by Jane Sayers, Content Engine @ Shell’s Creative Solutions

The life of a documentary filmmaker really takes some beating – travelling the world, visiting incredible places and filming with awe-inspiring people.  It’s not so much a career as it is a privilege.  As such, it’s a slight embarrassment to admit that my career happened purely by chance.

I was 4 years old when I realised what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I was experiencing my first pantomime and was invited onto stage with a gaggle of other kids to form a band.  I was the tiniest child, obscured from view behind the largest of drums!  I can’t vouch for my drumming abilities, but the experience of being on stage struck a chord and I decided I would be a dancer in the theatre.  At 11 I won a scholarship, left home and began training professionally.  My plan was working well until a persistent knee injury forced me to rethink.

With no idea of what else I might like to do in life I thought some secretarial qualifications could be handy.  They opened a door to the BBC’s “PA Panel” – the in-house roster of mainly female Production Secretaries and Assistants that served the corporation at that time.  With no control of where in the BBC you would get placed, it was a complete fluke that I landed in the Documentary Features department.

I worked alongside Paul Watson who was one of the best and arguably most controversial documentary makers at the time (The Family, Sylvania Waters).  A bit later I helped Michael Palin travel the circumference of the Pacific Ocean (Full Circle with Michael Palin) and within a few years I’d learned to shoot and was taking my first steps as a documentary director.

It’s been a complete blast for the subsequent 20 years.  There’s only one continent my job hasn’t taken me to (Antarctica is on my bucket list – if only I can find an environmentally sound way of getting there), I’ve spent time with some extraordinarily talented humans (4 series with Professor Stephen Hawking, including the Emmy Winning Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places), but I’ve also been invited into the homes and lives of “ordinary” people that I will remember forever and who I would otherwise never have met.

A few years back I moved on from directing and I now bask in the glory of others – namely Content Engine @ Shell’s Creative Solutions – an incredibly talented in-house team of factual filmmakers and support staff that reside at Shell and that I am lucky to head up.  Content Engine’s projects range from factual series about mega-engineering (There We Go: Lifting 25,000 tonnes in 9 seconds), cleaner energy solutions (Greenlots: Cleaner Cabs), resurfacing racetracks (Grip is Everything).  They also do live broadcasts and even quirky animations. Watch the films at the bottom of this article!

The team’s films are broadcast over YouTube, Websites, LinkedIn and many social platforms, but their brilliance stems from their experience of making content for Netflix, Discovery Channel, the BBC and other TV broadcasters.  The things that make great factual content sing, don’t change.  Here’s my top pick of 4 things to nail before beginning a documentary.

  1. Know your audience – I mean REALLY KNOW your audience

Before you even start planning a film you should understand precisely who your audience is.  Literally their demographic, their location, their interests and opinions.  Understanding this will enable you to craft a film that really “speaks” to them – critical to success.

In my early career, we knew how a C4 audience differed from BBC-1 and ITV’s daytime audience differed from BBC-2’s, but the landscape is much more complex now.  So do your research before you get started and ensure you really know who you’re speaking to – it will be much easier to write and craft your story with your audience in mind.

  1. Create a compelling hook

It’s easy to think a “hook” isn’t relevant in a factual film.  Afterall, “you’re telling a true story” and “hooks are for Hollywood trailers”, but that opinion would be misguided.  Every film needs a great hook, and it should be thought about right from the start, not at the end of the edit.

There are some obvious choices – a witty retort from your celebrity talent or an intriguing question proposed in text or narration.  And don’t worry about blowing the outcome of your story in a hook.  It may seem counter-intuitive to give-away the end, but if the tale you’re telling resolves in an incredible way, it will probably make an incredible hook.

EXAMPLE: The most memorable hook I’ve ever seen was a line of narration that simply said someone who participated in the film would be dead before the end of it.  Who couldn’t watch to the end of that one!  To satisfy your curiosity, it was about a paedophilia investigation.  After giving an incredibly candid interview about his crimes, the perpetrator committed suicide.  He left a note for the filmmakers saying they could transmit his story.

  1. Tell your story in a captivating way

Knowing how to tell a good yarn can make or break your film.  If your chosen topic is reasonably predictable, then plan your story-beats before filming gets underway – write them out and see if your story structure works.  Aim to create intrigue for the audience and then hit them with revelations, ideally a few times throughout the film.

With “observed” filmmaking where the story is unpredictable, you’ll need a knack for spotting a kernel of a storyline and understanding how to develop it.  You’ll also need to recognise when it’s not going anywhere, so you don’t waste your or your contributor’s time!

  1. Learn the art of interviewing

The “art” of interviewing is easily over-looked but developing great interviewing skills could accelerate your career.

To be a successful documentary maker you need to have an inherent interest in people.  If you’re drawn to “people-watching” and are a nosey-parker who likes to learn more about everyone else than you usually reveal about yourself, then you’re already halfway there.  Become a great interviewer and you’re on fire!

In the 1990’s I trained as a buddy with the Terence Higgins Trust – a tiny contribution to the pandemic that was ripping through the gay community at the time.  They taught me some basic counselling skills; how to encourage people to open-up and speak about tough subjects, how to get people to trust you and enjoy conversing with you.  I didn’t realise when I was learning these skills that they were brilliant interviewing techniques, that I would use for years to come.

If you can tick these 4 off and you are naturally creative person, with an artistic eye and a good ear – you’ll fly!


Check out three of Content Engine’s projects:

There We Go: Lifting 25,000 tonnes in 9 seconds


Greenlots: Cleaner Cabs


Grip is Everything

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