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The Art of Writing Images
Non-Fiction Scriptwriting from A to Z
by Walter Jacob

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If you really want to be a writer," advises veteran nonfiction scriptwriter and filmmaker Barry Hampe, "you need to write about a million words, then look around and see if any of them are any good." But if you can't seem to get that documentary script idea down on paper, or just want to learn more about the nonfiction scriptwriter's role in the production process, Hampe is here to help. On Monday, January 29, he offered a well-attended day-long seminar at Atlantic Video in Washington, DC on writing information videos and documentaries for the exploding nonfiction programming market.

Hampe evidently passed the million-word mark some time ago. He has written, and often produced and directed, close to 200 documentary films and information videos. Included in his body of work are a script for an hour-long show on the Battle of Midway and a program called "Light in Art" for Hawaii Public Television. He's also the author of three books on nonfiction filmmaking, among them the popular Making Documentary Films and Information Videos and Making Videos for Money.

Hampe's seminar greatly expanded on the well-attended 90-minute lecture he gave on scriptwriting last year through ITVA-DC. The seminar was a guided tour through the process of researching, organizing, planning, and writing an information video or documentary script. "Just as there are principles and rules by which you take a good picture," he notes, "there are similar kinds of things that help you to do what you want to do in writing." Hampe screened and analyzed several videos during the seminar in order to drive his points home. Faced with the mocking glow of a blank computer screen, many aspiring writers begin to question whether they have what it takes to string words together for a living. Hampe is betting you do. "Most people have the ability to express themselves," he says. "They tend to have this beaten out of them by some English teacher in seventh grade who's more concerned with grammar and spelling. So writing becomes an opportunity to fail." Yes, somewhere in your tortured soul may burn the fires of genius. But it's not a prerequisite. "Writing is thought on paper," Hampe says simply. "If the quality of your thinking is good, and if you're willing to organize your thoughts for presentation to an audience, you'll be able to do this." "There is an area called talent," he concedes. "It's what separates great writers from everyday writers. But I don't think writing for video is such a difficult thing that an intelligent person with a knowledge of the world can't do it."

For those who believe that scriptwriters are born with their skills and sense of purpose fully formed, Hampe's career offers valuable insight. He grew up in Pennsylvania, and joined the Navy after his sophomore year at Lafayette College. After serving as a carrier pilot, Hampe resumed his college education at the University of Pennsylvania with the intention of going on to law school. Instead, however, he found creative writing, "like an old girlfriend you meet on the night before your engagement." He took a degree in it, and landed a job as a promotion copywriter at the Philadelphia Bulletin. Then, frustrated with his salary after a year and a half's work, he enrolled at Penn's Annenberg School of Communications in order to explore new avenues for his talents. At Annenberg, Hampe met Sol Worth, who ran the school's documentary film laboratory. Worth, a commercial photographer and filmmaker, led students through the entire process of making a film in the space of a year. Of those students who had the mettle to finish the course, Hampe says, a remarkable number stayed on to complete a PhD. The reason, he believes, is that after taking the course, "they had no fear." When Hampe completed the course himself, Worth hired him as an assistant and became a friend. Hampe's interest in filmmaking grew, and soon he began to make his own documentaries. That, he explains, is how he started writing scripts. "I came to scriptwriting not as a writer," Hampe emphasizes, "but as a documentary filmmaker and editor." Hampe's experience proved invaluable. When writing a documentary script, he notes, "you try to put together a visual argument - not talk." He describes a video script as "a blueprint for a director or an editor to create something on a screen." If you're doing it right, "you're writing images, picture-ideas."

While that may sound limiting to some writers, to Hampe it was inspirational: "I found it engaged and used more of my abilities than anything I'd ever done before." Hampe went on to teach Worth's course with him, and to work as a writer, producer, and director in Honolulu and Las Vegas. He now runs The Writing & Editing Company, Inc. in Lake Ridge, Virginia with his wife, Sylvie Hampe. He's currently writing a script for a documentary about the problems faced by the Republic of Cyprus since its invasion by Turkey in 1974.

Over the years, Hampe has worked with a wide variety of clients - and learned some important lessons. For example: "You cannot have artistic ego in the writing of work made for hire. It's just going to get in your way." At the same time, the client isn't always right. If your client doesn't have any experience with video production, Hampe says, he or she will tend to think in words rather than pictures, and favor a script that's excessively talky. "You've got to teach the client," he urges. "When things between you and your clients go wrong, it's probably because you haven't taught them properly." Of course, before you can teach you have to learn the ropes yourself. Unfortunately, says Hampe, many people don't. "Because of problems in today's educational system," he laments, "there are fewer good writers in the world." In his view, "we now have scriptwriters who are not grounded in literature, in words. People who have not read the great works." The fact that movies tell stories with images doesn't mean that reading isn't important to a scriptwriter. "We have movies with no plot today because we have people who don't know plot."

If you can master the art of nonfiction scriptwriting, Hampe predicts, you'll find yourself in great demand. "This is an area of incredible expanding opportunity," he says. And he sees Washington as the place to be. "This is where you go for documentaries and informational videos. I wish I'd moved here 20 years ago." Given how competitive the field of scriptwriting can be, one might ask why Hampe is so ready to welcome newcomers. "I have never been worried about that," he says. "There's always room for talent."