Writing a Documentary
by Laura P. Valtorta
Whenever I watch a documentary film, the credit for writing takes me by surprise. How can anyone write a documentary, since it’s a recording of real life, and unscripted experiences?
While making my sixth documentary, “Mehndi & Me” (completed today, July 27, 2017 – Yahoo!) I finally figured it out. I was the writer, because I was piecing together the “script”: a list of film clips typed up in the order they should appear in the final product. With “Mehndi & Me,” a portion of the draft script, with inexact times, looks like this:
Mehndi & Me (short film)
Version 1 – 07.08.2017 Laura P. Valtorta
Clip # Description Beginning and end of clip (dialogue) Music & special effects Beginning and end (seconds)
GoPro 168 Six bare hands in circle Laboni’s music, instrumental 0:00 to 0:07
GoPro 172 Hands in circle, painted Laboni’s music, instrumental 0:12 to 0:25
Laura’s shot, outside of law office Shaky shot proceeds from side of building to sign 9 seconds
Lynn’s shot Laura introduces theme “I’m just glad to be here in Columbia, SC; and I can get mehndi from a real artist from Bangladesh.” First time this is said, NOT repeat 0:16 to 0:27
Lynn’s shot Silent shot of Laboni Laboni’s music with singing 0:11 to 0:21
Lynn’s shot Dianne, Laboni, Laura, & Kimberly at table “I would love it if you got 2 designs…more balanced” No music 0:10 to 0:17
This is my personal version of a documentary script. Others might use a storyboard with pictures or drawings. Sometimes I begin with a storyboard after shooting and proceed to the written script. In any case, writing a script is the step taken before editing, when the film is actually cut.
Before putting together a script, the director must first shoot the film (the most joyous part of the process) and then review hours of clips, making a complete list of what’s going on in each clip. Reviewing the raw footage is tedious. The Editing Decision List (EDL) that results is a giant list of clips with times and descriptions. These are the ingredients used to assemble the script.
For a documentary, the middle process is something like this:
• Plan the shoots
• Shoot the film
• Review the film clips and prepare Editing Decision Lists (EDLs) ugh!;
• Choose elements from the EDLs to write a script;
• Edit the film and promos; add music
Before all this, after conceiving an idea for a documentary, I secure the music and music rights. Music must be available during the editing process.
For me, making a film is teamwork. I could not make any of my films without the help of either Genesis Studio (owned by Cliff Springs), or the indomitable Lynn Cornfoot, who works at South Carolina ETV.