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Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc

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Jon Fidler
Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 7, 2011 at 1:55:04 am

Hi

Ive noticed in a lot of documentaries (especially interview and b roll based pieces) they do not seem to follow a dramatic arc or have any proper structure so to speak. Instead it will be scenes which just develop an individual topic with a beginning middle and an end and then move on to the next topic, which makes it more like an essay or a dissertation as opposed to a fictional story. Am I correct in this assumption?

Jon


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Jon Fidler
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 7, 2011 at 1:59:02 am

Also If im not mistaken it doesnt even seem to follow a 3 act arc either. Ive been watching a lot of behind the scenes stuff and this seems to be the case. Im very confused on this and clarity would be greatly appreciated


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grinner hester
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 8, 2011 at 7:34:17 pm

The best thing about making documentaries is you get to discard all templates. There are no rules. If there are, feel free to break them.



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Mark Suszko
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 10, 2011 at 2:57:22 am

I think that if you want an emotionally satisfying effect on the viewer, an arc of some kind is necessary. These other examples you mentioned watching: were they actually GOOD documentaries? Or were they like radio scripts with pictures?

See, there's a lot of poorly-done work out there by people who don't fully leverage the power of sound and vision. They write a text out, then just imagine the job is to paste video over their words until all the holes are patched over. Or conversely, they write ONLY to what they already have footage of. Either way is somewhat limiting.

A much more powerful experience would be to look over the images and sounds you DO have, the interviews you captured, and the textual info you gathered, and weave it into something that combines all these elements and becomes greater than the sum of the parts. That leads you to a conclusion you might not have expected.

You may think I'm blowing smoke, but when I write even something like a 30- second PSA, I try to incorporate a truncated but complete version of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" into the 30 seconds. Why? Because that arc is in the DNA of every memorable story since stylus etched cuneiform onto wet clay. Since the first elder sat by a fire or under a tree and spun a tale to his children. It works.

So how do you apply a Campbellian arc to a documentary about the digestive tract of dung beetles?
Hellifniknow. I DO know that the best nature documentaries do do this, so that you end up rooting for one or the other of the beasties on display. That was David Attenborough's entire shtick. For something about history or the like, look to the excellent example of "Connections" by James Burke, and "The Kid Stays In The Picture".


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Rocco Forte
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 11, 2011 at 12:32:14 am

Docs that focus on individuals (rather than historical events or concepts) will often be crafted with a dramatic arc in mind; gradually revealing more information about that person as we travel with them along their journey:

Super Size Me
Catfish
We Live in Public
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Dear Zachary
No Impact Man

Are all examples where the "protagonist" evolves over the course of the documentary (more or less). The common thread here is "a mission"; there's a clear goal in mind and we join them as they try to obtain that goal.

They begin in their normal world, an event happens to put them on a new trajectory, they face obstacles and challenges and finally return home with the "prize" having become wiser for the journey. Which is exactly what Mark was referencing.

However, retrospectives such as:

What The Bleep
The Secret
Dog Town n Z Boys
No Distance Left to Run
King of Kong

Tend to present the information in a more of a magazine type format, flicking through pages one chapter at a time as you say. I suppose the reason is there's no single hero to follow throughout, hence no arc. Although I'm certain there are several mini-arcs within some of these docs.


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Jon Fidler
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 11, 2011 at 12:24:16 pm

Thanks for all the replies this has been incredibly helpful to me.

Its not really the narrative documentaries I have a problem with (in both structure and editing), its the ones Rocco called the magazine style, is there any reading I could do to know how to get feel for this sort of style. I was thinking maybe guides on essays and dissertations or maybe a little bit on journalism.

Thanks again for all the replys


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Jon Fidler
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 11, 2011 at 12:39:52 pm

Thanks for all the replies this has been incredibly helpful to me.

In a lot of these documentaries for example







A featurette you find on youtube. Each scene introduces a concept develops it and ends it and moves on to the next, when there is no arc to be seen, nothing has really changed. I find this on a lot of documentaries too especially the deature length behind the scenes ones on dvds etc.

In the professional world is this type of storytelling acceptable. I find these shows enjoyable to watch, but what confuses me is where is the story? This is why im thinking reading a bit more about journalism and essay styles etc.

Thanks again

Jon


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Rocco Forte
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 11, 2011 at 7:34:39 pm

For there to be a story (and therefore an arc), there needs to be a hero. The Tron featurettte could have had an arc in it if focused on the actor's journeys, i.e.:

1. "When I first read the script I was excited but nervous"
2. "during this scene I could barely handle the demands and wanted to quit"
3. "I learned a lot, grew as a person and can't wait to work on the sequel"

But the Hero is the movie itself, not the actors. And the goal is to sell the coolness of the movie not empathize with the individuals, I think. I don't know if injecting an arc is helpful or not in this case, that's really up to the producers.


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Jon Fidler
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 11, 2011 at 9:32:39 pm

Great Rocco

Thanks for your help, this was what was confusing me.

When an arc is being referred to im assuming it means the protagonists journey?

Is there such a thing as a story arc (with something like that featurette, where there is no main character just a theme to explore or a product to sell) or is that more in line with an essay, introduce a point or concept, develop and conclude and move onto the next, with a basic intro and a wrap up at the end.

Thanks

Jon


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Rocco Forte
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 11, 2011 at 11:07:00 pm

I'm not sure if "arc" is the right word, but the Tron featurette definitely has an evolution. It arcs from showing you small things to showing you big things.

For example take a look at the end: the phrases used are "A whole new era of film making" and "an incredible sight" a "digital universe" - they want you to leave with a big picture of everything (large).

Had they started with those phrases, they would have had nowhere "to go" so to speak and it might feel slow.

Instead they open by showing you individual elements (small); the bikes and the suits followed by the actors and characters. Then they get bigger and show the overall technology, plus Olivia's "intense training" which gives us a personal, emotional "hook" (too much tech talk = dry), then they get bigger by showing the massive sets before concluding with all that big picture stuff.

So it's not really just one thing after another, with a basic intro and wrap up; there's a clear thematic progression from small to large; there's your arc right there.


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Jon Fidler
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 12, 2011 at 12:54:08 am

Thanks, this has been a massive help for me


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Jeremy Garchow
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 14, 2011 at 4:37:42 am

[Mark Suszko] "do do"

Sorry to barge in, but:

Did you just say doodoo after mentioning the digestive tract of dung beetles?

I think you did!

Jon, don't forget about comedic timing while you're arcing.


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Mark Suszko
Re: Do all documentaries follow a dramatic arc
on Jan 14, 2011 at 5:11:34 am

"Ask me what the secret of comedy is."
"Okay wha-"
"TIMING!!!!"


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