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.

Teaching Op-Docs: Course Wrap-Up and Reflections

Teaching a course about online documentary production proved an ambitious but worthwhile undertaking. Below are some reflections on the course, its strengths, and its challenges.

The Op-Docs Series

The New York Times Op-Docs series made for a very engaging set of shorts to explore journalism, documentary, their overlaps, and their divergences.

The series offers an immense range of subject, form, and style. Some shorts, such as A Threat to Internet Freedom, follow the “documentary formula” with talking heads, media clips, and animations. Others, such as Pass It On or Hotel 22, rely on visuals. Some, such as How to Build a Country from Scratch, use a more intellectual approach to their subjects, while others rely more on emotional, intimate approaches, such as A Marriage to Remember.

The variety among the shorts allows for movement away from the objective / subjective bias that sometimes informs conversations about both journalism and documentary. That variety also encourages richer discussion of the different approaches and their effects (in a limited sense). The more traditional or more intellectual shorts resonate less than the shorts offering personal stories, and reasons why became a further point for consideration.

A particularly engaging question was the role of the journalist within the overall work. Several Op-Docs address their directors’ own experiences, such as The Long Wait, Love and Stuff, and 35 and Single. These three and others opened questions about the role of the documentary maker versus the role of reporter.

Documentary Topics

The course requirements called for a topic about women or women’s issues in some way. My students came up with some great ideas: painful beauty rituals, female entrepreneurs, single-sex colleges, and gender roles, to name a few.

Some Op-Docs do explore women and women’s issues, such as health, economic instability, and marriage, and others offer portraits of contemporary and historical women. I wish, however, more of these issues had appeared throughout the series, and more of the representations offered something other than overcoming obstacles.

Gnarly in Pink offers an example of what I mean here. The short shows three, 6-year-olds who love skateboarding. The short addresses gender expectations, sure, but it does much more than that.

Finding Balance

The balance of asserting control and letting it go as a director seemed to offer the biggest struggle for many students in my class. This balance in particular appeared with story development and participant interviews.

Part of this struggle for balance occurred in developing their story ideas. The best stories come from people, and the best documentaries allow people to tell their stories. Shifting the pronouns from “my” story to “their” story for some proved one of the most difficult discourse shifts throughout the semester.

Participant interviews proved the other difficult balance. One of the most challenging parts of working on documentaries is working with people. After teaching reporting, social media, and research methods over the years, I have learned that many students resist the idea of talking to people and resist even more asking people to do something for them.

But working in documentary and news media means working with people and asking them for on-camera interviews. Finding willing people and then scheduling time with them became a challenge for many students. Some placed their bets on one person, only to find that person unavailable. Others struggled to find people in general due to topic. Frustrating lessons, but important ones.

Then came the interviews themselves. One of my students used the brilliant approach of talking with her participants for a while beforehand, guiding them through the conversation before even turning on the camera. When the camera did come on, the interviews appeared more natural and relaxed. Others struggled to shift their discourses from “what I want participants to say” to “what participants want to say.” With the attachment to “my story” came a strong desire for participants to say things that the directors wanted them to say. They struggled with trusting their participants to tell their own stories and allowing the stories to evolve organically.

The assignment required three interviews. If I teach this course again, I might start with requiring that they find someone to interview right away and then develop the topic from there, instead of the other way around.

Curricular Concerns

I taught this class within a junior-level news writing and reporting class. The course catalog description called for creating and editing video, and I thought this approach would work well within that. Fortunately, it did, particularly in the levels of sophistication and critical thinking about journalism and documentary that developed during course discussions.

If you are considering bringing a course like this one into your curriculum, allow me to make two sets of recommendations. First, require students take a journalism course such as introduction to news writing or principles of journalism and a course in basic video production first. This way, students have foundations to build on.

Second, require separate, longer times for a discussion component and a lab component. Documentary production has its own issues that need to be addressed. We found 50 minutes, three times a week, always rushed.

Teaching Op-Docs: Helpful Resources

Multiple resources, both online and print, proved helpful in developing materials for and running the journalism class using The New York Times‘s Op-Docs series. Note that most of these resources are dedicated to documentary production, and not history or criticism. The key ones are listed below.

The New York Times Op-Docs
Videos from The New York Times Op-Docs pages of course provided the bulk of the in-class screenings. Other videos, such as trailers and clips, came from YouTube and Vimeo.

Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling
Kurt Lancaster’s book served as one of the course textbooks, and it became the most useful one very quickly. Brief chapters broke down key ideas into manageable chunks, and examples illustrated well the ideas at hand. Particularly useful was the interview transcription that highlighted the segments appearing in the final short, deftly showing how little of interviews actually end up in the final piece.

How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck: Advice to Make Any Amateur Look Like a Pro
Brief, lively chapters offer key ideas about cinematography for online video in a way that is easy to understand and apply. Steve Stockman writes for a general audience, making the book very accessible and engaging reading.

Directing the Documentary
Of all the documentary production handbooks available, Directing the Documentary, by Michael Rabiger, is one of the few that dedicates an entire chapter to ethics. That chapter became the foundation for ethical issues raised in the class.

Documentary Filmmaking: A Contemporary Field Guide
John Hewitt and Gustavo Vazquez’s book is overall very useful, but its section about the different styles and types of documentaries created a useful framework for grouping and connecting the various Op-Docs, which range widely in subject and style.

How to Write a Documentary Script
Trisha Das’s monograph not only offers the mechanics of writing a documentary script, but also gets into the rationales that make them different from other types of production.

The Documentary Community
Community members often shared their ideas about this class through e-mail and other social networking sites. Specifically, Tim Horsburgh of Kartemquin Films was kind enough to share a model consent form. Tom Kirby at York St John University offered a comprehensive reading list of so many resources out there, including Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye and Sheila Curran Bernard’s work, among others. Matt Sienkiewicz of Boston College helped refine the scope and parameters of the course assignments and requirements.

Many, many others — too many to name here — also offered their thoughts and insights. Thank you.

Teaching Op-Docs: Course Assignments

This spring I taught a journalism class that centered on making a short online documentary using The New York Times‘s Op-Docs series as model. Below are the assignments used to build the projects and some of the rationales behind them.

Background Preparations

Coming up with an idea often becomes the most difficult task behind any project, and choosing an idea early is essential to succeeding in a production course. The assignment called for a focus on women or women’s issues, which aligned with the mission of the all-women’s university where I taught. Students could choose their own topic within that scope.

The selection process began with a series of brainstormed topics lists, and the story pitch honed those lists to one idea. Since the project required three main interviews, the next assignment called for a potential participants list with short rationales for their choices. After that, students turned in a background research list, with citations and 1-2 sentences explaining how each source might contribute to their finished piece.

Documentary Script

The documentary script assignment was intended to help organize materials before editing. At minimum, the script needed to show their interviews, the key themes, and the structure and flow. The assignment called for a three-column format with approximate runtime, audio, and video. Students were encouraged to include as much information as possible in the script, though the level of what they included depended on how much shooting they had completed.

Pitching Trailer

The pitching trailer was intended to help hone their documentary as we moved toward the end of the semester. It was meant to envision the overall tone and scope within a 30-60 second clip, which was screened and discussed in class. In preparation for this assignment, we watched and discussed trailers from a wide range of documentaries, including Citizen Four, Hands on a Hard Body, American Movie, The Search for General Tso, Cover Girl Culture, Tarnation, and Vernon, Florida.

Rough Cut and Peer Review

With a four-minute minimum length, the rough cuts were also screened and discussed in class. They were intended to help with the questions arising from the editing process, such as if the voiceover worked, the juxtapositions made sense, the images conveyed the story, and the like. We also revisited some ethical issues about consent and fair representation during this session.

Final Screening

On the last day of class, the final (for class, anyway) cuts were due, and we screened and discussed them. Many doughnuts and bagels were consumed.

Other Assignments

I originally had included two other assignments to accompany the final cut, but class flow prevented having enough time to address them. The first was a 500-word article about the doc and the story it told, similar to what appears with other Op-Docs on The New York Times site.

The other was what I had called an “interactivity statement,” which would have looked at how they might connect with audiences through online civic engagement. Some questions behind the assignment included the following:

  • How might audiences engage with the documentary’s story?
  • How might you handle a range of the audience’s responses, both positive and negative?
  • What are some of the profiles for those audiences?
  • On what social networking sites might you find those audiences? How might you engage them where they are?
  • What organizations and other sites might you reach out to help with spreading the word about your documentary?

If you have any questions about the assignments, please feel free to contact me.

Teaching Op-Docs: Sound and Observation in Hotel 22

Elizabeth Lo’s Hotel 22 became the focus for a session about sound in documentary.

When we think of sound, we usually think of the human voice, which has dominated documentary since the developments of workable sound technologies. Just think of the abundant voiceover narration in Prelude to War and the rest of the Why We Fight series or in Pare Lorentz’s The River. The narration often not only tells us what is happening, but also what we should think about what is happening.

The other part of the human voice comes from talking heads. While people are interesting, too many talking heads frequently are not.

Music is another part of sound. Here, I think of scored music — the Philip Glass scores in Errol Morris films, the Joshua Abrams scores in Life Itself and The Interrupters, and the Virgil Thomson scores for Louisiana Story and The Plow That Broke the Plains. Music links sequences and scenes, and provides another layer of emotion.

Sound effects make up the final part of sound. Effects have the potential to bring a scene to life as much as visuals do. It is here that Hotel 22 shines.

This Op-Doc is about Line 22, a bus route in the Silicon Valley that people who are homeless ride during the night. The 90-minute trip becomes a temporary shelter for the paying riders.

Eschewing narration and formal interviews, Hotel 22 relies on sound effects and observational footage gathered over the course of a week. Sound effects come from the bus, such as the rattling windows, the changing engine gears, the depressurizing hydraulics, and the bing-bong-ing announcement signal. These sounds create a rhythm as the bus progresses through its route.

Other sounds come from people, such as singing and snoring. The snoring carries over a series of shots, mixing with the rhythms of the bus sounds. Oddly enough, it establishes the sense of comfort that the bus provides for people who are homeless riding it.

Some talking does occur. One rider argues with the bus driver to turn on the heat. Another frustrated passenger begins yelling racial comments that result in passengers taking exceptions to his remarks and confronting him on them.

As the route ends and the sun rises, people depart the bus. Birds sing in the background as they sit. Taken together, these people, birds, and bus create a soundscape that adds interest and depth to the observational footage. As a viewer, you want to ask questions, so many questions, but the camera remains patient, letting things unfold as they do in this composite.

Teaching Op-Docs: The Role of B-Roll

As a viewer, I pay too much attention to B-roll.

One reason is that B-roll is often intercut with interviews, and it changes the dynamics of movement within the frame. Even if the people talking are animated in their speech or if the camera roves around the speaking participant, interview shots still are more static than other shots. Intercutting between a talking head and an action shot puts this contrast into sharp relief.

Another reason is that sometimes B-roll just leaves me asking why the shot is there and how it contributes to the overall film. I look for thematic, emotional, or even rational connections between the people speaking and the B-roll intercut with their interviews. If the cutaway offers no clear connection, it just seems odd to me.

Some directors know how to pull off fascinating interviews without much, if any, B-roll. As much as he uses cutaways to create in-film conversations with his interviewees, Errol Morris also knows when to allow a person to keep talking without much, if any, interruption. In Gates of Heaven, Florence Rasmussen seemingly rambles about her life and her son before talking about her deceased pets and the relocated pet cemetery. Three shots — two newspaper headlines and one shot of street signs in this clip — accompany her, and only one headline appears during her rambling.

But figuring out how to visualize stories along with filmed interviews is a key part of putting together an online documentary video, as we have been talking about in my online documentary production course this semester. “A Marriage to Remember” offers a poetic, if poignant, example for thinking about B-roll. This Op-Doc by Banker White and Anna Fitch shows the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. White’s mother, Pam, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 61, and this short shows in part her decline and its impacts on her marriage with White’s father, Ed.

Some of the B-roll footage in this Op-Doc shows a life well lived: painted portraits, old photographs, home movies. Other footage shows a day’s routines, including morning exercise, newspaper check, breakfast. The day’s routines appear twice — first when Pam White is more able and second after she has declined during the year. Time-lapse shots show the sun moving through the day as it shines through a window, growing brighter and deepening to a golden red as it sets. In a way, the B-roll, both of the family memories and the daily routines, shows us the family history while also doing some of the remembering for her.

Not all B-roll needs to be thought out with such precise attention to detail. When that attention does happen, though, the effect is immediate, particularly within this documentary short.

Teaching Op-Docs: Finding Ideas for Documentaries

“Where do you get ideas for documentaries?” is the number one question I have received through comments and conversations over the years. As my students this semester have been working through ideas toward their story pitch assignment, I have been turning over some possibilities for seeking ideas. Here are some starting points to consider.

Life

Many, many documentaries start with and / or focus on the people making them or the people in their lives. The best stories resonate beyond the scope of their telling, connecting with larger social and cultural issues.

Examples abound: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March; Amalie R. Rothschild’s Nana, Mom, and Me; Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation; and Irene Taylor Brodsky’s Hear and Now.

Some makers pursue their own passions or questions. I think here of the documentaries about veganism, such as Marisa Miller Wolfson’s Vegucated. Or, makers take themselves as their own subjects such as Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me or Joe Cross in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.

Communities


As in, geographical communities. Stories weave throughout communities large and small. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “No Guns for Christmas” brings the national gun debates to their home in Ohio. Josh Fox’s Gasland explores fracking’s overall effects starting with his land in Pennsylvania.

One key way to find great stories is to talk with people in your community — the ones in coffee shops, laundromats, bus stops. Not through the phone, but in person. Not through texting, but in person. I once asked a man about his tattoo while he rang up my carry-out order. The tattoo itself was visually interesting, but the story behind it was gut-wrenching as it was a memorial for a family member who had been shot and killed during an armed robbery.

Media

Newspapers and magazines build their reputations on quality storytelling, but their stories represent only a glimpse into what could be much larger ones. For High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing started with a story in The New York Times that mentioned Chinese bloggers.

“I was curious who these bloggers were and discovered Zola’s [one of the bloggers appearing in his documentary] website, which featured a great number of other fascinating reports,” Maing told me in an email. “I was immediately intrigued and wanted to understand how a young man from a small farming village was managing to pull off such daring reporting all over mainland China and in the face of government censorship.”

Through Zola, Maing later met Tiger Temple, the other key figure in his documentary and featured in the Op-Doc “A Long Ride toward a New China.”

Sometimes, one story leads to another, very different story. Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida started with a newspaper article about a small town with a high rate of people “losing” limbs. The final piece, however, veers from its original inspirations.

Magazines, too, offer ideas. Florence Martin-Kessler’s Op-Doc “Great Expectations for Female Lawyers” follows up with several female lawyers who appeared in a 2001 magazine article.

And, finally, books. Multiple documentaries start with books, including Dirt!, Half the Sky, and Food, Inc.

Social Networking

Since they are driven by people, social networks also offers potential ideas. I refer here both to interpersonal connections and online ones. One of the greatest potential documentary stories I ever heard came from a student who got the story from someone who overheard someone else talking in a diner.

Teaching Op-Docs: Women’s Stories and Issues

One of the key requirements for the web documentary assignment in my class is that my students focus on women and women’s issues in some way. My current university consists of an all-women’s liberal arts core, so this requirement connects with the school and its women-focused mission.

A handful of the shorts appearing in the Op-Docs series specifically focus on women and their stories, and this post offers a round-up of some of those stories.

Most films in that handful represent women facing challenges in some way.

One challenge centers on health-related issues. The recent “Midnight Three & Six” tells two stories, a mother and her Type I diabetic daughter. While the daughter tries to grow up with this life-threatening disease, the mother balances caretaking with worrying and hovering and letting go.

In “A Marriage to Remember“, a marriage takes the center role, but the filmmaker’s mother deteriorates quickly following a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Lost Every Day” shows how a woman lives with Developmental Topographical Disorientation, a condition that prevents her from having a sense of direction. “Flo: Portrait of a Street Photographer” shows Flo Fox’s dedication to her photography despite being nearly blind.

Other challenges are about economic instability and the future. In “Running on Fumes in North Dakota,” Jenny describes her difficult life as a truck driver in an isolated boom town. She sees working there as a means to making a better life for herself, but at the same time she fears for her own safety.

Sarah’s Uncertain Path” offers a profile of a pregnant 15-year-old living in Missouri who wonders about her future. “The Caretaker” weaves together two women’s stories. Joesy is an undocumented immigrant from Fiji caring for the aging Haru Tsurumoto, 95. Though working long hours for low pay and facing an uncertain future, Joesy maintains a strong and meaningful relationship with Haru.

Several interesting women-centered Op-Docs are portraits. “VHS vs. Communism” offers a great example in showing the woman who illegally dubbed more than 3,000 films during the Communist Romania. Irina Margareta Nistor talks about the excitement the dubbing brought for her in that she could see the films and see a world outside her own country, though she ran the risk of getting caught and being punished with each dub she made.

Marie Wilcox is the last native speaker of the Wukchummi language, and she works to document the language before it is lost with her death. “Who Speaks Wukchummi?” follows her and her family’s preservation efforts.

A couple filmmakers turn the camera onto their own lives. Judith Helfand’s “Love and Stuff” is humorous and sad all at the same time. Upon her mother’s death, Helfand must clean out the home and decide what to keep. Helfand catalogs some items that she keeps: gloves, shoes, nail clippers, dentures (!). She also catalogs some of the items her mother keeps, including an entire elephant figurine collection. One of my favorite shots in the entire Op-Docs collection shows the elephants lined up on parade as the camera pans slowly down the line.

Another portrait, Paula Schargorodsky’s “35 and Single” explores the questions of children and marriage for herself through her upbringing and current status.

Teaching Op-Docs: Starting with the Big Questions

For a junior-level course this semester, I am using The New York Times’s Op-Doc series as a model for talking about journalism, documentary, and online video. In addition to watching multiple entries in the series, my students will be creating one of their own that focuses on women and women’s issues in some way. That focus aligns with my current university’s mission.

The class started with two “big picture” questions: What is news and what is documentary? One of the texts we are reading outlined their differences through production practices and aesthetics. For example, in television news the reporter appears on camera, while in documentary the maker remains behind the camera. For another example, television news places the character as secondary, while documentary places character as central. Both lists separated the maker from the story, however.

We watched several titles this week. Since we are in Baltimore, I found it fitting to open with Lotfy Nathan’s “Riding with the 12 O’Clock Boys.” In addition to the perfect local subject, the short raised questions about news values such as timeliness and about techniques such as narration with the voice of authority ranting at the beginning.

We also watched Laura Poitras’s gut-wrenching “Death of a Prisoner.” This one raised a lot of questions about balancing fact and emotion. With something so harrowing, how do we not get lost in all that emotion? For some, it seemed the emotion offered the only angle for this story in contrast to all the news information out there. One student was quick to point how the voice of authority at the opening (archival footage of a Barack Obama speech) of this one contrasted with the previous one. Here, the archival material provided background information, while in the other it set a tone that the documentary addressed the counterpoints on.

Dawn Porter’s “True Believers in Justice” and Jason DaSilva’s “The Long Wait” rounded out the week. These two resonated more than the previous two shown earlier in the week. The portrait of Travis Williams and his passion for being a public defender is engaging. The opening sequence of the tattooing draws us in, and its significance for Williams gives it an even greater weight. One student pointed out how it offered a stark contrast to the popular culture representations of lawyers.

Up to this point, none of the documentary makers appeared on camera, and so the question became, what about documentary makers who do become subjects in their own documentaries and do appear on camera? I always think of A. O. Scott’s term from when he wrote a review of Tarnation: “narci-cinema.” Jonathan Caouette’s documentary tells the story of his life and his mother’s mental illness that follows the traditions of autobiographical documentaries. Some of the more memorable documentaries in recent memory similarly feature a strong central presence; just look at the works of Ross McElwee, Morgan Spurlock, and Michael Moore.

Of course, my students think of confessional and other videos made by individuals on YouTube. Coming at it from different angles, but we ended up on the same page.

Jason DaSilva’s piece became a perfect answer to these questions. DaSilva is the narrator, central figure, and key instigator of events in this piece. “The Long Wait” shows DaSilva’s experiment in getting from his home to a coffee shop using public transportation in New York City. Due to early-onset ALS, DaSilva gets around using a scooter, which allows some mobility but also quickly shows its limitations. He works through the transportation maps and options, raising all the questions about elevators and other forms of access. While his friend made the trip in less than fifteen minutes, DaSilva took almost two hours.

One of my students loved this one, pointing out that the wait actually referred to three waits: DaSilva’s own, his friend’s, and the city’s for updating its accessible transportation options.

But how to balance personal experiences with larger issues without coming across as absorbed or narcissistic? DaSilva balances well his experiences with the larger issues he and others face on a daily basis. Another balance might be to bring in interviews with others for an additional point of view. We will revisit this again, as several Op-Docs start with an individual’s experiences in some way.

Teaching Op-Docs

This semester I am teaching a junior-level course in news writing and reporting. As part of the course requirements, I am having the students create an “Op-Doc” similar to the guidelines outlined by The New York Times. In the prerequisite course, students learn about media writing, including documentary scriptwriting, so this course moves into more multimedia production. The Op-Doc seems to offer the right balance for gaining the skills to make a webdoc and for thinking critically about news and its role within the rapidly changing world of online journalism.

The New York Times defines an Op-Doc as “short, opinionated documentaries, produced with wide creative latitude and a range of artistic styles, covering current affairs, contemporary life and historical subjects.” About 100 shorts appear on the site, and I am slowly working my way through them in order to find representative ones to show and discuss in class. I also am looking for ways to group them, such as through style and subject, so that students can see the patterns occurring and can find their own places within them.

In general, Op-Docs run between 5-10 minutes. Following the definition above, they incorporate a range of styles and approaches to their subjects. Styles include more observational approaches to documentary, more traditional talking heads, and less traditional animations.

Anthony Sherin’s “Solo, Piano — N.Y.C.” seems more poetry in its depiction of the fate of a piano left on the street, while several shorts by Drew Christie pose some intriguing questions and arguments through animation.

The subjects start with the seemingly everyday and reach to the moon — and beyond. “Vigilante Copy Editor,” by Jay Dockendorf, reveals the work of a copy editor in a sculpture garden at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, while Simon Ennis’s “The Man Who Sells the Moon” interviews Dennis Hope, who does just that. (He also sells properties on Mars and Venus, if you’re interested.)

Still other Op-Docs grab you with their stories. When I had asked on Twitter about the most important part of a documentary a bit back, the overwhelming majority of responses centered on storytelling and people. Without either of those, the documentary — short or long, online or on film — will lose audiences quickly.

Shorts face a particular challenge in that they lack the leisure to develop the story slowly. Instead, they must advance the story right away and keep moving, often toward a too-fast ending. The shorts by Laura Poitras and Lucy Walker in particular stood out for me here. For “Death of a Prisoner,” Poitras tells the story of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a prisoner who died in Guantánamo Bay prison after being held there for 11 years. Walker’s short tells the story of his final days and follows the body home to his family. In “Daredevil on a Snowmobile,” Walker tells the story of Caleb Moore, whose career as an extreme snowmobiler ended with a crash during the X Games and his death soon afterward. His death was an unfortunate first for the extreme sport competition.

Each of these shorts challenges ways of thinking about news, opinion, story, and documentary. I will expand more on these points when I have finished watching the rest of them and started organizing the class more.