Documentaries

In Preparation

Thirteenth Century Ship

Making Your Own Audio or Video Documentaries

I have concentrated here on the recording of audio documentaries, as I want to encourage those who want to improve their English. Thus I concentrate on the importance of the spoken word. However much of what I write will also apply to the shooting of videos.

Today it is much easier to audio record on location (that is outside a studio) than it was when I first worked for the BBC. If you search the internet you will find hundreds of different audio recorders and hundreds of audio softwares for editing, of varying price and sophistication. This is not the place to recommend any, as they are forever developing.
Middle Ages Pilgrim

A Do It Yourself Documentary

This is where you can be researcher, writer, presenter, sound recordist, producer and editor together yourself – with the help of a few other voices.

Let me share one of my favourite productions that was broadcast four times on BBC Radio 4.
It was that of pilgrims throughout the ages, making the 1,600 kilometre journey from Mont St Michel in Normandy, France, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The most recent pilgrims were my son and I on bicycles.

Here are the first five minutes. I suggest you count the elements: scripted speech, actuality, pre-recorded music, etc, and think about how you would plan the shape, and record and assemble these elements.

Later as pilgrims we stayed at the Abbey of Solesmes , famous for its beautuiful plainchant
The cloisters at Liguge, the oldest abbey in Western Europe
We were the guests of nuns at Sainte Marie de Maumont
Cycling across Les Landes was a little monotonous
Ostabat in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where three of the routes to Santiago meet
Our first accommodation in Spain, the Monastery of Roncesvallles
Puente la Reina
San Juan de Ortega
Rounded, thatched pallozas of Celtic origin, Cebreiro
The view from Cebreiro towards Santiago
MONT ST. MICHEL
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
ANNOUNCER: A reflective pilgrim on the road to Santiago makes a double journey: the backward journey through time and the forward journey through space.

(INTRODUCE MEDIAEVAL HARP MUSIC BY MARY REMNANT)

Every step the pilgrim makes evokes memories of those who passed that way ever since the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle James in the Ninth Century.
READER: (FROM JACQUES DE VORAGINES) When St. James was beheaded, his disciples placed his body in a boat without a rudder and an angel of the Lord guided them to Galicia, the Kingdom of Queen Lupa. When the disciples asked her for a burial place she set them a series of trials. In the last of these they were attacked by two wild bulls. They made the sign of the cross over them and the bulls became as gentle as lambs.
The disciples followed a star, until it stopped. There they buried St. James. This was in a field called The Field of the Star, or Compostela.
ANNOUNCER: The Field of the Star. Last year Shaun MacLoughlin was among the five or six hundred pilgrims who walked, cycled or rode horseback to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. His companion was his son, Seamus.

(FADE MUSIC)

SEAMUS: My dad told me we were going to cycle to Santiago. He just told me, but now I’m glad I went. It was about 1,100 miles and took us around five and a half weeks. I was 12 then, but now I’m 13 and we both kept diaries.

(ACTUALITY RECORDING OF DEPARTURE)

SEAMUS: (TO SMALL SISTER) Binnie, get off my – Don’t put your foot in the pedal, Binnie. The whole thing will tip over.
MOTHER: Right? Right? And just be careful.
SEAMUS: Yeah.
MOTHER: Won’t you?

(LOSE ACTUALITY)

SEAMUS: At 3.29 pm we set off for Temple Meads, and I recorded everyone saying good bye.
SHAUN: (A prayer) Please St. James, guide our wheels and bring us safely to your shrine and to heaven.
SEAMUS: And at 4.10 the train set off. At 6.46 the train arrived at Portsmouth Harbour Station. We cycled one and a half miles to the ferry terminal at about seven o’clock. I’m very excited about having to cycle onto the boat.

(INTERWEAVE SOUND EFFECTS OF SEAGULLS AND SEA WASH)

ACTORS AS MEDIAEVAL FRIENDS OF PILGRIMS: (Calling) Pray for us at Santiago.
May St. James look after you,
etc, etc.
SEAMUS: The boat rocked all night, up, down, up, down, and it was awful, but I still liked it.

(SAILING BOAT MAKING GOOD WAY. MEDIAEVAL MUSIC.)

ACTOR:

Haul up the bowline, now, veer the sheet!

Cooke make ready our meat,

Our pilgrims have no lust to eat.

Steward a pot of beer!

Anon of the best.

(MIX FROM MEDIAEVAL MUSIC TO BACKGROUND OF CONTEMPORARY TOURIST CROWD)

SHAUN: After docking at St. Malo, we started our pilgrimage proper from Mont St Michel, Normandy, where many pilgrims set out in the Middle Ages.

(ACTUALITY OF GUIDE IN FRENCH)

GUIDE: Ça commence ici la visite à Mont St. Michel, etc.

(FADE AS WE MOVE AWAY)

SEAMUS: Mont St. Michel was crowded with tourists and very noisy. We left our bicycles by the Gendarmerie.
SHAUN: And walked up the crowded, tripper streets with our heavy packs to the Abbey.

(LOSE CROWDS. BRING UP A MIXED COMMUNITY OF MONKS AND NUNS SINGING PLAIN CHANT IN FRENCH)

SHAUN: There we were met by Sister Brigitte and attended vespers. We had a simple Friday supper and walked round the island with the tide coming up and we had a good night’s sleep.

(LOSE PLAINCHANT)

SHAUN: Matins at seven o’clock in the small oratory, followed by breakfast and Lauds; and then one of the brothers blessed our undertaking.
BROTHER: Benissez especialment nos deux amis qui maintainent vont partir vers St. Jacques de Compostelle

(INTRODUCE GENTLE MEDIAEVAL CHIMES)

BROTHER: que l’Apotre et notre coeur les accompagne sur la route et les ramene sains et sauf dans leur foyer, par Jesus Christ, Notre Seigneur, Amen
SHAUN: Amen
SEAMUS: Amen

This feature was over a year in the making. As you can imagine, cycling up to fifty miles a day with a twelve year old and finding the route and accommodation was a full time activity. We managed to keep diaries however; most of which we recorded on family holiday in France (with background noise of cicadas) the next summer, just before Seamus’ voice broke. Can you imagine recording and editing – mostly in English – an adventure in your own life – or that of a friend or family member? 

 You can find the complete documentary that I highly recommend by clicking below 

The Elements of a More Complex Documentary

Back in the late 1980’s I was asked to produce a series to celebrate the first British settlement in Australia, though I hasten to add it was hardly a cause for celebration for the indigenous population, the Aborigines; and we attempted to recognise this fact. The production was very much a team effort.

In the following extracts from the final episode of 13 episodes, examine the different elements:
  1. A scripted reading of a poem by an actor.
  2. Epic title music to give us the sense of scale of such a large island nation and of the sweep of history. The listener, hopefully, will have come to identify with this music over the past twelve episodes.
  3. A woman announcer, who gives us the title and the theme of the episode. (The credits are left to the end).
  4. Interviews with leading historians. Mike Walker the compiler of the series prepared questions for them, which we asked them to respond to as spontaneously, coherently and concisely as they could. One of the problems of putting together a feature of this nature is the amount of repetition and meandering, that one has to edit out. If you can brief the interviewee effectively and train him or her to contain your question within his answer, you can save hours of editing.
  5. Vox pop interviews edited to advance the story, to represent both sides of the political equation and to convey the excitement and hope at the election of Gough Whitlam in 1975. Probably the most strenuous part of the exercise were the days and days of gathering and then editing down to identifiable, meaningful and attractive sound-bites: literally hundreds of hours of interviews with ordinary Australians.
  6. Other interviews were kindly provided from the archives of the Australian Broadcasting Company, as was the recording of Gough Whitlam’s speech and as were the recordings of crowds and ships sirens from the opening of the Sidney Opera House.
  7. Under the BBC’s agreement with the Performing Rights Society we were able to use the songs ‘It’s Time’ and ‘Mr. Sunshine’. You may have to obtain permission yourselves or compose and perform your own music.
  8. Wild track recordings of crowds cheering and responding. As much as possible we used the authentic and actual responses to Whitlam’s speech. Dramatically it was important, that these sounded spontaneous and heartfelt and that they conveyed the appropriate celebration and exuberance. Also there were background recordings of birdsong, etc, from the BBC’s and the ABC’s recorded sound effects libraries.
  9. Rather late in compiling this episode we introduce the narrator to link speakers and to convey some necessary information. You may think he is just another vox pop interviewee. It does not matter.
To start we wanted to contrast the poet’s view of the quiet, timeless life of the bush with the business of the urban, twentieth century; so we started with Noonday Axeman by Les Murray.
Les Murray
Eighty-two-year-old Australian axeman Martin Conole

(BIRDS, CRICKETS, ETC: THE MUTED SOUNDS OF THE AUSTRALIAN BUSH AT MIDDAY.)

ACTOR:

Axe-fall, echo and silence. Noonday silence. Two miles from here, it is the twentieth century: cars on the bitumen, power lines vaulting the farms. Here, with my axe, I am chopping into the stillness. Axe-fall, echo and silence. I pause, roll tobacco, twist a cigarette, lick it. All is still.

(INTRODUCE PEACEFUL MUSIC)

 

I lean on my axe. A crowd of fragrant leaves hangs over me, moveless, pierced everywhere by sky.

The poem continues and the peaceful music segues into the title music, which is introduced when it can most effectively intensify and prolong the pictures formed in our minds by previous episodes.
Professor Charles Manning-Clarke
Gough Whitlam
Sir Robert Menzies
Bob Hawke
Professor Humphrey McQueen
Aborigine Family-Party from New South Wales, ethnographical illustration, 1896
Australian troops in Vietnam
Aborigine Children
Aborigine Child
Patrick White
Sydney Opera House
The opening 1973
The Queen waved at me

(EPIC THEME MUSIC IS FADED DOWN)

 ANNOUNCER:

Episode Thirteen: ‘Lucky Country?’ After the boom, multiculturalism and the search for new values.

(SWELL MUSIC AND THEN FADE TO SILENCE)

 MANNING-CLARKE (Historian):

I was very enthusiastic about Gough Whitlam, because he was one of those gifted men, who believed the labour movement could create a society, in which there was equality of opportunity, without spiritual popery, without conformism and without pandering to mediocrity.

(START SONG: ‘TIME FOR FREEDOM’ IN BACKGROUND. WEAVE IN AND OUT OF FOLLOWING SPEAKERS)

 WOMAN:

I don’t think deep down we actually believed it could happen.

 MAN 1:

A lot of people clearly felt it was time.

 MAN 2:

We had years and years of conservative government under Menzies and he tried to do things for Australia in a hurry. He knew that the forces of reaction would get him out of power.

 MAN 3:

We were in a period of decline, brought about by the skillful manipulative moves of the new president of the trade union movement of Australia, Mr. Robert James Lee Hawke. Inflation was on the rise. Unemployment was rising. Liberals were hoisted and Gough’s banner ‘it’s time’ was all the go.

(SWELL SONG ‘TIME FOR FREEDOM’ TO CONCLUSION AND MIX WITH ACTUALITY OF GOUGH WHITLAM’S SPEECH. USE THE CROWD’S SPONTANEOUS CHEERS TO WEAVE IN AND OUT OF HIS SPEECH AND OF VOX POP)

WHITLAM:

Men and women of Australia, there are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia this is such a time.

(CHEERS)

MAN 4:

I was a fan of Whitlam. Whitlam embodied many of things that Menzies had, funnily enough, this tall, leonine, silver-haired figure with fluent tongue and persuasive arguments. I suppose, people wanted to revere him in a similar fashion .

(CHEERS)

WHITLAM:

We will abolish conscription forthwith.

(CHEERS)

NARRATOR:

During their first few days in office labour made sweeping changes.

WHITLAM:

Not just because a volunteer army is a better army, but because it’s intolerable that a free nation at peace and not under threat should cull by lottery the best of its youth to provide defence on the cheap.

(CHEERS)

HUMPHREY MACQUEEN (Marxist Historian) :

These were people who believed that there was enough wealth in the country to do something for the poor and for Aborigines and that it was no longer necessary to despoil the environment in order to have enough dirt to sell to the Japanese.

WHITLAM:

We will legislate to give the Aborigines land rights.

(CHEERS)

HUMPHREY MACQUEEN:

Questions like Urban planning and the environment and the Arts entered into the political agenda.

WHITLAM:

Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.

(CHEERS)

WOMAN 2:

The two most important things that happened early in the Whitlam period were freedom of education and withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

WHITLAM:

It’s time for a new team, a new programme, a new drive for equality of opportunities. Time for a new vision of what we achieve in this generation for our nation.

(CHEERS)

MAN 5:

The Labour Government spent like drunken sailors. Government spending increased by seventy five percent. Wages exploded by over fifty percent.

MAN 6:

Prices went through the roof. When you think ten dollars and somebody comes along and says ‘think a hundred’, the whole spectrum of the community changes.

MAN 5:

Businesses went to the wall.

MACQUEEN:

The people who attacked him were saying, ‘there’s too much governmental activity of every kind in every way.’

WHITLAM:

We ought to be angry with a deep determined anger that a country as rich and skilled as ours should be producing so much inequality, so much poverty so much that is shoddy and sub- standard. We ought to be angry with an unrelenting anger that our Aborigines have the world’s highest infant mortality rate.

(CLAPPING)

WHITLAM:

We ought to be angry on our children’s behalf, at the mindless destruction of our national and historical heritage.

(CHEERS)

MACQUEEN:

Australian intellectual life really came of age since the seventies with Patrick White’s winning of the Nobel Prize, with Australians winning the Booker Prize, with the Australian film industry.

NARRATOR:

McDonald’s opened their first take-away, wine boxes appeared, the Sydney Opera House was opened.

(BLASTS AND WHOOPS OF SHIPS’ SIRENS IN SIDNEY HARBOUR, VAST CROWD CHEERING, ACTUALITY FROM THE DAY OF THE OPENING.)

GIRL:

The Queen came to open it. It was really exciting. Everyone loved it. It was exciting for us and she came and did a tour. And all the schools were out in force and I waved and she waved back – at me!

NARRATOR:

It was a boom time, enhanced by the richness of the nations mineral reserves. Nothing seemed impossible.

MACQUEEN:

We could buy champagne and caviar till the cows came home and this kept to push up the value of the dollar until by 1974 the Australian dollar was worth 1.44 American dollars. We were on the crest of the wave. We could travel around the world, everything was cheap. It was the bonanza years of selling off Australia.

(SONG ‘LADY SUNSHINE’)

MAN 9:

Well if it’s good enough for Whitlam it’s good enough for me, because it’s the first decent, bloody government we’ve ever had for twenty three years.

(SWELL SONG AGAIN: ‘LADY SUNSHINE, LET YOUR SUN SHINE ON ME’)

I have quoted at length, because I should like to invite you to think not only about how this first twenty minutes of ‘Lucky Country?’ works for the listener, but to examine how it was put together. A little later the programme continued:
The mangoes ripened early
The ants were frenetic
Aborigines go walkabout from Darwin
More Aborigines leaving Darwin
Red-eyed tree frog
Peron's tree frog
Cane toad
Damage caused by Cyclone Tracey
Boats left stranded

(INTRODUCE QUIET SLIGHTLY OMINOUS MUSIC)

MAN:

We were all brainwashed. The Messiah had offered us the world, but three years down the track we realised he was just a politician.

MANNING-CLARKE:

He was a charismatic personality, but he was in the great river of life…

(THE MUSIC COMPLEMENTS THE THEME.)

MANNING-CLARKE:

… Things went wrong – Partly because Gough was not a very good judge of other men and he made some tragic mistakes in the choice of people to work with.

WOMAN: 

His fatal flaw was to try to do too much too soon.

MAN: 

The fear of change began to seep darkly into the bottoms of the bellies of all of us.

NARRATOR: 

Nature so often a force in Australian life chose to exhibit its power in 1974 when the city of Darwin was struck by Cyclone Tracey.

(LOSE MUSIC. THREE SECONDS SILENCE. THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM.)

WOMAN 2: 

We had two small earth tremors and the mangoes ripened very early and all the ants were in frenetic activity. Well, the Aborigines know their signs and in the two weeks before Cyclone Tracey some of the old Aborigines just rolled up their swags and left.

(ACTUALITY NEWS BROADCAST (HISSY QUALITY):)

NEWSCASTER: 

And here’s the latest cyclone warning. At three Cyclone Tracey was centred 80 kilometres north west of Darwin and moving south easterly at seven kilometres per hour.

(MIX OF THOUSANDS OF FROGS CROAKING WITH RADIOPHONIC MUSIC)

WOMAN 2: 

And then the frogs started. And Illiwara the old Aborigine said, ‘If the frogs sing out very loud, well then look out’. They started off in a slow chorus and then by the time dusk fell it was a screaming frenzy.

(HEIGHTEN MUSIC AND FROG EFFECTS)

WOMAN 3: 

(SHOUTING ABOVE THE DIN) We came home about six o’clock. We had to fill everything we had with water, lock the windows, seal the doors.

(LOSE FROGS AND MUSIC. INTRODUCE SLIGHT WIND)

WOMAN 2: 

You heard a distant moaning and then it got louder and louder. I was going to put my daughter in the land rover and make a run for it, but my husband said just look out there and clumps of trees were rushing past the house and some people did try to make a run for it and were killed.

(STEEPLY INCREASE NOISE OF BUFFETING WIND)

WOMAN 4: 

Ours was a tropical house with louvres. The wind could get out. In houses where it couldn’t get out, they just exploded with the pressure.

WOMAN 5: 

There was a great tree at the back of our house and in that tree there was a refrigerator.

INTERVIEWER: 

You were under the bed with your Mummy?

SMALL GIRL: 

Yeah, it was terrible.

(MIX WIND INTO ‘AFTERMATH’ MUSIC)

WOMAN 2: 

When the daylight came we looked out on a scene of utter desolation. Where trees and houses had been there were just stumps and rubble.

MAN: 

I saw a boat half way up a hill.

After a few more speeches describing the aftermath:

(LOSE MUSIC. EMERGENCY BROADCAST- FROM THE TIME):

GENERAL STRETTON:

…people of Darwin, this is General Alan Stretton, the civilian chief of the natural disasters organisation

WOMAN 4:

The looting was indescribable. To me it was like something out of a movie. My daughter was bending over looking at this wedding photograph and well a man made an obvious movement…

I won’t go into that, it’s too awful and I saw that they were rapists, so I raced and got the gun and I said, ‘I’ll kill you’ and they knew I meant it and they took off.

(EMERGENCY BROADCAST:)

GENERAL STRETTON:

… We must stop rumours. There are rumours about the police shooting people, when in fact it was Tiger Brennan probably shooting the dogs.

WOMAN 3: 

And nature reasserted itself. (GIGGLES) There were people making love all over the place. I passed a house of which there was nothing left except the floorboards and one double bed. It was like Salvador Dali. And there were two people in bed making love, quite oblivious to who might be going past and it didn’t matter. (LAUGHS)

(BIRDSONG AND CRICKETS AS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE PROGRAMME. HOLD FOR SEVERAL SECONDS.)

ACTOR: 

After the tree falls, there will reign the same silence as stuns and spurs us, enraptures and defeats us, as seems to some a challenge and seems to others to be waiting here for something beyond imagining.

Thus we told the story of Cyclone Tracey, through carefully selected and edited vox pop interviews and through radio broadcasts from the time. We orchestrated or counterpointed the atmosphere with sound effects and with radiophonic music. I should like to share one final element, that we used in this episode: a swearing in ceremony, in which new citizens are taking the oath of allegiance. Recording it was a moving experience.

(ACOUSTIC OF LARGE HALL. QUIET BACKGROUND CHAT AND SINGING, PARTICULARLY OF SMALL CHILDREN, IN MANY LANGUAGES ):

SWEARING IN OFFICER:

In a few minutes you will be all equal Australian citizens. At the ceremony we have people here from Yugoslavia, Libya, South Africa, Afghanistan, New Zealand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Vietnam, Chile, Hong Kong, France, Argentina, Portugal, Ireland, Canada, Finland, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Greece, Lebanon and Taiwan. (FOLDS PAPER) And that spells multi-culturalism to me. I’m sure it does to you too

POETRY

Finally for those who love poetry, I should like to share the beginning of a documentary that was a labour of love.

Seigfried Sassoon
Dame Felicitas Corrigan OSB

ANNOUNCER:

Siegfried Sassoon: Poet’s Pilgrimage Compiled by Shaun MacLoughlin with Hugh Burden as Siegfried Sassoon and Hugh Dickson as the Reader.

SASSOON:

My real biography is my poetry.

READER:

Last thing at night, in solitude serene,
I am unpossessed of all that I have been.
It is as though I were about to go
Some journeying far beyond what now I know;
It is as though the microcosm of Me
By mercy were made free —
Of troubling past uncluttered and made clean.

(PLAINCHANT FROM STANBROOK ABBEY)

ANNOUNCER:

This programme is presented by Dame Felicitas Corrigan of the Order of Saint Benedict, Stanbrook Abbey, Worcestershire. Dame Felicitas was a close friend of Sassoon’s during his later years.

DAME FELICITAS:

Siegfried Sassoon has always seemed to me a parable of Twentieth Century man. To most of those acquainted with his name he is essentially the fox hunting man, the infantry officer, the poet of the First World War. Few know him for what he was beneath outward appearances: prophet, sage, pilgrim, a Mister Valiant for Truth going to the Celestial City.

Having read the book, I approached Dame Felicitas who was delighted to share her love of Siegfried Sassoon with listeners to BBC Radio 3. For those who are interested here is a link to the complete programme:
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