Just as potential producers of feature-length, narrative films expect to receive scripts in Hollywood screenplay format, documentary producers expect scripts to conform to AV, or audio-visual, format. To get a documentary script produced you must make sure it conforms to strict industry formatting standards. As deviating from these standards can flag a writer as an amateur, best practices demand using professional software to do the brunt of the formatting work.
Purpose and Pipeline Position
Instead of coming before production—as is typical with fiction filmmaking—an AV script comes together during the editing process. Creating a correctly formatted AV script is a vital aspect of post-production and will heavily effect the way the final project looks. Many changes can occur in the editing process and it helps to create a script that draws from transcriptions, research materials, potential voiceovers and anything occurring in the editing room. For greater clarity and ease of editing, AV scripts use a dual-column format that effectively combines two separate scripts—one for the audio and one for visuals—into one.
Four Major Elements
An AV script is made up of four major elements—slugline, action, character and dialogue—each with its own specific formatting rules. Each should use 12-point Courier or Courier New. Each scene begins with a slugline (also known as a scene heading) that describes the scene in terms of time and location and specifies an interior or exterior setting using all capital letters. Denote interior locations with "INT." and exterior locations with "EXT." Then write a brief description of the location followed by a dash and either "DAY" or "NIGHT." For example, a slugline for a scene that takes place in a diner over lunch would read "INT. DINER—DAY." Action elements, which describe any action occurring within the scene, appear in sentence case below sluglines.
The video column, which appears on the left side of the page, includes all sluglines and actions along with three additional, optional elements: shots, camera moves and still photographs. Shot names, which should appear in all capital letters, include "ECU" for extreme close-up, "CU" for close-up, "MCU" for medium close-up, "MS" for medium shot, "FS" for full shot, "LS" for long shot and "ELS" for extreme long shot. Camera movements include "ZOOM" for any change in focal length while the camera is running, "PAN" for horizontal rotations on an axis, "TILT" for vertical rotations on an axis, and "DOLLY IN" and "DOLLY OUT" for approaching or moving away from the subject using a dolly. Use "DOLLY with" or "TRACK with" to denote a dolly or tracking shot that follows a subject. Use "PHOTO" to denote a still photograph. Use "TITLE" to denote any printed titles, excluding subtitles. In all cases, follow the element name with a colon and a brief description.
The audio column includes character names in all capital letters, dialogue in title case, voiceover (denoted by "VO"), and music and sound effects (denoted by "SFX"). Use "MUSIC" to specify musical accompaniment and follow the element name with a colon and a brief description of the music that will be heard. Similarly, use "SFX" to denote sound effects, and follow that element name with a colon and a brief description of the sounds that will be heard.
- Writing, Financing & Producing Documentaries: Creating Salable Reality Video; Anne Hart
- University of North Carolina: BCN 204: Introduction to Media Writing
- UNESCO: How to Write A Documentary Script [PDF]
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images