Documentary Filmmaking: Planning Your Story

The best camera work in the world will mean nothing if you don’t have a great story. Director of BAFTA-nominated film Sherpa, and our new Travel Film Scholarship judge, Jennifer Peedom explains how she lays the groundwork before shooting a film.

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Photo © Jennifer Peedom

I began making films back in 2000 as a participant on the ABC's Race Around the World series. It was the best training I could have had, because we were completely thrown in at the deep end, and had to do everything ourselves. Here, I quickly learned that the more prepared I was, the quicker I could get to the heart of the story. If you didn’t have a plan for your story, you could spend a week shooting a bunch of footage, and still not have a story – and they would put it to air anyway!

A common experience that emerging documentary filmmakers have, is to think the story will reveal itself along the way, and to just point the camera at whatever is happening. If you have a year to spend in a remote community somewhere, this might work, but even then, you still need to have a sense of what you are looking for and what the basic plot of your film is. If you have a sense of what your story is from the start, then you’ll be a long way ahead when you get back to the edit suite with your rushes. 

Plot Your Story

Before I start shooting any film, I spend a lot of time on research and planning. Whiteboards and scene cards are my friends. I always plot out what I think the three-act structure of the film might be, that is, the setup, the conflict and the resolution of the film. This can be difficult when you don’t know how the film will play out, but worth the effort, as it forces you to think about the overall themes and story structure.

Jennifer talking with Sherpa cinematographer, Renan Ozturk
Jennifer talking with Sherpa cinematographer, Renan Ozturk. Photo credit: Jennifer Peedom

Structure, Structure, Structure

A useful way to think about the best structure for your film is to watch and study films that have similar themes to the one you want to make. Even though I primarily make documentary films, I study the structure of drama films as well as documentaries. As you watch the characters in these other films, you can think about your own characters: what they want, what challenges lie ahead for them, what they might need to learn in order to achieve their goals or achieve their ‘want’.

Drama = Conflict

All stories need conflict of some kind, as there is no drama without conflict, and yes, this goes for documentary, too. People need to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal, otherwise, you’ll have a fairly boring story.

Expect the Unexpected

The great thing about all this planning is that when things don’t go to plan in the field, (expect the unexpected), then you’ve still got this basic story structure to come back to.

When I shot Sherpa on Mount Everest, our plan was to follow an Everest expedition from the Sherpa POV, focussing on a main character, Phurba Tashi Sherpa. Instead, an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas and ended the climbing season. Because of the planning I had done, I still knew how I needed the film to end. I knew that my main character, Phurba Tashi needed to be somehow transformed by that experience, even though it was a different experience than what we had planned. When I got back to the edit suite, we realized that the structure we had planned for the film had actually changed less than we would have expected, given the extreme circumstances.

Think of it like this: if the film is the journey, the story structure is the roadmap. Having a roadmap that year on Everest, really helped me pivot when the crisis happened, and still come home with a story.

Renan Ozturk on set of Sherpa
On set of Sherpa in Nepal. Photo credit: Jennifer Peedom

Research

How much research to do before you go depends on many things, like how well you already know the subject matter, what kind of story you are telling, and who the audience is. As a rule, you can never be too prepared. I had already worked on three Himalayan expeditions with the same team of Sherpas, so I had a good idea of how some of the conflicts might play out on the mountain. The more you know, the more credibility you’ll have when dealing with subjects.

Be Open to Chance

The more prepared you are, and the more you deeply understand the themes of your film, the more likely you’ll be able to have your eyes open to characters that you hadn’t considered in the original plan.

A good example of this in Sherpa, was the Sherpa women, as they helped tell the bigger story of the Sherpas on Everest. You wouldn’t expect the wives and mothers staying at home to be important characters on a film about an Everest expedition, but in the end, they were probably the most important characters, as they provided the most powerful conflict. We had expected most of the conflict to happen between the Sherpas and the foreign clients, and while this also happened, the more subtle conflict, between Phurba Tashi and his own family, helped highlight the most important themes of the film, family, spirituality and grief.

Be prepared. Expect the unexpected and remember that all the best camera work in the world will mean nothing if you don’t have a great story.

Are you an aspiring filmmaker? Apply now for our 2018 Travel Film Scholarship!

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