Three Words a Second

Commentary writing is one of the most satisfying jobs in the production chain – if you do it well. But there is much scope for bad practice here. The main thing is:

Let the Pictures Speak

The viewer receives information with two senses – his eyes and his ears. Your script, therefore is only a part of the information he will be getting. If the words and the pictures disagree, the pictures will win, and the words (which usually contain the ‘hard’ information) lose. Your script should add to the information your viewer receives with his eyes by complementing it, supplementing it, or sometimes, simply explaining what is happening. The words should counterpoint the action on the screen, or to use a musical analogy, the pictures are the melody, the words are the harmony. No composer starts by writing the harmony.

The commentary is there for a reason

Commentary has all sorts of uses. The pictures should tell the story, but the commentary is the only bit of your creation that can easily contain hard facts – numbers etc. It’s the bit of the sound information over which you have the most control, and should be used to complement, supplement, and highlight the pictures, sync sound and music. And it should be done last – it’s the easiest to alter, to shorten, lengthen, to fit the other elements of the story-telling process. In a current affairs context, particularly, a script can be regarded as a series of commentary links. Interviewees seldom phrase things as tidily or cogently as you want, and pieces to camera are sometimes used just as scene setters, so the commentary is used to ‘stitch’ the different sequences together – to make the logic of the story flow. That’s why it’s written last, after the cutting is complete, and when the strength and impact of all the other elements in the story can be assessed.

Making the story flow

This is one of the main jobs of commentary. Most sequences will flow along without too much voice over to explain what’s happening. More difficult to orchestrate is a neat join between two sequences. If you’ve planned everything properly, or have a very clever editor, or if you’re lucky, you might be able to make the join on the basis of a neat conjunction of two pictures, then let the commentary pick up from there. A variation on the journalist’s maxim ‘intrigue then inform’. More often you’ve got no choice but to join up the sequences with no real continuity in the pictures, and must ‘cover the join’ with a neat phrase to make the logic flow properly. Imagine a piece on Vampire Airways; one sequence might feature the training of cabin crews. If the next sequence is on air cargo, you may may find (or contrive) a sequence featuring polar bears being introduced to the local zoo. Then you can have a neat cut from air hostesses launching a rubber life raft to a picture of a swimming bear surfacing. Water to water. The commentary can then pick up with something like:
A dip in the sea can be a real treat to some of Vampire’s passengers. These polar bears are just the tip of the iceberg of the three hundred thousand tons of freight the airline handles each year.

Commentary to the Rescue

More often, though, you can’t find a polar bear when you want one, and that’s where commentary can really help. Suppose you want to cut from passengers in the cabin to crates being unloaded from a jumbo. Then you can make the logic flow with something like:
Vampire is famous for its in-flight service. But reliability is just as important. Especially if you’ve got half a ton of live lobsters on board. Last year, over half of our fresh fish and …..
But – and this is the important part – you shouldn’t just wait until you see the picture of the crates and then begin to speak. You’re not writing a catalogue. So when do you start the sentence? You probably want the cut to the crate on ‘half a ton’. There are eighteen words before this, that’s six seconds, so you need to start the paragraph six seconds before the cut to the crate. A similar technique could be used with the polar bear paragraph to great advantage, starting six seconds before the bear surfaced, not before the cut. The viewer then hears about bears just as one appears on screen. Very satisfying. You don’t always want to match a cut to a word of commentary. But worry more about the end of a sentence or paragraph than the beginning. An English sentence generally makes sense only when it’s finished. And that’s often when you most need the words and pictures to tie up best.

Introducing an Interviewee

Here is when you definitely need to arrange for a paragraph to finish at a certain time – when the interviewee starts speaking. But if possible, don’t just make it a bald introduction:
…Arthur Plinge talked to Swiss mascarpone maker Jason Wombat about the rise in cheese prices.
That was bald but cluttered! The names are redundant anyway. This isn’t the time to introduce the interviewer (who should, of course, be the narrator), and you can use a superimposition for the interviewee. And the last three minutes have been all about the price of cheese. So why have an introduction at all? Well you need to signal a change of voice, for one thing. And you can use the intro to ‘set up’ the basic stance of an interviewee on the subject under discussion:
But the high prices aren’t seen all round as a bad thing.

Getting out of Interviews

Commentary is also useful at the end of a clip of a speaker – it can help smooth what otherwise might be a very jerky transition to the next sequence. You have no (or very little) control over the way your interviewee phrases his sentences, so you have to craft yours to suit his, and to keep the flow of logic in the story. A good tip here is to pick up a word or a phrase in the last sentence and use it to link to your next thought. Remember always, though that:

The Pictures Must Come First

In any given context each picture has a natural length on screen. The more complicated the picture, the longer it needs. A very complicated shot that isn’t connected to the shot before it might need six or eight seconds; a simple shot that’s related to the preceding sequence and has possibly appeared before might only need two seconds. Editors call this visual rhythm. There’s nothing complicated about it; watch any good documentary and you’ll probably find that just as your eyes have finished scanning each shot you’re given a fresh one to look at. To cut the pictures to fit words would mean jumping them about all over the shop – simple pictures held long and boringly, complicated pictures almost subliminal. If you write the words to match the edited pictures you’ve got to chop and change the words to fit. But it’s far far easier to alter text; we can all shorten a sentence if we need to. And we can go on till the cows come home if it’s necessary. In general, don’t lengthen if you don’t have to, but using the cheese example, you could cover a seven second shot of Mr Wombat milking a cow with something like:
But farmers who have to get up at four every morning to make cheese say the price rise is only fair.
Or perhaps old Wombat is a bit of a celebrity or a marvellous interviewee. You’ve spent more time shooting the milking sequence and it cuts very nicely at fourteen seconds. That might be a little long for him to go without a name, even though his function (cheese maker) is obvious. OK, this time, lets introduce him as well as his function:
But the cheese makers say theirs is a skilled craft. And a hard life. Jason Wombat starts milking at four every morning to ensure that his cheddar is top quality. He says the price rise is only fair and just.
I’ve only just noticed that many of my examples start off with, or include, the word ‘but’. Interesting, but not weird. For two reasons: First, television likes contrast, conflict, drama. Second, I was using a current affairs context for many of the examples and current affairs stories are often about a clash of interests. Could be a thesis piece here: “The use of ‘BUT’, ‘HOWEVER’ and ‘ON THE OTHER HAND’ in current affairs scripting”. Anyway, this page was an introduction to the basics of writing commentary, and how the words and pictures match up.