In July 2017, Early Stage Researcher Lukas Schretter finished a four-week-secondment at the BBC Studios in London. The BBC Studios is the BBC‘s main TV production division, which launched as an independent operating company in April 2017. Placed in the Documentary Unit, Lukas contributed research findings and gained insight into operational processes of documentary development.
Documentary films are story-driven, which separates them from visual material that simply documents an actual person, place, or event. As Sheila Curran Bernard, filmmaker and Associate Professor at the University of Albany put it, “until it's been shaped and given meaning by the filmmaker – until it tells a story in some form – it's not a documentary.” Documentary storytelling however does not refer only to films that are narrated. Observational films, for example, which attempt to spontaneously observe lived life with a minimum of interventions, are also story-driven. Similar to fictional stories, what defines documentary storytelling is the creation of a dramatic structure: That includes character development and establishing a story arc.
Factual television has a crucial role to play helping us to make sense of an increasingly complex world. The output of the Documentary Unit at the BBC Studios ranges from observational access series to history, arts and factual drama, such as “Murdered By My Father”, “The Secret History of My Family”, “Our World War”, “Murdered for Being Different”, “Against the Law”, “Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners”, “Louis Theroux: Savile”, “Life and Death Row” and “The Met: Policing London”, a documentary series which follows police officers in Britain’s capital and addresses key issues about policing in a narrative-driven way.
Which stories are being told, and why? Lukas participated in the Brainstorm meetings of the Documentary Unit, which are organized on a regular basis to discuss new ideas that offer depth and excitement. Access documentary series are a priority – factual television needs to be timely and tell stories which matter in people’s lives today. At the same time, the Documentary Unit seeks to develop innovative formats: Raising key problems and questions about the world we live in, the Unit endeavours to tackle complexities and strives to present relevant contemporary and historical topics to a greater audience in a concise and intelligible manner.
Like any form of communication, including journalism, documentary storytelling unavoidably is subjective, no matter how balanced the presentation aims to be. Provocative and controversial social, economic and cultural issues in particular require substantial research on information provided by experts, the media, policy makers and the populations directly affected. For the Documentary Unit to decide which ideas are pursued and which information or material is included or excluded, Lukas supported producers and assistant producers in conducting research for current and future projects. His research covered a wide range of topics, including recent police cuts in the United Kingdom or homelessness developments in different parts of the country. By contrast, for the History Development team within the Documentary Unit Lukas studied topics such as the coronation of James I in 1603 or the Blitz over Britain’s cities in 1940 and 1941.
Compiling the most interesting and important facts about a current or historical event forms the basis of a documentary synopsis ready for submission to commissioners. A synopsis usually is followed by a treatment, which is longer and reads like a short story including the outline, structure, style, and format of the planned TV program.
The production scheme
Documentary storytelling includes many steps, starting from the moment an idea is conceived through production until post-production. Consequently there is not really an average day in the documentary production business. While Lukas was on secondment at the BBC Studios, the Documentary Unit staff were busy with developing new ideas and formats to be pitched to commissioners. In the pre-production scheme, the filmmakers research the subject in depth and scout filming locations. After filming, the collected material has to be edited, condensing it down into a TV programme.
TV production requires flexibility, and this is reflected in the working environment at the BBC Studios. With lots of freelancers and contractors involved, large parts of the BBC Studios are a hot desk environment. Rather than exclusively set up rows of traditional desks, the office also includes shared spaces with work benches and social hubs, where staff and contributors can work on their projects in a group or on their own in an informal and social, collaborative setting.
Lukas Schretter is an Early Stage Researcher within the European-Union funded research network “Children Born of War. Past, Present, Future” (CHIBOW), based at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on Consequences of War in Graz, Austria. He remains thankful to the Documentary Unit at the BBC Studios, particularly Aysha, Caroline, Chris, Emily, Katie, Lauren, Marco, Polly and Tamar for their support during his secondment. Next to working with the Documentary Unit, Lukas completed online-training on “Data Protection”, “Working with Children” and “Safety awareness”, specifically designed for BBC staff, freelancers and work placements.
Within the CHIBOW network, Lukas is writing his dissertation on children fathered by British soldiers and born to Austrian women after World War II. In the weeks prior to and after his secondment at the BBC Studios, he conducted interviews in the United Kingdom and spent research time in the National Archives in Kew, the Women’s Library in London, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and the Imperial War Museum.