We asked the cohort of DocLabbers 2016 to keep a diary of their time on the opening residential training days in Birmingham.
Day One: Monday 16th May. Introductions, the Genre and the Form.
Last night I couldn't help but be reminded of the first night at the big brother house. A collection of strangers from the four corners of the U.K. Brought together in a place not quite home. One by one my fellow attendees of Doc Lab 2016 arrived and we made our awkward introductions. “How are you?” “How was your trip?” “How far have you come.” After a few drinks the conversation soon turned to film. This shared passion melting any feelings of unfamiliarity, bringing us together as a group.
The next morning we arrived at the Impact Hub to begin our course in factual and documentary programming. Something about the board room layout of the furniture and the nervous eager expression of my cohorts reminded me of The Apprentice or perhaps all the talk of TV and film had begun to warp my perception of reality. I looked around nervously checking, half expecting Alan Sugar or worse, Donald Trump, to jump out and declare "You're fired! No more DocLab. Pack your bags and off in a black cab back to obscurity". Needless to say this didn't happen and after a few moments I felt reassured. Putting aside this post modern projection of imposter complex I settled into the morning's lectures.
When I first heard of DocLab it was described as an intensive course in all things factual and documentary related. Intense was the word. Deborah Aston, who was leading the group, took us through a quick history of documentary before breaking down some of the key terms of the form. Then [writer and journalist] Carol Nahra presented us with a more in depth look as some of the sub-genres of documentary. My head was spinning with new terms and ideas. Taking notes, my hand began to ache, my writing grew messier, the doodles in the margin multiplied. I was thankful that I had brought a spare notebook as page after page I filled with films to watch, concepts and techniques.
At the end of the day we shared our film concepts that we would be developing over the course of the week into a pitch. I would love to tell you about the fantastically creative and diverse ideas of my colleagues but I'm bound by an oath of secrecy so you'll just have to wait till the premieres.
Day #1 at the DocLab and I’ve already started to consume a lot of knowledge. The first part of the day introduced me to early pioneers of documentary including John Grierson himself. Seeing some of the work from the early days allowed me to see documentary in a different light, knowing the journey the genre has gone through. Continuing on through the day, speaker Carol Nahra talked with the group. She taught us an overview of genre in documentary and all the styles, conventions and variety which can come out of creative thinking when creating documentary.
I found the diversity of documentaries chosen by the 12 candidates to be very interesting, because although everybody has the one interest in common - documentaries- there was such a vast range that nobody selected the same style format or narrative.
I found the day really interesting, and found out about lots of new techniques and conventions that I feel I could add to my ideas to enhance them, ready for the main pitch on Thursday.
My main area of focus needs to be confidence. I need to change my mentality of ‘’I’m the only one who doesn’t know this’’, to just enhance the chance I’ve been given and become a sponge to absorb the positives that I can take from this experience.
Whilst sitting down in The Impact Hub today and taking part in Day #1 of the Grierson DocLab, I came to the realisation that ‘Documentary’ is an incredibly broad term. The presentation of each person’s chosen clip solidified this, as there was such a range of documentary types, format, narrative and conventions (just learnt the definition of these terms today!). It was great to be around like-minded people and share our favourite documentaries and ideas. The watch list I keep on my phone is now 17 films longer. The pitch, admittedly, was nerve-wracking but I’ve really felt my confidence grow in term of speaking in front of the group when answering questions, and it’s only been one day. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few days brings and preparing myself for my first documentary pitch on Thursday!
Day Two: Tuesday 17th May. The Commissioners
A second day as a DocLab trainee began with some development of our documentary ideas, researching and evolving our stories into a more rounded idea.
The commissioning editor of the BBC's specialist and natural history sector, Tom McDonald, came to talk with us about entering the industry at a low level. Tom shared his personal experience of working his way up the television career ladder, and what lead him to his current status within the BBC. Prior to Tom's talk, Amy Flanagan, Channel 4's factual commissioning editor, had a chat with us about how the commissioning process takes place in UK television. Amy gave an eye-opening definition on the public services idea to Channel 4, as well as the BBC.
On from the guest speakers, we dived into the interviewing and ethical issues when approaching and working with contributors within a documentary. All of us DocLab trainees then 'tested' our newly learnt interviewing skills on each other, learning how to be a better interviewer and documentary filmmaker.
Although our DocLab days are made up of experienced guest talkers and extremely useful sessions about everything to do with documentary making, something that is so special about DocLab is the input from not only the Grierson Trustees and speakers but from the other trainees too.
DocLab continues to prove to be a hothouse of thought, a safe haven in which we can lay out our ideas to a group of open-minded individuals and ask for the critical feedback we need to progress.
Some advice I have taken away from today is to slow down, spend time focusing on ideas, researching and planning. By being placed in such an inspiring environment we find ourselves wanting to leap into the deep end, but something we have to do is find enjoyment in the process as well as the product.
Just finished the second day of the Grierson DocLab and it was insightful and inspiring to say the least. With quality speaker sessions from Amy Flanagan and Tom McDonald I learned so much including how to pitch effectively and how to develop my ideas further with Deborah Aston. Top tips for anyone reading this: part of who you are is your unique selling point. If you are going to pitch an idea consider how many other people may have the same idea as you on that day and think to yourself ‘how can I stand out more?’ and who do I have access to that someone else might not.
And that’s the next big tip - ACCESS. Repeat after me A C C E S S - Access! What’s repeatedly come up on this journey so far, is the importance of having access. So, if you know you’re going to do a pitch, think about who you're going to secure interviews with or locations with that other people perhaps won't.
PS. If you’re trying to figure out how to copyright your idea it’s pretty much impossible, but don’t let this hold you back from sharing your creative ideas with the world - you never know you might just tell the right person.
Our second day on the Grierson DocLab began as we further developed our own documentary ideas as we were asked to consider areas such as story structure, how identify key characters for the documentary, and how to hook an audience. This was subsequently followed by two excellent talks provided by Grierson Trustees Amy Flanagan and Tom McDonald. Each offered us an insight into how they broke into the industry and rose through the ranks to where they are today. In addition they also offered us tips and advice on how we could emulate their success once the trainee scheme was over. The day then culminated with an in-depth discussion on how to work effectively with contributors to your documentary as well as practicing proper interview technique.
DocLab was really interesting today. We had two guest speakers, Amy Flanagan and Tom McDonald, talk about their careers and what they do at Channel 4 and the BBC. I found it very useful in regards to what commissioners look for when someone is pitching an idea: summarising with three main key points, something unique about the idea, an aspect such as access to the story that makes you an essential part of the process of making the film, and finally PASSION. The reason passion is in caps is because they emphasize that hugely. If you don’t have passion for your idea it won’t come across to the people you are pitching to and could potentially fail to have your idea lift off.
And then there's the ever growing list of documentaries I need to watch and learn from!
The second day of the DocLab began with thinking about research and development in documentaries. Eager to put our learning to practical use, we opted to start the research and development for our own pitches rather than on sample doc ideas. I felt that the energy in the room really changed as people began working on their own proposals and the feedback afterwards showed how far people had come since yesterday.
The guest speakers, Amy Flanagan and Tom McDonald really inspired the group to start thinking about the opportunity that the DocLab presents. The talks were personal and interesting but also motivational, illustrating how we can put our ideas into action and employment. I was also really interested to learn more about how television is programmed and what the public service means in television.
The afternoon brought more of our documentary clips and discussion on intellectual property, documentary ethics and working with participants. This reflection on interview techniques, morale responsibilities of a filmmaker and working in a way to build trust was fascinating and seemed necessary after ethical questions had arisen in the last two days about documentaries we’ve watched.
The second day at DocLab felt like a great step for the group as the whole and for me individually. The friendship and trust between the group started developing extremely quickly and made for open and passionate conversation.
Looking forward to day three.
Day Three: Meet the Freelance Filmmaker
Day #3 was another intense day - but certainly productive too. We had Mark Craig come in and teach us about the craft and the industry. We also got a time to work on our pitch with lots of helpful tips from Deborah Aston to help us package a well-oiled pitch. Key quotes I took away are: “Don’t ever count yourself out” and “You cannot lose by pitching badly - you can only lose by not pitching”. The Grierson DocLab is an amazing opportunity that I will definitely tell my other documentary/filmmaker enthusiasts about.
Sadly, coming to the end of the current DocLab journey but the beginning of my journey as a documentary filmmaker. I’ve learnt an untold amount of information about creating docs over the course of the four days. Everything I need to know to get started. Today we’ve been learning about channels and understanding their tone, as well as working with archive, EPK’s, deliverables, workflows and more. Mark Craig was a brilliant speaker, and I could really feel his passion as he was telling us his story. Soon to pitch, so excited! Feel blessed to have had the opportunity to join this year’s DocLab!
Day 4: Finding a job
The most daunting yet rewarding part of the day was when we each had to pitch our respective ideas to the rest of the group. The last four days had been building to this moment and one by one each trainee stepped before their peers to deliver the pitches we had all worked so hard towards.
The final day for us DocLab trainees. Morale and enthusiasm to put our training to good use in the industry is high. Deborah started off by introducing us to the world of production, it’s roles and what directions an idea can take through the reaches a television screen. We then went in to the UK’s TV channels, thinking about their brand, ethos, styles and target audience. By learning this, not only to target our own projects and ideas, but to also aim ourselves in the next steps on our career ladders.
Irantzu Lau-Hing Fan then came in to discuss CVs and workshop with us to improve them, stand out and push ourselves in to the ‘yes pile’. We worked on format and standing out through applying our personalities on to this word doc. Irantzu worked with us to find our achievements, goals and next steps.
Itantzu departed, which meant it was time for us to nervously pitch the ideas we have developed throughout the week. Seeing everybody’s passion and development in their ideas and confidence in expressing them really shows this week’s progress within all of us trainees.
Day #4 of DocLab and it's quite hard to articulate how much this week has changed my attitudes, beliefs and future goals in regards to my career within factual filmmaking. On day one we were told we would be pitching our film ideas to the group. The only thing that drowned the sound of knees knocking under the desk was the voice of Jane in the corner shouting 'Grierson winner' every time we watched a documentary clip.
The week progressed, and we were given the essential tools to build our pitches. Deborah provided us with incredible content filled workshops that taught us the ins and outs of pitching. These workshops not only built our knowledge but our confidence too. By being able to express our thoughts to the group and ask questions freely we were able to expand our ideas and build our pitches for the final day.
There was a sense of pride whilst watching the other trainee's deliver their pitches. It was encouraging to see how much progression we had made in such a short time and how our ideas had developed, changed and expanded. I have learnt an immeasurable amount within the past week but one thing I will end on is how grateful I am to have been chosen to be part of this experience and to be trained by such inspiring people. To have spent time with like-minded and encouraging people has motivated me even further to follow my dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker.
On to Sheffield Doc Fest...
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