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Writing a Documentary Treatment

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Some tips and advice on writing a documentary treatment.

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Writing a Documentary Treatment

  1. 1. Week 3 SHANNON WALSH SCHOOL OF CREATIVE MEDIA, CITY UNIVERSITY HONG KONG Writing a Documentary Treatment
  2. 2. What is a Treatment? • A written expression of your visuals; • It conveys the ‘mood’ of projects; • Always go for STORY over CHARACTER when writing treatment • Use free-flow writing to write down all the things you like about your subject before writing • Should read like a short story, as though we can ‘see’ what is happening while reading • Doesn’t have to be exactly what you’ll end up with, but it is an exercise in IMAGINING what you will get, based on your research and knowledge • Only write a treatment once you have done most of your research.
  3. 3. Why write a treatment? • Describe a project so that people involved share an understanding of interpretation and approach. • Create a paper document that can help secure funding, distribution, and other resources. • Provide guidance in the structuring and editing of a documentary project. • Get to know your subject better and really work out what you plan to do • Everyone wants different formats, so be ready to write again and again in different ways and lengths.
  4. 4. Treatment Elements: SUNDANCE BRIEF LOGLINE In a concise 2-3 sentences provide a description of your film that cites location, characters or subjects, mission and stakes as applicable. SUMMARY OF TOPIC (1-2 PAGES) Briefly provide contextual information to acquaint the reader to the subject, advising why the topic is critical and why such a film is needed now. Explain any global relevance for the contemporary social issues addressed. Describe why you are the best person to tell this story. Please be concise.
  5. 5. NARRATIVE SYNOPSIS (1-2 PAGES) Clearly communicate the story your film will tell. • Who are the characters and what is their journey? • What might be different for them from the beginning to the end? • What is the central question your film will answer? • Consider narrative arc, point-of-view, and use of artistic elements. Proposals MUST convey a vision for a finished film. Development proposals that have not yet identified possible characters or subjects, locations or are unable to unable to articulate the narrative framework or the story’s central question will not be considered Treatment elements
  6. 6. Elements of Effective Treatment An effective proposal will: • Tell a good story • Make human truths emerge through images—not just verbal description. • Present a personal, critical perspective on some aspect of the human condition. • Inform and emotionally move an audience • Keep it Simple Stupid!! (KISS)
  7. 7. NOTES ON STYLE • Active, present tense, i.e. “This documentary tells the story of Bruce Lee” NOT “This documentary will tell the story” • Use visual language • Tell the reader what they will see and hear on the screen. • Describe the story and introduce any characters.
  8. 8. Proposal presents its argument rationally through the following kinds of information: • Length of work, format. • Who is the intended audience? • Goal or intended purpose(s) of the film • Has any media work already been produced on this subject? If so, what is new, different, interesting, engaging about your approach? • Style (Any key stylistic elements in writing, shooting, audio, editing, etc.) • What about the soundtrack? (Any music, narration, etc.—If so, who? what?) • Who is working on the project? And what similar projects have they done in the past? (Credibility of production team) • How will this work be distributed? (Which markets, any distributor on board already?) • Project history or current status of project. • Historical background or context of the story • Who, what, where, when, how, why? “March of the Penguins” Proposals vs. Treatments
  9. 9. • Didn’t do your research • Lack of specific and visual language • Making it too academic • Didn’t find out other films already made on the topic • Spell Check! And get help with English if you need to! Common Mistakes
  10. 10. Example I: “Eternity” Ruth Ridley is the strong and feisty daughter of the preacher John Ridley. She sits in the studio before a beautiful, stylised landscape of a sea at sunset. She explains the influence her father had on Arthur Stace, who was later to become known as ‘Mr Eternity ’.A photograph of John Ridley appears. It was Ridley ’s sermon,’ Echoes of Eternity ’,which supposedly converted Stace to Christianity in the 1930s. It was after this sermon that Stace took a piece of chalk from his pocket and wrote, in beautiful copperplate script on the sidewalks of Sydney, the one word that would influence many for the next four decades: ‘Eternity ’. The image of Arthur Stace appears, recreated, as he walks away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, wearing a dark coat and Depression-era hat.1920s archival footage of two male swimmers, seen from overhead, lying on a cliff face. The turbulent sea hits the cliff as the sea runs over their bodies. John Ridley ’s poetic sermon booms loudly as the sea returns to hit the cliff face.
  11. 11. Example II: “Control is the Lie” In the sweeping desert of Ningxia, China, a vast expanse of dunes roll into the distance under murky blue skies. In the early morning light a lone figure, Yang, treks across the sand. In heat as high as 40C, she wraps her face and arms carefully to avoid the harshness of the sand and sun. Yang works side by side with her husband here in this barren terrain, trying to hold back the creeping desert. Growing desertification in China is largely agreed to be a man-made crisis provoked by human pressures on the ecosystem. The creeping desert is engulfing cities, and spawning deadly dust storms that are reaching further and further east. Here at the Baijitan National Reserve in Ningxia they have devised a simple but innovative technology to attempt to hold back the desert. Workers dig square rivets into the sand with straw nets, encouraging precious rain water to accumulate on the land where they then plant matured seedlings. As Yang looks out across the land, as far as the eye can see stretches of dunes are marked by these flimsy looking straw nets. Straw holding back dust. Such basic elements. An image of the futility, perseverance and optimism of our battle with the non-human world. Yang is a hard working woman in her early 40s. Her face is red from the everyday exposure to the sun, and her teeth marked by the familiar stains of heavy tea drinking, but her light brown eyes shimmer with a fierce inner beauty and determination. She is part of the ethnic Hui minority, and a devout muslim. Like all of the Hui women on the dunes, she works with a colourful scarf wrapped around her head, swirls of purple and pink set off against the white sands. A government slogan emblazoned on a red flag whips in the wind above her head: “Stop Desert, Build Economic Prosperity”. This slogan is as true as day for Yang.
  12. 12. Tag Line: “On the 40th anniversary of the Internet, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC tells the story of the effect the web is having on our society as seen through the eyes of “the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of”, visionary Josh Harris."
  13. 13. Tag Line: “The legend of the greatest driver who ever lived." Summary: “The story of the monumental life and tragic death of legendary Brazilian motor-racing Champion, Ayrton Senna. Spanning the decade from his arrival in Formula One in the mid 80's, the film follows Senna's struggles both on track against his nemesis, French World Champion Alain Prost, and off it, against the politics which infest the sport. Sublime, spiritual yet, on occasion, ruthless - Senna conquers and transcends Formula One to become a global superstar. Privately, he is humble, almost shy, and fiercely patriotic, donating millions to his native Brasil and contemplating a life beyond motor- racing. Yet he is struck down in his prime on the blackest weekend in the history of the sport, watched live on television by 300 million people. Years on he is revered in Formula One as the greatest motor racing driver of all time - and in Brasil as a Saint.”
  14. 14. Summary: “In the astonishingly gripping Let the Fire Burn, director Jason Osder has crafted that rarest of cinematic objects: a found-footage film that unfurls with the tension of a great thriller. On May 13, 1985, a longtime feud between the city of Philadelphia and controversial radical urban group MOVE came to a deadly climax. By order of local authorities, police dropped military-grade explosives onto a MOVE-occupied rowhouse. TV cameras captured the conflagration that quickly escalated—and resulted in the tragic deaths of eleven people (including five children) and the destruction of 61 homes. It was only later discovered that authorities decided to “...let the fire burn.” Using only archival news coverage and interviews, first-time filmmaker Osder has brought to life one of the most tumultuous and largely forgotten clashes between government and citizens in modern American history.”
  15. 15. Tag Line: “Narrated by Ms Lauryn Hill, Concerning Violence is a bold and fresh visual narrative on Africa, based on newly discovered archive material covering the struggle for liberation from colonial rule in the late ‘60s and ‘70s”

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