your idea can seem everything to you. After all, this is why you are investing so much into making it in the first place. You think, if only the audience understood this or that, if they could only see how things really are, then the world would be a better place.

Fix your story problems in hours, not months. Weeks not years.

The Doc Fix is designed to give you the skill of storytelling as efficiently as possible. As one of our students, Matt Earle, told me:

"We have something that we can grasp and that we can use in every single story, whether it's, you know, a five-minute video, or a 30-minute episode that we can use... So yes, definitely been life-changing. We've made so much progress in maybe two months - more progress than we've made in the last three years".

The Power of Dramatising Your Ideas

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In the foreword to a book exploring the work of the great Polish drama director (and documentarian) Kristof Kieslowski, Stanley Kubrick wrote:

I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work…

“The simple concept is not always the best, but the best is always simple.”

That's a quote that struck me as being essentially true but from an unlikely place. Gitta Sereny's remarkable biography of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect (and much more)

"The simple concept is not always the best, but the best is always simple" is from Speer's first architecture professor, Heinrich Tessenow.

It's been my consistent experience in the edit.

The interview technique that can get you an Emmy nomination

I like making films about difficult people.

It’s not a conscious decision and something I go looking for, but it’s worked out that the people who have done amazing things (and also some awful things) are challenging in some way.

They push against convention and often are seen as trouble.

This is how the BBC trains it’s documentary makers

When I started out at the BBC, I was put onto the popular science TV show, Tomorrow's World. For those of a certain age - and it ran for over 50 years - it was a staple in the TV schedule, Thursday night just before Top of the Pops! At the time we had a regular audience of around 13 million a week, one of the biggest in the UK.

I was 21, and it was a remarkable experience, something I can only truly appreciate looking back.

The Power of Imagination

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I recently saw Jane Campion's new film, The Power of the Dog. To be honest I was disappointed. Not so much with the performances, but with the very slow pace and heavy handed symbolism. But, that said, there's a fascinating piece in The Guardian about the coach who helped the director and actors to discover the meaning and approach to the work - through dreams:

A Simple Technique to Sell Your Idea

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Sometimes a simple idea can contain a huge amount of information. I came across one from the 'design guru', Stephen Baily, and it is wonderfully simple.

When you pitch, you need to both reassure and excite.

Do You Believe In Yourself?

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Many years ago, probably well into my twenties, I had a desire to direct drama. Of course, I'd been directing documentaries for a while. But it seemed to me that drama directing offered me something more.

I enjoyed watching drama for sure and loved working with actors when I had the chance (usually on low-ish budget docudrama). But my desire was to do more - direct big dramas, work with great talent, make a big film.

What I was lacking was self-belief.

Squid Game - Korean storytelling as I see it

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As I write most days about what occurs to me about narrative, sometimes I need to go back to an idea.

What I’d like to do is add something to an email when I said that what makes Korean storytelling distinctive is the desire to highlight the emotional narrative over and above the overall story.

It's a little more interesting, and complex, than that.

A Commercial With a Perfect Structure

In just 30 seconds this TV commercial for The Guardian - Point of View - brilliantly manages to include all four points of view necessary to tell a complete story. The reason is the power of perspective in storytelling.

Hard science - the stories of ideas

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One of the most interesting applications of these techniques is in areas where more conventional story telling theories have very little to say. Subjects include factual TV programmes about abstract concepts such as space, the universe, hard science and so on. Even esoteric art films need a workable structure to hold your audience's attention beyond their aesthetics.


The Siren Song of a Complete Story

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Most of us know the story of the Sirens; how, to resist the lure of their song, Odysseus blocked his ears with wax and ordered his sailors to lash him to his ship’s mast. But what was it that had lured so many sailors onto the rocks?


Jack of All Trades

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Very early on in life, I think we make a choice about being a specialist or generalist. Unfortunately being a generalist has always had an image problem. Jack of All Trades, Master of None has never been seen as a positive. Thank goodness for Wikipedia, to show me how off the mark that judgement can sometimes be - very soon after the term was coined.

Is a perfect structure essential?

Yes, absolutely. And no, not really. There are many successful programmes that don't necessarily have perfect structure. They are lucky to have some of the other elements that can make a programme a success. Some of these are inherent in the production - amazing access, astonishing events, great characters and timeliness. Some of these are out of your hands - the backing of the channel, great promotion and, of course, good luck.