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Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos, Fourth Edition

Alan Rosenthal

Publication Year: 2007

As Alan Rosenthal states in the preface to this new edition of his acclaimed resource for filmmakers, Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos is “a book about storytelling—how to tell great and moving stories about fascinating people, whether they be villains or heroes.”
In response to technological advances and the growth of the documentary hybrid in the past five years, Rosenthal reconsiders how one approaches documentary filmmaking in the twenty-first century. Simply and clearly, he explains how to tackle day-to-day problems, from initial concept through distribution. He demonstrates his ideas throughout the book with examples from key filmmakers’ work.
New aspects of this fourth edition include a vital new chapter titled "Making Your First Film," and a considerable enlargement of the section for producers, "Staying Alive," which includes an extensive discussion of financing, marketing, festivals, and distribution. This new edition offers a revised chapter on nonlinear editing, more examples of precise and exacting proposals, and the addition of a complex budget example with explanation of the budgeting process. Discussion of documentary hybrids, with suggestions for mastering changes and challenges, has also been expanded, while the “Family Films” chapter includes updated information that addresses rapid expansion in this genre.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Other Books, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-11

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Preface to the Fourth Edition

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pp. xi-xiii

... About five years ago I pushed away my pen (actually, my word processor) after completing the third edition of this book. I was happy. I could take a holiday. Now I could lie low for at least ten years before it would be necessary to update the text. Well, I was wrong once again. ...

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Preface to the First Edition

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pp. xv-xvi

I have always distrusted how-to books, whether they are about sex or about making a million. The authors of such texts seem to me a bit presumptuous in trying to teach you things best learned by experience. ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-5

In the last twenty years, tremendous changes have taken place in documentary and nonfiction filmmaking. These changes include subject matter, form, rise in the number of university film and video courses, but very few books explain how to consider, create, write, produce, and direct the “new” film. One object of this book is to fill that gap: ...

Part One: From Idea to First Draft

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2. Clearing the Decks

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pp. 9-18

From time to time I meet with my partner, Larry, and we toss documentary ideas at each other. Larry sits, taking notes furiously, and I wander around with a cup of coffee. “How about,” I’ll say, “a series on cities. How we lived yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and how the environment has changed, and what the changes do to the quality of our lives. The disaster in New Orleans would provide a good first ...

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3. Getting to Work

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pp. 19-32

The writer-producer’s first work on a project can be broken down into two stages: (1) from birth of the idea to completion and acceptance of the proposal and (2) from the research stage to acceptance of the shooting script. A great deal of writing will be done at both stages, but to different ends. The final objective of the first stage is to sell potential backers, like a television commissioning editor, on the idea of a film. ...

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4. Writing the Proposal

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pp. 33-55

It is clear enough that everything starts with the idea, but what comes next? Proposal or research? Are we back to the conundrum of the chicken and the egg vying for seniority? Or maybe the example of Siamese twins offers a better guide for us, because in practice proposal and research are totally intertwined and march forward together. ...

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5. Research

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pp. 56-64

The proposal that was based on your preliminary research has been accepted. You have talked it through with the television commissioning editor. You clearly know what the film is about and what it is meant to do. You have thought about audience. The contract has been signed and you have gotten the go-ahead. The next stage is researching the ...

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6. Shaping the Film

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pp. 65-89

After the research, you still have to answer a few questions before tackling the draft script. Your main concern is how to shape the film into a logical and emotional whole that has tremendous appeal for your audience. Here you are concerned with four topics: approach, style, form, and structure. The topics often overlap, and it is sometimes difficult to separate them. ...

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7. Beginning the First Draft

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pp. 90-102

You are a few weeks into the film, and things are beginning to clarify in your mind. You have decided to do the film as story plus essay. You think that you have found the right approach and structure, and you are beginning to see a possible opening, middle, and end. Great! Now all you have to do is sit down and write your first draft. ...

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8. Completing the First Draft

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pp. 103-126

You have worked out a story line and idea line. Now comes the fun as you start considering how to put over your ideas visually. Every sequence has a point or a number of points that can be put over by visuals, by commentary, or by a combination of both. Your aim is to find the most powerful way to use the joint forces of both picture ...

Part Two: Preproduction

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9. Budget and Contract

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pp. 129-145

The production contract, the agreement between you and those who are giving you the money to make the film, formalizes the terms under which the film is to be made. It is usually drawn up on the basis of your proposal before the script is written, but many organizations prefer to pay for a script and then, if they like it, commit themselves ...

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10. Preproduction Survey

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pp. 146-161

Once you have signed the production contract, you are ready to begin the film. You are now in for a period of work that can take anywhere from two months to a year or more and that falls into three distinct sections: preproduction, production, and postproduction. This chapter deals with the problems and tasks you are likely to encounter ...

Part Three: Production

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11. The Director Prepares

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pp. 165-176

... Up to production and location shooting, many of the director’s responsibilities could, in theory, be shared. When shooting starts, however, the full responsibility for the film falls on the shoulders of the director. His or her job is to create or find the pieces that will come together in the editing to make a complete film. If a director fouls up in a feature film, it may be possible to reshoot. ...

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12. Directing the Interview

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pp. 177-192

We use interviews at two stages of the film: during basic research and during the filming itself. The problems arising during research have been dealt with earlier. This chapter deals with preparing and conducting the film interview. ...

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13. On Location

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pp. 193-202

Much of the approach to directing people on location has already been covered in the section on interviewing. In this chapter I will try to fill in the gaps, covering the more intricate situations. ...

Part Four: Postproduction

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14. Editing

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pp. 205-225

Many people regard the shooting phase as an end in itself. It isn’t; it merely provides the raw materials for the film. The real building process takes place during postproduction, which is supervised for the most part by the editor. The director still acts as the captain on the bridge, but the editor now becomes the chief mate who does 90 ...

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15. Writing the Final Narration

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pp. 226-258

As the film has been progressing through its various stages, you have probably been drafting a narration line, and perhaps even the tentative narration itself. Certain films, such as a historical documentary, require that you think about the narration very early on. Other films, heavily dependent on interviews and verité techniques, may allow you ...

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16. Finishing the Film

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pp. 259-266

Once you have finished picture editing, you have to prepare and mix your various sound tracks. Here you may be dealing with five or more tracks, the most common ones being the narration and sync tracks, two music tracks, and at least one effects track. Ultimately you are going to mix them down into one master track for 16mm films or two for stereo or video. ...

Part Five: Special Cases

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17. Making Your First Film

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pp. 269-274

OK. You’ve just come to university or film school, you’ve signed up for Video 101 or Doc Films 117, and you are about to start your first film. You’ve read a little about the exercise in the course description, and you rather like the idea of yourself as embryo director. In your mind’s eye, you see yourself swaggering along with the camera under ...

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18. Cinema Verité

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pp. 275-287

Cinema verité, or direct cinema, as it is sometimes called in America, is actually a method of filmmaking rather than a type of film of the profile or nature variety. Cinema verité was the name given to the radical experiments in filmmaking undertaken in the United States, Canada, and France in the early 1960s. Robert Drew, Ricky Leacock, ...

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19. Documentary Drama

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pp. 288-310

When I was a kid growing up in England, I would occasionally visit the British Museum. In the archaeology section, one granite carving fascinated me above all others. This amazing animal had the bearded head of a man, the body of a bull, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a lion. What I didn’t know then, but only realized much later, was ...

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20. The History Documentary

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pp. 311-327

In 1990 the outstanding hit of the season for PBS was Ken Burns’s seven-part recounting of the American Civil War. In 1992, under the guidance of executive producer Zvi Dor-Ner, WGBH launched its own commemorative series, Columbus and the Age of Discovery. And at the beginning of June 1994, one could scarcely turn on a television set without stumbling upon yet another recounting or reinterpretation ...

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21. Family Films

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pp. 328-350

In 1996 an unknown middle-aged schoolteacher called Frank Mc- Court published his autobiography. The book told of Frank’s povertystricken childhood in Limerick, in western Ireland. Though many of the related incidents were extremely tragic, McCourt recounted them in an ironic, humor-filled prose that quickly took Angela’s Ashes to the top of the best-seller list, where it remained for 117 weeks. ...

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22. Industrial and Public Relations Films

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pp. 351-363

Probably more people are employed in making industrial and public relations films than in making documentaries. This has certainly been the case since the 1990s, when small-format video equipment revolutionized the subject. Today, industrial films and videos are in. They are seen as relatively cheap but effective publicity materials, with the ...

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23. Staying Alive: The Producer’s Role

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pp. 364-387

It’s of no use being the world’s greatest filmmaker if, as producer, you can’t get your film funded or distributed. In an expensive medium you have to be a businessperson as well as an artist. You have to find a sponsor or you’re dead. By sponsor, I mean anyone with money who will support your film. This can be a university department, a ...

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24. Conclusion: Problems and Challenges

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pp. 389-397

I hope that this book has given you some insight into filmmaking. I have tried to cover most of the main issues and show you how professionals deal with certain problems. However, some issues don’t fall neatly within the previous chapters, and I will therefore deal with those here. They concern the outlook of the filmmaker, the question ...


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pp. 418-429


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pp. 401-405

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 407-408


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pp. 409-418

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Author Bio, Back Cover

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pp. 448-449

Alan Rosenthal was born in England, studied law at Oxford, and has made more than sixty films, mainly in the United States, Canada, and Israel. He helped train Israel Television’s film staff and has written six other books about documentary and drama, including a book of recollections on Israel, Jerusalem, Take One: Memoirs of a Jewish Filmmaker. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387724
E-ISBN-10: 0809387727
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809327423
Print-ISBN-10: 0809387727

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 17
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 4th ed.