The Script --
The Key Element
With the basic overview of the production process out of the way, we can look at the key element in the process: the script.
There are semi-scripted shows and fully scripted shows.
In the first category are interviews, discussions, ad-lib programs, and many demonstration and variety shows. These scripts resemble a basic outline, with only the segments and basic times listed.
Although scripts for a semi-scripted show may be comparatively easy to write (since there's very little to write!), this type of show puts pressure on the director and talent to figure things out as they go along and to try to bring things together "on the fly."
Much in contrast, scripts for fully scripted shows list the complete audio and video for every minute.
In a fully scripted show, the overall content, balance, pace, and timing can be figured out before the production starts so that surprises can be minimized. (Notice we didn't say eliminated).
The Concrete-to-Abstract Continuum
Documentary and hard news pieces should be reasonably concrete. That is, they should present information clearly, minimizing the possibility for misunderstanding.
A concrete news script is quite different in approach than a feature story, soft news piece, music video, or dramatic production.
In the latter cases, it's often desirable not to be too concrete -- in order to allow room for personal interpretation.
Let's look at two examples.
An instructional video on the operation of a software program should be as explicit (concrete) as possible. Given the nature of computers and computer programs you should present information in a clear, systematic fashion.
Although you'll want to present the material in a creative, interesting and possibly even humorous way, the challenge is in having all audience members acquire the same clear idea of a specific sequence of operational procedures.
If most of the audience can successfully operate the program afterward, you're successful; if they can't, you're not.
In contrast to this concrete type of production there are, for example, feature pieces on Jazzercise or new fashions.
Given the fact that the audience has undoubtedly seen scores of television segments on fashion, the first challenge is to approach the segment in a fresh, creative, attention-getting way. Because they appeal largely to the ego and emotions, we're less interested in communicating facts than in generating excitement, i.e., creating a positive emotional response.
Likewise, a soft news piece on exercise should not emphasize facts as much as action. Its approach should be more abstract. Instead of facts, its purpose is to communicate something of the feelings surrounding exercise and those that go along with having a slim, trim, fit body.
Hold Their Interest
In scripting content, a logical and linear sequence is the most natural approach, especially when information must be presented in a precise, step-by-step fashion. Recall the instructional computer piece we cited.
In some types of productions, however, it's not desirable to use a structured, linear presentation. In fact, this approach can end up being a bit predictable and boring.
In dramatic productions, the techniques of using flashbacks (momentarily cutting back to earlier events) or presenting ▲ parallel stories (two or more stories running at the same time) can add variety and stimulate interest.
But whatever the approach, be certain to present the materials in a way that will hold the attention and interest of your audience. You can do this by:
Spicing Up Interviews
For better or worse, interviews serve as the mainstay of many, if not most, nondramatic productions. Because of this and the difficulty involved in making interviews interesting, they require special attention. (Later, we'll talk about interviewing techniques.)
Even though "talking heads" can get pretty boring, the credibility of an authority or the authenticity of the person directly involved in the story is generally better than a narrator presenting the same information.
However, except for rather intense and emotional subject matter, keep in mind that once you see what someone looks like during an interview, you will probably want to enhance interest and pace in your piece during the editing phase by cutting in B-roll (related supplementary) footage.
B-roll footage consists of shots of people, objects or places referred to in the basic interview footage -- the A-roll.
At the same time, don't let the B-roll footage distract from what's being said.
Whenever you plan an interview, also plan for supplemental, B-roll footage. Sometimes you won't know what this will be until after the interview suggests it, so you need to keep your production options open.
In postproduction, you'll need to specify exact points in the interview (the A-roll) where the B-roll footage will go. Simply trying to describe points in scenes for edits can be difficult and open the door to errors -- not to mention require a lot of words. The only way to specify precise audio and video edit points is to use time-code numbers.
Time code, sometimes called ▲SMPTE/EBU time code after the organizations that adopted it, refers to the eight-digit numbers that identify the exact hours, minutes, seconds, and frames in a video.
These numbers specify points on video recordings within at least 1/30th of a second -- a level of accuracy important for a tightly edited show.
Note the time-code numbers in the picture on the left. In this case, we read them as 0 hours, 1 minute, 16 seconds, and 12 frames. We'll go into time codes more in the audio and video editing sections.
Assembling the Segments
Documentary writers who prefer a systematic approach (and have the luxury of time) start by typing -- or having typed -- a transcript of the interviews on a computer, complete with time-code references. This is especially valuable if they need to break up numerous lengthy interviews and rearrange them in a topical or more logical sequence.
Most word processing programs allow two or more windows on the screen.
Using this approach you can search and review the interview transcript in one window while writing the script in the other. Thus, you can easily condense, rearrange, and assemble the segments directly on the computer screen to provide the most logical and interesting flow.
In some instances you may be able to play the video and audio sequences on the computer and see the results as you go along.
Whenever it's necessary to explain or amplify points or establish bridges between interview segments, you can write narration. An announcer will generally read this over B-roll footage.
In writing the script be alert at every moment to use the most effective means of getting your ideas across.
Ask yourself which technique(s) will best illustrate your point: narration, a short clip from an interview, an electronically animated sequence, a graph, or a still photo?
In establishing the pace of the production, eliminate long, slow periods and even long, fast-moving periods. Either will tire an audience.
Except for a short, fast-paced montage (a rapid succession of images), keep shots segments to at least two seconds in length. Conversely, only a scene with plenty of action or intensity will be able to hold an audience for more than 30 seconds.
Remember, engage your audience quickly and leave them with a positive impression at the end. In between, keep interest from drifting by varying pace, emotional content, and presentation style.
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