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Home > Publications > Quill > Documentary Short Filmmaking For J-Students



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Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Documentary Short Filmmaking For J-Students

Education Toolbox

By Richard Gaspar

When the Center for Media & Social Impact asked Sundance filmmaker Laura Poitras if she was a filmmaker, a journalist or both, she responded, “It’s journalism plus.”

The director of the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” is a self-professed visual journalist. In an ever-changing media landscape, introducing journalism students to the basics of documentary filmmaking can be a rewarding and beneficial process. Also, teaching documentary short filmmaking is an ideal way to incorporate video in the journo classroom.

It is also important that j-students understand that the viewpoints of documentary filmmakers vary just as greatly as the viewpoints of journalists, but there a few basic rules that are universal. Three of Michael Moore's "13 Rules for Making Documentary Films" are worth sharing with j-students.

Moore ranked these in order for IndieWire, but the following may be the three most relevant for journalists.

1) “Don’t tell me shit I already know.”

If j-students are going to engage in “journalism plus,” it really needs to have a “plus.” Like writing, documentary films need to focus on telling original stories from a unique perspective. Students need to document something distinctive and provide the audience with something worth watching.

"The Silly Bastard Next to the Bed" is a great example of the “plus” that can be found with a little digging. Scott Calonico’s award-winning documentary short starts off with an amusing blooper video that leads to an angry phone call. The call focuses on a questionable and embarrassing Otis Air Force Base expenditure exposed by The Washington Post.

Calonico incorporates news clips, audio files, memos, articles and previously classified materials. The eight-minute short provides an insight into a unique JKF story. Clennon L. King’s “A Passage at St. Augustine” is another great illustration.

2) “The modern documentary sadly has morphed into what looks like a college lecture, the college lecture mode of telling a story.”

Perhaps this is one of the rules j-students already know, but it’s worth repeating: There is more than one way to tell a story. Documentary films are no different. They all don’t have to go from beginning to end, but each needs to tell a complete story. Sharing examples of expository, observational and participatory documentaries can provide j-students with a glimpse of the range of documentary genres.

Expository documentaries have a strong connection to expository essays. Most people are familiar with the Ken Burns classics that appear on PBS and the History Channel. The documentary short "Ken Burns on Why His Formula for a Great Story is 1+1=3" provides some insight on how to infuse emotion in the creative process. He shares some of the emotions that drive him to continue to “wake the dead,” and to stimulate a viewer’s senses.

Observational documentaries are designed to be somewhat objective and to allow the audience to hear all of the stakeholders in the story. The incredibly violent documentary “Knuckles” is Ian Palmer’s 12-year observation of the secret world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting. Palmer’s story demonstrates how sensationalism can drive a story.

Participatory documentaries include the director or journalist in the film. However, the level of participation varies. The participation may be as simple as asking questions from behind the camera or as immersive as participating in the film.

Participatory documentaries have a wide range of audiences, and pop stars and entertainers are no exception. An eye-catching example of what some reviewers see as “yellow journalism” is Julie Shaw’s “Living with Michael Jackson.” Journalist and news anchor Martin Bashir conducted a series of interviews with the pop star that were viewed by millions when aired.

3) “Sound is more important than picture.”

This rule can be a tough lesson, but the massively popular podcast Serial and its recent spin-off S-Town demonstrate that sound can carry a story. Clayton' Worfolk's "San Quentin's Giants" is a documentary short that uses narration, sound effects and the ambient noises of a prison and its baseball field to help drive the story. The mix of sound over tape and background music is as captivating to listen to as it is to watch.

Having students apply these rules to a project can be done on a shoestring or Cadillac budget. Over the past five years, our school’s j-students have produced an award-winning documentary and video packages with both.

In 2015, our j-students shot the documentary short “The President, the Peanut and the Pulpit” with a budget of $1,500 on Canon EOS 70D. Since then, we have developed a low-budget and a high-budget documentary package.

For $99, the Samson Stage XPD1 delivers high-definition audio for creating videos on laptops, tablets or smartphones. It can be purchased with a lavalier or hand-held mic. For $4,999, the Canon EOS C100MK II Documentary Kit provides high-end gear that can use a school’s available Canon lenses. ***

Richard F. Gaspar is a professor of mass communication at Hillsborough Community College and advises the student publications. He is the chair of the SPJ Education Committee, a former CMA Distinguished Two-Year Magazine Adviser, CMA Distinguished Two-Year Newspaper Adviser and SPJ Dori Maynard Diversity Fellow.

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