Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Leaning to Write

Not a typo.

I do mean "leaning."

I recently wrapped up a big corporate gig where I had to write the narration for a series of mockumentaries. The mockumentaries were used as what's called "eye openers" and "energizers." They were the first thing participants saw at the start of each day, thus the "eye-opener" part and they were also peppered throughout the conference to give a boost to the proceedings, thus the "energizer" term.

The premise I was given to write for was that this particular group of salesmen were somehow linked to wolves. I was also shown a BBC documentary on wolves to model and a web invite that the company used that featured a Steve Irwin-type character in the wild tracking one of these sales/wolf beasts.This looked like a lot of fun. The BBC narration was very serious, which made it the perfect genre to imitate to heighten the comedy of the premise.

But how do you write a script for a mockumentary without any footage? You just take a swing at it and hope something hits. First, I studied the language of the BBC documentary and the topics it covered. I then started breaking it down to possible segments and possible narration. And boy did I have a lot of bits. My favorite was to show an older salesperson at a vending machine feeding his young - in my mind, a small group of children dressed like salespeople, complete with mustaches and receding hairlines.

After assembling four or five rough drafts and running it by my partners, we sent it on to the client. The client, in this case, is the person in charge of events and meetings. This person is our touchstone to finding out if our material is appropriate for the event. In this case, she thought the bits were funny, but had another parameter to throw down on us. When we go out to the dealerships to shoot footage, the salesmen couldn't know what we were really there to do. The video at the conference had to be a complete surprise. So, no asking them to do any wolf bits or anything out of the ordinary. Yikes! Now, it really was becoming like a documentary. We had to observe these salesmen in their "natural environments" and craft our segments from that. I had to learn to write backwards. Instead of writing a script and sending them to get the shots needed to support it, we had to get shots of salespeople at work and then craft the pieces.

Does that mean the time I spent on the rough drafts were a waste of time? Not at all. if anything, it got me writing in the voice and style of the BBC documentaries. It was good practice and about a third to half of the narration did end up int he final product.

But at first I was stumped and convinced this project was doomed. It was so out of the realm of how I was used to writing, especially for video. What helped, was spending one day with the camera crew at the first location they went to. We told the guys we were their making a promotional video for the company. I watched them do everything that day - make dials, appraise trucks, eat lunch, chat with each other about prospects and startegies, etc. It was a real eye-opener for me in that it didn't fit anything I envisioned. And seeing what they went through, gave me ideas for filling out the segment categories and gave me ideas for a few new ones. It was an important step that I now could see in my mind what the end result could look like. I was able to give the camera crew suggestions on what to be on the lookout for when they went to other locations.

In the end, it worked very well. I had to give up my usual approach and go with a back-and-forth script-to-video to back to script molding and shaping process. It turned out to be highly collaborative. It was up to the director to make sure the shots were there to use and up to the editor to make sure it all popped and flowed with the narration. Quite a challenge, but a satisfying one that forced me to write in a new way. If they had come to me before we started and asked me to do it, I would have told them to find someone who knows how to do it. Fortunately for me, I was already committed to work on it. I had to lean into a new process and teach myself how to do it as we were making it up. Great way to grow as a writer.

The big challenge with corporate work is to make it funny without relying on jokes that are too inside. I think we accomplished that. I'm keeping the client's name off the blog for a few reasons - I don't have their permission, for one. But if Fig ever posts the work we did on their website, I will link to it so you can check it out.


Yesterday, I asked...

"Researchers in Europe have declared that a cure for children's colds can be found in what?"

80% said "toilet water, literally"
- No, but I hear that works for dogs.

No one thought it was "swamp water" or "bath water"
Which are synonymous in some households.

20% got it right with "sea water"

According to Reuters, a nasal spray made from Atlantic Ocean seawater eased wintertime cold symptoms faster and slowed cough and cold symptoms from returning among children ages 6 to 10, researchers in Europe reported on Monday. It may be that the salt water has a simple mechanical effect of clearing mucus, or it could be that trace elements in the water play some more significant role, though the exact reason why such a solution works is not known, said Dr Ivo Slapak and colleagues at the Teaching Hospital of Brno in the Czech Republic. So, there you go. You now have permission to waterboard your children. It's not torture. It's a cold medicine.