Building drama creatively and truthfully / by KirstenStudio

I have a great appreciation for creative dramatization such as sequences in a film like Jon Foy's Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011), which uses beautiful, mysterious and moody graphic illustrations to move the story forward and create suspense. Or anything by filmmaker Alan Berliner, who is famous for incorporating home movies, found and archival footage in much of his work. (still image from Berliner's Intimate Stranger (1991), pictured right). Sometimes on a documentary production some of the drama takes place before the production begins or the filmmakers aren't able to capture it fully when the action unfolds. In these cases a director and editor have to get real imaginative or they can't put together a film and sometimes that's what it comes down to - a lack of proper material.

If a story is good though, giving up completely isn't the first option. Right now I'm working on a piece where a major plot point wasn't captured. This is where I need to get creative. What kind of alternate imagery can metaphorically represent what's happening while also laying out the event clearly and truthfully?And let's not forget about providing emotional impact.

The first thoughts that come to mind are, archival footage, animated illustration and re-enactment. Archival footage is a possibility. The action didn't take place as a public historical event. It's not like I'd find literal archival footage of this happening, but Mr. Berliner is a good example of how to use archival footage in a metaphorical sense for a personal story. Animation might do the trick, but I think I would use that more for expedition of complex, otherwise possibly mundane but necessary information. Films from Waiting for 'Superman' (2010) to I Am a Sex Addict (2005) are a couple different examples of effective and interesting ways of using animation. Re-creation is often used in films, but this is a very independent budget and I think to do a re-enactment of quality (without the cheese factor), you'd need some high-end production funds. One must tread pretty carefully into the re-enactment waters. Luckily this plot point is not an incredibly dark one. It's emotionally dramatic for the main characters, but it's not traumatic, which hopefully will be less challenging to illustrate.

I am continually amazed at how filmmakers create dramatic sequences without having the actual person(s) or event(s) on film. Filmmakers such as Alex Gibney along with cinematographer Maryse Alberti and cutters Alison Amron and Plummy Tucker assembled inventive scenes with actress Wrenn Schmidt. Schmidt, with some guidance from Gibney, interprets transcripts from the actual character’s interview for Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010). Filmmaker Greg Baker along with cinematographers Colin Clarke and Patrick Fraser and editor Karen Schmeer recreated a most dramatic event in Sergio (2009).

Filmmakers are always coming up with new and different spins to weave narratives that bring an audience into the moment, while staying true to the stories, whether it’s a direct, observational approach, compilation or essay in scope.

Doug Block relies on a combination of observational present day footage with family videos, photographs and journals to tell a personal story that is universal in 51 Birch Street (2005) but at the same time very cinematic in style. Some material I have for this project, includes childhood home movies, which could potentially be used effectively. There is the outside chance of a saved voice mail left directly following the event I’m looking to dramatize. If I get the voice recording, then I think it could work, combining it with photographs from the event (which I do have, just not sure it’s enough) and possibly intertwining some home movie clips. At this point though I can’t rely on what might be so I’m just considering what I have at hand.

I recently saw the documentary, Buck (2011) edited by Toby Shimin. Shimin did a beautiful job of illustrating the main character’s childhood trauma with photographs, archival footage and interviews. Buck's past trauma completely informs his character and actions throughout the entire film, so depicting his backstory properly is of utmost importance. In the story I’m constructing, childhood imagery connects but the dramatic moment I need to bring to life, that I don’t have footage for, occurred just a few years ago when the main character was already well into adulthood. So it’s tricky. I believe I have to think about metaphorical imagery mixed with present day interviews, childhood home movies and present day still photographs. Let’s hope I can work some magic.

One of the interesting things about the films I've mentioned here and countless others is that sometimes, not having actual footage of a dramatic happening can force an editor to push themselves creatively. In the end an editor has the potential to come up with something even stronger than what the audience would have experienced just seeing something actually unfold in present time. Of course, sometimes it's the opposite and that requires a critical eye and a lot of honest feedback to assess whether something is working or not. Building a narrative that ends up feeling like a let down, is just that.

Fortunately there is a plethora of examples that both teach lessons of what, and what not to do. Some of the most profound scenes are made of imagery that isn't "on-the-nose". Scenes like these ask an audience to think and consider what they're hearing and seeing and make ends meet. This often brings about a more profound experience.

I'm taking a documentary film class at NYU right now and just a few classes ago, we looked at the film In the Year of the Pig (1968) by filmmaker Emile de Antonio, who gathered news footage from various countries to depict a different outlook on Vietnam. In class we watched a scene where Vietnamese fisherman unload freshly caught fish. Baskets of them spill out onto a massive pile of dead and dying fish. A close-up on the pile reveals several of them with gapping mouths as though gasping for breath. What follows is dramatic footage of wounded American soldiers, also a mix of the lifeless with those suffering their last breaths. That juxtaposition of images is thought provoking and emotional.

I will spend some time researching, getting inspiration because some of the best documentary classes take place in theaters and home entertainment systems where you can watch and learn and interpret inspirations into something your own. Wish me luck.