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Developing Factual Ideas

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Different Ways of Telling Stories

In this, the latest of an occasional series I look back at some of the films I saw in 2014 at a variety of festivals including IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest. As usual I’ve roughly divided them into groups according to narrative approach; within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. Some films could easily be placed in a different category but I’ve put them in what seemed to be the most prominent storytelling style for that film.

However, whether you agree with my selection or not, you may find inspiration to help you decide what techniques will be most useful in developing and shaping the narrative of your own films. Having a clear idea of how you are going to tell the story will help you pitch your idea more effectively to potential funders. (Photo courtesy of IDFA)

Greenlit: The Big Picture, BBC1

The Big Picture (6 x 60′) – Series that showcases the hidden heroes of British art, proving that you don’t need to be world-famous to create fantastic paintings. Ten passionate amateurs will compete to be crowned Britain’s best artist, pushing their artistic skills to the limit. Channel: BBC1 Producer: BBC TX: TBC Source: BBC press release

Greenlit: D-Day’s Sunken Secrets, PBS

Nova: D-Day’s Sunken Secrets – On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched the D-Day invasion against the heavily defended Normandy beaches to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Throughout the operation, hundreds of ships sank while running the gauntlet of mines and bunkers, creating one of the world’s largest underwater archaeological sites. Now, 70 years later, […]

Greenlit: The Hill Farm, BBC Cymru Wales

The Hill Farm (4 x ) – Hill farmer Gareth Wyn Jones is desperately searching for his sheep. It’s Spring 2013 – and Wales has been hit by freak, unseasonal weather – a fierce blizzard with gale-force winds and heavy snow that’s crippled parts of the country. The extreme weather has proved devastating for upland […]

Greenlit: Breaking Boston, A&E

Breaking Boston –  Docudrama following a group of working class women coming of age with the odds stacked against them. The women, who are in their twenties, are trying to break the cycle of their peers in a town where education, employment and opportunities are hard to come by. Each one of them has already […]

Greenlit: City of Dogs, BBC2

City Of Dogs w/t (1 x 60′) –  Louis Theroux heads to one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the south of Los Angeles to investigate how hundreds of neglected and often dangerous dogs roam the streets or suffer mistreatment in chaotic homes. Louis joins dog catchers from the city’s biggest pound as they enter some […]

Pitching Tips For the Terrified From Danish Producer Sigrid Dyekjær

If you are planning to pitch your documentary to funders you’ll no doubt spend much time on displacement activities such as dusting and doing the washing up rather than knuckling down and actually preparing your pitch. Nobody likes pitching; it’s an uncomfortable, exposing and potentially embarrassing experience – especially if you are unfortunate to be pitching your project at one of the big forums such as Hot Docs in Toronto or IDFA in Amsterdam. Never been to a forum before? Scroll down to see what that actually looks like (and weep). But if you are going to get your film financed you’ll have to pitch it at some point, there’s no getting out of it so you may as well get used to it.

At IDFA 2013, Danish producer Sigrid Dyekjær came to the rescue with her inspiring pitching tips in a session called The Future of the Art of Pitching. Sigrid Dyekjær is the founder/co-owner of Danish Documentary Production and was due to pitch some of the projects she used as case studies at the IDFA Forum later in the festival. (Photo (C) TVMole)

Greenlit: Dangerous Toys, Discovery Channel

Dangerous Toys (1 x 60′) – After years of working together, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of MythBusters are finally squaring off against each other as they fabricate the necessary components to play an elaborate child’s game of war. They use ingenuity and innovation as they try to take each other down. The show features […]

Greenlit: Raw War:The Lost Film of Dak To, AHC

 Raw War: The Lost Film of Dak To (1 x 60′) – Gripping personal stories told through film and photographs from combat cameramen who filmed some of the most significant military engagements in Vietnam. These cameramen risked – and sometimes lost – their lives to capture some of the bloodiest battles of our time. This […]

Five Documentary Storytelling Styles Seen in 2013

Here’s a list of some of the most memorable documentary films I saw, roughly divided into narrative style; the films grouped at the top of the list I generally found most enjoyable and satisfying and within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. Some films could easily be placed in a different category but I’ve put them in what seemed to be the most prominent storytelling style for that film.

However, whether you agree with my selection or not, we can learn from the different narrative approaches chosen by the filmmakers you may find inspiration to help you develop and shape your own films. Having a clear idea of how you are going to tell the story will help you pitch your idea to potential funders (and ulimately the audience) more effectively, and also help you keep on track schedule- and budget-wise. (Photo: Jingle Bell Rocks! courtesy of IDFA)

Development Lessons From Three of the Best Films at IDFA 2013

IDFA in Amsterdam is always my chance to concentrate fully on watching films over anything else and typically watch around 25+ films over the course of several days. This focused immersion in documentaries is guaranteed to be thought-provoking and often throws up several interesting themes or trends; here’s a round up of my top three favourite films from IDFA 2013 with an attempt to articulate what makes them successful. I’ve chosen these documentaries on the basis that of the 22 films I saw these were the ones I found most enjoyable and that have stayed with me, and I would definitely watch them all again. But beyond being enjoyable, what can we learn from these films that could help us when developing and pitching our own films? (Photo courtesy of Dogwoof)

Greenlit: Horseplayers, Esquire Network

Horseplayers (10 x  ) – In the high-stakes world of professional horse race handicapping, the only thing bigger than the bets are the characters placing them — and the best in the business are members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA). This series  follows the lifestyles of a diverse cast of handicappers as they […]

In Development, Gay Dads of New York, TBC

Gay Dads of New York – Docuseries following celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and his group of close friends in NYC who are all gay dads. Channel: TBC Producer: Bunim/Murray / OMG Productions TX: TBC Source: Realscreen

Greenlit: Oh No He Didn’t! Gok in Panto, Channel 4

Oh No He Didn’t! Gok in Panto w/t (1 x 60′) – Gok Wan will be treading the boards for the first time in pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As rehearsals at the legendary Birmingham Hippodrome begin , this sparkly Christmas special follows Gok as he enters a fantasy world of song and […]

Greenlit: Manhunt, Discovery Networks International

Manhunt – Ex-Navy SEAL Joe Lambert is tracked as as he travels around the world and undergoes a series of 48-hour challenges where he tries to prevent himself being found and captured. Channel: Discovery Networks International Producer: Discovery Studios TX: February 2014 Source: Realscreen

Greenlit: Megastorm: World’s Biggest Typhoon, Discovery Channels International

Megastorm: World’s Biggest Typhoon (1 x 60′) – Documentary that uses news archive and interviews with scientists to explain the events surrounding the powerful and destructive Typhoon Haiyann, which hit the Philippines in November 2013. Channel: Discovery Networks International / Discovery Science Producer: ITN Productions TX: December 2013 Source: TBI Vision

Greenlit: Wahlburgers, A&E

Wahlburgers – Docuseries following the fortunes of Mark and Donnie Wahlberg as they launch a burger restaurant with their brother Paul. Channel: A&E Producer: 44 Blue Productions / Closest to the Hole Productions  / Leverage Entertainment / Donnie D Productions TX: 22nd January 2014 Source: Realscreen

Greenlit: Wheelers, Dealers And Del Boys, BBC1

Wheelers, Dealers And Del Boys (4 x 60′) -Docuseries following a group of people in London as they try to make money. Channel: BBC1 Producer: RDF  TV TX: 2014 Source: Broadcast

Greenlit: The Story of Women in World War One, BBC2

The Story Of Women In World War One  (1 x 60′) –  When war broke out in 1914 and a generation of men went off to fight the world changed forever. Kate Adie reveals in this fascinating documentary for BBC Two what an extraordinary impact the fighting had on the lives of British women – […]

Greenlit: Chow Masters, Travel Channel

Chow Masters (13 x 30′) – Chef Sammy DeMarco and best friend/Hollywood director Frank Coraci hit the road to find the tastiest and most creative comfort food in America. City by city, their quest takes them “off the map” searching for the three most innovative and delicious twists on comfort food classics. The chow buddies […]

Greenlit: Gambling on Extinction, ARTE, SBS, TVP, VRT, Animal Planet, W5

Gambling on Extinction – Documentary that explores the the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn and tigers. Channel:  Animal Planet / W5 (Canada) / ARTE (France) / SBS (Australia) / TVP (Poland) /  VRT (Belgium) Producer: Real to Reel Productions / A&O Buero Filmproduktion TX: TBC Source: Realscreen

Greenlit: JFK: The Lost Tapes, Discovery Channel

JFK: The Lost Tapes (1 x 60′) – The assassination of President John F. Kennedy left the USA to mourn the loss of its Commander-in-chief, set off one of the greatest manhunts in American history, and left our government to answer the impossible question, what happens now?  Newly released audio recordings from Air Force One, combined […]

Greenlit: Oceans, BBC1

Oceans  (6 x 60’) –  In 2001, the BBC led the world with the multi award-winning Blue Planet; now it plans to return to the planet’s oceans. More marine species have been discovered in the past decade than ever before, with an average of 2,000 discoveries per year. Since Blue Planet, 250,000 new species have […]

Greenlit: The Sixties, CNN

The Sixties (1 x 90′ +  10 x 60′) – A provocative, sweeping documentary series that  explores perhaps the most transformative decade of the modern era. The series will launch with a 90-minute special episode, The Assassination of JFK (1963), timed with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  […]

Greenlit: Nigel Slater’s Biscuit Break, BBC4

Nigel Slater’s Biscuit Break (1 x 60′) –  Chef Nigel Slater fronts this documentary that delves into the history of the biscuit. Channel: BBC4 Producer: Doghouse Media TX: November 2013 Source: Broadcast

Greenlit: Health Freaks, Channel 4

Health Freaks w/t (6 x 30′) –  Puts a variety of popular home remedies to the test to see if they have any medicinal value. Each week a series of DIY remedy pitchers who swear by a particular treatment or “cure” will present their favoured remedy to a panel of three GPs – Dr Pixie McKenna, […]

Greenlit: Time of Death, Showtime

Time of Death (6 x 60′) -An unflinching, in-depth look at some remarkable individuals facing their own imminent mortality. Cameras will follow brave, terminally ill individuals as they live out their final days, supported by family, friends, healthcare teams and hospice workers, who gently help guide the process. The series weaves together these complex, unforgettable […]

Five Narrative Approaches to Documentary

Often when developing a film, it’s easy enough to come up with an idea or a subject for a documentary. What’s harder is to work out how best tell the story. What can be helpful, and should be part of your development process, is to look at other films to see what narrative techniques they used and to what effect. Choosing an approach early in your development process will help you to structure your idea, plan your schedule and budget more accurately and, ultimately, it will mean that you are better able to describe your film (i.e. pitch it) to potential funders.

Here’s the full menu of films I watched at IDFA 2012, roughly divided into narrative style; the films grouped at the top of the list I generally found most enjoyable and satisfying and within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so watch to make up your own mind. (Photo: Charles Bradley: Soul of America courtesy of IDFA)

Greenlit: Sisters With Voices, WE tv

Sisters With Voices (6 x 60′) – Reality series following the lives of R&B band Sisters With Voices as they attempt to revive their careers.   Producer: Entertainment One Television TX: Early 2014 Source: Cunopsis

Greenlit: The Real White Queen and Her Rivals, BBC2

The Real White Queen and Her Rivals (2 x 60′) – Author Philippa Gregory presents this companion documentary to BBC1’s adaptation of her historical novel The White Queen. Channel: BBC2 Producer: Oxford Scientific Films TX: 2013 Source: Broadcast

Greenlit: Hunt vs Lauda: F1’s Greatest Racing Rivals, BBC2

Hunt vs Lauda: F1’s Greatest Racing Rivals (1 x 60′) –  Documentary that examines the competitive relationship between two of motor racing’s biggest names. Channel: BBC2 Producer: Lion Television TX: 14th July 2013 Source: Broadcast

Greenlit: Wales in Australia With Huw Edwards, BBC Cymru Wales

Wales in Australia With Huw Edwards (1 x 60′) – Huw Edwards travels to Australia to discover the Welsh people, past and present, who have shaped the nation, and he finds that Welsh people have played a big part in Australia’s remarkable success story. His voyage takes him through some of the most beautiful landscapes […]

Greenlit: Bad Ink, A+E

Bad Ink ( x 30′) – Docuseries following a pair of Las Vegas tattoo aficionados on their quest to find and fix the worst of Vegas’ worst mistakes. The city of sin often goes hand in hand with people making bad decisions, and regrettable tattoos are permanent reminders of those choices. However, hope has now […]

Greenlit: The Secret Life of Predators, Nat Geo / Nat Geo WILD

 The Secret Life of Predators  (4 x 60′) –  Host Boone Smith (Snow Leopard of Afghanistan, American Cougar, Hunt for the Shadow Cat) takes an intimate look at the both iconic and surprising predators of our earth and their savvy strikes, chases and kills. We’ll see 45 different animal species in 12 habitats and in […]

Greenlit: The First Man, CCTV9 (China) / M6 (France)

The First Man – Docudrama that traces the evolution of man using CGI to change the appearance of the actors. Channel: CCTV9 (China) / M6 (France) Producer:  Nilaya (France)  / Terra Mater (Austria) TX: TBC Source: Realscreen

Greenlit: Inspire: The Olympic Journey, BBC1

Inspire: The Olympic Journey –  Magazine series that will celebrate the biggest names, the rising stars and the unsung heroes of Olympic sport. Presented by Gabby Logan, the series will be accompanied by Get Inspired, a multiplatform, pan-BBC initiative to promote participation and help individuals get more involved in grass-root sporting activities. Alongside the series […]

Greenlit: The Joy of Honey, BBC4

The Joy of Honey (4 x 30′) –  Presenter-turned-apiarist Martha Kearney sets out to produce her own honey to sell at a village fair. Channel: BBC4 Producer: ITN Productions TX: 2014 Source: Broadcast

Greenlit: Tattoo Stories, Channel 4

Tattoo Stories (3 x 60′) – Docuseries that uncovers the reasons and motives for people getting tattoos – from the carefully thought-through tatts  to  impulsive ink. Channel: Channel 4 Producer: Rondo Media TX: Autumn 2013 Source: Broadcast

Greenlit: Mile Wide Tornado: Oklahoma Disaster, Discovery Channel

Mile Wide Tornado: Oklahoma Disaster w/t (1 x 69′) – Documentary that examines the May 20th tornado tragedy near Oklahoma City and Moore, Oklahoma through the eyes of the people who survived this unprecedented event. The film chronicles the EF5 tornado that traveled over 17 miles and left mass devastation within its 45 minute reign […]

Greenlit: Donal MacIntyre: Murder in Paradise, CBS Reality

Donal MacIntyre:  Murder in Paradise (1 x 60′) – Documentary that looks at the events surrounding the death of new bride Michaela McAreavey who was murdered whilst on honeymoon in Mauritius in 2012. Channel: CBS Reality UK Producer: Made Television TX: June 2013 Source: Broadcast

Three Development Lessons From Cannes Film Festival

Seduced and Abandoned was one of the documentary films shown at Cannes Film Festival 2013, a year noted for its jewel heists as much as its films. Documentaries have been only recently acknowledged at Cannes; the dedicated Doc Corner was only introduced in 2012. A year later, documentaries make up around 10% of the films […]

In Development: Burn, TNT

Burn – An action-packed docudrama told through the eyes of Detroit firefighters, who are charged with the task of saving a city that many have written off as dead. It takes viewers closer than ever to the fires and the lives of the men and women who fight them, exploring human struggles, hope and personal courage […]

Greenlit: Get Lost, Travel Channel

Get Lost w/t  (6 x 60′) – Former U.S. Army Special Forces survival expert, Mykel Hawke, and his journalist wife, Ruth England, face their biggest adventure yet.  In this new original series, the married couple put their skills and relationship to the ultimate test as they are dropped blindly into the wilderness, with limited supplies […]

Seduced and Abandoned in Cannes

“I thought it was going to be a documentary, but it was great!” (Cannes Film Festival audience member after screening of Seduced and Abandoned) Seduced and Abandoned is a documentary by writer/director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin that explores the world of film financing; the film also doubles, in the words of Baldwin, as […]

Greenlit: Ohio Slave Girls, Ch5 / Investigation Discovery

Ohio Slave Girls  (aka House of Horrors: The Cleveland Kidnappings) (1 x 6′) – This fast turn-around documentary tells the chilling story of the three young women imprisoned in a cellar in suburban Cleveland, Ohio for 11 years. The programme questions how they ended up trapped for over a decade in a house no one […]

Greenlit: Gok’s Summer Catwalk Live, Channel 4

Gok’s Summer Catwalk Live (3 x60′) – Gok Wan helps women solve their dressing dilemmas for the summer holiday season. Summer for many people means looking forward to sea, sand and sunshine. But for millions it’s a time of year to dread, when the thought of baring legs, arms, midriffs makes many pray for rain. […]

Greenlit: Geek Out, AMC

Geek Out (pilot) –  An unscripted project that takes the ultimate super-fan of a specific film, comic book, author, actor, athlete, musician, video game, or television series on an adventure that emotionally connects them to their obsession. Ernest Cline, best-selling author, screenwriter and fanboy aficionado co-hosts. Channel: AMC Producer: ThinkFactory Media / Farah Films TX: […]

Greenlit: My Last Summer, Channel 4

My Last Summer w/t (4  x 60′) – Series that brings together a group of five strangers who are terminally ill and have been told they are dying. The group will meet regularly at a residential manor house in the Cotswolds to help support one another through the final stages of their life while they contemplate the reality […]

Greenlit: Pastors of LA, Oxygen

Pastors of LA w/t – A candid and revealing look at six boldly different and world renowned mega-pastors in Southern California, who are willing to share diverse aspects of their lives, from their work in the community and with their parishioners to the very large and sometimes provocative lives they lead away from the pulpit. Bishop […]

Greenlit: Don’t Get Done in the Sun, BBC1

Don’t Get Done in the Sun (10 x 30′ strippped) –  Fiona Foster and Rani Price front a consumer affairs show that tries to help people whose holidays have ended in misery due to accidents, delays or lost property. Channel: BBC1 Daytime Producer: Flame TV TX: 20th May 2013 Source: TBI Vision