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Script 111.14

Script

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What is a mini-doc?

A mini-doc is a short (3–7 minute) report from the field that focuses on one person who encounters a problem and overcomes it.

How can it help me serve my listeners better?

  • A mini-doc is a story with action and emotion, and it engages the listener in a way that straight facts and information can’t.
  • A mini-doc takes the listener to a place they can mentally visualize. When people can “see” a place or a person in a story, they will listen more intently.
  • A mini-doc has a character(s) the listener can get to know.
  • A mini-doc shows the listener how that character reacts to and solves a problem, a problem they may share.

How can it help me produce better programs?

  • A mini-doc varies the texture and pace of a program.
  • Gathering recordings for a mini-doc gets the producer into the communities and onto the farms where they can meet listeners, promote their programs, and get ideas for other stories.
  • A mini-doc lets a producer cover an issue on their program without having to rely on a series of interviews.
  • A mini-doc can bring emotion and compassion to a program.

How do I get started? (Learn more about these and other points in the Details section below.)

  • Find a person in your listening area who has a problem and has found or is working on a solution.
  • Arrange to spend a day with them.
  • Research the problem your character has encountered.
  • Spend some time talking with your character before recording.
  • Record several interviews with your character in appropriate settings.
  • Record interviews with secondary characters, if needed.
  • Record sounds from the location(s).
  • Determine the focus of the mini-doc after listening to the recordings.
  • Choose appropriate clips and sound from the recordings.1Arrange the clips and sound in the best order to tell the story.
  • Write the narration.
  • Mix the documentary—incorporating the narration, sound, and clips.

Details

Find a person in your listening area who has a problem and has found or is working on a solution.

Mini-docs are stories about people who have encountered a problem and have found, or are working on, a solution. The problem needs to have serious consequences if not fixed. For example, planting a maize crop a couple of days late would have fewer consequences than if the soil on the farm was depleted of nutrients. Having a minor illness that makes it difficult to work for a short time is far less of a problem than chronic back pain that makes planting almost impossible.

It is sometimes easier to identify an issue—such as soil depletion—and then look for farmers who are facing that rather than looking for farmers who have an interesting problem. Among that group of farmers, you may find one who has a compelling story of meeting the obstacle of soil depletion and finding a way to solve the problem.

You may also find a character for a mini-doc through conversations with your contacts or by asking your audience for their stories. Not every one who replies will be a good character in a mini-doc, but the people you talk with may know of others with more suitable stories. It may take a while and some searching, but a good character with a good story is worth the effort. It will take time, though. You need to plan ahead, and make sure that you can complete your other programming duties for the next week or two.

Arrange to spend a day with them.

We ask a lot of the people we interview. Asking for a full day is a big request. But having that amount of time is important. You need to establish trust with your character so that they answer as honestly and completely as they can. You will want to interview them while they work, while they spend time with their family, while they are thinking about the future. You will also need time to gather the sounds in your character’s environment.

Research the problem your character has encountered.

You need to know as much about the problem as you can. The internet is a good place to start your research, but there are resources in your community that will give you better and more detailed information. For farming issues, extension offices are a good source. Health professionals can help with medical questions. Armed with your research you will be able to ask better questions.

Spend some time talking with your character before recording.

This is part of your research. You can do it on the phone or, if you have the time, visit them. Either way, the initial conversation is when you confirm that this is a good story to tell. It is also the time when you build trust. You get to know them and they get to know you. It is also a useful way to reduce the length of the recordings you return with. You can decide before you record what is important, what the story is, and where you want to record. The less you record, the less you have to listen back to. That will shorten the process of putting the mini-doc together.

Record several interviews with your character in appropriate settings.

Doing two or three interviews can help you get the best from your character and make for a more complete story. Doing the interviews in different locations allows you to broadcast different sounds. The difference in the sounds can help listeners visualize the story you are telling.

Take for example a farmer whose soil is seriously depleted of nutrients. The farmer uses the same practices her father had used. She plants maize year after year on the same land, burning off the fields after harvest to prepare them for the next planting season. Continuous planting and burning has robbed the soil of nutrients. Her yields have dropped and her family is struggling to survive. She heard from her neighbour that a charitable group had helped him. The farmer contacted the group and this year, she stopped burning her fields and is planting sweet potato.

Interview #1

The first interview takes place in the field. The farmer talks about how she used to work. She shows you the soil as you walk through the fields. She talks about the poor yields and how difficult it has been for her family. She shows you her neighbour’s fields. His maize harvest was much better than hers. She also shows you the new crop—sweet potato—she has planted and talks about her hope for her new farming practice. The sounds of the wind, your steps, digging in the soil, all provide important information for the listener. Gather extra sound after the interview is over.

Interview #2

The second interview is done in the neighbour’s home. The neighbour explains to the farmer about the charitable group and how it helped him change the way he farms. He tells her how it improved his maize yield. The neighbour tells her how growing sweet potato has provided more income and food for his family. You help direct the conversation with questions of your own, but the key to this interview is the interaction between the farmer and her neighbour. Gather extra sound after the interview is over.

Interview #3

The third interview takes place in the farmer’s home. You ask her some of the questions you asked before, such as how difficult it has been for her family and how she heard about the new techniques. You ask her how her new process is working. You ask her about her hopes for the future. Gather extra sound after the interview is over.

These three interviews will give you all the material you need from that character for your mini-doc.

Record interviews with secondary characters, if needed.

Secondary characters can help tell the story. An agronomist, for instance, can provide facts that are necessary for the audience to understand the story. Another farmer can add his experiences with a similar problem. These characters appear only briefly and are there to support the main character’s story.

Record sounds from the location(s).

The sounds from your interview locations will help the audience picture the location. Record general sounds—the wind, the sound of livestock, the sound of traffic. Also, record specific sounds—footsteps, a dog barking, a bird, a gate or door opening and closing. Be observant and look for the sounds that will help the listeners imagine what the location looks like.

Determine the focus of the mini-doc after listening to the recordings.

Back at your station, listen to what you have recorded, making notes of the best material. Not everything will belong in the mini-doc. Based on your recordings, decide on your focus. Here’s some tips on how to find the story’s focus: Ask yourself these three questions—who is the character? What is their problem or obstacle? What are they doing to overcome it? That gives you the focus statement—someone doing something for a reason.

Choose appropriate clips and sound from the recordings.

Using your notes, isolate the best voice clips and sound. The best clips will be action clips, for example, those recorded walking through the field and meeting the neighbour, and emotional clips, such as those when the farmer talks about the struggles she and her family endured and her hopes for the future. There will also be informational clips to help you tell her story.

Arrange the clips and sound in the best order to tell the story.

Put the clips and sound in the order you think they work best to tell the farmer’s story. A story is shaped like an arc. The most important clips tell the climax of the story, the top of the arc. In the story of the farmer, the climax is when she decides to abandon the old way of farming and plants sweet potato. The clips leading up to that point tell the part of her story where she struggles with bad soil and poor yields. They introduce the neighbour and his advice. The clips after the climax point to the future—what will happen next?

Write the narration.

It is always easier to write your script after you choose your clips and sound and put them in order. The idea is to let your character(s) and the sounds tell the most important parts of the story. The script is there to help your character tell her story. Your script will fill in details, describe the scenes, and move the listener from place to place. Here is an example of what that might look like.

Sound: Footsteps on dry earth, birds, and wind

Narrator: Our feet kick up dust as we walk. The soil here is dry. It can’t hold the little moisture it gets.

Farmer: My name is _______. This is my farm.

Narrator: _____ has farmed this land all her life. Just like her father, she grows maize.

Farmer: We’ve always grown maize. When I was young, the fields were good. We always had enough to eat and some to sell. It’s not like that now.

Sound: More footsteps

Farmer: Just look at the soil. We can’t grow enough maize. I think it is because we have planted the same crop in the same place too often.

Narrator: She is right. It’s a problem many farmers in her area face. They plant maize year after year in the same field and then burn off the fields after harvest. It’s an old practice that is killing the soil.

Farmer: My children are going hungry. We have to beg for help.

Sound: More footsteps

Farmer: Look over there at that field. My neighbour’s field. It looks much healthier. His maize gets a much higher yield.

Narrator: Maize requires a lot of nutrients from the soil to grow. Over the years of planting and burning, those nutrients have been depleted. Soil needs to be replenished with decaying vegetation. With so little land available to farmers like ____, things have to change. Farmers have to find a way to add nutrients back into the soil.

Sound: Greeting the neighbour, hellos, and welcoming words

Narrator: Farmers in this area often help each other. _______’s neighbour is about to offer her some help that may save her farm. It may save her and her family’s life.

The narration works with the clips and with the sound. All three are essential to tell the story.

Mix the documentary, incorporating the narration, sound, and clips.

You can use the sounds you recorded both in the foreground (where the volume of the sound is equal to the volume of the clips and narration and is separate from them) and in the background, where they are at a lower level, along with the clips and script.

Foreground sounds are important in telling the story. A foreground sound might be a door opening or closing. It shows movement and change. It paints a picture.

Background sound is used to give the listener information about the environment. Wind and birds show that the character is outside. The sounds of plates or food cooking brings the listener into the kitchen. Through mixing the documentary, you control what your listeners “see” in their imagination.

Clips don’t have to be long. They don’t even have to be complete thoughts. You can break up a clip and insert some narration or sound into the middle. For example:

Farmer: We’ve always grown maize. When I was young, the fields were good. We always had enough to eat and some to sell. It’s not like that now.

Sound: More footsteps

Farmer: Just look at the soil. We can’t grow enough maize. I think it is because we have planted the same crop in the same place too often.

You can also break up your narration, as in this example.

Narrator: Maize requires a lot of nutrients from the soil to grow. Over the years of planting and burning, those nutrients have been depleted. Soil needs to be replenished by decaying vegetation. With so little land available to farmers, like ____, things have to change. Farmers have to find a way to add nutrients back into the soil.

Sound: Greeting the neighbour, hellos, and welcoming words

Narrator: Farmers in this area often help each other. _______’s neighbour is about to offer her some help that may save her farm. It may save the life of her and her family.

Mixing is an art. A good mix combines narration, sound, and clips so that all three work together to tell the story. A good mix is well-paced. It combines long and short elements. The listener doesn’t notice a smooth mix where sounds are crossfaded and scenes change without jarring the ear. However, they will notice bad edits or level changes that don’t make sense. These may distract the listener from the story itself.

For more on audio editing, see FRI’s Broadcaster how-to guide on audio editing.

Other points about mini-docs

Mini-docs can be produced without narration—but only if you ask your character to speak in complete sentences. For instance, it would be very difficult to tell the story of a bad crop if you asked, “How was the yield on this year’s crop?” and your character only said, “Really poor.” Instead, she would need to say something like, “The yield from the maize this year was really poor.”

To do an interview for a mini-doc without narration, you must listen very carefully to ensure that the story can be told without your narration.

You can use music to help tell the story in a mini-doc. Music can help with pacing, it can add emotion, and it can be used to change scenes. Vocal music usually conflicts with narration or clips if it is used as background sound. Instrumental music is easier to work with. Also, the volume of the music should be lower than that of the narration and clips. Music can overpower other audio if it is too loud.

There are many ways to produce a mini-doc. This document talks about one way to tell the story. It uses the simplest structure: here is a character, here is her problem, here is her solution, this is what happens next.

But as you become more familiar with making mini-docs, you can experiment. For instance, using the story example above, you could start with the farmer looking at her sweet potato crop and then talking about poor crops in the past. This is known as foreshadowing—in this case, letting the listener know that sweet potato will be important later on.

In the example above, the farmer gets help from her neighbour. It is always better if secondary characters have a connection to the central character. In this story, the secondary character could be an agricultural expert from the government or a charitable organization. It is not necessary that the farmer speak with them directly. You might have to interview the secondary character in a different location.

Mini-docs are satisfying for the listener because they tell a complete story with sound. For the producer, getting out of the radio station and into the field—meeting people and recording their stories—can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. Mini-docs do take time to produce, but they are a valuable tool in the producer’s tool box to use when an interview or panel or report do not tell a story in the most engaging and efficient way.

Acknowledgements

Contributed by: Dick Miller, freelance radio producer, trainer, and ex-CBC Radio documentary producer, lecturer in the Advanced Documentary Workshop, University of King’s College School of Journalism.