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.

Mi viaje a Costa Rica

Last week I had the privilege to travel to Costa Rica as part of a scouting visit for a student study abroad trip. In completing an article about Guatemala, I was surprised to learn how little English-based writing has been done about Central American media, so I was curious to learn more about Costa Rica and its media.

Among the countries in the region, Costa Rica is perhaps the most stable. Tourism, mostly by people from the United States, drives the economy. Exports such as medical tech and baseballs also contribute to the economy. The country faces challenges with drug trafficking, immigration (primarily from Nicaragua), poverty, law enforcement, and gender-based violence.

Journalism plays a strong role in Costa Rica, as it does in most Latin American nations. Journalism there faces familiar challenges, including reputation loss, fake news, and funding declines. People are more informed than they ever were, however. User access to news is primarily through mobile devices, then television, and finally tablets at a distant 3 percent.

Entertainment television is dominated by United States programming. For example, the cable offerings included movies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (with the Elvish subtitled in Spanish) and The Proposal (don’t judge me). The country receives telenovelas from other countries, but it has no telenovela of its own.

One person frustrated with these offerings asked me why reality shows like 90 Day Fiance continue to appear on television. While the media might tell us that these are shows we want, arguably the bottom line informs these shows’ creation, which are cheaper and faster to produce than expensive sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory. The person asking made a compelling argument for how that show promotes human trafficking.

Another strong point that emerged from the week’s discussions is the importance of representations. The influx of U.S.-based programming squeezes out local programming and its voices. That influx also brings its fair share negative gender and ethnic stereotypes. The question arose: Why don’t audiences resist the negative representations more? Films like Wonder Woman and The Black Panther offer the rare exceptions in an otherwise overwhelming sea of negativity, at least in fiction.

Social media became a question as well. Mobile devices accessing news also access social media, though digital inequalities exist and coverage doesn’t reach the more rural and remote areas. Social networks there are more in person than online.

Advocacy groups use social media to help people and to promote their actions. Gender-based violence, particularly femicide, remains a problem in rural areas. Focusing on the potential victims, education provides one of the strongest means to escape it, as many women don’t know what options are available. In-person meetings play a strong role, but a Facebook page also encourages people to share their stories.

Another problem is incestual relationships between older men and teenage girls, and as a result the rate of teen pregnancy is quite high. Girls lack education, role models, and self-esteem to break that cycle, though some groups work to empower these girls through life skills, relationship skills, and critical thinking skills. Documentaries such as Girl Rising and Half the Sky help call attention to this issue, though each in its own way.

I also heard about a local documentary that followed one pregnant teen’s story: Kassandra: Una Mama de 13 Años. It was produced by NTN24 — Nuestra Tele Noticias 24– and some excerpts of the film are available.

In all, these observations only begin to scratch the surface of the media and social media in Costa Rica. Online searching makes learning about the media organizations, social movements, media productions, and social media possible, but there is something to be said about learning from the people making and using the media for their own purposes.

Observations from a Film Festival Judge

In January 2018, I had the privilege of serving as a festival judge. Out respect for the process, I will not mention the festival or the individual films in this post. Instead, I wish to share some observations on the overall procedures.

My primary responsibility was the shorts category, which meant viewing 38 films ranging from 8 minutes to 28 minutes. Shorts is a broad category that can include all genres — fiction, documentary, animation, experimental. A short also is incredibly challenging to do well, as managing timing is key for grabbing attention and keeping it. Many can tell a good story. With festival submissions, you hope that everything tells a good story, but few tell amazing stories — the ones that grab you and make you forget you’re watching a film for the next few minutes. Some shorts feel incredibly long despite their running times.

What I really appreciated was the breadth of international submissions to this festival. So many languages and stories, including some that connect with contemporary global news headlines and some that perhaps should be global news headlines. For comparison, at least with documentaries, Sundance received 1,635 sumbissions in the feature documentary category — 740 domestic and 895 international. Of those, the festival accepted 47 films, with 37 domestic and 10 international.

Serving as a judge makes you a member of three audiences: the festival, the potential viewers, and yourself. Every festival has a mission, and that mission guides everything from promotion to programming. In a couple cases, I wondered if people read the festival’s mission before submitting their film.

The potential viewers also sat in the back of my head as I watched. (I wish I could draw that image.) People attending festivals generally seek something different from television, movie theaters, and streaming options. But how different is too different? How different is just different enough?

And then there’s me. I have judged student festivals and organizational competitions before, but never something on this scale. I have a healthy sense of what I think works in a documentary and in fiction films, but I’m not like mainstream critics who have a well-worded and strong slant to their views. (They’re critics — that’s their jobs.) With how I approach this kind of viewing, I try to understand each film on its own terms, waiting to see what and how it wants to show me. Sometimes I agree with those terms, and sometimes I don’t.

Technology has changed festival judging. In my previous experiences, one instance involved a stack of DVDs and another involved a long afternoon in a screening room with other judges. While home viewing has its advantages, I actually enjoyed the group screening because I heard the other judges’ opinions in real time alongside my own.

Today’s streaming services make this kind of activitiy much more convenient but also much more insular. This festival used two submission services: FilmFreeway and Withoutabox. Of the two, I liked FilmFreeway better — nicer interface, more structure for comments and ratings, and clearer navigation overall. Withoutabox felt more clunky to me, more difficult to inuit my way around. Withoutabox did offer the chance to upload descriptions and connect to IMDb pages (Amazon owns both sites so those connections make sense). To their credit, both sites allowed direct upload of the film files.

The application that offered the most trouble? Vimeo. Many filmmakers submitted their films using that site, and I understand why — convenience in sharing, monitoring who is viewing, and conserving bandwidith perhaps. But some filmmakers changed their passwords or added expirations to their passwords so I couldn’t see their films. Vimeo also had a lot of trouble streaming through the embed into the fest submission sites. I had to set the resolution to the lowest possible just to get a stream that didn’t judder or choke. One five-minute title paused 25 times — on an unshared ethernet connected to a fast box. Every time I reset to the lowest resolution Vimeo prompted me to use the automatic option. Nope.

While international selections understand that closed captions are necessary due to language comprehension issues, I do wish more domestic filmmakers would add titles to their own films. Though I do understand why some filmmakers refuse them due to aesthetics and cost issues, I see neither as valid excuses for excluding captions. Captions help with for more than just aiding those with hearing impairments. They do take time to complete, but they include more people in viewing your film. Costs vary, but Movie Captioner starts at $130 for a single license. Plenty of paid services also are available.

My previous experiences with festivals included volunteering at the information desk and serving as an audience jury member. Serving as a festival judge offered another layer of insights, ranging from artistic to technical, into the process.

Part Promotion, Part Travelogue: With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

As part of learning more about With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, I sought some reading about the early U.S. film era, from around 1900-1915.

Not surprisingly, documentary histories tend to skip this era. While it follows the Lumière brothers’ experiments, it still predates the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), Grierson’s “documentary” definition (1926), and even Hollywood’s emerging dominance. This era’s best-known film is probably Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), a prototype of the popular western genre that I have tortured more than 20 classes and more than 2,500 students with (and no, not exaggerating that number).

This period, though, was a boon for both fiction and nonfiction films, which often played in theaters on the same bill. Without the documentary or fiction labels that we use today, though, the nonfiction films had other names, including educational, scenic, industrials, topicals, and travelogues.

It is this latter type that Woodbury University professor Jennifer Lynn Peterson examines in her book Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film. Her book offers a thematic analysis of the travelogue, which she defines “as nonfiction motion pictures that represent place as their primary subject.” She situates these films within cultural, industrial, and other contexts of the time.

My post here concerns what I learned from the book and thus does not offer a formal review, though you can find some reviews here and here. I am more interested in what this book tells me about that era and how it informs understanding With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College specifically.

One useful lesson is the basic conventions of these films — what did they look like? Since a print of the film most likely no longer exists, this question is important. Peterson describes the travelogue as series of shots switching between scenery and people. Titles appear between to explain the shots, but no narrative glue unites them. Instead, “The stand-alone quality of the shots is another of the genre’s most notable formal elements,” Peterson writes.

Another useful lesson is the place of these films within the emerging industry at the time. The Selig Polygraph Company is credited for making the film, as companies receive the credit. The idea of auteurs had not yet emerged at that time. Similar to the Production Code era three decades later, these early films faced questions about their respectability and their potential dangers to audiences. Peterson writes how the industry sought to become more respectable in light of these criticisms. Nonfiction film in particular served as part of this cultural uplift. (See Moya Luckett’s Cinema and Community for a more sustained discussion of progressivism specifically relating to Chicago.)

The final useful lesson is the importance of the train in film production during this era. “Railway companies were some of the most important early sponsors of travel films,” Peterson writes. With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is about a train trip throughout North Dakota, and The Great Northern Railway Company provided equipment for that journey.

Travelogues created a strong connection with popularizing the U.S. West to the U.S. East, showing the former as a place for recreation and for settlement. Train companies, the fastest form of transportation at the time, “encouraged the promotion of the West on film beginning in the 1890s, and in the 1910s, they enlarged the practice by subsidizing numerous film productions and initiating a major tourism promotion campaign using the slogan ‘See America First,'” Peterson writes.

Drawing on Peterson’s comments, we can guess that With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College mostly likely offers a series of scenes about the students and their activities on the special. Intertitles probably explain the images.

The presence of the train companies within early film perhaps explains The Great Northern Railway Company’s donation, not to mention Selig’s production of this film.

But the notions of travel and uplift become more complicated within this film. Travelogues typically show “somewhere else,” allowing viewers to “travel” without leaving their theater seats. Even when representing the West, these films showed national parks and western cities as modern and domesticated, inviting visitors to come see for themselves.

With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, however, stays within North Dakota. The state joined the union in 1889, just 24 years prior to the special, and the college was founded in 1890, just 23 years prior to the special. Staying within the young state’s boundaries made sense for reaching potential local students. Though changing quickly, most people still lived in rural areas at the time, but trains allowed greater opportunities to travel, including possibly leaving home to attend school nearby.

So instead of showing the possibilities of travel elsewhere, this film showed the possibilities of education. In that regard, it serves as part of cultural uplift and progressivism. This purpose suggests that it belongs less to a travelogue and more to the promotional film. Peterson writes, “[I]n the early film era, the boundary between promotional and nonpromotional content was unclear.” Loosely constructed though it most likely was, the journey becomes a frame for the promotional message for the college and perhaps even the train industry.

Peterson’s book was immensely useful and insightful about this period. Her passion for the subject beamed from many sentences. Her clear writing incorporates critical theory but does so in an accessible way and does not get bogged down by it.

Not Just a “One-Horse Institution:” Following the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is a 1913 film produced by the Selig Polyscope Company and was distributed by the General Film Company.

Aside from IMDb’s basic details, not much easily accessible information exists about this film. I am curious to learn more, but where to begin? After searching some larger online archives and coming up empty handed, I looked into the college itself.

North Dakota Agricultural College is now North Dakota State University, located in Fargo. NDAC started in 1890 as a land-grant college. The Morrill Act of 1862 gave U.S. states land to develop colleges for educating wider sections of the population in argicultural and mechanical arts. Though many of these universities still operate today, not all highlight their status as a land-grant institution.

NDSU maintains a special collection with artifacts of its own history, so I contacted the people there and asked about the film. While Archives Associate John Hallberg had not heard of it, he did a search within those archives and found some student newspaper (The Spectrum) coverage and a yearbook spread about the event that the film likely documents.

The event was called the “Student Life Special Train.” Perhaps like today’s chartered busses and limos, trains were booked for special events at the time. In 1911, for example, the Western Governors’ Special brought governors from Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon to visit Midwest and east coast states to promote business and other connections.

According to a news story, “Never before in the history of this country has such an enterprise as this been inaugurated.” The journey covered 4,000 miles to 21 cities in 20 days. Along with the dignitaries, five train cars featured exhibits showcasing these western states’ resources. The train also carried “a barber, tailor, stenographers, [and] typewriters for those of the newspaper men who accompany the train and special stationery for the governors.”

The next sentence in that same newspaper story caught my attention: “Motion pictures will be made showing the departure of the special from St. Paul, and the films will be displayed over the prominent American vaudeville circuits.” What was the name of that film, who produced it, where was it shown, and what did people think of it? Questions for another post, I suppose.

The Student Life Special Train appears modeled after the Western Governors’ Special Train. While the IMDb description claims the film traveled “throughout the great Northwest,” it actually traveled throughout North Dakota, visiting more than 30 cities in four days in February 1913. The cars included a dining car, a coach car, an observation car, a sleeper, and two baggage cars. The Great Northern Railway Company provided the equipment.

NDAC students planned and ran every part of the trip. As the student newspaper proclaimed, “This is a train of the students, for more students, by the students.” Home economics students prepared the meals in the dining car. The coach car included motion pictures operated by students. The baggage cars featured exhibits such as state geological maps from the Geology Department, fertilizer exhibits from the Chemistry Department, and candy from the Home Economics Department. At various stops, other student groups, including the Cadet Band, Crack Squad, Dramatic Club, College “Y” Quarter, and the orchestra, performed.

Several special guests accompanied students on this trip. A staff correspondent of the London Times and Telegram, Marguerite Curtiss, joined them from London. Lloyd McDowell, who rode on the Western Governors’ Special, also came along. A film company representative also came for the trip — in this case a Mr. Buckwalter from Selig.

Despite a snowstorm — it was a North Dakota winter, after all — the trip appeared to be a success, even with a $78.27 deficit.

Much enthusiasm surrounded the trip, not surprisingly in the student newspaper as both the trip and the paper were run by the student council. One story offered exalting language similar to the Western Governors’ Special: “The students of the North Dakota Agricultural College are preparing to launch out on an expedition, such as has never before been attempted by an educational institution.”

But what was the purpose of all this? According to the student newspaper, it was to raise awareness about the mission and benefits of the college. One newspaper story began, “Few people appreciate the mission of an Agricultural College.” In other words, the special train was a publicity campaign for the college “to do away with the notion that the Agricultural College is a one-horse institution.”

For me, all of this background helps with answering two general questions: It suggests possible film scenes, and it explains the film’s purpose. And, of course, it raises more questions than it answers.

Adventures in Chasing Old Documentaries

Documentary production in the United States often appears bicoastal. On the east coast, the documentary corridor seems to run from Boston to Washington, D.C. On the west coast, it seems to run from San Francisco to San Diego.

This loose classification has its problems, of course. Documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films is firmly rooted in Chicago and its vibrant media scene. AppalShop in Kentucky gives voice to rural cultures and their challenges. Other documentary organizations and festivals accomplish similar purposes in other pockets of the country.

Documentary production more specifically and media production more generally have never been that geographically centralized. In the early years of film experimentation and pre-Hollywood, around 1895-1915, media production happened across the country. Unfortunately, these regional histories remain underexplored.

Which brought me to a question: What about North Dakota?

Several contemporary documentaries offer different pictures of the state. Welcome to Leith examines what happens when a hate group moves to town. The Overnighters is set against the backdrop of the shale oil boom and its affects on labor. Jesus Camp explores an evangelical youth Christian camp that used to be located in the state.

But I sought older titles, and an internet search uncovered the 1913 documentary With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College. The IMDb page included a trade publication’s description:

One of Selig’s informing educational pictures, showing a notable trip of the students of the North Dakota Agricultural College on a trip through the great Northwest. The students show their practicability in caring for every detail on this trip.

Selig refers to The Selig Polyscope Company, which began in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, and at the time was one of the largest makers of films. The page also mentions the distibutor, the generically named General Film Company.

The time period offers some other hints about the film. It is certainly in black and white. It has a short run time, perhaps ten minutes or less. Most likely, it is a travel film or a scenic, with a series of scenes instead of a developed, character-driven narrative.

Sadly, the original film is probably gone. I did try the Internet Archive, Prelinger’s Archives, and The Library of Congress, but, so far, no luck.

And with that, the chase is on.