The Doc Fix


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

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….

And I felt differently after each.

The first was great, and I knew it would mean I could push myself harder. I could put myself in front of people and get better gigs.

But, there is a problem with this - and to any success.

You tend to get offered the same kind of job in the same area.

It's human nature. When I'm looking to work with someone, I tend to look at what they've done before and search for something similar to what I need.

Only when I focussed on storytelling did I feel the freedom I was desperate for. It gave me the skill set that works for any subject.

Yes, there are craft skills that relate to specific genres. Comedy, for instance, is a particular learned skill and instinct.

But what I was looking for was control over my documentary-making career and the freedom it gave me.

So that you can see how this worked out, some of the genre or style of the programmes that have given me the wins and nominations were:

  • History of science (feature length)
  • Education (short documentary)
  • Asian showbiz biography (50 mins)
  • natural history (a series of psychological thrillers - a genre I created in natural history, and a family-friendly IMAX feature).
  • And the latest is an archive-based, feature-length news documentary.

I've studied storytelling for over 30 years, and I noticed the impact when I began working in areas where it was apparent I had no background.

There was a time I went to the BBC to talk about a project, and I came away having been asked to look at the treatment for a live opera project that wasn't working. It was clear to me when we spoke that storytelling was causing their issues. It wasn't the skill of the lead tenor!

My career has carried on this way - as can yours, by the way, if you want to. You can make documentaries about any subject that takes your fancy. Or you can become a super-specialist in a single area.

It's up to you.

I approach any documentary I'm involved with - at first - as a narrative problem that I must solve. It is the key, fundamental, most essential element that determines whether anything else in the production process rests.

Get it wrong, and, like a badly engineered building, you have a very expensive pile of rubble.

Get it right, and all those fantastic directing approaches you love have a place.

And that secret I mentioned is really quite simple; never to stop learning.

Keep educating yourself on the most critical skills. Recognise where you are weak, and make yourself strong. And the quickest way for you to get on that path is to get help from others who have already made - and fixed - the mistakes you are making - and are yet to make.

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