11 Lessons from an Editing Workshop in Adobe Premiere

In January 2019, I attended a beginner’s workshop in Adobe Premiere presented by Beth Perloff at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Everything in its place.

In other words, keep all the materials — video, music, effects, titles — organized. This one feels like the first rule of the editors’ fight club.

2. Editors are Zen masters.

Editing is not for the impatient or the distracted. Though some may possess the ability to edit quickly, editing requires zen-like attention to details and laser-focused concentration. Distractions such as phone notifications only break concentration and extend the project’s editing time, which is going to be a while no matter how long the final cut’s runtime.

3. Know the footage you are working with.

Both of the projects we completed for this session involved editing other people’s footage. Coming in to this footage cold felt like a disadvantage, though to be fair, it was a necessary reality of the class. Editors should be involved with projects early in their developmental phases, and they should be familiar with the “big picture” (sorry) goals and the footage available.

4. The granular level of editing is kind of fun.

Putting together all the pieces reminded me of building with a Lego set. Not a Lego set with a finished picture on the package and instructions inside, but the Lego bucket with the tons of pieces inside and not a direction in sight.

5. Continuity editing is hard.

One of the projects assigned in this workshop was editing a low-budget zombie feature. The instructor provided directions on what images should appear in what order, but we still had to edit the shots and situate them within the timeline. All it took to mess up continuity was 1-2 seconds of extra footage. That extra footage created jump cuts and flow problems. I also learned that my editing tends to run long — probably part of the transition from working with words to working with images. I am still learning how to think visually.

6. Editing from paper makes the process easier.

Arranging the images and sequences on paper before assembling them in the non-linear video editor makes the process go much faster. Storyboards are a key part of the production process in fiction production; they also can help with the editing in post-production.

7. Sound provides powerful cues when used well.

We tend to think of tethering sound to its synchronous image, but freeing sounds from that connection creates multiple possibilities for storytelling. The easiest example comes from the zombie film we worked on in the class: the girl cowering in the hallway said nothing, but adding the zombie moans and groans to the soundtrack turns that shot into something that builds suspense. In documentary this practice generally is more prominent, such as interview participants being heard on the soundtrack before appearing on screen. Audio transitions, such as a piece of dialog, can mask problems of two different sounds from one interview to the next.

8. Sounds requires a lot of fidgeting.

Sound includes dialogue, music, and sound effects. The chance that all of those occur at the same volume and with the same quality is small. Music might come in quite loud, while effects might come in too soft. Dialogue — any spoken words — usually take priority and should be louder than the background music or the effects. A range of 12-18 works best, with the loudest moments hitting 6 at most. But, stay away from zero.

9. Documentary editing is awesome.

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, I really enjoyed the documentary editing part, which served as the second day’s project. This time we were given the footage and not told how to arrange it. Interviews play a huge role in documentaries, which often consist of multiple, intercut voices used in developing and telling the story. The general advice includes to keep the sound bites short and also to take care to preserve the integrity of what they say.

10. Subtractive editing or assemble editing?

Subtractive editing consists of assembling the shots into the timeline and then shaving down the unneeded parts toward a rough cut and then a finer cut. I struggled with this approach because I find it easier to edit the shots I would like before adding them to the sequence, which sounds a bit like assemble editing or a version of it.

11. Learning film criticism is necessary for anyone learning film production.

This introductory editing course is my fifth course through Film North. Each one has reminded me the importance of film criticism, which includes both formal readings but also more cultural readings of films. The criticism background helped with knowing many of the technical terms these artists use in their craft, such as fades and wipes in editing and key, back, and fill lights in cinematography. But this criticism also reminds of the power behind these practices. Editing, in particular, holds a lot of power in how it can remove sentences, words, and emotional reactions from interviews. It holds power in ordering voices; who speaks first sets tone for a documentary, for example. It further holds power in frequency of those voices; who speaks most generally holds the greatest authority. Just look at the editing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War and how often Shelby Foote appears versus Barbara Fields for an example.

Unboxing an Insta360 ONE X Camera

Part of the fun in learning about creating new media is exploring new equipment options. Virtual reality is mainstream enough that equipment for its production and consumption is fairly affordable.

Cameras for 360-dergee video in particular are easy to come by. Samsung and PanoClip make devices that attach directly to smartphones for less than $100, while YI, GoPro, and Ricoh offer stand-alone devices. Of course, almost all of them offer multiple accessories to capture your grandest adventures, such as underwater housings, remotes, and tripods and stabilizers.

I opted for an Insta360 ONE X camera bundle. The camera offers some options I want to check out, had some good reviews, and fit the price range.

It was packaged so well I almost didn’t want to take it out of the box.

Unlike most other products I have ordered from Apple, this one actually came with a small manual to get you started.

One view of the camera itself. The total length is about 4.5 inches.

Another view of the camera itself. The total width is about 1.9 inches.

The bundle came with a small tripod…

and a “selfie stick.”

Two batteries keep the power on and the camera recording.

Adapters allow connections for USB-C, micro-USB, and lightning ports.

Another adapter connects to a computer with a USB port.

And finally, a carrying pouch protects the device from most everything bad in the world.

Hoping to capture snowboarding footage, one reviewer was upset that the device functioned for about five minutes in the cold. Considering today includes a blizzard warning and closed schools and tomorrow’s high temperature calls for a high of -2 and a low of -16, it may be a while before I can try it out.

Or maybe I can borrow a friend’s cat for a video like this instead.

Notes toward an Interactive Documentary Production Class

My current position calls for developing more social, visual, and interactive contributions to the department’s curriculum. After creating an introductory social media class and an online marketing campaigns class, this semester I proposed a course titled Interactive Documentary Production, which has been approved for the 2019-2020 school year.

The course requires no previous experience with audio-visual production, so it introduces those basics alongside providing exposure to working in interactive online spaces.

The primary goal of the course is play as it relates to technology and reality representation. (More on the idea of play later.) Beyond that goal, this post offers a thinking through of the course’s possible assignments and a bit about their rationales.

Compilation Video

This 1-2 minute video would feature only archival footage, though voiceover, music, and titles could be added as needed. The goals behind this assignment include thinking critically about editing and about researching non-original materials.

Person-on-the-Street Video

This 1-minute video would feature 5-7 person-on-the-street interviews edited around 2-3 key themes drawn from an original question. The goals behind this assignment include developing interviewing skills, seeking themes among materials, creating an order among those themes, and editing diverse voices into a coherent narrative.

Web Series

The compilation video and the person-on-the-street video could become part of a web series. Or, the web series could be a separate project altogether. One distinction I would need to make here is separating the web series from programming a YouTube channel: How are they similar? How are they different? The goal for this assignment includes thinking about and developing online programming as part of a strand.

Text-Based Docugame

I suspect this assignment will draw the most kick-back, but it really drives home the importance of story, presentation, users, and engagement. Text-based documentaries frequently get overlooked, particularly in our ever-digitizing and visual world, and this assignment would serve as a reminder of the importance of text in the communication of experiences. Text-based games also get overlooked in favor of the more visually rich environments of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. (This clip from The Big Bang Theory shows more how those text-based games work.) But together these options could provide a way to engage audiences in ways that require thinking outside the frame.

Interactive Documentary

While the phrase “interactive documentary” covers a lot of possibilities, students could create one using a platform such as Korsakow. The goals here include working with nonlinear storytelling and user experience.

Animated Documentary

Animated documentary could be a short assigment wherein original materials would be transformed into animated ones. For example, one approach might take audio-only sequences and set them to animation such as in Broken: The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck. The goals here include thinking about what to show when no visual materials exist and about the possibilities and boundaries created by the art of animation.

Augmented Reality Documentary

Augmented reality adds a layer of text and context between the user’s device and the world before them. This assignment would require thinking about what that extra layer would offer the user and how it would offer it. Goals here include developing greater focus on the end-user’s experience and thinking outside beyond the screen frame.

Nonfiction Virtual Reality

Arguably, virtual reality remains the most complex among the options listed here. Some instructions for virtual reality production begin with coding. While learning even the basics of code is important, its incorporation into a class like this is too much. Instead, working with third-party apps could provide one option. Another, lower bar option could be creating a 360-degree video. Now just to find a 360-degree camera…

No one semester will include all of these assignments, particularly since the course assumes no previous moving image production experience and because each project involves multiple programs and some special equipment in order to make it all happen.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

11 Lessons from a Workshop in Audio Production

In early November 2018, I attended a workshop in audio production presented by Owen Brafford at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that too-brief afternoon workshop.

1. Learn a little physics.

More specifically, learn a little bit about acoustics and the way sound behaves in spaces and around objects. Even that basic knowledge will help make audio production easier.

2. Sound obeys no one.

Some aspects of film production can be controlled in useful ways. For example, lighting can be moved, adjusted, pointed, and otherwise manipulated until the effect is just right. It can be directed to go in the direction you want it to go. Sound, however, defies this kind of control and goes where it wants to go.

3. Record room tone for a few seconds.

According to filmsound.org, room tone is “The ‘sound of a room’ without any movement or dialogue.” This room tone recording proves useful in post-production to ease some gaps in the audio.

4. Know your microphone types and their limitations.

There are three basic types of microphones. Shotgun microphones attach to the camera body and plug directly into the camera for recording. A boom mic attaches to a boom. A lavaliere mic clips to the participant’s clothing and includes a transmitter for recording the sound remotely. Shotgun mics are convenient but echo-y in open spaces. Lavaliere mics get decent spoken audio, but not a rich range of sound. Boom microphones offer the richest sound and the most flexibility, but they require a crew member dedicated to holding them just right for recording sessions.

5. The boom is an art form.

A boom refers to the pole on which a microphone is attached. The boom operator then must hold the boom with the microphone at just the right distance from the speaker’s mouth and at just the right angle to achieve optimal sound recording. At the same time, the boom must be kept out of the camera’s field of vision and not distract the speaker. Wikipedia offers a great story about the origins of this practice.

6. Hiding the microphone is another art form.

While some producers don’t mind the visible lavaliere mic, others prefer that it not appear on camera. Hiding and securing the microphone in a way that makes the participant comfortable and that still achieves optimal sound recording requires a delicate balancing act of choosing and securing location. Under the shirt collar? Not if it’s starched cotton, which is scratchy and noisy. Under a hat? Not if it’s an open-weave straw hat on a windy day.

Getting the microphone to stay in place is another challenge. The possibilities to this end are mind boggling — lavaliere clips, vampire clips, Top Stick , and gaffer’s tape, just to name a few. Microphone maker Rode offers an overview of other possible ways to clip and conceal lavaliere mics.

7. The lav bullet makes micing with a lavalier slightly less awkward.

Also called a mic drop, the lav bullet is a piece of weighted metal that allows the lavaliere wire to be dropped through the participant’s pants or shirt quickly. The bullet even allows participants to thread the wire themselves, preventing some of the awkwardness that this process creates.

8. Microphones record everything.

Microphones don’t discriminate and only record the sound you want to get; they record everything without bias. A noisy truck going by outside, a pet howling in the background, a participant’s fidgeting with worry beads — all of these sounds will show up on the recording. For an example, my favorite clip from Gates of Heaven features a charming, rambling participant interrupted by screeching car tyres.

9. Microphone position > microphone quality.

Like with cinematography, sound production has a wide variety of equipment available. While higher quality equipment might up your game a bit, you don’t need the most expensive of everything to have a successful shoot. Positioning the microphone carefully — generally using a boom about 6-12 inches from the speaker’s mouth — will get great spoken audio for most microphones.

10. The most expensive part of a sound kit is the wireless set.

B&H Photo offers this great post explaining more about the complexities of wireless audio recording systems.

11. There is no excuse for bad sound.

Hollywood production techniques such as automatic dialogue replacement have created audiences used to crisp, clean sound. While they might tolerate a shaky or blurred image, they will not tolerate bad sound. But, really, there is no excuse for bad sound during a planned production. It just requires careful placement and monitoring during the recording, just as camera and other production aspects do.

Similar to the cinematography boot camp, the audio production workshop offered an immense depth of details and things to consider. More takeaways easily could be added to this list. Either way, the session offered some good starts in thinking about equipment and practices for my own projects.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

11 Lessons from a Cinematography Boot Camp

In early November 2018, I attended a class in cinematography presented by Jeremy Wilker at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Every shot must serve a purpose.

This reminder is important as more and more novelty cameras with affordable prices appear. Drone cameras and 360-degree cameras open possibilities for some breathtaking and unique shots, but must those shots be in the final piece?

Oddly enough, this point runs counter to what I am thinking in developing that multi-media production course. In that course, I would want students to engage the technologies while creating their nonfiction works. That engagement would require experimentation and critical thinking about the relationship between representation and technology without overvaluing the latter.

2. Zoom with your feet.

This takeaway has been repeated throughout multiple training sessions and bears repeating again. Physically moving the camera makes for clearer, better images. Internal zoom functions should be a last resort, not a first one.

3. Know your equipment.

As in, really know your equipment. Know its limitations, possibilities, hacks, comparisons to other brands and models. Read the manuals; read the reviews. The more you can adjust the camera (and lighting) on the production side, the less you have to adjust on the post-production side. Making those adjustments, both large and small, require knowing your camera inside and out.

4. Sensor size matters.

“Sensor” refers to the chip within the camera that gathers light. Smaller sensors tend to render everything in an image in focus, while larger sensors allow playing with the depth of field and creating bokeh, or a kind of artistic blurring. Smart phones employ smaller sensors, but changes in computational processing now allow creating depth of field in post-production.

4. Cameras are more complex than you think.

This point hit home most for me. Over the decades cameras have become more and more consumer friendly, and many cameras require little instruction to figure out how to make them take adequate pictures. Spending time with the instruction manual might help you become more familiar with the camera’s controls, but the complexities I mention here are beyond that. One example is 8 bit versus 10 bit cameras. Dynamic range varies from camera to camera, with 8-9 stops appearing on many DSLRs and 13-14 stops bringing a wider range and less blowout. Crop images versus full frame images I knew about, as full frame has been creeping down to prosumer and consumer levels for years.

5. Proper lighting eases camera limitations.

In this session lighting and camera appeared to work in tandem. In low light, the camera ISO / gain might be turned up to capture the image better, but in doing so the image becomes noisier. Cheaper zoom lenses often have lower f stops, which cut the light the further they extend. Proper lighting can help in both of these situations.

6. The variety of lighting options is mind-boggling.

Lighting kits and setups contain almost as much, if not more, gear than a camera and its accessories. Stands are a start, but lighting options include everything from an LED panel with bi-color (blue and yellow) built in to a single targeted light mounted on a tripod. Light boxes offer another option. The Kino Flo system offers a wide range of possibilities for lighting indoor interviews. On top of all that, reflectors and scrims change the light quality as needed, not to mention changing the table lamps if on location.

7. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

Gaffer’s tape is the Swiss army knife of filmmaking.

8. Three-point lighting is not just for film studies.

Three-point lighting refers to a fairly standard system of lighting used in film. Film studies teaches this system as a way to explain the relationships between lighting and cinematography and between lighting and story / genre, such as high-key lighting (bright) and comedy and low-key lighting (shadowy) and film noir.

It consists of a key light, which is the brightest light and the one the camera should be exposed for. The backlight creates a frame or halo around the interview participant, and the fill light knocks out or softens the shadows created by the key and back lights. The fill can be helpful for softening features on self-conscious people’s faces as well.

9. Believe it or not, there’s a formula.

The formula is called the “inverse square law.” Basically, if a light is moved back two feet, it loses four times its power. If a light is moved back four feet, then it loses 16 times its power. The camera settings need to be moved 2 f stops for each square removed.

10. Starting a kit doesn’t require the kitchen sink.

A basic setup can include a camera, a prime lens (50mm), a zoom lens, a tripod, and enough spare batteries to last a day of shooting.

11. That said, choosing a camera kit might prove challenging.

This last one is more my own thinking. There are so many suggestions for cameras to consider: Canon C100 or C100 Mark 2, Sony F5100 or F700, Canon DSLRs, Blackmagic cameras, and even just sticking with a smartphone.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered some good starts in thinking about equipment for my own projects.

11 Lessons in Smartphone Filmmaking

In early September 2018, I attended a class in smart phone filmmaking presented by Nick Clausen at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. To (third-party) app or not to (third-party) app?

Most smartphones come equipped with enough standard applications that power the device’s options and expand its functionality. Various platforms’ app stores burst with millions more apps for those seeking just the right tweak or feature. It is easy to get lost in choosing just the right app with just the right look and feel in order to make your film. Focus more (no pun intended) on actually using the apps instead of hunting for yet another one.

2. That said, FiLMiC Pro rocks.

FiLMic Pro seriously transformed my smartphone from an entry-level tool into a professional device. Running about $15 USD, FiLMic Pro offers intuitive controls that refine the device’s optical and sound equipment into a well-honed machine. I have only begun to explore this app’s possibilities. More on those later.

3. Expect a case of GAS.

No, not from beans. GAS is an acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. While the smartphone offers an all-in-one device for making videos, audio, and still images, some extra equipment ups your game from amateurish to more polished. Similar to apps, take care not to overinvest in seeking just the right gear.

4. Shake, rattle, and roll.

As such small devices smartphones have issues with getting a stable image. This shakiness particularly becomes a problem in lower light and in motion. Some smart phones offer built-in digital (more likely) and optical (less likely), and FiLMiC Pro provides a digital stabilization option. If you have shaky hands like I do, invest in a tripod or a gimbal. I ordered this one.

5. Bipedal zoom is best.

While many cameras offer both digital zoom and optical zoom, the bipedal zoom is still the best. In other words, move your feet to zoom the camera instead of using the in-device options. The images will be clearer.

6. Sound is hard.

Enough said? Well, maybe not. Sound still remains important yet so often overlooked. Voices become muffled, volume becomes inconsistent, words drop out. With documentary’s focus on people and their speaking for themselves, sound becomes even more important.

The advice I have heard on sound using a smartphone is mixed. Some suggest that using the device’s microphone held close to the speaker is enough, but others suggest using an external microphone, such as a Bluetooth lavalier or a shotgun mic.

7. Power up.

Video recording drains smartphone batteries quickly. With portable batteries running the size of chewing gum and costing about $10 USD, there is no excuse not to have a spare or two with you.

8. Sensor size matters.

No matter how advanced and fancy smartphones get, the sensor sizes on the cameras always will be a challenge. The beautiful bokeh available with a prime lens on a DSLR is more difficult to achieve on a smart phone. Smartphones flatten depth of field and struggle with low light, so avoid Citizen Kane aspirations.

9. Editing options abound.

Editing used to be a complex process that required scissors, reels, and film. Nonlinear editing software allows editing both on-the-fly in the smartphone and in-the-seat on desktop or laptop systems. In-device editing, such as through iMovie, appears helpful for live events or quick turnaround times. The key is to remember the default settings and what they allow and limit, such as the default transition settings and how to undo them.

10. The results can be stunning.

Bad smartphone video is everywhere, but intended results can be stunning. The Painter of Jalouzi, by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, is an excellent example of these kinds of results. This short was recorded on an iPhone 6s Plus, and shots include walking ones and drone ones. Watch it here.

11. ‘Undo’ can be your best friend.

This one speaks for itself.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed, and it offered much inspiration toward developing the multi-media documentary production course.

11 Lessons from a Documentary Bootcamp

In mid-August 2018, I attended a Documentary Boot Camp presented by Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents a first step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. “Not all who wander are lost.”

No single path leads to learning production or a completed documentary. Our fearless facilitator Melody Gilbert picked up a camera and made her first film without formal training. Everyone in the room came to the session from different backgrounds, including marketing, graphic design, high school education, and others. Each of these backgrounds can be useful in learning documentary production.

2. Good documentaries start with good subjects.

People are the beating heart of the best documentaries. Without interesting people, the documentary will end up dull and unwatchable. Compelling people make for compelling stories and compelling viewing.

3. People over style.

People are more important than having a particular visual style. While a documentary might look compelling visually, it will remain just a spectacle without interesting people in it.

4. Story over style.

Every documentary possesses an underlying question, and its story leads us through to answers to that question. While some beautiful cinematic documentaries do exist — think Sweetgrass or Nostalgia for the Light — style should never overshadow or overwhelm the story.

5. Put the time in.

Documentaries require time to produce. In particular, filmmakers should put the time in with their participants in order to earn their trust and hear their stories. Dropping in once in a while might result in the elevator version of people’s stories. Putting more time in might get you the family-reminiscing-at-Thanksgiving version instead. You can guess which one will be more interesting.

6. Access is key, but not everything.

Gaining access to people and situations can represent the difference between a good documentary and a great one. Sometimes that one, larger-than-life figure propels the story and its telling. But what if you can’t access that person? Talk to the people who know them. Those people might offer even more interesting information than the larger-than-life figure.

7. Pitching is an art form. And a negotiation.

One of our activities during the session included writing a pitch for a documentary we might like to produce. Each of us had interesting ideas, but those ideas became negotiations with the other people in the room. My own idea was expanded in several new directions. The direction it goes ultimately depends on you.

8. Watch and discuss.

So much of our media consumption now is based on individual preferences with personal devices that we forget the community part of documentary reception. A key strategy is to watch documentaries for their strengths and improvements with other people in person and talk about them afterward. While the film director’s presence changes the conversation somewhat, audiences can talk among themselves just fine as well.

9. Lather, fail, repeat.

Documentary filmmaking is not for the timid or the weak. It requires bravery in order to set foot into the swirling snakepit of human life. It requires the courage to fail. It requires the strength to pick up and try again.

10. Treasure the gifts.

People telling you their stories is a gift. This present is as true for the person on the bus as it is true for the person sitting before your camera. You telling these people’s stories for other audiences is another gift. It is important to treasure these gifts and honor them.

11. Use the equipment you have.

Filmmaking offers a great opportunity for GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Avoid obsessing over the latest software, hardware, and gadget, and start with the equipment already available to you. A smartphone can capture that quick interview. An extra microphone boosts the sound recording, if needed.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered much inspiration toward developing my own pieces. It further was a useful affirmation of the production flow I had taught in previous classes. In all, a good start.

Five Starter Books about Documentary to Check Out

Studies in documentary film have boomed in the last two decades. What used to be a shelf-ful of books about the form now number in the hundreds, maybe even thousands. Both single volumes and publisher series, including Minnesota’s Visible Evidence series and Wallflower Press’s Nonfictions series, go behind the screens and investigate the subject in new and interesting ways.

With so many titles to choose from, it might seem overwhelming on where to begin. The following list offers five accessible titles to check out.

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University and long involved in the documentary community, provides an essential overview in this compact volume. Aufderheide charts an overview of the form’s key debates, including questions of reality, truth-telling, objectivity, bias, and ethics. Instead of a chronological order, she structures the book by themes in order to explore subgenres such as propaganda and nature films.

Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed.

Introduction to Documentary serves as the primary textbook for documentary film studies. Focusing on documentary theory, criticism, and history, revered scholar Bill Nichols provides an accessible toolbox for how to think critically about the documentary genre through questions such as documentary voice, documentary modes, and representations of political and social issues. Nichols, who has written and edited multiple other volumes, connects theory with practice through chapters devoted to starting your own documentary and exploring ethical questions about documentary production.

A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd ed.

Documentary remains a challenging subject to plot as a chronological history, but Betsy McLane’s book overcomes that obstacle by providing a clear, coherent, and accessible narrative. Focusing mostly on U.S., Canadian, and British documentary, McLane covers the form’s contexts and changes throughout the decades from the iconic Nanook of the North in the 1920s through the emerging forms in the 21st century. Each chapter provides period films to check out as well.

Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told

In Documentary Case Studies, Chapman University professor Jeff Swimmer goes behind the scenes of Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated documentary features to learn more about twists and turns in the production process. Grounding each chapter in extensive interviews and writing in an accessible voice, Swimmer touches on issues such as choosing participants, working with difficult participants, respecting communities, and juggling finances. Films explored include The Act of Killing, Gasland, Man on Wire, Restrepo, Spellbound, and Sound and Fury.

100 Documentary Films

Barry Keith Grant and Jim Hillier compile, as the volume title states, 100 documentary films. For each title Grant and Hillier pen a brief and lively essay that offers some background and introduction. The titles range across the form’s history, from the 1920s through the early 2000s. The titles also represent multiple countries around the world.

Revisiting Teaching Op-Docs

Op-Docs refers to the short documentary video series curated by The New York Times. Op-Docs showcase an array of documentary storytelling styles and address a diversity of social issues. I have used Op-Docs as a pedagogical model for short documentary production and am considering them again as I develop an advanced multimedia production class proposal.

In Spring 2015 I first taught Op-Docs as part of an advanced news reporting class at a small women’s college in Baltimore. Two years and a seven-state move later, I incorporated similar lessons into a half semester of a news reporting and editing class. The course description required a public affairs focus, primarily through writing. The incorporation of video diverged from the usual course.

The public affairs focus helped narrow the course to a point, but it raised the question of how to make such a broad subject more accessible? A list of social issues from the Library of Congress helped. Through short brainstorming assignments, class discussions, and individual conversations, students chose one topic to research and report on for the entire semester. Every assignment needed to address the subject in some way.

The thinking was that students needed to develop some expertise on their topic before making the video. That background could help make the video production questions easier. For example, if students interviewed an expert for a written story, that expert could become potential video interview for the short documentary. For another example, if students engaged an interesting angle in a written story, they could develop that angle further in the video.

Students chose diverse topics: mental health stigmas, online privacy, domestic violence, solar energy, indigenous cultures, noise pollution, gangs, paying student athletes, and sex education. After doing some background work on their topic in Lexis-Nexis, they began the written assignments.

The first written assignment was a person-on-the-street story. I have used this assignment extensively in other reporting classes at both rural and urban campuses. It worked best in Boston when my students walked to Cheers (yes, that Cheers) and asked people there about their hoped-for presidential candidates. Repeating that assignment for this class resulted in two challenges: approaching the wary community and phrasing the question. How do you develop a general question about an issue that people on the street might not know about? That challenge helped set up the thinking not only about reporting but also about the documentary hook.

After a series of other written assignments, the class segued to video production during the seventh week. The first video assignment paralleled the first written assignment: a person-on-the-street assignment requiring video recording. The same challenges emerged, but with some additional curveballs: getting signed consent, finding a quiet place, and overcoming even greater reluctance from potential participants. Either way, the videos became useful touchstones for developing the short documentary.

The other video assignments followed a sequence: pitch, script, rough cut, and final cut. The pitch and the rough cut included class discussion and peer review. The script assignment was skipped to allow more time for researching, filming, and editing.

Similar to my previous time using this approach, students struggled most with finding people to interview. It required intensive brainstorming beyond the work they had already completed for writing assignments. This campus just recently started a film and media studies program, but it focuses primarily on fiction storytelling. The mass media program here focuses primarily on writing, so sights of student camera crews working on campus are rare. Perhaps if these crews happened more frequently, the community might be more supportive and engaging.

Interesting to me, students found it easier to maintain a balance among their personal views, their participants’ views, and their films’ stories. In a previous class, some students struggled with what people spoke about in interviews and what they “wanted” from people. They hadn’t developed a trust in their participants and in themselves, and that kind of trust comes with time and practice. Here, while students maintained a stake in their subjects, they also maintained a professional, but empathetic, distance.

Overall, the students’ final shorts were really good. They were required to have three interviews, but otherwise they were free to approach the films however they wanted. Most chose interviews combined with observational footage and on-screen titles.

I recount this experience here toward thinking about what a semester-long course on online documentary production might look like. The short video plays an important role in documentary storytelling, sometimes in theatrical distribution but more so in online enviroments. For example, short documentaries serve as part of web series, advocacy campaigns, interactive experiences. But what about building something more, such as an entire interactive documentary or an augmented reality app? What additional skills might those options involve? What other equipment, platforms, or programs might be needed? Are either of those possible in a stand-alone, semester-length class?

We shall see. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

My MDFF Viewing Wishlist

Australia is amazing, and here is another reason for documentary fans to go: The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, which runs July 6-14, 2018. In its third year, the festival program deftly balances the global and local, the political and popular, and the serious and fun.

I played virtual festival-goer for this one, perusing the program and developing my own viewing “wishlist” if I could attend in person.

MDFF programming addresses international issues while highlighting national and local ones. Environmental concerns in the Amazon are addressed in Peiman Zekavat’s Timbo and Ada Bodjolle’s Amazonia Damned, as dam projects threaten the rainforest and indigenous peoples’ ways of life. Australian national concerns arise in Jane Hammond’s A Crude Injustice, which examines how an offshore oil spill devastates seaweed and fishing industries in West Timor while those responsible deny the spill’s impacts. One film that particularly caught my attention was Not Just Another Mountain, directed by Chris Davis, about a felled deeply symbolic tree and the various groups’ values surrounding it.

The festival also honors its city with stories specifically about Melbourne with two “Melbourne Stories” events. The first occurs July 7, 2018, with Big in Japan and the second occurs July 8, 2018, with a series of shorts. Rachel Morssink and Ian Tran’s short Olympic Nick poses the most thought-provoking question: “What happens when a $3.7 billion dollar regional rail project gets derailed by a 76-year-old Melbourne man and his humble doughnut van?” Those must be some awesome doughtnuts.

Political titles mingle with popular culture titles with a particular focus on unique stories. One title that busts boundaries is Jemma van Loenen’s Bam Bam, about a Lebanese Muslim girl hailing from Australia who seeks victory at world amateur boxing. Out of My Head, directed by Jackie Ochs and Susanna Styron, looks at migraines as more than “just headaches,” raising questions about their places as a neurological disease. Two films tell stories about taxi drivers in Ireland. Siri Nerbø’s Men in the Mirror follows four Nigerian taxi drivers working in Galway, while Mia Mullarkey’s Throwline follows activist taxi drivers in Kilkenny who work together to prevent suicides.

Popular culture is also well represented in the program. While we probably know the fate of the Marty McFly actor from Back to the Future, how many of you are asking, “But what about Biff?” Ismael Lotz’s I Am Famous visits actor Tom Wilson and the role’s impact on him and his career. Tony Zierra’s Filmworker casts a lens on Stanley Kubrick’s life through his assistant Leon Vitali, who worked with the auteur for more than 20 years.

Music by far is one of the most popular subjects for documentary, and MDFF pays homage to that genre with features about EDM and rock, not to mention other music bios and music-related topics. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami captures the artist’s expansive and expressive life. Nicholas Dobkin’s Touching Sound The Technika combines music, video games, and their players to show their evolution into a community.

Overall, the program of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival offers a great variety of documentary titles — shorts and features, animated / experimental and more traditional, serious and fun — sure to appeal to the most discerning documentary festival-goer. Tickets are available via moshtix, Film Freeway, and eventfinda.