If you're a doc maker, focus is your best friend. Knowing your focus helps you when you're pitching, when you're researching, when you're gathering audio and when you're writing and editing.
Focus helps because it can help you choose which story to tell out of many. It'll make sure you gather what you need. It can help you claw your way through a mountain of information.
I field a lot of pitches for DNTO, The Doc Project and for local TV, and I often get pitches that aren't focused. One common mistake is that people pitch topics or trends instead of stories. This is the pitching equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld's "What's up with that?" bit.
For example, I've got an idea about the refugee crisis. I want to do a doc about hip-hop. I'd like to do a story about kale, it's everywhere these days. Those aren't stories. They're topics. And they might provide the context or setting for a good story. But on their own they don't make very good documentaries. The best stories — and the best radio — are about people, and a good, focused pitch contains 3 key elements: a compelling character, exciting action, and deep motivation.
The first ingredient to a good pitch is a character. Ideally a compelling character. The more specific the better (eg. it helps if your character actually exists). And if you can add some emotion, even better.
- Character: a student
- More interesting character: a student drowning in debt
- Compelling character: Maria Garcia-Jones, a desperate unemployed PhD student carrying a $70,000 debt load
The second element in a focused pitch is action. The action is important because it is very handy for giving your story structure, or a beginning middle and end. You want your action to be exciting.
- Action: going on a canoe trip
- More interesting action: canoeing Canada's deepest river canyons
- Specific and exciting action: battling the rapids of Canada's deepest river canyons, 30 years after your father did it
The third ingredient in a focus statement is goal/motivation. We need to know what the character is trying to achieve and why. I love the way Kurt Vonnegut says this: "Every character should want something, even if it's a glass of water." The deeper the motivation the better.
- Motivation: because he wants to make the world a better place
- Deeper motivation: because he wants to leave a legacy for his children
- Even deeper motivation: because he regrets missing so many of his son's baseball games
If you can put all three together in one sentence — compelling character, exciting action, deep motivation — then you've got a focus statement.
If you want to try it out, pick your favourite movie or TV show and try to write a focus statement.
The Wizard of Oz
After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.
The Mindy Project
A bold Manhattan ob/gyn single-mindedly seeks a boyfriend because she's watched so many romantic comedies, she believes she is destined for a Hollywood happy ending.
A high school chemistry teacher, deciding he has nothing to lose after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, switches to a career making and selling crystal meth, because he wants to make sure his wife and son are financially secure.
Once you've written your focus you don't have to stick to it. You should review it after you've done some research. Review it again after you've recorded some interviews. And review it again when you're writing.
But having it in front of you as you work will help you gauge whether you're on track and whether you are building a story that will keep people listening.
Iris Yudai has been playing with stories and sound since the early nineties, when she was first introduced to a microphone, cassette recorder and reel-to-reel editing suite. Since then she has had the great privilege of producing documentaries for CBC Radio from dinosaur digs in east end Saskatchewan, the rice terraces of Banaue, Philippines, and a few places in between.
For two years she worked with novice radio makers at the program Outfront. Her favourite doc from that time was The Zen of Cows 101, which combined cow farts and haiku poetry in an udderly unique and unforgettable way.
Today as executive producer of DNTO and Absolutely Manitoba, Iris oversees production of documentaries for CBC Radio and TV. When working on docs she often takes heart from something Leo Tolstoy once wrote. If he were alive today she thinks he would've said: "All great documentaries are one of two stories; a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town."