Adventure Film 101: Planning Your Story

Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker Michael Brown dishes on how to plan your documentary film, step by step.
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Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker Michael Brown dishes on how to plan your documentary film, step by step.

For years, I worked on a series of films where the basic premise was: find a sport, find an athlete, find a location. Then, go film, cut out the bad shots, and voila! You had a film. These turned out to be nothing more than glorified home movies and it took me years to figure out how bad this method really is and why the films sucked.



Michael rappelling into a moulin for the Emmy Award winning Global Warming What You Need to Know with Tom Brokaw.(Photo by Nicolas Brown)

I am still in the process of learning that the

STORY

counts the most.

The following are some examples of great adventures that became bad films. You can see from the people in this list— most are the best of their generation— that these should have been top-notch films but somehow, they weren't. We did win a couple of Emmys this way and a very-few festival honors but on the whole, they all lacked a strong story. They were just 'home videos' of the bigger experience.

Place Athlete Sport

Kyrgistan/ Doug Coombs, John Griber Skiing Snowboarding

Vietnam/ Todd Skinner, Lynn Hill Rock Climbing

Western Pacific/ Tsunami Rangers Sea Kayaking/Shark Diving

Nepal Himalaya/ Jim Nowak, Kim Reynolds Mountaineering

Southern Chile/ Chris Haaland, Mark Howe, Dave Koshinski/ Exploration

Chiapas, Mex/ Scott Davis, Gordon Brown, Allison Chase/ Caving/Kayaking

Madagascar/ Lynn Hill, Beth Rodden Rock Climbing

Alaska/ Tommy Moe, John Griber Skiing/Kayaking

Bhutan/ Gerry Moffatt, Reggie & Daniel Crist Kayaking

I loved seeing the world on these expeditions and every time, I would come back and say to myself, “this is the one that will win a prize in Banff at the Mountain Film Festival.”

I would then submit to Banff and they would reject almost all of them. Then, when one did get in, would attend the festival and go to the awards ceremony on the final night. The jury would be announcing prizes and they would hit our category, usually mountain sports, and the award would go to someone else's film.

In my eternally optimistic way I would say, "It's okay, we are going to win the Grand Prize!" Of course you know what happened.

I did finally get to climb onto that stage in Banff and collect a beautiful glass trophy but the experience was not what I had expected. Beyond being a surprise, the one time I was sure we would not win, it was also a film about a tragic expedition. Two of our team had died during the making of the film so our celebration was made in their memory.

<Today I sent an email to the students of our upcoming Adventure Film School. I want them to skip over all of the years of bad filmmaking that I went through and get right to telling great stories. So far, a few have done their homework and sent me a draft treatment. I want them to get beyond the 'home video' stage.

Following is the letter:

I have been reading through your treatments and story lines. I decided to share some of my notes with everyone together. These notes will help you as you rework your outlines and treatments. These are meant for the future films you will make as much as to apply to this experience.

Take from this what you need but don't let this overwhelm your thinking -- everyone is already on the right track and this is a learning process. Making mistakes and feeling challenged are a critical part of the learning process. My friend Michael Slenske recently wrote an article for Ralph Lauren's On-Line magazine. He captured an important aspect of the 'make mistakes' philosophy of our adventure film school.

"... Rather than peering over his students’ shoulders and lecturing them on technique or composition, Brown encourages them to learn from one another (like a real film crew) and make mistakes. “It’s really important to have shots that are out of focus or overexposed and where the audio is bad, because by blowing shots and sequences [the students] feel that sting and learn,” says Brown. “They also learn to make it work even when the material is not perfect.”

You can read the entire article here:

http://www.entertainment.polo.com/magazine/editorial/fa09/adventurefilm_school.asp

CRAFTING YOUR STORY

A great way to look at stories is through the 'Hollywood' Three Act Structure. This may seem really disconnected to an adventure documentary but entertainment works very similarly across all film mediums. Knowing the emotional cues that make a story entertaining will also help you make a documentary that is entertaining. If it is not entertaining ,it is the opposite of entertaining. Boring. (This is why documentaries have a bad, but not entirely deserved, reputation.)

Act One (25% of Film Length)

Introduction of the characters and the story. The mentor and the approach to the gateway to adventure. Boy meets girl; Dorothy looses Toto in Kansas; Neo is offered the red pill or the blue pill; Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi. You prime the audience for the upcoming film experience and get them to ”suspend disbelief.”

Act Two (50% of Film Length)

The Extraordinary Journey. All that happens on the yellow Brick Road with an action climax in the middle. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone; Luke and Hahn escape Mos Eisley and rescue Princess Lea: Neo fights with the agents in the Matrix and discovers new realities but the conflict is unresolved. Near the end of this section Dorothy douses the wicked with water. Boy and girl fall in love but we still don't know if they will stay together.

Act Three (25% of Film Length)

The return from the journey and the conclusion. Luke turns off the computer targeting system and uses the Force to destroy the Death Star. Neo “Sees” the Matrix and destroys the agent. Dorothy confronts the Wizard of Oz. Boy loses girl and finds her again. The story is emotionally complete and the adventure promised in Act One has been delivered.

Now, more than ever, you might be asking, "How does this apply to MY story?" It does because you will introduce an idea, explore that idea in the middle of your film and then make conclusions about that idea at the end.


TOOLS TO HELP YOU PLAN AND GET THE JOB DONE

Here is another set of tools used especially in documentary film.

Outline: You state the purpose, topic and intended audience of the film. You state the 'call to action' that the film is supposed to deliver. Here you will also state the technical specifications (format), primary distribution platform (Internet, DVD, Television, Theater, Mobile Phones, Billboards), the “expert” (every good fact film needs a knowledgeable, credible advisor) and at the end state who is the boss and how final decisions will be made.

Treatment: Borrowing this from Film Scriptwriting by Swain & Swain: “... a succinct, third person, present tense summary of your proposed film. Its purpose is to flesh out your proposal outline into a more detailed presentation of material and approach, so dramatized -- that is made vividly expressive -- as to excite your client in regard to the picture to be, as well as to inform him. It also serves as a preliminary check on weaknesses and/or disagreements before you proceed...”

I like the part about disagreements, it is important to be on the same page as you begin. Treatments can be of any length but shorter is better.

Sequence Outline: Not so much for this Adventure Film School -- though I find a sequence list quite helpful as I begin the edit. The sequence outline is a much more detailed breakdown that lists all that is seen and heard and states the purpose of each element of sound and picture included.

Story Boards: Just a reminder to draw at least one frame from your upcoming picture. It is fun to compare and see how close reality comes to imagination.

So, I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes and use these tips and tools help you get out and make good adventure films. The more I’ve used them, the more people have enjoyed and connected to my films. I wish you the same luck.

—MICHAEL BROWN

Second Photo:

Filming Lynn Hill, Beth Rodden, Nancy Feagin and Kath Pyke in Tsoronoro, Madagascar. ( Photo by Greg Epperson)