Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lights, Camera, Take Action: Scripts and Storyboard

If you're entering mid-series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

The Treatment

In Hollywood, most movie ideas begin with something called a "treatment," a one page summary designed to sell (or pitch) the idea to studio execs. To this point, students have been thinking about their documentary in relatively broad terms; now they start pulling their ideas together into a organized, coherent vision. I must admit, I go back and forth on how I handle this aspect. Sometimes I just have them write an actual outline. That works for content, but it fails to grasp many of the details needed once they write their script.

The summary should consider:
  • Characters and what they'll add to the documentary (point of view, etc.)
  • What the audience will take away from their viewing of the documentary. How will it affect their understanding of the issues?
  • How will you develop both logical and emotional appeals? (In other words, how will you engage the audience?)

Once completed, students pitch their treatments to the class and elicit comments for improvement.

You can find a good explanation of a treatment here.

The Script (aka Screenplay)

The screenplay is a scene-by-scene map of the documentary. In it, students include several key elements:
  • Scene Heading: Description of the setting, including whether it's interior or exterior, night or day, etc.
  • Action: What the audience will be seeing on the screen
  • Character Name: Who is speaking (don't forget the narrator!)
  • Dialogue: What the character is saying, word for word (including interviews)
  • Parentheticals : Words in parenthesis describing emotions or attitude e.g. (sadly)
  • Camera Directions: e.g. fade, dissolve to, medium shot, close-up

It's important to stress format here. Student can be very sloppy about this, and they need to understand this is a different style of writing with its own conventions that need to be followed. They're still building a persuasive argument, but unlike an essay that uses only words, the screen play utilizes visuals, action, and emotional directions too, and needs to incorporate those. In the handouts, I've provided a sample from a short documentary I created about the Model United Nations, along with a link to the finished documentary.

The Storyboard

With a clear idea of their documentary in mind, now students create the storyboard. This is kind of like a comic book of the video, where student plan out their shots before they actually start shooting. You can find sample storyboards to share with you students here, here and here.

You'll find a blank storyboard in the documentary packet; a 10 minute documentary general takes about 3-4 storyboards, if students sketch the key scenes. The notes section should include short descriptions of action, camera angles, sound effects, etc. It does NOT include actual dialogue--that's in the screenplay.

The storyboard should contain enough detail that another group could use the storyboard to create a fairly accurate version of the original group's ideas.

For more information about storyboards, check this site, the Guide to Filmmaking and Adobe's Digital Storytelling Project.


There are a few places where students can collaborate to write their script. I mentioned both Zoho and Backpack/Writeboard in the previous post, and there's always the old standby, Google Docs. What I especially like about Writeboard, is that, like a wiki, it saves all the versions, so students can easily compare and revert.

There's also KidsVid. I mention it because it has great potential, though my students didn't have much luck with it, as it wouldn't save their work. However, they've upgraded the site since then, so maybe they've fixed the problem. The site allows students to use an online storyboard creator to, well, create their storyboard. It provides helpful graphical prompts for what to include and spaces to write their directions.

The site also includes myriad tips for other aspects of video production, so is well worth your students' time.

They're now read to go and shoot their footage! I also give them 4-6 weeks for this (they're usually finishing up interviews, too), with intermittent checks to see how they're doing and discuss problems.

Next time, while explaining the editing process is outside the scope of the blog, I'll give you some fantastic links to tutorials and other helpful sites, along with links to good general resources. Until then....

Part 5:  Resources

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