Refining your concept

After setting goals during initial planning discussions, we find it helpful to let those elements simmer in our creative consciousness for a day or two to fully develop any thoughts or ideas about how we can create our film in the best possible manner. This allows us to regroup and refine the concept of the film. What method or methods will enable you to tell your story and connect with your target audience?

This is also the time to ask yourself about how objectively you want to present your film’s message. Do you want to persuade your audience to accept your take-home message? Do you want to persuade them at all or just inform? By planning your film’s goals and take-home message, you have already encountered key persuasion techniques. It’s almost impossible for a storyteller to remove his or her opinions entirely and to tell a story without any sort of subjective perspective. However, if you want your documentary to be as honest as possible, ask your interviewees open-ended questions, and let the true story unfold from the research you have uncovered and the perspectives of the different stakeholders.

Carefully phrasing your questions can help. For example, instead of asking a prominent marine biologist in Florida whether pollution is killing the manatee population, we would ask, “In your opinion, what are the main causes for the dwindling population of manatees off of Florida’s coast?” Asking a question like this will allow your story to unfold without too much interference from your perspective. Also, if your film is funded by a financial partner who wants to influence the target audience in a certain way, then consider how to fulfill their wishes and still present a factual story. Don’t be afraid to shape your story by adding your opinions. Just be careful to avoid telling a one-sided story without the appropriate methods for qualifying and tempering your message.

If you have a financial partner, by all means include them in the concept refinement process. When Untamed Science produces a film supported by a company or organization, we plan a meeting with that sponsor to brainstorm concept development. They offer different perspectives to refine the take-home message, and this meeting builds their sense of ownership in the production. It is important to include the sponsors in this stage to some degree because it can alleviate communication problems down the line.

In keeping with our manatee-themed example, let’s pretend we have a hypothetical sponsor for our film: an avid supporter of Manatees Alive, a fictional advocacy group. Once we establish some basic concepts for the film, we would likely meet with this sponsor and the advocacy group’s educational staff or communication directors (if possible) to begin refining our concepts. The outline may look like this:

  • Main theme: Harmless manatees are defenseless against increasing man-made threats to their survival.
  • Style of presentation: Use host to take audience on a first-person discovery adventure into the world of the manatee and the dangers facing them. Various experts express different points of view.
  • How to hook the viewer: Begin with a snorkel adventure into the manatees’ habitats and begin introducing questions that define the story.
  • Shift from love to fear: We fall in love with these gentle giants when we begin to discover fearful clues that something is horribly wrong. (Introduce conflict.)
  • Discover science-social content: Use different experts and actual field investigations to increase tension and dramatic action.
  • Connect manatees with audience: Look closer at the impact of threats. Make the film more personal as we show the audience the dangers facing the manatees.
  • Offer solution: Reintroduce experts and offer new experts who identify possible solutions to the threats.
  • Conclusion: Use affirmative take-home message motivating audience to prevent the destruction of the manatee population.

Now we’ve expanded the basic elements and concepts we need to develop our film. This part of pre-production further refines our concept by revealing the theme, slant, and approaches to reveal the story in a powerful way. It is also a starting point for research.

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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