Thinking Inside the Box - with the Lid Open

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In the late 1960s, when I was a young guitar player and aspiring composer of popular music, I saw a “60 Minutes” segment that made a huge impression on me. Mike Wallace was interviewing the composer Igor Stravinsky. When asked what inspired him to compose, Stravinsky said it was impossible to just approach an empty score sheet and start to write. What he did was to impose structure – a certain mode, a time signature, rhythmic figures and on and on until the music started to flow.

I never forgot this as a method to avoid writer’s block. When I started to create television programming, it became my most valuable tool. Instead of the musical restrictions I had others – the client’s objectives, my goals for how a particular target audience would receive and interpret the information, the budget, the duration of the program, the deadlines and so on. When I considered how all these variables would affect the contents of the program, the creative juices would flow.

As I teach my students to create public service announcements, profiles of people, news stories, music videos or documentaries, I encourage them to frame each piece with the requirements first. The creative is then much easier.

I don’t consider myself to be “thinking outside the box.” Instead I construct a new vessel for each production, borrowing materials and ideas along the way and fashioning them into a unique package.

Necessity is a huge motivator. Why did Bach and Hayden write so much wonderful music? Because they had regular occasions – a church service, a visiting dignitary, and each occasion had a purpose. They had to crank it out and it had to be good.

When approaching a documentary production I always write a proposal that includes what I think are the goals, the audience, the distribution venue, the budget and essentials for telling the story – the opening, the body, the conclusion and the durations of each of the segments. As I continue to fill in the details I become inspired by where I would shoot, who I would interview, what things might happen in front of the camera. Transitions, credits, background information, whatever I think needs to be a part of the story, are all laid out with the duration I think I need for each of the segments. It’s amazing how knowing that you have only one minute to explain something will influence what you do with it.

The two Holocaust-related documentaries I produced were daunting, especially the first one. How could I possibly understand the Holocaust? I didn’t have to. I only had to understand how to tell a specific story to the audience. What do they already know? What do they need to know? What elements are essential to telling that story in an engaging, effective way? That’s all I need. It still takes a lot of research, but I can rely on the experts to fill in the gaps.

I make sure that whatever vessel I build to contain the story is easily modified to fit the unpredictable twists and turns of the story. If I lock myself into something I can’t get out of, I will suffocate before I can shoot a frame. A documentary must be discovered, not carefully scripted. But it must be carefully planned. You won’t be at the right place at the right time unless you plan to be there, camera rolling, waiting for the event to happen. If it’s in Kenya or Australia, you also may need a driver and a map.

With students all this planning can be difficult. They want to shoot first and ask questions later. The planning phase is hard because they don’t know what to anticipate. When the program is finished and especially after it airs, however, they begin to appreciate how the planning resulted in a more creative, better quality production.

So make your own unique box. Then think inside it. But leave the top off to let the breeze refresh your open mind.

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