Fundamentals of Documentary Filmmaking

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Course Description: 

With the proliferation of moving images in both public and private spaces, and the incorporation of
moving images into traditionally text-based media, the ability to communicate visually is becoming ever
more important in numerous fields, a valuable research method in a number of academic disciplines,
and moreover, an increasingly important form of basic literacy in contemporary society.

This course provides students a grounding in the craft of documentary production, and the creation of
moving images, instructing them in fundamental skills that they can apply to projects in their respective
research, and beyond. These skills cover all phases of the documentary production process, from idea
development, through pre-production and preparation, cinematography, sound and editing. Through
learning to create moving images, in concert with formal analysis of documentary examples, students
gain valuable, versatile skills, and gain literacy in this increasingly important mode of communication.

Learning Outcomes: 

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:
• Apply a deliberate structure, theme, point of view, and style to a short, documentary film.
• Refine a documentary idea down to an engaging short, verbal pitch, and execute that
• Work with basic technical proficiency in a range of areas of video production: operate a
video camera and tripod, an audio recorder and microphone, and the Adobe Premiere
editing system, controlling all technical functions, to produce a short documentary film.

• Apply aesthetic concepts of cinematography, editing, and sound design to support a
deliberate concept and vision in a short, documentary film.
• Refine a short documentary film through a series of progressively more refined versions,
to a finished work.
• Identify major modes of documentary form, and the basic elements of documentary films,
and critique their use.
• Articulate basic issues in documentary ethics.


Final Film (50% of the final grade). The final project is a 5-8 minute documentary film. It
is recommended that the film adhere to one of the five categories of short documentaries
defined in the reading, but you may also propose an alternate form of documentary that
relates to your research, as students are encouraged to tailor this project to their
respective discipline.

Students will work in teams of two or three depending on course enrollment, and the
scope and type of film the groups produces. Groups should be formed by the second class
meeting of the semester. The division of labor is up to the individual team, but all
members must contribute to the project in equal measure.

Films will be evaluated on: the degree to which each element—cinematography, sound,
editing—is used to support the subject matter; the degree to which a deliberate structure,
theme, point of view, and style, as outlined in the proposal, is applied; the degree to
which aesthetic principles taught in class are applied in the execution of the film; and the
degree to which the overall work is refined through each stage of the process, from pitch
through rough cut to final cut, based on peer and instructor feedback.

Film Proposal and Pitch (20%) This is a portfolio of materials including: a brief synopsis, a
statement of purpose, a written treatment, an aesthetic statement describing the form
and style, a shooting schedule and a budget. The pitch is an in-class presentation of the
concept of the film.

Final Reflection and Self-evaluation (10%) 3-4 pages. The reflection can cover a variety of
topics, including the group’s approach to the film, how that changed throughout the
process, and how that initial vision is reflected in the final work. The self-evaluation
should cover what you learned through the process of making the film, the successes of
your group, the failures, and what you would now do differently based on what you’ve
learned through this process.

Participation in critiques and class discussions (10%) This course is a workshop, and is
predicated on the active participation and contribution of all members to class
discussions, but especially to critiques of student work. Each member has a responsibility
to offer feedback in a constructive manner, and will be evaluated on the degree to which
they do. Each filmmaker has the responsibility to listen and note that feedback, and to
incorporate it into their creative process. 

The filmmaker may not speak while their film is
being critiqued, until the end, when they may ask questions, and during it they must take  notes. If they wish, they may prepare a brief questionnaire for viewers to fill out that addresses questions about the audience’s understanding of the film.

Exercises (10%) Students complete three exercises in groups outside of class time,
exploring and developing the specific skills discussed in class. Exercises will be evaluated
on the group’s demonstrated grasp of the concept to be practiced, and the effort they put
into the exercise. Exercises will be turned in as a clearly labeled Premiere project file on
the group’s Nexis workspace, and will be viewed and critiqued in class, time permitting, or
during appointments scheduled with the instructor outside of class time.

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