The Doc Fix


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

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.

In his opinion, "We are not taught to be fluent because we are taught to decode the notes on the page, or we play from muscle memory. Then the karaoke sense kicks in. We hear music, and we replay it in our head".We are constantly listening and responding to see if it sounds right.

The result is music that you can tell doesn't come from the heart. Instead, it feels like a beautiful surface and nothing more.

His solution is to focus on the rhythm of what you are playing and the underlying harmony.

If you improvise, the melody will emerge if you focus intently on the fundamentals - those elements that communicate emotion to the listener. Likewise, if you are playing someone else's music, it means you can communicate an authentic feeling.

This attraction to the superficial is also a problem for filmmakers. If you have an idea and want to create a documentary story, the big danger is that you think that you want it to look or feel like something else.

Karaoke storytelling.

Have you watched a documentary, and after so many beautiful shots, stunning images, music and editing, noise and fury, do you come away thinking that it meant nothing? It's not the fault of the documentary maker. They've done their best. Unfortunately, it's not good enough.

Those films that don't touch us are using images borrowed from other films without understanding how to use them to create meaning. So, while you can be inspired by other films and what is happening in the broader culture, we shouldn't use these ideas unthinkingly.

Always work on what you want your story to say.

  • Why does this story mean so much to you?
  • What is the most profound feeling you want the audience to feel after watching your documentary?
  • What do you want this story to make them think about? No, not the subject matter, but because of how you present it.
  • What profound value about how you understand the world do you want them to feel?

It may seem ridiculous to do this. Why?

Because you feel self-conscious.

But if you want to make something that impacts people, that's what you have to do. Realise that what you want to create is worth the effort. And for those of you that like improvising and experimenting to find your story….

In that case, you need to do this when your documentary has stopped working.

Be honest with yourself.

If you are going around in circles, you need to tackle the problem.

Looking deeper into your story to find its themes takes work. But asking the right questions about your story is far easier than you can imagine.

Over the past 30 years of storytelling, I've constantly been looking for ways to free myself to be an original storyteller. I've begun to recognise when I'm copying a style I admire superficially. And I've found a way to ensure that any ideas I copy (and it's an inevitable part of living in a culture) only come after I've asked the questions that reveal why my story matters.

These storytelling approaches and images you settle on can be familiar - yes, wide drone shots can be useful - but they are always there to help deliver the bigger story.

The process I use and take you through in our program is thorough.

It helps you quickly reveal why you are telling your story and what it means to you. It then shows you how to tell it in a way that has an enormous impact on your audience.

A series of steps that are simple yet powerful.

The result is a documentary story that feels complete and right. It feels authentic and meaningful with an opening that sets up compelling dramatic questions leading to an ending that is both surprising and inevitable.

The definition of a great story.