Scriptwriting gurus Robert McKee and Syd Field point out that structure, conflict, storytelling and character are the central ingredients of any drama - but how can these elements be applied to the documentary process? Jane Marlow quizzes four acclaimed documentarians on the art of their craft.
Scriptwriting gurus Robert McKee and Syd Field point out that structure, conflict, storytelling and character are the central ingredients of any drama - but how can these elements be applied to the documentary process? Jane Marlow quizzes four acclaimed documentarians on the art of their craft.

Robert Thirkell, series editor Jamie's School Dinners, on the Conflict theory

Robert Thirkell describes his approach to documentary as applying fairytale techniques to bring business stories alive. In the case of Jamie's School Dinners it was a David and Goliath tale and as a result of his experience on that project he devised an acronym - Conflict - to make people think about documentary-making. Conflict stands for Character, Outside the box, Narrative storyline, Front of film, Love, Interviews, Care and Timeline, title and truth. The first thing Thirkell emphasises is the importance of establishing the point of the film and asking why you should care about a character.

"We work out a script, the pre-titles and the question of the film," says Thirkell. "The script becomes progressively less specific as it goes on, but it's a notion of how the film might work out."

The idea of creating a traditional storyline also melds into the notion of working "out of the box". "This is the opposite of the script," explains Thirkell. "You have a clear notion of what you want to film, but when things happen differently you go with it.

"Thinking outside the box embraces the idea that: 'When it's wrong, it's right'. Some people go too much for security and don't depart [from it], and others want to start filming anything that happens but then there's no coherence."

Thirkell says the front of the film is so crucial that in real terms those first two minutes are equal to 50% of the programme. "A film succeeds or fails because audiences with remotes will watch or not watch in that first two minutes. You need to set out a map of the feeling of the film; what sort of film you're watching and why you should care."

He goes on to talk about the idea of loving your characters and "showing them as people" and also how to get the best out of contributors.

"The interview is about emotion and feeling and finding out why people feel and care about something," he adds.

Care is about caring for your character. In Jamie's School Dinners you have to ask why you should care about a rich chef going to cook school meals. But in a David and Goliath story where you've posited the big question at the outset - can Jamie take over a borough, cook for 38p a head and persuade the government to change? - caring about the outcome should follow on.

Thirkell says: "I've always made films about people and made them come alive. Revealing characters and people's heroic natures - or not - through struggle is what most storytelling is about."

He doesn't use the Conflict method for all his films, but explains: "It's a provocation to make people think of a way to do it differently, but it's also an emergency toolkit for survival; if you don't have another way of doing it, it will work.

"There aren't absolute rules about television or storytelling but, like any art form, working within some rules and knowing how and why you're breaking them is quite helpful."

Michael Apted, director 'Up' documentary series, on storytelling

When Apted made 7Up it was intended to be a one-off film for World in Action to illustrate the workings of the British class system; the team had three weeks to select the participants and shoot the documentary.

Of course, it mushroomed and 49Up has been the latest chapter. Apted says: "Every seven years I get told documentary styles have changed and I should do this and that and I completely ignore them because I found something that works and it'll only work if I stick to it. I understood early on that, if it was going to be a long-running thing, the close-up was going to be very important; watching people's faces over the years was the most telling thing."

A defining feature of this series is that contributors are handled in individual segments. Apted says inter-cutting the different characters would be confusing and undermine the emotional impact of the piece. Originally, when the subjects were young and fairly inarticulate it was more of a collection of opinions on various subjects, but the style matured with the contributions.

"The programme changed because it became more about their personalities and emotional life and if you're going to get that you have to spend time on film with them. If you bounce around you get no emotional contact and you can't remember who anyone is."

It is also important to decide how to reveal the changes in a person's life; whether to adopt a "peeling the onion" approach or, if the whole context of someone's life has changed, whether to set the scene immediately. Apted also says he doesn't rehearse the interviewees. "In some ways it's an adventure for us. You harvest as much material as you can and try to figure out as you go what is working," he explains. "If I'm doing a regular documentary I always have an idea in the broadest terms of how it's going to be shaped. When I'm doing an Up film, I have a given structure that has developed over the years."

He is in the fairly unique position of having known his subjects for 40-odd years and admits it has ceased to be an objective look at people's lives. "I am very concerned with their lives," he admits. "We are all very bound together by the project. I try to be as clear-eyed as I can and capture them as I think they are every seventh year, but it's a very emotional experience."

Apted says it's important to develop your own style as a film-maker and make sure it fits the material. "Now that technology has made it easier and less expensive to make documentaries, it's more important to have a structure. Digital technology is a double-edged sword: it's wonderful because it means you can shoot a lot and are less invasive in people's lives, but you can shoot so much you have no idea what you have."

John Smithson, producer Touching the Void, on the cinematic X factor

Touching the Void was an enormous box office hit for Darlow Smithson, but it's also noteworthy for having been the first UK documentary to enjoy theatrical success. "You can see a documentary every night of the week on TV," says John Smithson. "But it's one thing to turn on your TV and another thing to go to the cinema and spend£8 seeing a documentary.

"You need to create an X factor. Precisely what that X factor is is one of the most difficult issues because no one truly knows, although there are lots of clues."

Smithson says whether you deliver intimacy as in Etre et Avoir or spectacle such as Touching the Void, if you want to compete with blockbuster movies you have to deliver a story. "We knew we had a fantastic story because the book was great, but there were a number of editorial and logistical issues about capturing the power of the story," remembers Smithson. "It's about two guys on their own who were not able to talk to each other for the most part. We had to decide what level of re-enactment and what level of documentary to use. It was [director] Kevin Macdonald's idea to tell the story only in the words of the protagonists."

As for the spectacle, Smithson had the majesty of the Andes to play with and the luxury of time to create a sumptuous production. "You had to really make it feel you were up there on the mountain and capture the beauty and threat of the Andes."

To this end, DoP Michael Eley went to the Andes to film wide shots on 35mm. "Conditions were so difficult that we filmed on lightweight Super 16 equipment for the re-enactment and high definition for the interviews," says Smithson.

The fact that a slew of UK documentaries hasn't followed in Touching the Void's wake shows just how hard it is to find a project with elements that elevate it above your average TV doc. "We have a development slate fund with the Film Council, Channel 4 and Pathé to develop theatrical documentaries," comments Smithson. "We spend most of our time killing ideas because they're great TV ideas, but they don't have that X factor that would make them work on the big screen."

Peter Parnham, editor Dangerous Films, on dramatising documentary

The centrepiece of the BBC's 60th anniversary commemorations, the two-hour dramatised documentary D-Day involved finding and interviewing surviving veterans, identifying archive material containing images of them and constructing a narrative around which these elements could be woven.

Peter Parnham's achievement in editing the film was creating a new cinematic "grammar" that overcame the problems inherent in trying to blend a documentary approach with the craft of dramatic storytelling.

"A documentary audience is used to being told things explicitly. Drama operates differently," says Parnham. "It uses a wide range of devices to arouse and hold your interest - withholding of information, suspense, characterisation, dialogue. These devices force you to engage actively with what you're watching - sifting through the facts, working out people's motivation, almost reconstructing the narrative as you watch.

"This makes watching a hybrid drama-doc difficult. As soon as you have a piece of commentary, everybody goes into documentary-watching mode. They 'switch off' and miss the first 45 seconds of the next section of drama because they're expecting to be told rather than learn. The trick is being able to reduce the amount of commentary so the drama can flow naturally."

It was a "magic moment" when they realised they had the answer to this problem. "I suddenly realised that the most poignant bit about these people was not in fact when they were talking but when they were just sitting immersed in their thoughts," remembers Parnham. "So we used their actual words over the drama or archive footage and then came back to them for the last couple of words, or maybe not even that."

The final edit contained four minutes of interviews with veterans and 30 minutes of archive, used in such a way that it blended with the drama footage. It was this "complicated hybrid" that earned Parnham the RTS award for documentary editing and a Bafta nomination this year.