The Doc Fix


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

Influences - and the secret to being 100% original

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I want to talk about what is one of the most essential skills of a documentary maker - but the hardest to get right.

Which is being original by separating yourself from other influences.

So, where does your influence come from? Other TV shows? Do writers take from other writers? Clive James wrote this:

Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature... But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle. He might have got his ideals of composition, colour and clean finish from a bigger boy who made a better model aeroplane.

Seeing how things have been done and then wanting to do the same is a perfectly normal reaction.

But confusing the end result with the way of creating that result is very dangerous.

In other words, when you are making a documentary, you are an author, not the audience.

Going from what you have seen, recognising the feeling it creates in you, and then being able to create that feeling in others is not obvious.

The worst thing you can do is copy those effects and try to attach them to your own idea.

Here's an example from my own experience.

I worked on the first season of F1: Drive to Survive and Sunderland 'Til I Die. Two sports shows on Netflix which ended up being hugely successful and influential.

On both of them I worked on and developed the storytelling behind them.

In fact, when I was asked to work on F1, I specifically asked only to be involved in the storytelling - as series editor.

To save confusion, this isn't editing as directly cutting the shows, but more like how you might describe a newspaper editor - the look and approach for the series, overall and individual storytelling, and so on.

I was one part of a huge team doing incredibly complex work.

Every role mattered, and I was delighted to be asked to work on what I knew was incredibly important and where I could have a direct emotional impact on the audience.

How the stories were told.

But was I trying to be original? Not really, more like 'effective'.

I have a way of working that I haven't yet been able to turn into a snappy phrase, but it involves realising that even the most remarkable material can be turned into the most boring story imaginable.

And not doing that.

For instance, Marvel movies take planets exploding, death and destruction, what looks like magic, and people emoting and somehow turn them into stories where you don't feel a thing.

More recently than ever before.

By the same token, you could take cars travelling at over 200 mph, the potential for massive danger, young hopeful men putting their lives at risk, the passion of the crowds - and create something just a bit - ordinary.

And the reason for that would come down to bad storytelling.

In simple terms, it is the choice of events and the order that you put them in.

And so, I ignored the excitement of the action.

I never played into the action.

I never even played into who came first or last. This was a wise choice, as we didn't have access to the top teams, so we never had access to the winners on a consistent basis.

Instead, I dealt with fundamental truths that I could see in this material - how everything that happened connected to a way of trying to solve a problem in life.

Whether it was feeling connected to the team they were part of, worrying about their worth and status, constructing a machine that could overcome some fundamental truth about how the world functions (i.e. the physics of going very fast), and so on.

Then, I will build each of those into narratives, with a movement towards some resolution and understanding of whether the characters in these stories succeeded or failed.

Yes, on the surface, they had all the stuff of every show about motor racing you would have seen before, but the impact - hopefully - felt more honest and authentic.

Or simply more satisfying and fun.

Originality didn't come into it.

And yet, as soon as it was a success, I got calls from people who wanted to copy it. Who asked me to do the same for them with series about every kind of sport you could imagine - as if what I did was related to sports at all.

Which I hope you can see is not.

The same thing happened when I created a series in natural history about people who lived with animals that had the potential to kill them.

The end result was a series with a very distinctive style and approach - it was cut far more slowly than other series like it, and its impact on the audience was much more direct and emotional.

So, I got calls from natural history filmmakers who asked me to make something like that for them. Other people who made series on similar subjects copied the surface effects and applied them to their own stories.

Which didn't turn out well for them.

My point to you, as storytellers who want to create documentaries with impact, is yes - do everything you can to find compelling and exciting material.

Yes, get extraordinary access if you can, personalities that seem original and compelling. Find worlds you know that are fascinating to others as much as they are to you.

Then, go deeper into the universal truths of this stuff and get really good at telling a story with this material.

That is what feels original and exciting.

It's not about the subject of your documentary; it's what you are using it to say.

You will find ways to use the material you have to tell your story that hasn't been done before - that's what originality is.

I'm here to help you gain those skills as quickly as you need and at a level that should mean you are in control of every story you ever tackle.

​Contact me if you want to learn more about that process, and I'll do what I can to help.

All the best - Nigel