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Story First Documentary Filmmaking – Story Draft

By January 18, 2014Uncategorized

Story First Documentary Filmmaking

Story First.

That is a mantra you’ll hear around the Stillmotion crew day in and day out. Story is the backbone and foundation to any film – it is how we share, grow and learn from each other – and regardless of the medium, storytelling has been a huge part of our collective history. Throughout this course we will be sharing our approach, real stories from the field, gear recommendations and all kinds of tips and tricks through our feature length documentary – #standwithme – as a case study.

Welcome to the Story Module. In this section you will find:

  • Video tutorial sharing our approach, pre-pro and discovery process as it relates to #standwithme
  • Point-by-point breakdown of the 5-step process to help you create your film
  • Downloadable worksheets to help you navigate taking a story from concept to life
  • Tips and points on what to consider when building a story
  • An in-depth section on Different Types of Narrative Options, sample video, pros and cons for each
  • An in-depth section on Storyboards complete with downloadable full set of boards from #standwithme

What’s in a Story?

What makes a good story? What is Story Structure and how do you go about navigating the muddy waters of piecing together a film? What are some clear, tangible ways in which you can come up with what your story is and how to best tell it? Here we will breakdown everything we know about how to turn a million different moving pieces to an engaging story that people will connect with.

Join Patrick and Grant as they share our approach and our process in finding and developing the #standwithme story from the very beginning.

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5 Step Storytelling Process

How do you create a longform project without getting lost in it? Whether it’s a wedding film, a short film for a local business or a feature length documentary, you need to tell a compelling story. A character, an enemy, keywords, an inciting incident, a purpose  – these are some of the tools you need to tell a compelling story.

1. Pre-Production. Start with your Purpose + Keywords

Below are some of the big questions you need to consider before beginning work on any film.  And as you seek to answer those questions you’ll need to be confident in your answers based on the discovery you’ve done. These answers will be your guiding light throughout the filmmaking process, keeping them in mind will make you a stronger and more consistent storyteller.

    • What is your story? Is it a good story?
    • Who are your characters?
    • What is your purpose?

From there try to come up with a one sentence statement of why your story needs to be told.

What are your keywords? These are the ideas that your story will be based on – and something you will refer to time and time again. Download this worksheet and use it to generate your keywords for a story you’d want to tell. (Click here to download the keywords worksheet)

By identifying the story, finding your character, deciding on your purpose, and choosing your keywords, you will be able to have the consistent voice that you want throughout your film. Consistency in purpose is vital to a good story, you don’t want to confuse your viewers by going in different directions and and risk losing their interest. It will also be easier for you –  instead of considering an infinite amount of options at every step, to make consistent choices based on your keywords as your guiding lights as a filter to make the relevant choice.

2. Discovery

This is where it gets fun! Dive into your story headfirst with research.

Go online and read everything you can about your topic. Read books. Watch videos. Meet people. Educate yourself so you know what to expect in the field. The more know, the better you can hone in your story. Hop in the car (or a plane, train, rocket…whatever you fancy) and go on a Discovery adventure!

A great way to start Discovery is to do Pre-Interviews. Get on the phone with them before you show up, tell them why you want to tell their story and find out more information from the source. Ask about their history, how their journey started, what’s changed and what’s coming up. Gather what info you can so that you can better formulate your interview questions and plan for your shoot before you even leave the studio. This also gives you a chance to get a great sense of how they respond and how well they can communicate their story.

Here are 3 tips you can apply during your Discovery process.

1. Look for engaging characters, relevant locations and new pieces of information that may help shape your story.
2. Be inquisitive. Ask questions and go in with an open mind.
3. Be genuine, show your passion and let your enthusiasm be your ally in getting support.

3. Apply Structure

After discovery you need to ask yourself how the story will unfold. This is a good time to map out a plot, get preliminary storyboards in place and hash out the potential events and incidents in your story. What is the path of it, and is it worth telling?

This is also a good time to identify the enemy dragon, the conflict in your story. Conflict is universal and it helps to setup the journey to a great story. You might have several potential dragons, but which one is most compelling? Which dragon will your viewers want to slay?

While thinking about your plot consider how it may fit in traditional a 3 Act Structure format.

Act 1 – An intriguing open to hook the viewer in followed by an inciting incident that is your dragon
Act 2 – Your character’s journey in fighting that dragon, the conflict you’ve setup in the first act.
Act 3 – A climax and resolution to the film

And as you go through the acts remember to think beginning, middle and end both in the overall story as well as within each scene. It will help you formulate the overall arc of your story, lay out the scenes and how your narrative will start and end.

Beginning Middle End

Download this worksheet and use it the next time you’re working on your story to map out three potential journeys to help you decide which one is the best fit.

Remember that even after you’ve applied this structure, your characters, your dragon, and your inciting incident will likely interact in ways you may not be able to predict. When that happens don’t panic! Know that if you have done your homework in pre production, you will have your keywords and purpose as your guiding light and keep you from going astray.

4. Ready, Set, Go!

This is it. The real filmmaking starts and you begin shooting, This is when conviction in your purpose, characters, and story will allow you to create the story you want. When you have confidence in your story, you can authoritatively ask for the things you need to get the shot you want.  So when you need to as that event planner you’ve never met before if you can be onstage to film their keynote speaker walking to the podium, you have a very clear reason why that is needed and how it fits into the story. When you know that this scene is essential to your film you will be able to convince others of that as well.

Armed with all the pre-production in hand, get your logistics in order, pack your bags (we’ll get to how to pick gear in the following modules) and get out there.

Plan, plan, plan. And then plan some more but don’t hesitate to be spontaneous to adapt to the story!

The most important step is to listen. You need to be present in the moment and make decisions based on what you hear while still staying true to your guiding principles.

5. Evaluate and Iterate

After each and every shoot, stop and evaluate.

Did this event change your story? If so, identify how it’s changed and adapt to the story as you discover new things. It’s almost inevitable – the story will shift but you want to be able to alter course with confidence. As filmmakers and storytellers, one of the most difficult skill to master is walking the line between having confidence in the story you want to tell, and listening to what your story is telling you.

The best storytellers listen. Use your guiding lights, but listen.

A film is made in pre-production.

Remember to stop and listen.

Listen for the story and know what you want to say before you speak. Find your keywords and let that guide all the decisions that follow from it. All too often we get so excited about the story we want to tell that we jump right into scenes or shots we want to do before we even figure out what the story is all about. By following a consistent workflow that starts with a Purpose and Keywords, you are setting yourself up to tell amazing stories time and time again.

Here’s a neat flowchart to help you keep track of the process we use in telling our stories.


More Tools for your Story Arsenal

Now cameras, lenses, gizmos and gadgets are always fun but before we move onto all the thought of how those choices relate to telling your story in the following modules we want to set you up to consider a couple more pre-production items:

  • Narrative options
  • Storyboards

Narrative Options

It’s often very helpful to come up with a treatment in pre-production to help you understand what creative vehicle you’ll use to tell your story and one of the most important things to consider when coming up with the creative treatment is how the story will be told – and by that we mean the narration option(s).

Much like making camera or lens choices its often easy to fall into a routine and go with what is comfortable or what’s been done in the past. In filmmaking this habit may be more evident in gear and cinematography choices but it applies to story as well and one of the big things to consider is your narrative style. Let’s take a look at several different kinds of narrative options.

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1. Voiceover – In a way this is the complimentary piece to a purely Visual narrative style. A voiceover utilizes copy, a script, written specifically for the story and read in a way that communicates both information and emotion to the audience. Because a script is tailored for the story, you have the ability to choose the voice and the tone that is most effective for your story and select the right narrator to bring that to life. National Geographic can provide the most amazing visuals of penguins in the arctic but their story is really brought to life through Morgan Freeman’s narration of their journey, trials and triumphs. Now it might be hard to get A-list celebrities to narrate your films but you can look agencies, singers and online sites like to help find and audition amateur and professional VO artists for your story.

We opened our film with a voiceover narration speaking to what it means to be a child, echoed by imagery of Vivienne being a kid. By doing that we are bringing people into the story and really being selective of the words we use to get across the point we want to make, in a way that both sets up the film in the tone and voice we find best fits this story.

2. Visual – This is pure imagery. There are no words and the story is driven visually through things like colors and movement, shapes and patterns, light and composition. This can be a very simple way of communicating your message but it can also be very challenging in that your imagery has to be strong enough to hold up to the story without the help of anything other than maybe soundtrack.

In #standwithme we utilized a purely visual narration style in the bottling factory scene where we see Vivienne’s first lemonade bottles rolling off the manufacturing line. At this point in the film we have setup how Vivienne’s fight against child slavery has gone from a small neighborhood lemonade stand to a much larger effort and by electing to use a visual narration style for this scene we are making it easier for the audience to take in what’s happened, show the beautiful imagery of the bottles and celebrate how far this has come.

3. Interviews – This is often the most common form of narrative in the documentary world. The main advantage here is that the audience can directly connect with the character both visually (by seeing them on camera) and in what their story is (in hearing in their words what they have to say). This also has the added benefit of bringing in personality and emotion in a way that is often easy to understand and relate to for the audience. The challenge though is to get that personality and emotion to come across on camera. Given that interviews are done with everyday real people it is up to the filmmaker to create an environment such that the interviewees are in a comfortable space to tell their story in a captivating way.

For #standwithme we chose to use interviews as our primary vehicle for the narrative because we felt it was the best way to connect our audience to our main characters, something we felt was absolutely necessary if we are to successful make a topic like child slavery approachable to the viewer. 

4. Ambient / Event – By event we mean narration through natural conversation. If you are prepared for it with the proper crew, skill set and gear to capture story and conversation as it happens this can be a great way to narrate scenes of a film as it feels the most real and natural, and by extension allows the viewer to better connect with the scene. The challenge here is both creating a space that allows those conversations to happen and being able to capture it in a live event situation.

We tried to do this whenever possible in our documentary to give our characters more personality and add depth and life to the story. In the scene where Vivienne meets Olga, the founder of the Nepal Youth Foundation, we see a natural interaction where our main character shares what she does to help child slaves and how someone else (Olga) helps – and in that process, the audience also learns about the conditions of what occurs in Nepal without having to hear it in an interview or through a VO.

5. Graphics – This is also visual but it generally includes some form of copy. You often see this in advertising because it can be a very effective in communicating something in a short and direct way. The challenge with this, especially if it is used on its own, is that is can be harder to be emotional and it’s somewhat limited in how much information to include because the audience would need to read it and not be overwhelmed.

For our documentary we incorporated graphics in a handful of ways. One would be the lower third titles of our main characters to introduce who they are and lend credibility to what they are communicating. The other time is in the ending where we gave a summary of what’s happened in the past year with each of our main characters and how their efforts have directly helped this cause. It wasn’t fancy, but it was effective in getting a lot of information across.

When we took on #standwithme we knew we likely had to employ more than one type of narrative to best tell our story and we ultimately used five different types of narrative in the film. Like with many things there isn’t a one size fits all so when you are coming up with the narrative for your film consider the pros and cons of each and see where certain styles may fit in your film. We chose a blend of narrative options so we can tailor each one to individual scenes, thereby communicating our message in the best way possible, and we challenge you to look past the norm, what is easy or comfortable and really push yourself to narrate your films in ways that best serve your stories.


Part of what makes filmmaking exciting is seeing your vision come to life. Knowing the story you want to tell and taking that idea from conception to completion is both challenging and rewarding. One of the things you can do to help visualize your ideas is through storyboarding.

Storyboards are a visual representation of your story – how it starts, how it unfolds, what is shown on screen, what is said in the narrative and how that is communicated to the audience. This may seem like an extra step if you’ve had an idea for your film in your head for years but the truth is that it’s a great tool to have in your filmmaking arsenal.

And you don’t have to be an artist! Storyboards isn’t about making pretty pictures, it’s about thinking ahead and making choices.

We used our whiteboard sketch to jot down our ideas and then had more professional boards made so that they are more shareable. Here we have a panel from our first storyboard for a scene with Lisa Kristine on our first shoot with her for the project.

Storyboard Sample - Lisa Going on Stage

You can download our first set of storyboards for #standwithme here (Click here to download)

But with so much to do already, why would you go through the trouble of making storyboards?

1. It’s a great communication tool. Whether internally or externally, having storyboards is a great way to share your vision. In the end, a film is something people watch and it’s not always easily explained so it can be much more effective if its told visually. Internally this can be used to give your DP an idea of what kind of shot you’re thinking of, it can be used to give the Gaffer an idea of how tight or wide the shot is and therefore how he’d would need to rig up his lights and it can be used to share the overall idea of the scene or the shot with the crew so that everyone is on the same page. Externally this can be immensely helpful in sharing the story and the idea with main characters to get them excited to be a part of the film, to get key stakeholders‘ buy-in on what your story is about and open up access to their network, locations and personnel, to obtain support from anyone who can help bring your film to life – other filmmakers, potential audience, investors and the likes.

2. It’s prompts you to do pre-production. Let’s face it, there’s a lot going on when it comes to making a film and sometimes we get caught up with the excitement of production that we forget to really sit down and think about all the production details before production. We start with Keywords but from there it goes right into storyboards of what the individual scenes are and how they connect. Thinking through your story, how it starts, how it flows and where it ends will not only challenge you in how you can approach the film and what you want to say, but also help make every part of it a stronger, more engaging story.

3. It helps keep you on point, on time and on budget. Another reason why storyboards are important is that it’s immensely helpful in keeping you focused. By thinking of what the story is and therefore making some key decisions before rolling camera storyboards help keep you on point in what you are trying to say, helps keeps you on time if you have a detailed list of what the shots are and how that fits into the schedule and gives you another tool to help budget for what you need to tell your story.

4. It helps drive decisions throughout the process. Let’s face it, no matter how much you plan things will change over time, especially if you are creating a documentary about something happening in the now, not in the past. And as the story develops it’s incredibly helpful to have storyboards so help you find connections between characters, between storylines and scenes, as well as see where all the pieces fit together. For us when we made #standwithme we had our first set of storyboards within a week of deciding we were going to tell this story but over the course of the eight months it took to make the film we went through several revisions – some came about as we learned more about our characters and some came through changes in the story as time went on.

You can download our final set of storyboards here for comparison (Click here to download)

While the overall picture remains the same, look at how much some of the details and scenes have changed from the initial set of boards!

One of the major shifts in the #standwithme story revolved around Vivienne’s lemonade. There was a point early on when we thought a main conflict was Make-A-Stand’s challenge in getting their lemonade bottles to the market but as we learned more about the issue and how much bigger it is, that it’s much more than just Vivienne’s efforts and that we can all vote to end child slavery with our purchasing dollars, we shifted to telling the story through the lens of the consumer and what buying Fair Trade means. If you download our final storyboards and compare that to our first set of storyboards you can see the shift in our approach and how we told the story, but that we are still retaining the overall structure of 1) sharing info about the issue 2) what can people do about it 3) inspiring change through social good.

Story First. Follow your Keywords. Listen to the Story.

Although there were changes to the story we were able to fall back onto our keywords and continued down the path of using storyboards to both help us wrap our heads around how the story has changed and what we needed to do to best tell that story. If you’d like to start making your own storyboards, download this blank template and get cranking! (Click here to download the template)

We need your help.

Thanks for checking out this sample module and we are stoked to share the rest of the course with you. We have plans to include helpful tools like how and when to kit up your camera while keeping story first, an A-Z guide to setting up for interviews, tips on how to shoot outside with available light, how to pick the right audio path for you and all kinds of other goodies. We’ve pulled together all our combined knowledge over the history of our studio and put together a total of 38 lessons to help you be a better storyteller.

– Joyce and the entire Stillmotion team

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please answer the following questions and let’s collaborate to make this better than ever.

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Joyce Tsang

About Joyce Tsang