Understanding Documentary Proposals
Charities are well versed in writing proposals for philanthropic funding and know what to look for in a documentary seeking a grant. Charitable organisations and documentary filmmakers can be great allies in presenting stories making an impact and encouraging sustainable change.
Documentary proposals present stories. A strong proposal will implicitly point to the wider significance and context of the story as well as its potential impact.
Documentaries are written as a brief synopsis, an outline and a full treatment.
The synopsis tells the basic story of a film in a sentence, a paragraph or one page.
A sentence or two will include the subject, the characters, the context and what might unfold. The one-page synopsis should tell us more than just the subject. It reveals the filmmakers intended interpretation of the subject. This is what distinguishes a documentary from journalism or current affairs.
A paragraph tells in a few sentences whose story it is, where it takes place and what is likely to happen. It will also point to the broader themes that the story explores. This indicates the wider significance and potential impact of the story.
A one-page synopsis gives more detail about the main characters, develops the themes, shows how they are played out by the characters, and illustrates any possible conflict and twists in the storyline. A one-page synopsis makes the story structure apparent, indicating how it begins, develops and how it is likely to end.
A documentary synopsis can only be a statement of intent as it is impossible to say exactly how a documentary story will unfold. However a good writer will be able to map out the potential directions the story may take, the possible conflict that may arise and what is at stake for the characters, so we can identify with their journey. A good documentary synopsis involves readers in the characters' situation, engages them in the choices the characters make and outlines a dramatic structure inspiring the reader to follow the story through to its outcome, whatever that may be.
For a standard industry guide on a synopsis, an outline and a treatment read the Australian Film Commission guidelines (pdf)
An outline for a documentary fleshes out the story structure and reveals how the issues are to be explored.The outline, through its narrative structure and character description, reveals how the unfolding story delivers its argument. The chosen style for the documentary is clear from the outline. This is where it is possible to judge whether the proposed style is appropriate for the story. For example, a historical story is difficult to tell in an observational style and would most likely involve either archival material or recreations. A story revolving around a present day, current issue with an inherent drama is better told in an observational style, particularly if the characters are compelling.
The genre of documentary is broad and engages a wide variety of storytelling techniques to communicate its message. Generally the form of a film evolves out of its content. The best documentaries have a perfect and harmonious match between the story and it's telling - the story and the style are seamless.
An assessor looks for what elements will be used in the storytelling. Archival footage, still photographs, dramatic re-enactments, stylised treatment of reality? Will there be narration? What style of voice-over is intended? Is it first person or objective? What kind of music is imagined? This will tell you something about the rhythm and feel of the documentary.
Is there something new that the filmmaker is bringing to the story or issue?
An outline must indicate there is a story in the proposed material and there is a compelling journey that will engage viewers. It must reveal the relationship or rapport the filmmaker has with the characters and provide an indication of trust and access to the story.
The outline also shows that the intentions of the filmmaker are achievable.
Finally an outline should be a solid framework for the structure and unfolding of the narrative, the characters journeys and the wider thematic implications of the story.
There is also room in the outline for the filmmaker to explain why they feel this story will have relevance to an audience. Once again, why is it interesting, who is the main character, what is at stake, how will this be revealed and why is this of relevance to an audience?
As an assessor of any documentary proposal, you are its first audience. If it engages you and keeps you reading through to the end, then chances are it will engage viewers.
See samples of synopses in the Case Studies section of the website.
The treatment builds on the outline and illustrates the style that will be used to treat the material. Documentaries are able to draw on many techniques including conventional interviews, observational "fly on the wall" shooting, archival compilations, dramatic treatment of reality, animation, graphics and so on. They may be shot on location or in studios with projected backgrounds. The different treatments of reality will provoke different emotional responses to the material.
The treatment might include quotes from interviews, a description of how sound might be used and the style of music to give an indication of mood.
A strong treatment describes the film as you would see and hear it on the screen. It retains the strong structure of the outline and fleshes this out with visual descriptions, style, sound, subtext and rhythm. It frequently propels the story along with quotes from characters with each paragraph indicating the next scene or sequence.
It is important to remember that a documentary treatment is still an intention or plan of how things might unfold, and not a dramatic script, which functions more as a blueprint for action. But if substantial research has been done and the filmmaker is well acquainted with the characters, their situation and what might be at stake for them, then the treatment can indicate potential narrative developments.
A solid treatment of the research will develop themes and subtext. It will deal implicitly with wider issues of significance and make apparent why and how the story will connect with audiences. Once again, it is a statement of intent based on what you know from the research, who will guide us through the story, where and when it takes place, why it is of interest and how it will connect.
It is common to include extra information in background notes. This may be background story, historical context, biographical or psychological information on the characters. Generally it is information relevant to providing context and background to the story, but would not necessarily be on the screen within the flow of the narrative. For this reason it is generally provided separately as it interrupts the flow of the treatment.
Often filmmakers have already shot something to give an indication of their characters, place and potential story. Watching rough footage can be misleading without a guide of what to look for in the material.
During research many filmmakers will film material to get a sense of characters or to follow time-critical action which needs to be documented before waiting for committed funding. The director or producer of the program may pick up a camera and cover some action but they are not necessarily professional cinematographers. It is always useful research to take a camera into a situation to test the response of people to a film crew. Using rough footage captured by a minimal crew often turns out to be an excellent research tool guiding the writing and focus of the documentary.
For this reason, research footage is often rough - the camera may move around a lot and the sound may be less than perfect. However, look for quality within the characters, place or situation that will engage viewers emotionally in a potential story. It is important to look beyond the technical weaknesses of research footage to see if there is something compelling in the characters and their context that illustrates the issues the foundation wishes to support.
The intention of research footage is mainly to show character and location, and shouldn't be judged as the production quality of the final film
Once a filmmaker has financial support, they will be able to employ cinematographers, sound and editing crew to ensure superior technical quality. Editing enhances rough footage enormously aided by sound post-production and music.
When a filmmaker has applied for funding to support a work in progress, they may submit footage captured with the intention to use in the final production. This footage should be a different quality to research footage. It should be of a higher standard technically, good to watch and easy to hear. Sound recording is extremely important in documentary production; even if the pictures look good, if you cannot hear what people are saying, viewers will switch off.
Production footage may not have captured the whole story or the complete event revealing the issues. As a work in progress there may only be sections of the whole that have been recorded, but there should be clear evidence of engaging characters involved in a developing situation.
NEXT: Inspiring stories