The Doc Fix


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

You know you are winning when you’re being copied

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Copying is extremely natural. You see something you like, recognise how it made you feel, and decide to create the same effect in the documentary you are making.

Many great artists have, of course, been influenced by the work they love, but they don't just copy. Or maybe they copy at first, then develop their own style.

When you watch a great documentary, there are a number of things going on at the same time.

There is how the director has decided to dramatise the story - using comedy or suspense. How graphics are used, and the way it is shot. Hand-held or using tracks and tripods. How the interview is framed. Observational scenes or many interview set-ups, archive and stills.

These elements are things that are the easiest to copy because they are on the surface.

Often interview set-ups are copied unthinkingly.

Often, for no good reason, they include showing the clapper board in the shot (which is even more wrong when you often don't need a clapper board at all), the interviewee walking into the shot and sitting down, having profile shots on a second camera, showing the lighting set up and so on.

Another popular element is the drone shot to add 'production value'. For a while, every Netflix doc would start with a drone shot.

In fact, I'm sure many began with a drone shot, followed up with an interviewee sitting into the interview, having the clapper board in view and then saying, "Are we running?".

But just because they are copyable doesn't mean you should do them. The reason is that in a good documentary if the story is well told, the directorial choices are informed by the deeper meaning you are trying to deliver.

In a very real sense, the directing choices are the last thing you should consider.

And it's dangerous - or at the very least unhelpful - to copy those surface elements.

What you need to do is work from the inside out.

The directorial choices you should be making come from first thinking about what you want your story to say. Just because it's a documentary - meaning you are working with reality - doesn't mean you aren't the author of your film. In fact, it's essential that you are.

If you aren't, you will find yourself overwhelmed with material because you have no guiding principle helping you choose what is needed to tell your story.

And if you've thought hard about what your story is saying, it leads to choices about how you will present it - you are working with the deeper themes that touch you.

Then you can make informed decisions about how you want to begin your documentary - so that the audience is absolutely clear about what they are watching and why. And you can conceive of an ending that resolves the arguments that you are making.

Your documentary moves forward with intention.

You are a story weaver, putting the story elements together in the best way possible.

And only then does the easily copyable stuff have a place - how you 'tell' your story. The imagery you want to use, the music, the dramatic techniques, graphics, the archive and more.

Get it right, and then you have the best chance of your final work feeling original and compelling. You are saying something important in a powerful way.

Yes, when it comes to making directorial choices, it is important to stand out.

The director Darren Aronofsky talked about how strong images are important as they have to stand out against all the other ways that are attention is being grabbed in our image-saturated world.

But take a superficial image, or a superficial style, from another piece of work unthinkingly, and you are actually distorting the meaning. As a result, you can end up making your documentary less engaging and exciting, not more.

Just like those blockbuster films with all the elements of an exciting drama, but you come away thinking, "What was the point of that?"

From my own experience, I remember when I created a new series of Animal Planet, called Fatal Attractions. It was about why people made the choice to live in their homes with predators - animals that had the potential to kill them.

That was the subject matter, the essence of the idea behind it. From that I developed a visual and directorial style. The pacing, framing, storytelling approach and so on were very different from what was scene as normal at the time. And to be honest, I did borrow - from Aronofsky, Fincher and Spielberg.

But I knew what I was doing.

The series did very well, and as is the way of things, its success led others to copy how it looked. The reason was that the 'look' was the easiest thing to copy. I actually had an editor who moved from my series to one of the imitators who told me that all the edits had received a message to make their series like Fatal Attractions.

Sad to say, that attempt was a disaster. They tried to apply the look, and their stories fell apart - because they were copying unthinkingly.

If you have the right process to go through to build your documentary story in the first place, then that is a mistake you will never make.

That's what the DocFix gives you; a system to consistently work through every essential element behind a great story so that all your choices are meaningful. And when you do copy, you are taking ideas that make your final work even more powerful, not less.

Arrange a call, and we can talk about your own idea and how you can make it stand out as an original piece of work, rather than copying something badly and, in the process weakening your idea.

All the best - Nigel