American documentaries are very different from their British counterparts.
On the previous page, I outlined a few of the broad reasons for this. Hopefully it gave you an insight into what American execs are looking for.
Just like any British channel, American channels are al about quality.
They have a very different definition of the word ‘quality’.
On this page, I want to show you some of the specific tricks of the reversioning trade.
Urgency is king. Regardless of your content, the subtext is:
This is massively, hugely important! You absolutely have to keep watching!
This generates a style with lots of superlatives. A building must be “immense” rather than “big”. It must be “as large as this very large thing” or “the largest in America”.
Look for those comparisons. Find opportunities to tell the viewers that something is huge or deep or impossible or terrifying.
To the British ear, this sounds like we’re telling the viewers what to think. To Americans, it’s a signal that they need to pay attention.
One small note before we continue…
It only helps if it’s built into the film’s concept. If the audience feels no stake in the film’s content and story-line, they won’t give a damn when you tell them that something is dangerous. Jeopardy is a false friend – a solution that execs and self-styled gurus will push for, but which perhaps they haven’t really thought through.
We have a tendency in Britain to write long flowing sentences. (We shouldn’t, but that’s another story.) On the other side of the pond that simply “won’t fly”. It’s unacceptable.
American script-writing is all about punch:
- Fact one – wham!
- Fact two – wham!
- Puzzling question – wham!
- Amazing answer – KERPOW!!!
If you struggle with the idea of writing in shorter sentences, there is a handy trick which may help you. Try replacing every comma with a full stop, and then make each of these new sentences work on their own. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but it can have a profound effect. For example, take what I just said:
If you struggle with the idea of writing in shorter sentences, there is a handy trick which may help you. Try replacing every comma with a full stop, and then make each of these new sentences work on their own.
An American script would say something like:
Many people struggle to write short sentences.
There is a handy trick.
Put a period (= full stop) instead of every comma.
Then make each new sentence work.
Notice that I also trimmed the sentences to make them shorter:
- “If you struggle with the idea of writing” became “Many people struggle”.
- “There is a handy trick which may help you” became “There is a handy trick.”
British English is full of phrases that add no meaning and no weight.
Phrases like “the idea of”, snippets like “of these”. There are loads of “ifs” and “mays” and “possiblys”… Trim them out.
American English is much more definite and incisive.
It gets straight to the point. Brits tend to waffle a bit, to make sure that no one feels put-upon.
Shorten those sentences. Then shorten them some more. Then see if any of them could be made even punchier – by, for example, eliminating the verb.
A British script might say:
At first glance, the idea that a flatworm on the sea floor can reach 100 metres in length seems impossible. But it’s no longer a hypothesis, it’s a proven fact.
An American script would say:
Theory says these worms can reach 300 feet.
Researchers change their minds in 2013.
They make an incredible discovery…
Sounds clunky to British ears. To Americans it doesn’t. Trust me.
There are lots of things to say about this example. But for now, focus on the length of those sentences. “Impossible creatures?” doesn’t even have a verb. But it works.
Did we need to say “At first glance…”? No we didn’t. Did we need “The idea that…”? Nope. Did we need “It’s no longer a hypothesis”? Well, we needed the idea – but there was a much simpler and punchier way to say it.
And lose sub-clauses wherever possible. Don’t say:
While Joe is jumping, Janet is making a phone call.
Joe jumps. Meanwhile, Janet makes a call.
Short words. Short sentences.
Most US channels prefer to keep their commentary in the present tense – even if the story spans several time frames. This can get tricky. For example:
In the early twentieth century, researchers used to think that the dinosaurs were wiped out by volcanic eruptions. But in the 1990s, geologists discovered evidence that perhaps an asteroid strike was to blame.
Yikes! Three different time zones: the dinosaurs, the twentieth century, and the 1990s! How do we put all that into the present tense without turning it into an incomprehensible mush?
It can be done. It usually requires a lot of lateral thought. Sometimes it gets a bit ugly. Sometimes it’s even worth fighting your exec over… But be prepared to lose.
The dinosaurs flourish for millions of years. Then something changes.
Volcanic eruptions pollute the air. The dinosaurs die.
That’s the theory through most of the twentieth century.
Then, in the 1990s, geologists discover remarkable new evidence.
Perhaps an asteroid strike is to blame.
One important thing to note here is that the American version is longer than the British. this is because each beat of thought is more clearly spelled out. It has to be, because it’s competing with full-on music and effects. (And, when you look more closely, the British version never spelled out how volcanoes could kill the dinosaurs…) This is a headache when you’re reversioning a picture-locked film.
The trick is to spread the load. Maybe you can set up a key thought a few sentences earlier. Maybe you can move the conclusion slightly later.
If there’s no room for manoeuvre, then you’ll just have to get creative. There are always shorter ways of saying essentially the same thing. You may even have to sacrifice a degree of clarity. But the truth is, the problem is actually in the British-English original. It waffled, and it skipped over key ideas.
It’s worth starting by writing out the whole sequence in present tense in a way that actually sounds OK. Then you can edit it to fit pictures. But if you try to go straight from a tight British original to an American present-tense version in one leap, you might struggle.
Wherever possible, get the thought-flow right.
Then worry about the pictures.
For those who nodded off in grammar lessons, here’s a handy definition of passive and active voices:
Active: Janet hits Joe.
Passive: Joe is hit by Janet.
In the active voice, a person or thing carries out an action. In the passive voice, a person or thing has something done to them.
American scripts avoid passives wherever possible. This is a go-getting culture, with a strong emphasis on pro-active behaviour.
Things don’t happen to people in America; Americans make things happen!
Brits are the opposite. We have a tendency to remove the pro-active element, perhaps because it suggests aggression or conflict. We put a lot of effort into making events seem impersonal (saying “Joe was hit” avoids implicating Janet at all!), whereas American put their effort into making everything as personal as possible.
US execs look for active language.
Passive language will get cut.
(See what I did there? “Get cut” is passive.)
Remember the phrase I used earlier?
While Joe is jumping, Janet is making a phone call.
It’s wrong because it should be two sentences.
It’s also wrong because it describes actions as though they were processes.
Verbs ending in “-ing” have this effect. They smear the action out over time. Rather than Janet’s call being an action that happens now, it becomes a process that was going on before, and will still be going on after.
Just say, “Janet makes a call.” (Subtext: she makes it right now. At this very moment.)
Action, not process.
Replace all your “doing” phrases with “does” phrases.
Also, get rid of other phrases that have a similar smearing effect. “Janet starts to make a phone call.” Really? Or does she just make a call? “Astronomers begin to analyse the data.” Don’t they just analyse it?
Some phrases are just verbal padding. They add no meaning whatsoever.
Choose dynamic verbs when you can.
Brits use a lot of generic verbs: “do”, “get”, “have”, “is”. We shouldn’t.
In America it just doesn’t wash.
Try to make each verb a definable action.
“Rush”, “smash”, “puzzle”…
And remember to put in those “huge”, “amazing”, “ingenious” words while you’re about it.
Kill, kill, kill!
Sometimes you need them.
But nowhere near as often as you think.
Except there. Obviously.
It’s quite common to find yourself grappling with a particular sentence or paragraph – or even a whole sequence. Perhaps you just can’t see a way to split the ideas into shorter, simpler beats. Or the point you’re aiming at needs three smaller points to prop it up, and they have to all come at once.
The good news is, it’s fixable. The bad news is, it almost certainly means you’re doing something wrong.
Usually, this is to do with sense-order.
Look at the flow of ideas, the way you build to a point, how you use it to set up the next point. (You are doing that, aren’t you? You should be.)
It could be that you’re trying to make the wrong point. It could be that there isn’t enough room in the film to break the ideas down.
Here are three suggestions to help you break the stalemate:
- Go back a few sentences. Then go forward a few sentences. What big idea are you in the middle of? What are you building from, what are you building towards? What does this tell you about what you need to say right here?
- If you have a big long sentence that you can’t break down, try swapping the order of the phrases around. Just cut and paste each time you hit a comma (or a pause in the way you speak it). Chances are, you’ll end up with something that doesn’t make sense. But you might also find that the sense-order you were so attached to isn’t quite as important as you thought it was.
- You will sometimes find that the British version is more compressed than the American version. All of a sudden, you’re out of space. (Usually because lots of short sentences actually take more time.) Once again, the trick is to go back a few sentences. Set up the thought earlier, or take a slightly different line; suddenly that gap will be long enough.
That last thought is a key one. If you’re reversioning a film, often you’re working with locked or close-to-locked pictures. Obviously, this is difficult.
The thing to remember is:
You don’t have to ‘translate’ it word for word.
In fact, that almost always fails – just as it would if you translated word for word into French. (Try it with Google Translate sometime, the results are hysterical.)
The trick is to boil away the words until all you have left are the ideas. Then translate those ideas into American English. That’s what I did in the dinosaur example above. The sentences don’t correspond to each other one-to-one – but the ideas do.
Of course, the next trick is to do all of that and still have it work to picture.
Good luck! And if you’re totally stuck, hire someone like me :-)
It’s not unusual for Brits to phrase things so that they deny a negative rather than stating a positive. For example:
It’s not unusual…
Well, doesn’t that mean it’s usual? Aren’t we trying to say it’s common? In which case, why not say what we mean?
The effect of double negatives is to put pressure on the viewer, in two ways:
- It forces them to think harder than they need to. They have to hold two concepts in their minds where one would do the job.
- It suggests that the viewer must have been thinking that it was “unusual” – and that the commentary’s job is now to correct this misconception.
Both these effects distance the viewer from the content – precisely the opposite of what you want.
Frankly, we should try to avoid this in British films too.
Aaargh! I said “try to”! What did that add? Nothing. What I meant to say was:
We should avoid this in British films too.
3 words shorter – and clearer into the bargain.
Fahrenheit, yards, miles, gallons and pounds, please.
And if you possibly can, plan ahead and get your contributors to do the same when you film them.
(You don’t need to say “50 degrees Fahrenheit”, by the way. “50 degrees” will do. The imperial scale is taken as read.)
Two simple things that cost you no effort at all, but make life easier for your US exec:
- Convert the “Page Setup” to US Letter, not A4
- Set the language to English (US), not English (UK).
That way you will have a script that (a) doesn’t print irritating 3-line overhangs on American printers, and (b) doesn’t appear (to your exec) to be full of typos.
Do it once, then forget about it. It’s simple courtesy.