WIFTI Summit 2012
University of California Washington Center
Saturday December 1, 2012; 4:15-5:45 pm
Writer: Heather Godwin, WIFV DC Member
Every battle is won, before it is ever fought.
Sun Tzu, Chinese Military Strategist (544BC-496BC)
This was the quote that documentary dynamo, Adele Schmidt, began her session with for the WIFTI International Summit’s hour and a half session on documentary storytelling. Boy did that hit home for me.Having recently completed my first documentary film ever (after what seems a veritable lifetime of starting and stopping numerous projects) my battle scars from mental head banging, technical turmoil and high artistic anxiety are still throbbing. I refused to let this project end up in yet one more pretty box, holding precious footage going nowhere. I stubbornly persevered, determined to win this time and I am now the proud owner of a twenty-seven minute film called, “Ode to Treasure Hammock Ranch”. Even though I managed to finish one, I was thrilled to see the topic of documentary story structure listed on the summit’s offerings. Maybe the next one wouldn’t be such a fight, I thought, if I at least had a map of the territory. “It Happened One Night, Documentary Structure and Storytelling” proved to offer just that. Adele’s class gave us a clear and concise battle plan for the murky business of telling the stories of life.
“If you go into it with the right morale – that you are going to make it and going to win – you can win that battle by planning and having solid story structure,” said Adele, who is an award winning documentarian and teacher at American University. Of German descent, Adele used a powerpoint presentation and clips from the film, Threading the Needle to illustrate documentary story structure as she vivaciously led us through the process and charmed us with her thick, German accent.
She began briefly with pre-production management; mentioning budgeting, crew selection and timeline, then quickly jumped into the heart of it all. Naturally the first step is to gain access to your subject. Then scout the location, get to know your characters and do the research to become an expert on the chosen topic. Only then are you ready to take control of the story. Yes! Control! The endless hours of wrestling with my footage and my viscous mind to merely find my story still haunts me. Starting a project by taking control of it? Holy cow. Then she put up the slide that felt like salve on my fresh wounds: The Curve. The Curve! (See below for Adele and the legendary curve).
“Follow this!” she declared, pointing at the slide that showed the upside-down U-shaped curve of a story arc. “Keep the curve in mind while you are filming,” she said. “You have to think about what the end of the film is going to be when you are shooting!“ “But this is life,” we countered. “What if things don’t go as we hope they will?” “Always have a Plan B,” she replied. “But keep shooting with The Curve in mind.”
The Curve begins the story with the Inciting Moment. What’s the film about? This is where you ask questions, and show something new and unexpected. Then it moves up to Exposition, with the introduction of the main characters and their mission. Next comes The Complication, where the opposing force becomes evident. What is the character trying to get? What is keeping them from getting what they want? For Adele’s first documentary, it was the slum her character lived in – the outside force that has to be overcome. For my film about ranching, I recognized that one opposing force was the dilemma of one herd mixing with another herd because someone left a gate open. The mix-up made it impossible to recognize the cows they needed without spending all day separating them. Whew – at least I had that.
At the peak of The Curve is the Climax, the moment of great intensity where opposing forces clash. Well, hmmm – I guess that would be my scenes of the zaniness when the cowboys have to part out the calves, check every cow’s number and get this all done before they can even start their day. From there the arc starts downward towards The Reversal, where the conflict between protagonist and antagonist unravels. Moving further down is Falling Action, with a moment of last suspense, and at the bottom is The End, where conflicts are resolved and there’s a release of tension and anxiety. From there I was stumped – the cow mix-up story did resolve, but the film then moves into the other life my rancher lives, that of an accomplished painter and poet. I decided not to stress and just listen.
Adele then moved on to techniques for moving the story forward, such as Character Development, Management of Time and Management of Space. There I discovered I had used all of those techniques to move my story forward. Yay!! Organic success. She concluded the session with clips from the beginning, middle and end of “Threading the Needle”, a beautifully done documentary about a Holocaust Survivor who created elaborate embroideries of family memories to help heal a lifetime of pain. The clips clearly illustrated the story arc and made the process come to life.
I left the session pleased to learn that my short film had not strayed far from this technique, and armed with a powerful new weapon for the next time I pick up my camera and head into battle – knowing I will win again. Perhaps this time with less angst.
About the Writer: Heather Godwin, WIFV DC Member
Heather is an active member of WIFV DC, and recently completed her first documentary film, Ode to Treasure Hammock Ranch.