March 1, 2003

It's Not Too Late to Go to Film School: A Post-Graduate Guide to Documentary Production Training

Editor's Note: This is a condensed, revised and updated version of an article on documentary production training that appeared in the November 2001 issue of International Documentary. This article focuses on opportunities on the adult/continuing education arena.

If you want to be a documentary/nonfiction filmmaker—and your current career doesn't necessarily support that aspiration-making a portfolio film will demonstrate to funders that your work should be supported and your career can begin (the term "film" refers to "film and/or video and/or digital moving image media" throughout this article). This portfolio work will help you get a job, a grant and attention at film festivals—and will help your next project find support. Of course, if you finished high school or college a decade or more ago, or if you majored in pre-medicine or never took a film course in your life, there a number of skills you need to acquire prior to making that film. Good news! Many programs provide training that can fit around your personal schedule. Since they are not full-time resident academic programs, their costs are comparatively low. Better yet, you will not have to attend a traditional undergraduate or graduate training program for two or more years to obtain the training you need. 

This overview of training programs will review one academic year (or less), part-time professional certificate programs, continuing education programs in colleges/universities, private film schools, non-residency Master of Fine Arts programs and other courses and programs that do not lead to university degrees. From continuing education programs to mentoring, the would-be documentary filmmaker has a range of programs and courses to consider that would be the envy of any film school student. In some cases, these programs are ideal for recent graduates of undergraduate (and graduate) degree programs (without regard to major) to consider in lieu of attending a traditional MFA (or Master of Arts, Master of Science) graduate film program. Considering that many MFA programs require three years of residency and cost over $75,000, these programs offer a great many focused training classes, professional certificates and MFA degrees in some cases, and cost less than one-third of what traditional academic programs cost. 

This is not to suggest that MFA (or graduate) degrees do not provide useful skills and academic challenges for students. None of the programs in this guide provides the same experience—or learning opportunities—one would find at University of Southern California or Stanford University. Although the courses at these programs are generally taught in the evenings or in day-long classes, and students are not required to take classes out of their interest areas, the courses provide similar content to a university class that might meet once a week for 15 sessions with additional time required for labs or workshops. One might say that one is "educated" at the traditional academic programs and "trained" at these programs. If, however, you are looking for a class in how to use a digital camera or edit using Final Cut Pro or make DVDs or get better audio, etc., it is not necessary to attend a film school for a year or more. A week-long (or weekend-long) intensive course might be all that's needed. It is one thing to understand how to mic a scene, it is another to take a 15-week-long class in film/video sound at USC from the numerous classes in sound offered. 

 

Evaluation of Programs

A good way to evaluate documentary production training programs is to consider how the program will help you make portfolio works. One should look at the faculty members and their credits, the courses offered, the equipment, the facilities and the financial aid available. Ask to look at films produced by the students as part of the institution's program. Courses that deal with knowing how to use a particular camera or computer-editing program are useful, but understanding concepts such as proposal writing and scriptwriting, research, editing, marketing, finance, direction, etc., will be even more useful in the long term. Supplement the program by attending film festivals, screenings and readings to stay current with the field. Membership organizations like IDA, Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), Independent Feature Project (IFP), Film Arts Foundation (FAF) and other regional centers provide a good way to stay in touch with developments and network with fellow documentary filmmakers.

Among the hundreds of programs listed in the Guide to Documentary Production Training (International Documentary, November 2001), there are several hundred excellent classes in programs that provide training for individuals who may or may not need a college degree, or for those who already have one. This guide is not intended to rank programs, but rather to suggest a methodology for evaluations based on looking at the output (films produced by students) of the production programs, the courses offered, support given to students, equipment available to students and experience and professionalism of the faculty. The available approaches have been organized into four areas (see Table I for some pros and cons for each of these approaches):

A.College/University-Non-Resident Undergraduate and Graduate Training, including Professional Certificate Programs  

B. Continuing Education Programs/Workshops/Classes Sponsored by Colleges and Universities  

C. Continuing Education Programs/Workshops/Classes Sponsored by Media Arts Groups or Others

D. Self-Instruction/Mentoring   

Each choice offers a somewhat different path to a goal defined as "making a complete portfolio film/video on which to begin to build a career." Whether the product is a 10-minute fundraising sample of a longer work, a polished short or even a feature-length film, like most art-related fields, a sample work is needed to raise funds for future works or to be hired as a filmmaker.

 

A. College/University-Undergraduate and Graduate Training-Non-Resident and Professional Certificate Programs

For readers who have a college degree or who are not recent high school or college graduates, this approach is both time-consuming and expensive. 

If you feel a degree is important, look into Professional Certificate, one-year intensive programs and non-resident MFA and other master's degree programs. Maine-based Rockport College, for example, has a non-resident, one-year MFA program that requires that only a minimal amount of time be spent in Maine. Non-residency programs are not as expensive as private university programs and offer in most cases accredited graduate degree programs that one can schedule around a busy professional and family life. Other approaches include distant learning programs, which, like many adult education programs, may not be for everyone but can provide a rich experience for those who have the discipline and self-motivation to do individual study.

 

B. Continuing Education Programs at Colleges and Universities offer excellent specialty classes in documentary production. These classes are usually less expensive than full-time programs and can help prepare individuals for a mid-career switch. In many cases, these are not the same classes that are offered in the colleges' main programs, but are adult or continuing education programs.  Some of the schools offer intensive summer programs and most offer evening classes throughout the year. Classes can be as specific as learning an editing program like Final Cut or shooting with a digital camera. Check out the course offerings closely, read the bios of the faculty and review the course syllabus before enrolling. It is also useful to visit their facilities and see their equipment. Ask what equipment is provided to students in their classes and for how long.  Does the program limit the hours of editing and other facilities? Will this affect one's ability to make a portfolio work? 

Many programs allow one to go to the first class without paying a fee. Some of the best-known programs are New York University Summer Program (Tisch), NYU School of Continuing Education and USC Summer Program (in the School of Cinema-Television). The Center for Documentary Studies (at Duke University) is a good example of a hybrid program that does not give degrees but is associated with a college. The New School in New York also has an excellent evening program that offers both certificate programs and continuing education classes.

Continuing education programs/workshops/classes are ideal for working professionals. In some cases, these programs offer certificates and, in a few, degrees—both of which may be helpful in terms of advancement in your current position. The IRS generally considers training to maintain and improve skills deductible business expenses, and many larger companies will help pay the cost of classes for their employees. Check with your accountant on tax issues.

 

C. Continuing Education Programs/Workshops/Classes Sponsored by Media Arts Groups or Others offer a rich variety of courses and programs. These range from the "don't call us, we'll call you" programs offered by Sundance and Corporation for Public Broadcasting/PBS, where participants have to be "invited" to participate, to the programs and classes offered by regional organizations such as the Northwest Film Study Center in Portland, 911 in Seattle, Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, BFVF in Boston and IDA in Los Angeles.  The Art Institute (a national for-profit program) offers first-rate classes in some of its 23 locations. While the Art Institute does offer degree-granting programs, many of the classes can be taken without going for a degree.

Other programs to consider include the New York Film Academy, with numerous locations in the US as well as workshops, and the Vancouver Film School, which offers an intensive 48-week professional program along with individual courses. These classes are ideal for college graduates. Action/Cut Directing Seminars based in Los Angeles offer training programs in locations around the US. They differ from the college- and university-sponsored programs in that many are less formal and less expensive—and offer an excellent first place to start. Like the continuing education classes at formal educational institutions, classes can be found that address a specific topic, such as how to make a DVD, use an editing program, find grant money, etc. Since their sponsors are not high overhead institutions, costs are usually lower, classes are shorter—perhaps a weekend or a few evenings—and teachers are very responsive to student needs.

Check out four-week (or up to eight-week) intensive workshops, which some colleges offer in the summer. A number of schools in the guide offer intensive multi-week documentary workshops. These kinds of programs are best for would-be documentary producers who have a full time job or anyone who wants to dive into documentary production to get a sense of what a film is like. While you will not come out with all of the skills necessary to make a film on your own, it is likely that you will be exposed to information on how to identify and structure a project, shoot it and edit it.  Specific focus areas like shooting, sound, editing, proposal writing and fundraising, and marketing and distribution can be filled in with weekend or evening classes and/or week-long workshops that are offered all over the US.

When evaluating programs that require travel, look at the cost of housing, food and transportation.  One advantage to resident programs for international students is that many of the courses include housing and food, and a car is not necessary to get around places like Rockport. Classes in New York, Los Angeles and other metro areas do not generally have low-cost housing and food programs available for week-long or multi-week classes.

 

D. Self-Instruction/Mentoring can work for those who find that going back to school is impossible because of family or professional commitments. Pick mentors well and find ways to accommodate their schedules. Any self-directed course of study requires a great deal of discipline. One of the difficulties of not working within a program is the need to find equipment and assemble a production crew. While practical knowledge of the field helps, it is important to screen the many hundreds of nonfiction works that have shaped our field since the early works of Lumiére. See how other filmmakers dealt with similar content and solved similar problems. 

With mentor-guided self-instruction, the goal is still to make a portfolio work that will help get attention, future work, grants and other support for one's own projects. Examples of recent Oscar-winning first documentary films include Big Mama (2000) and One Survivor Remembers (1995). Most first portfolio works, however, represent a step in the process of building a career and are not ends in themselves. Experience is one of the best teachers, but does not replace true rigorous training and classes. 

While I have been personally mentoring filmmakers for many years, I have long been a proponent of mentoring fiction and nonfiction filmmakers within specialized training programs. In fact, The Maine Photography Workshop has just developed a course called "The First Look," a mentoring program for documentary and fiction filmmakers. The Workshop expects to provide professional advisors over a long-term period to support and offer resources to individuals developing, shooting and editing films. While this program is just in its initial formation, it could become a model for similar programs nationally. 

Some final thoughts: Congress passed a law in 2001 allowing individuals to save money and allow it to grow tax-free in 529 education plans. In many states, these plans offer another way for one to fund one's own education with income from after-tax dollars. These plans can allow working professionals to sock funds away and use the tax-free income from these funds to help pay for personal educational programs. While this plan does not provide immediate funding, with careful planning it could help pay for the cost of specialized courses and time off from one's usual work.

Most media arts centers and many colleges that offer extension programs and some private schools have courses in film and video production. Taking a class in digital cinematography or editing is a first step in mastering filmmaking-and the start of the long process of becoming a filmmaker. I am frequently asked to recommend documentary/nonfiction film/video production training programs by investment bankers, doctors, writers, lawyers, fiction filmmakers and others who want to know where to go to learn how to make films about the world around them. Considering the lack of jobs and difficulty in finding funding for films, it is surprising that there are so many choices and options in literally hundreds of documentary training classes. The good news is that the new technologies make it easier and cheaper than ever to make films. With the availability of high-quality courses and low-price professional equipment, even if one has never made a film before, one can start in a matter of days. Now there are no more excuses.

 

Mitchell Block (mwblock@aol.com) is president of Direct Cinema Limited (www.directcinema.com) and works in Los Angeles consulting on nonfiction acquisitions for HBO/Cinemax as well as numerous independent productions worldwide. He has been teaching independent film producing at USC's School of Cinema-Television on an adjunct basis since 1979. He executive-produced the 2001 Oscar®-winning film Big Mama for HBO. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the University Film and Video Association. In the last year, he has lectured at the University of Texas at Austin, the Maine Photography Workshop (and Rockport College) and at the International Documentary Conference in Byron Bay, Australia.  He served on the board of the IDA for eight years. 

Ó2003 Mitchell W. Block (All rights reserved)

 

Table I   Pros and Cons of Different Choices

 

Training Choices

Pros

Cons

Questions to Ask

 

 

 

 

A. Non-Resident College Degree Programs

  • Provide degrees without spending two more years in school.  
  • Many advantages of traditional colleges and universities.
  • Require motivated effort.
  • Are demanding.
  • Require occasional travel to school for extended periods (weekends to weeks).
  • Students need local support and access to crew or technical help.
  • What does the program provide?
  • Who is going to mentor me? What access do I have to on-campus faculty, facilities and courses?
  • What additional fees will this incur?
  • What about job placement for graduates?
  • Are the requirements clear?
  • How is the degree perceived?  Is the program accredited?

 

 

 

 

B. Continuing Education Programs/Workshops/Classes that are Part of Colleges and Universities

  • Excellent classes with excellent instructors.
  • Post-graduates can focus on selected classes to fill gaps in training and skills.
  • Far less expensive than degree programs. Excellent equipment resources, in some cases.
  • Certificates or classes have résumé value.
  • Uneven quality of classes faculty and facilities.
  • Programs are expensive in some cases.
  • Certificate may not have value.

Same as above, plus:

  • How are students selected?
  • Are credits transferable to a degree program?
  • Is financial aid available?

 

 

C. Continuing Education Programs/Workshops/Classes that are Part Of Media Arts Groups or Other Training Programs.

  • Excellent classes with excellent instructors.
  • Post-graduates can focus on selected classes to fill gaps in training and skills. 
  • Far less expensive than degree programs.
  • Usually less expensive than programs at colleges.
  • Uneven quality of classes, faculty and facilities.
  • No advanced degrees. 
  • Certificate may not have value.

Same as above plus:

  • What is the policy toward refunding fees if I am unhappy with the course?
  • What kind of backgrounds do the other students have?
  • Am I at the same level as the other students in my class? 

 

 

D. Self-Instruction/Mentoring

 

  • Least expensive.
  • Allows maximum resources for portfolio work.

 

  • You get what pay for.
  • Difficult to find good or appropriate mentors.
  • Hard to get "student deals."

 

 

Table IV Listing of Financial Aid Sites on the Web

 

Financial Aid

Web Listing

Description

Finaid: The Financial Aid Information Page

www.finaid.org/

Links to funding sources such as scholarships, fellowships and grants, some of which are focused towards those with particular needs or interests: disabled, minorities and international students.

Petersons.com: Financing Education

www.petersons.com/

resources/finance.html

Provides help, guidance and answers to frequently asked questions on financial aid, as well as information on organizations who offer private and federal loans.

Fastweb.com

www.fastweb.com/index.html

A scholarship search engine that prompts users to enter information about themselves, including area of study, and responds with an appropriate list of available scholarships.

 

Listing of Documentary Training Programs

Edited by Mitchell W. Block

Note: As of date of publication, all information was checked with the organizations' websites and/or catalogues. Please contact the author regarding omissions and errors.

911 MEDIA ARTS CENTER Continuing Education—Part of a Media Arts Center Offers a wide range of classes by industry professions for the beginning to the advance filmmaker. Offers equipment and other facilities to its members. 
ACTION/CUT DIRECTING SEMINARS Continuing Education—Not Part of a University  The only film learning workshop in the industry that offers unique step-by-step and shot-by-shot audio-visual, in-depth analysis of actual "real" feature film and television scene studies.
ACADEMY OF ART COLLEGES Continuing Education This for-profit collection of schools located in various cities though out the US offers excellent classes in this degree-granting collection of campuses. In addition to offering a wide range of certificate programs AAC offers numerous specialized classes in film and video.
APPALSHOP MEDIA INSTITUTE Summer Programs Specialized programs at AMI for young people with a focus on making films about Appalachian culture and social issues. Since 1998, this program has provided excellent training.

ASSOCIATION OF INDEPENDENT VIDEO AND FILMMAKERS (AIVF)

Continuing Education—Part of a Media Arts Center AIVF programs informational, educational, and networking events to help filmmakers navigate their careers by staying informed and connected. Each month members can attend seminars and panels with guests ranging from top executives at distribution companies to festival programmers to foundation program officers.

BOSTON FILM AND VIDEO FOUNDATION (BFVF)

Continuing Education—Part of a Media Arts Center BF/VF has been offering workshops, courses, classes and labs in the field of film, video and digital media arts education for the past 25 years. The program offers a wide range of classes in film and video for reasonable fees.  In addition, there is a summer youth program. This is a membership organization.
BROOKS INSTITUTE OF PHOTOGRAPHY Workshops—Part of a College Brooks offers weekend and multi-week workshops. Its week-long creative filmmaking workshop is open to high school students and adults who want to learn more about filmmaking and who want to experience a week exploring the creative process at a fully equipped film school campus featuring the industry current equipment.
DIGITAL MEDIA EDUCATION CENTER AKA "FILM CAMP" Certificate Programs  This for-profit program offers classes in Portland, Washington and Salt Lake City. Technical courses focus on editing using Final Cut and Avid. 
EMERSON COLLEGE Documentary Summer Program The Documentary Production Summer Seminar offers students the opportunity to plan and execute a complete documentary film. In the ten-week summer seminar, students carry out their production plans and realize their projects as completed short documentary videos (a maximum of thirty minutes in length).

FILM ARTS FOUNDATION (FAF)

Continuing Education—Part of a Media Arts Center Film Arts Foundation's seminars and workshops, taught year-round by working professionals, deal with a wide range of topics of interest to independent filmmakers, no matter what their experience or background. FAF's programs offer high quality courses outside a traditional academic department. The FAF program includes an emphasis in documentary production, as well as excellent courses in camera, sound, editing and producing. Program does not grant degrees or certificates.
FLAHERTY FILM SEMINAR Weeklong Annual Summer Seminar For more than 40 years the Flaherty Seminar has been firmly established as a one-of-a-kind institution that seeks to encourage artists to explore further and further into the potential of the moving image.  This week-long seminar provides the 125 or so participants an intense set of screenings and discussions about documentary film. In many ways this is a closed documentary film festival; it is programmed by a different programmer each year around a theme. This program is for filmmakers, programmers and anyone interested in meeting filmmaker, screening and talking about documentary works.
GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY Six-Month Institute The Documentary Center sponsors a wide-range of activities concerning reality films.  The central educational program is the annual six-month Institute for Documentary Filmmaking.
THE MAINE PHOTOGRAPHIC WORKSHOPS College Program and Continuing Education-Not Part of a University  The Workshops offer classes in the latest technology; 16mm and 35mm film cameras, DV, Betacam and HDTV video; Avid Certified Training, Final Cut Pro weekend crash courses, plus workshops and master classes for writers, actors, producers, editors, cinematographers, documentary and dramatic filmmakers from around the world. Specialized workshops in documentary are available. The program offers a non-residency MFA, a Professional Certificate Program and intensive workshops in production. Note: Rockport College is an accredited college program.
NEW SCHOOL Certificate in Film Production The New School awards a certificate attesting to successful completion of a sequence of eight courses that culminate in production of a 16mm, sync-sound film. Students select four courses from Film Studies, Film Business, Filmmaking Arts, Digital Arts, Performance Studies or Screenwriting to complete the certificate program. Certificate approval is based on attendance and participation, comprehension of theories and techniques and final projects. Students taking courses for academic credit must earn a B- or better to obtain certificate approval for a course.
NEW YORK FILM ACADEMY Continuing Education—Not Part of a University The workshop is designed for people with little or no experience in making films. It is designed to arm students with the skills and confidence to produce a well-told story with moving images. The workshop concentrates on the elements of visual storytelling, which enable the participant to direct his or her own non-synchronous film. Most of the New York Film Academy sites feature both four- and six-week filmmaking workshops. Eight-week, evening, one-year and advanced filmmaking workshops are available in New York City at the New York Film Academy and Universal Studios, Hollywood, only.
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF CONTINUING & PROFESSIONAL STUDIES Certificate in Documentary-The Evening Program This certificate, an optional professional credential, is awarded to students who successfully complete seven courses: six required and one elective. Electives are chosen from other courses offered or cross-referenced, with adviser approval. Additional courses are offered in the spring and summer semesters. Note: The program offers a wide range of courses that can be taken without attending the certificate program.
NORTHWEST FILM CENTER, PORTLAND  MUSEUM OF ART Certificate and/or Continuing Education, Media Arts Center Those who wish to formalize their studies within the continuing education curriculum in preparation for a career as a professional media artist may apply to enroll in the Film Center's Certificate Program in Film, a non-degree course of study in film aesthetics, production and business. The certificate may also be pursued by those wanting to transfer course work in film to a formal degree program elsewhere, or by those who simply desire to improve their knowledge of the media arts through a structured program.
PITTSBURGH FILMMAKERS Certificate and/or Continuing Education, Media Arts Center  (Also classes for college credit) Pittsburgh Filmmakers is a nonprofit organization founded in 1971 as an equipment access center for independent media artists. Now one of the nation's leading media arts centers, Pittsburgh Filmmakers offers one of the most complete artistic training programs in the media and photographic arts in the United States.
SANTA FE FILM AND TELEVISION WORKSHOPS Traveling Workshops Offering HD workshops, this traveling program was in Toronto and Florida in February. Its focus is on high definition camera training.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES Certificate and Extension Programs UCLA offers a diverse program in film, television and digital production for students who choose not to be in degree programs. UCLA offers numerous certificate programs in many aspects of film and digital production. Courses are taught by industry professionals. While UCLA does not have a specific documentary program, classes are offered in a range of technical areas and the producing program is excellent.

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SCHOOL OF CINEMA-TELEVISION

Summer Programs USC offers a limited number of courses during its summer session, which includes a program in Italy. While the emphasis on many of the courses is fictional filmmaking, some documentary classes are offered.
   
   

 

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