Scriptwriting for factual TV
Documentaries are all about storytelling and scripting in the beginning will give you a good plan, allowing you to work out the shots you want to get as well as shape the programme during the production process. Of course, the script may change shape during the production – you never know what may happen on a shoot – but as our panel discuss, being prepared while allowing for some flexibility can bring your story together and keep the production on track.
The panel share their thoughts on the process of scripting, and how setting the tone and style for the programme early on can have a huge impact on how the production progresses and help avoid last minute changes in the edit. They discuss how scripts may differ according to the channel airing your programme and how the genre will also affect how the script is constructed. The panel also look at how the presenter can shape the development of the script, bringing in their own immediate expertise and enthusiasm to the story as opposed to narrating events after the fact.
Andrew Thompson is the series producer for the acclaimed BBC Science production Operation Iceberg. He has mainly worked on science documentaries, with previous credits including The Cell, How to Grow a Planet and Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives.
Lizzie Faulkner is an experienced series producer and producer director, producing factual programmes for a number of channels including The Guest Wing for Sky Atlantic and Litter Vigilantes for BBC One, as well as a number of programmes for Irish broadcaster RTE.
Charles Colville has also worked on science documentaries, including Horizon and The Incredible Human Journey, but now is a producer of history programmes for BBC Factual. He’s worked on The Normans and is currently working on a one hour special on Thomas Cromwell.
Research skills for TV
How do you find that surprising fact, that unexpected contributor or winning story that will make your programme unique? Our panel offer their views on how a researcher can make the best of his or her time and on the resources available to get the best for their programmes.
Top of the list is an ability and willingness to speak to people. Rather than staying stuck behind a screen and relying on sometimes dubious facts from the internet, the panel stress the importance of making connections with people, whether they are academics, experts or ordinary members of the public, and the many channels now available to help them make immediate contact.
They also discuss the best resources they have used, the best ways to keep track of the mammoth amounts of information and the different planning required when working on long form factual series as well as fast turnaround shows.
Jaime Taylor is a freelance documentary maker and assistant producer on the acclaimed social history series The Secret History of Our Streets. She is also co-founding director of award winning film collective Postcode Films, whose documentaries explore the relationship between place and identity.
Mark Edger is a science and history researcher who has worked on series including Bang Goes the Theory, The Culture Show, Great Excavations and the forthcoming documentary on Thomas Cromwell for BBC Two.
Charlotte Denton has worked on entertainment and factual programmes including The Pride of Britain Awards and Britain’s Best Dish. She's currently a topical researcher for The One Show.
Natural history storytelling (part 2)
Jonny Keeling, producer of programmes such as CBBC’s Deadly series and CBeebies Andy’s Wild Adventures, talks to us about how to construct an engaging narrative in children’s television programmes, and where thinking about the story is key every step of the way from development to broadcast. He also discusses how important stories have become in online games and films, particularly with a more fickle young audience.
Steve Greenwood was series producer for BBC Two's Natural World strand, a series of documentaries that focus on one single story over the course of an hour. He talks about what makes a Natural World idea work and reveals how constructing that story is different when the cast of characters includes people as well as animals.
And Hazel Marshall, who teaches storytelling across the BBC and worked closely with the Natural History Unit, gives her take on why storytelling is important, outlines the process of finding a good story and offers some tips for programme makers.
Jonny Keeling is the executive producer for children’s output at the BBC’s Natural History Unit. The unit has made programmes including Deadly 60, Deadly 360 and Live 'n' Deadly, Wolfblood, Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature and Andy’s Wild Adventures, plus live events, interactive experiences and games. His career credits include producing the Plains episode for Planet Earth, as well as episodes of Wildlife on One, Lost Land of the Volcano and Natural World. He was series producer on Lost Land of the Tiger, Lost Land of the Wolves and The Dark: Nature's Nighttime World, and was also assistant producer on Sir David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals.
Before being series editor for Natural world, Steve Greenwood worked on several expedition series including Lost Land of the Volcano and Lost Land of the Jaguar. He is currently working on a major new series on sharks.
Hazel Marshall designs and delivers storytelling and scripting courses for the BBC Academy and has taught people working on shows such as Horizon, Wonders of the Solar System, Imagine..., The One Show and Lost Land of the Tiger. She was a consultant on storytelling with the Natural History Unit, particularly on Africa. She is also an experienced writer and radio producer.
Natural history storytelling (part 1)
Getting the shots themselves may be the first thing we think about with wildlife documentary making, but getting the story right is equally important. Without a good narrative to guide your audience, they won’t understand what they are seeing or, even worse, won’t be captivated enough to stay with you and watch your content. But how can you plan a story when you have no guarantees of capturing the wildlife you set out to film? How in effect do you plan the unplannable? And how do you construct those emotional highpoints that will draw in your audience?
In the first of two podcasts on storytelling for natural history programmes, Ben Toone talks to producers James Honeyborne, Verity White and Rupert Barrington of the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol, who all worked on one of the unit’s most celebrated landmark series, Africa.
James Honeyborne was series producer for Africa. He gives his insights into how they structured the series as well as each individual episode and film sequence, including memorable sequences such as the famous giraffe fight and lizards feeding off sleeping lions. He talks about the importance of having a narrative arc and storyboarding what you want to capture in the field.
Verity White talks about how having a good plan before you set off will give you more options in the field, even if you can't capture exactly what you envisioned. She also talks about how to plan in the emotional highpoints to a story (such as the death of the baby elephant) and how music can help enhance the story.
And Rupert Barrington, producer of the Sahara episode, gives his advice on where to find stories. Finally James, Verity and Rupert give their tips to anyone aspiring work to work on natural history programmes.
James Honeyborne is an executive producer at the BBC's Natural History Unit. He looks after the unit’s landmark series including the Sir David Attenborough narrated Africa and Planet Earth and smaller series such as Galapagos, Yellowstone and Madagascar. Currently he is working on three new series for BBC Two based on Alaska, New Zealand and Patagonia.
Verity White is a wildlife documentary producer. Her credits include the Congo episode of Africa, The Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart and Queen of the Savannah and Chimps of the Lost Gorge from the Natural World series. She is currently working on Hidden Kingdoms, a BBC Worldwide, RTL and CCTV9 co-production, which she describes as “Life meets Pixar”.
Rupert Barrington also works for the BBC's Natural History Unit. As well as producing the Sahara episode for Africa, he also produced Reptiles and Amphibians for the series Life. He is currently working on the next BBC One wildlife series called Survival.