Discovering the Story

Discovering the Story

Humans apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

Greek Guy with a Question: So what the heck is that big, hot, flaming ball in the sky? Where does it come from in the morning and where does it go at night?

Greek Guy with an Answer: Well, as I hear tell, there is this dude named Helios. He’s a god. Or maybe just a Titan. Whatever. Anyway, his job is to drive that thing — he calls it the sun — through the sky everyday so we can see what the heck we’re doing down here.

Greek Guy with a Question: Cool.

We don’t like ambiguity. A happens then B happens. We begin making assumptions and apply a narrative structure (although it appears we “discover” it). Something must have caused A then B — a conflict, maybe. Who is the good guy and the bad guy in the conflict that led from A to B (because there apparently must be blame and reward)? What’s going to happen now (plot)? How will it resolve (climax)? What will it mean in the end (denouement) ?

Discovering a/the story is about knowing the classic story archetypes — the types of stories that we have always been telling ourselves to understand the world. These are the classic ways of thinking that we apply to the ambiguous and mysterious events of the world to help us make sense of them and of ourselves.

Without a working knowledge (you already “know” them) of the kinds of stories we have always told each other, making a decision about what a good documentary story will be is a stab in the dark. You might get lucky. You might also make an assumption about how interesting a situation is only to discover that, well, you didn’t quite connect with your audience.

The video below is about how we “discovered” the story of Witness at Tornillo. Or, better, this is how we looked at the patterns of behavior of our central character and recognized them as workable within a particular narrative archetype.

Discovering the Story from Carbon Trace Productions on Vimeo.

It’s worth exploring the topic of narrative structure. What I present here is a simple guide to get you started. The point is to prime you to recognize what it is humans do when they tell stories, to recognize that behavior in yourself, and to apply this knowledge specifically to creating a good documentary story.

In the example above, Carbon Trace Senior Producer Shane Franklin and I went to see the 2018 family separation protests for ourselves. We took our cameras because that’s what we do. We pointed our cameras and microphones at people who were doing things: protesting, speaking, marching, chanting, sign-waving, etc. These are not stories in themselves — not even for journalists who must structure their stories in a way typical for that profession. They “discover” (create) plots, characters, and climaxes, too, according to the journalistic narrative structures they apply.

Since the news had the typical news-like stories covered, we needed something more. And that something more was recognizing some elements of the classic hero journey in the things Josh Rubin did and said while we spent time with him.

Here’s a list of story archetypes that serves me well:

Challenged person makes good: A person struggles against their existential challenges to win the thing they want and gain the thing they need (money, love, etc.). Optional: They lose the thing they want/need before gaining them back through personal growth.

The human comedy: A likable, affable person overcomes hardships while learning lessons important to us all.

Tragedy: The (anti)hero is brought low because of a character flaw.

The rom-com: Person gets love interest of choice. Person loses love interest of choice. Person gets love interest of choice back.

The hero journey: This one encompasses many sub-narrative types (see the 7 Basic Plots below) that may be included in full or in part. The hero goes on a quest to do/discover some important thing. During their journey they encounter help from various people. They must slay some great beast or right some great wrong. They are challenged in the doing of this thing which leads to learning a great lesson or achieving a great boon. They return home with the gift of the thing they learned or achieved. The world is changed — sometimes for the better.

From MasterClass, here’s another popular articulation of story archetypes called the 7 Basic Plots.

Documentary films can begin with issues. Witness at Tornillo is an example. And there have been many good documentaries made that are strictly issue-oriented. But I think the most powerful documentaries tell classic stories — the kinds of stories we’ve always heard, the kinds of stories we’ve always told. So we at Carbon Trace are always looking for the elements of reality that we can structure classically into a good story.

 

Note from Carbon Trace

Carbon Trace can provide significant guidance in developing, funding, producing, and distributing a documentary film. For high school students wishing to learn more about documentary filmmaking, Missouri State University offers degrees in digital filmmaking, media production, journalism, and other associated areas.

To take part in the documentary education provided through the Carbon Trace Team we encourage you to apply for a filmmaking internship, submit a documentary idea, or apply to become a volunteer using the forms below.

Join Carbon Trace as a student volunteer

Apply for an internship

Submit a documentary idea

Support Nonprofit Documentary Filmmaking

Check out our Patreon memberships. At the $5 per month level of support, you get free VIP codes for all Carbon Trace pay-per-view movies, including the right to download a copy to keep! It’s a great way to watch our documentary films while supporting our nonprofit mission of documentary education and humanitarian service.
The Art of Documentary B-roll

The Art of Documentary B-roll

B-roll is the heart of the visual story for documentary film. It shares some characteristics with fiction cinematography and photo/video journalism.

Loosely defined, b-roll is all the footage that’s not part of formal and informal interviews or coverage of set events. Another way to think of it: b-roll is all the illustrative stuff the audience sees while people are talking or music is playing.

Unlike shooting for fiction, where scenes are meticulously planned from lighting to framing to action, shooting for documentary films has a lot in common with shooting for news. It is certainly possible to plan for certain types of scenes. Planning is always preferable to winging it. But much is discovered on the fly during a shoot. Being ready is the key.

The example video shows some documentary b-roll from the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico shot for the Witness at the Border documentary film currently in production. The story is about the distressing effects of the Migrant Protection Protocols on refugees and the local volunteers who are trying to mitigate those effects. One can plan for specific events or situations that you know will occur. For example, shooting sequences at the sidewalk school or of the weekly water delivery. But every moment spent in the camp presents multiple opportunities for which a cinematographer cannot plan. And these unplanned moments are often the most telling — a mother and son struggling to secure some wooden pallets for their camp site or a mother and daughter sharing a playful moment with a younger child.

The Art of B-roll from Carbon Trace Productions on Vimeo.

It is crucial for cinematographers shooting documentary b-roll to be fully aware of the theme, narrative arc, and artistic approach of the film they’re working on. You have to be ready to see an opportunity in exactly the same way a news photographer has to be ready to see the news. So understanding the story you’re telling is part of this seeing. The other part of this seeing is artistic approach, or style, as understood by fiction cinematographers. Good composition, effective use of available light, the ability to anticipate the actions and reactions of people all play a role in this.

In addition to being mentally ready to recognize opportunities and moments, a good documentary b-roll shooter has to be ready with their equipment. That means at the very least:

  • Absolutely understanding your camera and how it works so that its operation is second nature to you.
  • Bringing the right equipment for the (planned) situation.
  • Bringing secondary cameras just in case — especially ones that can handle special situations, e.g. low light.
  • Making sure everything is ready to go, e.g. batteries charged. Take nothing for granted.
  • Be ready to work with whatever you have. If a great shot presents itself, and all you have is a smartphone, then shoot with the smartphone.

B-roll tips to make your next shoot better:

Find the emotional heart of every sequence. This means, beyond good 2-dimensional composition, b-roll shooters should be paying attention to the “decisive moment” in the movement or interaction of:

  • Eyes
  • Facial expressions
  • Hands
  • Posture (especially of the head, shoulders, and back)

Check these resources for more on the decisive moment:

The above resources were written for still photographers, but the concept also applies to documentary cinematography. The ability to anticipate and capture the decisive moment is an essential difference between those who make their living in documentary filmmaking and those who don’t.

Let the camera roll. Whatever attracted you about the scene you are shooting might get better. Don’t miss it by stopping. Let scenes play out fully before stopping. That’s obviously a judgement call. But figure that scenes lasting fewer than 10 seconds are going to be hard to deal with in editing. An editor would rather search through a 5-minute clip and find 7 seconds of gold than groan over a missed opportunity on a 6-second clip.

Don’t wait for the shot to look good in the viewfinder before hitting the record button. Hit the record button first, then make it look pretty.

Move your body. If the subject isn’t moving, maybe you should be moving. Again, a judgement call. The point is: don’t be afraid to be a human jib.

Don’t worry about momentary glitches such as stray camera movements or losing focus. Keep shooting.

Carbon Trace can provide significant guidance in developing, funding, producing, and distributing a documentary film. For high school students wishing to learn more about documentary filmmaking, Missouri State University offers degrees in digital filmmaking, media production, journalism, and other associated areas.

To take part in the documentary education provided through the Carbon Trace Team we encourage you to apply for a filmmaking internship, submit a documentary idea, or apply to become a volunteer using the forms below.

Join Carbon Trace as a student volunteer

Apply for an internship

Submit a documentary idea

Support Nonprofit Documentary Filmmaking

Check out our Patreon memberships. At the $5 per month level of support, you get free VIP codes for all Carbon Trace pay-per-view movies, including the right to download a copy to keep! It’s a great way to watch our documentary films while supporting our nonprofit mission of documentary education and humanitarian service.