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.