Making things clear and correct with collaborative scriptwriting

We made three films for Sprint 16, and one of them was this one that gives a broad overview of what the Government Data Programme is for.

Writing the script and working out how to animate it took a long time (we started in November last year). It also took us down an interesting new path of collaborative scriptwriting, working alongside the subject experts to make sure we made something that was both clear and correct.  Here’s how we did it.

Getting the script right

Scripting a film like this means thinking carefully about what’s going to be shown with visuals, and what’s going to be said aloud in the voiceover. We rarely use voiceovers on any films, because once you’ve recorded one it’s hard to make changes later. That said, there are some occasions when a voiceover is the best choice - when there’s a lot to say, and it couldn’t all be said by simple words or graphics alone, for example.

The first few iterations of the script weren’t quite right, and it took us a while to work out why. The stuff we’d written was correct, but it wasn’t telling the whole story. There were gaps.

The Data Programme is divided into three workstreams, with different teams working on each one. We needed to make sure representatives from all three workstreams were involved in the scriptwriting. We needed their input, but we needed it fast and we didn’t want to get trapped in weeks of document-swapping.

So instead, we ran a workshop session, and invited senior people from each of those three teams to join us.

Then all of us wrote the script collaboratively, one line at a time, with sticky notes stuck on the wall.

This worked really well, because:

  • we had the experts in the room, so we could avoid technical errors
  • those experts were also the approvers, so they could say “no” to suggestions they didn’t like straight away
  • the writers were able to keep the words short and simple; they made sure everyone kept to the initial aim of writing a script about 25 lines long, which in turn forced everyone to think about what messages were most important
  • the animator was there, generating visual ideas as the words crystallised

After a couple of hours, the script was finished, barring one or two tiny tweaks.

We have already used the same approach since then, because it’s proved itself so useful for finalising scripts for complicated or controversial subjects. Having everyone in the same room at the same time is so much better than weeks of document back-and-forth.

Getting the visuals right

A filmmaker/animator was involved throughout, right from the start.

That helped us to fully understand the data team's needs, get a strong understanding of the story we needed to tell, and meant that we could start thinking about the visuals from an early stage and develop those ideas throughout the process.

It also meant we could contribute suggestions for moments in the film when visuals could tell the story better than a voiceover, which helped in our aim of keeping the script to around 25 lines.

Collaboration through mutual respect

This approach works well because it encourages mutual respect. The data team representatives in the workshop were in charge of what needed to be said, while the filmmakers and writers were in charge of how it was said (with words, pictures, or a combination of both).

Tellingly, when we presented the finished film to the data team, they were delighted with it and didn’t ask for any major changes. That was only possible because of that collaborative scriptwriting session.

Our colleague Caroline Jarrett summed it all up in a tweet:

“If you know enough to say it’s correct, you know too much to say it’s clear. No one can judge both clear and correct.”

That’s why this collaborative scriptwriting session worked so well: we had people who could judge clarity and people who could judge correctness, working together in the same room at the same time.

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