Tone, Style and Structure

Storyboard for an early animation concept. Drawing by Isaac Kerlow.

Most people without professional filmmaking experience believe that making a documentary is about pointing a camera at someone and asking questions. That is about 10% of it. Figuring an honest tone, and adequate style and structure constitutes, in my opinion, 50% of making a succesful documentary. Capturing emotion and communicating knowledge do not happen automatically just by pointing a camera at someone’s face.

For this project I wanted a tone that was as human as possible, sympathetic and without gore. Something that the locals could relate to and be proud of and at the same time something that people from other places could understand and be touched by. My guiding thought was: “Will the locals understand and appreciate this when they watch the documentary?”

In terms of style I avoided anything reminiscent of a TV News style, like shooting a barrage of direct personal questions, as I believe that this technique predisposes subjects to answer with cliches or to shut down emotionally. I chose a minimalist narrative style for two reasons. First because I wanted to let the subjects do the talking.

Second because I didn’t want to overload the viewer with information that would dilute the main issues at stake. Issues such as: Why do these people live here, in the face of danger? Why don’t they move elsewhere? I chose to write a voice-over narration that consists of less than 30 modules, each between one and two sentences. Crafting these concentrated units of meaning was closer to writing poetry than to writing technical prose.

The goal of the minimalist voice-over was to evoke specific feelings, to contextualize, and to tell the story using the storytelling techniques of anticipation or suspense. The voice-over is meant to complement the voices of the people from Mayon, and the overall narrative moves back and forth between active narration and objective commentary.

After much debate I decided to structure Mayon: The Volcano Princess into nine distinct sections, each with its own title card. At first this approach seemed too didactic, but it ended up offering a clear structure and making the documentary easier to watch, especially for a general audience. The closing emotions of each section and the music bridges between sections were instrumental in unifying the sectioned structure.

The nine sections are: Introduction, Staying Ahead, Pyroclastic Flows, Preventing Disaster, Volcano Sounds, Lahar Nightmares, Recovering from Disaster, The Princess Legend, and The Road Ahead. Each section is meant to address specific issues relevant to the Mayon story.

The Role of Music | Production Notes | The Legend | Research and the Creative Process | Language and Emotion