Follow award-winning broadcast professional, Andrew St Pierre White as he takes you set-by-step, as he conceptualises, shoots and edits two of his highly acclaimed TV documentaries. The first is based on a one-hour special documentary broadcast by Discovery Channel, and the second a half-hour serialised episode of a 26-part African adventure travel story.
Once released, critics used the words, "gripping", "superb", outstanding" in their reviews of these films.
The course consists of a series of videos with details of what is being taught as written summaries.
The documentary is run, and as the story unfolds, the director/producer goes though all the thoughts, processes, equipment and creative processes used. This is a real-life event, valuable to those who both shoot and edit stories on video.
As every scene is covered, the shooting techniques, editing ideas and storytelling methods are revealed. This is an actual documentary, so what is taught is not just theory— it has become fact, and you can see the results for yourself.
The documentary was produced by an indie producer, yet still sold to major networks. How this was done is discussed.
The course lectures run to 247 minutes (±4,1 hours). With some, you may need to watch them more than once, because there is quite a lot of learning to do.
If you are interested in making serious documentary films, or telling thought-provoking videos for TV or social medial, then this course has a lot to offer.
Much of what is being taught here is not, and cannot be taught in a classroom. It goes beyond theory, as the course is based on actual, highly successful productions.
The introduction to the documentary film on which this course is based.
The film is called The Death of Pelican-16. It is a 54-minute TV documentary, financed by myself and made on a shoestring budget. Steve Searle was my chief camera operator and sound technician. I also shot about 50% of the footage, and conducted the many interviews. Editing was all mine, as story-telling in the edit suite is my major strength.
We shot with a Canon XL2 DV camera, using Canon's standard and wide-angle zoom lenses. Some super tele shots were shot using a Leitz 400mm lens on the Canon XL2. Audio was a Senheiser MK300 rifle mic, and a Sony radio mic. It was edited on Apple Final Cut pro-7. Production lasted 12 months and was completed in 2005.
In pre production the most important lesson we learnt was that if one puts the subject matter first, and the people the story affects first, before our own goals, doors are more easily opened. Without this approach I know for sure, this film would never have been made. We needed the cooperation of some large organisations, and to get that, one has to get them on your side. If they have a vested interest in the film project, there is all the more chance that they will get behind it. The selfless approach works wonders.
The single most important thing I learnt when I was young in this industry was: I am not as good as I think I am. No matter how good YOU are, you are NOT as good as you think you are. This one realisation was a breakthrough for me, and also for a number of successful and highly paid filmmakers and photographers that I now know. They all agree, that without this, a successful career in the creative arts is unobtainable. Be humble and be ready to learn, learn, learn.
This video introduces the two TV shows on which this course is based. One is a one-hour one-off TV documentary, and the other is a half-hour episode from a TV series. Both have found success with networks and have been broadcast on major TV channels in various countries.
The opening shots, and as importantly, the opening soundtrack, is vital to capturing and holding your audience. It does the same job as a YouTube thumbnail or a book cover. It is what will make your audience stay. In the event that a broadcaster or agent is considering your program, they will likely make the decision to buy or reject it within the first 30 seconds. So make it count!
I also speak about the opening titles, and things that I would do differently now, 10 years later. With every film one makes, big or small, we should always be prepared to learn something new, and admit our mistakes.
Decide on your story-telling style before shooting. That way you will know what to look for when capturing your content. When shooting images, shoot for sound effects as well. Don't neglect this part of content gathering.
If you consider music to be the key to great storytelling, I believe you to be wrong. If you have ever watched the movie, Cast-Away, you may understand. There is one piece of music in the entire film— played twice— once when he escapes the island (and loses his home), and the same piece again when he loses his girl for a second time. Brilliant storytelling, where the music has huge power - because its the only music in the entire film, and it's used twice.
Understanding how storytelling tempo, mood, and emotion should not be uniform. I like to call it, Change of State. This means that if the audience is in one state, for example, relaxed and taking in the story, don't leave them there for too long. Change their state by changing the pace of the story. Tell them something new, and in a different way. This prevents monotony in the storytelling.
This is a continuation of the documentary, with no specific teaching. I suggest that you watch it to understand the storyline, then continue to the next section.
In this section we begin talking about shooting interviews.
Changing the editing pace means varying the soundtracks. When using music, ask yourself, is the music making the audience feel the way you want them to feel? And, are they feeling the same way as the subjects may be feeling? Matching these two is important.
Shooting to create emotion can only be done if you are clear about what the emotion was, or what emotion you would like to convey. In this scene we had to recreate night flying in a crippled aircraft. And we shot it in a hangar, at night, with the original crew as cast members.
Here we talk about hype. It's something that turns me off so many documentary TV shows.
One of the ways I find to get the most from my actors or interviewees, is to be very relaxed, prepare well and take their focus off the fact that there is a camera pointed at them, and more about telling their story. More in the next lecture.
Background for interviews are extremely important, so as not to distract from what is being said.
When creating shot lists and organising shoots, it is vital to have all the information at hand about the story, archive footage availability, access to interviewees and the part they played, as well as all the other elements that make up the story. For every shoot, there should be a distinct goal.
Music choice can make or break your production. Make it, if you get it right. Break it, if you get it wrong.
It is vital to understand audience emotion as you tell them the story, and to give them enough time to feel it. It's a balancing act. The secret to great comedy is timing. The secret to great storytelling is timing.
Here are some ideas as to how to conclude a story, to present all the information needed to satisfy your audience. How the audience should ideally feel should come across in the storytelling methods. Much of this section also includes the completed documentary, to follow the storyline.
How we shot some of the spectacular taxiing shots. Also, how sensitive use of music concludes this documentary. The signature music piece was used twice, once to set up or preempt the ending, and again at its conclusion. During a critical group meeting, we demonstrate how when using two cameras, both must have clearly defined tasks.
Audio bridges in the edit. Be sensitive to how your audience might be feeling as the conclusion is reached, and amplify that feeling with good editing and apt music choices.
Wrapping up one of the most powerful storytelling opportunities of my career is a pleasure to show to you now.
It consists of a music montage, using music already familiar (used before).
This is why I think it works well:
I introduce this documentary and how we can learn from it.
It is part of a 13-episode adventure travel series (called 4WD-Take A Deep Breath), shot and first broadcast in 2010. It has been broadcast in South Africa, New Zealand and some Asian countries including Russia. It is currently (Feb 2016) being released on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLdZBtPD_yK08-M8r4mZ6lBupSvmjHu73m
One of the most important elements of documentary storytelling is when it involves real life situations, travelogue or reality shows. Throughout each episode, the viewer should always know what is going on. Never allow the viewer to lose track of the plot.
In actuality styled documentary storytelling, it's almost always preferable to use the present tense. It provides a level of immediacy and therefore tension to the story.
Try and avoid making transitions obvious. It's much better if they go unnoticed.
As the story is concluded, tell your story while keeping a level of tension until the last point, and then let it go and don't hold back.
These two productions are proof that you do not need big budgets and crews to make significant films. In terms of getting big networks interested, here are some pointers:
Thank you for taking in this course. Please post a review and comment. It's by the comments and not just praise that I learn how to improve as a teacher.
My best as always
Andrew St Pierre White
Andrew St Pierre White is a broadcaster, writer and presenter, with 38 years in TV, film and publishing. He is also a published author with over 16 book titles and his YouTube channel has over 12 million views and over 59 000 subscribers.