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21st Century Docs: Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos

By Ray Zone

Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos
(Third Edition)

By Alan Rosenthal
Southern Illinois University Press
393 pps., paperbound, $25.00
ISBN 0-8093-2448-2


Five years ago, Alan Rosenthal thought he had completed a definitive revision of this classic text and that it would be a decade before he had to write another edition. He was wrong. New technology, new broadcast systems, new approaches and methods, as well as the Internet and digital video (DV), forced Rosenthal to reconsider 21st century documentary filmmaking and to write this up-to-date Third Edition.

The emphasis nevertheless remains on "what to say and what to show" and how optimally to do both these things. Rosenthal characterizes this work as "a book about storytelling—how to tell great and moving stories about fascinating people, whether they be villains or heroes."

Though this new edition has been expanded to cover more video techniques for documentary, it does not deal with equipment. Rosenthal feels that the subject is thoroughly covered in other books and comprehensively taught in most film schools. The other topic not included in the book is documentary history. Rosenthal has attempted to specifically stress the importance of writing to the documentary, and his book is designed to cover the natural progression of the documentary film.

Organized in five general sections, the book begins with ideas, research and script structure. It proceeds through pre-production and production and then exhaustively covers editing and commentary writing. After touching on special techniques and types of documentaries, the final section addresses fundraising, marketing and a perspective on the entire process. Rosenthal stresses that, with the exception of editing, making a documentary on video or film is essentially the same.

"Why bother to make documentaries?" Rosenthal asks. "Why invest so much energy in a pursuit that is not particularly well paid, that can make you old before your time, that can separate you from your family, and that more often than not may hang on the screen for a mere 50 minutes before vanishing unmourned into eternity?" Documentary makers, Rosenthal answers, are compulsive and driven and, above all, they believe in this challenging medium.

Rosenthal stresses the importance of the script. Its prime functions, similar to an architect's plan, are to serve as an organizing and structural tool that assists everyone in the production. The script is useful to the cinematographer and essential in determining the budget, locations, shooting schedule, lighting and special effects. It also guides the editor in organizing the proposed structure and sequences in the final film.

In breaking down the stages of script production, the author identifies two stages. The first is the birth of the idea to completion and acceptance of the proposal. The second covers the research stage to acceptance of the shooting script. "A great deal of writing will be done at both stages but to different ends," says Rosenthal. The objective of the first stage is to sell potential backers on the project, while the goal of the second stage "is to prepare a working document that will guide the film from shooting through completion."

Rosenthal concedes that the writer, in many cases, is a common huckster, especially where the writer is also the producer of a documentary. The first job "is to generate a piece of paper that will sell the idea of the film." Getting to that point, there are five milestones along the way, from conceptualizing the idea and delivering the basic suggestion to discussing the idea with the sponsor, writing and delivering the proposal and, finally, discussing the proposal and signing the contract.

Concise examples for each of these milestones are provided, including sample letters written to potential sponsors. In thoroughly addressing this challenging area of documentary production, Rosenthal is providing essential information to the aspiring filmmaker. Complete chapters on writing the proposal, researching, shaping the film and beginning and completing the first script draft provide invaluable, in-depth information. Particularly useful are samples of documentary script style that are something of a departure from narrative screenplay form.

The section on pre-production includes budget and contract samples, along with pragmatic necessities that are part of the pre-production survey. These include reviewing people and locations and selecting the crew and equipment, as well as developing the shooting schedule, obtaining permissions and solving problems involved with foreign locations. Rosenthal's writing is always simple and clear and his advice in every instance is quite practical.

Directing the documentary, interview techniques and selecting the location are the salient points of production that Rosenthal discusses. Elements of post-production covered include editing, writing for footage already shot, final narration and finishing the film. A final section on "Special Cases" addresses different techniques used in varying styles of documentary.

The concluding chapter, "Problems and Challenges," covers ethics and legal matters and posits a host of potential disasters and possible solutions that may arise during the making of a documentary. A selected bibliography and appendix with a budget for a one-hour documentary close the book.

"In the end, regardless of format or medium, two questions dominate everything: What do you want to say, and how passionate are you about saying it?" the author writes. For those with the answers to these questions, Rosenthal's book will prove invaluable.


Ray Zone can be reached at