Time flies on this course and it won’t be long before we are away in Gregynog and you have to pitch your idea for a major project.
You choose what the subject of your documentary is. So some early advice about what sort of ideas tend to work.
Your idea should be something that you are interested in.
Better still, really interested in. This might seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many students suggest “worthy” ideas that they think will impress the teaching staff, but are actually a bit dull. You will be spending a long time with this idea. Try to make it something you find fascinating.
Can you explain it in a sentence or two?
If it takes you half an hour to explain the idea that’s generally a bad sign.
What question are you trying to answer?
Try to think about your idea in terms of a question. For example — What is the impact of mass tourism on the ecology of the Snowdonia region of Wales?
“This is a much bigger project than any of the assignments we did before. It was much harder, no doubt, but it was also the one where I learnt the most, I think.”
Is it realistic?
Your idea needs to be achievable. Bear in mind that you are a student journalist, with a limited (or non-existent) budget and a limited amount of time. It’s much better to work on an idea which does not involve remote locations, or huge amounts of travel. Think about how easy it will be to find people and then persuade them to talk about your idea.
“Honestly the first mistake I made would be when I picked this topic. As interesting as it still is to me, I did not consider the fact that there are not a lot of people out there I could talk to.”
Does your idea have focus?
It can be a good idea to zoom in a little on your idea. For example… what happens if, instead of being about the UK, it’s about Wales… or Cardiff… or one part of Cardiff? Suppose it’s about a particular age group rather than everybody? Or people who do a particular job? It’s a common mistake for ideas to be a bit too broad. Focus can really help. Think about this.
How many people are affected?
Imagine you want to make a documentary about how smartphones can be addictive. One advantage of this idea is that it should be relatively easy to find people who can talk about their smartphones, since millions and millions of us have them and lots of us feel they are addictive in some way. Now imagine your idea is about people who are addicted to crack cocaine. The number of people who are addicted to crack cocaine is much smaller, so it will be harder to find people who will talk to you. You need to think about this. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do stories involving difficult-to-get-to-people — it just means that you need to think carefully and develop a plan about how you will get to them. We sometimes call this access.
Think about access.
You will hear us talking a lot about access. If you want to make a documentary about Greek monks in a remote mountaintop monastery, you will need permission from the monks to go to the monastery and speak to them. This might not be very easy to negotiate. If your idea involves hard-to-obtain access to locations or people, you need to start to make sure it’s possible early on (ideally before you pitch the idea). And you need to bear in mind that things can change (see below). If your idea involves difficult-to-achieve access, you need to start working on it early.
“No matter how many times I heard it from others, including previous MAIJ students, I did not focus on the ‘start as soon as you can’ part.”
Be careful about ideas that depend on one person or one event.
This follows on from the above. What if the single person changes their mind? What if the event is cancelled?
“I think the biggest lesson I have learned from this project is that no matter how much planning and research you do and how convinced you are that events will take place in a certain way, the unexpected is always around the corner.”
You need a Plan B.
You might even need a Plan C or a Plan D. Things go wrong; stories fall through. Contributors pull out. Back to your idea about crack cocaine. Suppose you’ve decided to focus on one particular addict and they have agreed to help. This is good, but crack addicts can sometimes be a little unreliable. What happens if your case study stops answering your phone calls the week before you start filming? Having a Plan B means you would have another addict ready to take part. Think about how easy or difficult it will be to adapt your idea if something changes.
“Flexibility is crucial to making a good documentary — not getting too obsessed… and allowing room for changes if needed.”
Do you need to interview children or young people under the age of 18?
If so, read this.
Your idea should have good sound and pictures.
A good test for a TV documentary idea is to ask yourself, what will be the first shot? What will we see in the first thirty seconds? Likewise, with radio, ask yourself how you will make the story come alive with sound? What will we hear, apart from voices? Abstract ideas that are really just a series of interview clips joined by your voice don’t tend to get high marks. Bear in mind it can be more difficult to get good pictures than good sound.
Shots for every contributor.
You should also ask yourself what you can film or record with each of the contributors you interview. You need to think about what you will film them doing. For example, your story involves interviewing the head teacher of a school. He/she agrees to the interview, but you also need to make sure you have asked to film the teacher at work, or at least to get some shots/sound of their school — even if it is empty. Think hard about this aspect of your documentary when you are at the planning/research stage.
This is an example of the sort of idea that I think works well for a major project.
* There are lots of pubs closing, so it won’t be difficult to find some to film.
* Pubs are very visual, so pictures and sound will be easy to gather.
* It’s a simple story that’s easy to explain, but there’s lots of potential to delve deeply into it.
I’d find a pub that’s just about to close and tell its story. Then I’d find a pub that had closed and tell that story — making sure I could film inside to get some powerfully sad pictures. Then I’d find a pub that has been rescued by its local community and finally I’d find a business/economics expert to give me context, or perhaps a politician who is trying to do something about the problem of pub closures. Or perhaps an organisation like CAMRA, which campaigns around pubs. All of this would still be hard work — but I think it would be achievable. Can you map out your idea like this?
If you are on the Broadcast pathway your major project will almost certainly be either a TV documentary of 12 – 15 minutes or a radio documentary of 15 – 20 minutes. That is a lot of work. The sooner you start thinking about it, the better. The last thing you want to have to do is change your idea completely in June or July because you didn’t do enough thinking and research in November and December. I’m always happy to discuss ideas with you.