Documentary Filmmakers

Recommended if… you love film and love to make film. You are visual and wish to tell historical – or any type – of stories through motion picture media. You have creative ideas of how to make and distribute films. Increasingly, new media forms are combining with film to offer audiences a more multimedia experience, so skills in a variety of media are a great asset. In addition, you should be open to working in a very competitive market in which filmmakers are vying for funding.

Requirements… While any educational experience may bring one to make films, the practice and exercise of learning the craft of filmmaking is a huge asset to being a successful documentary filmmaker. An undergraduate and/or graduate history degree with a focus on film media, including courses on the practical and theoretical aspects of filmmaking, can lead to a successful career in making documentary films. Others may seek technical training in filmmaking. History helps enable storytelling skills, and studying film builds technical and theoretical backgrounds.

Introduction

To make documentary films, one must learn the craft. Technical and production know-how, professional connections, and finding the funding or the job position all require competencies that are best gained through internships or apprenticeships and training. On the other end of the spectrum are self-taught guerilla filmmakers who pick up a camera and head out into the world on shoestring budgets. While there are many educational programs in filmmaking to choose from, a good start for the prospective or current student is to take local courses related to filmmaking and film criticism, to volunteer or find short-term positions in film productions to gain experience, to watch tons of documentary films to understand how they are put together, and to make films!

Accessibility and teamwork

High-quality, affordable technology is increasingly available in the consumer market, and digital shooting and editing over expensive celluloid are making documentary film an increasingly viable possibility for individuals who can tell a good story. Marketing one’s films and selling them to broadcasters and distributors is, however, complex task. A single person need not feel that they have to take on all of these aspects alone, however excellence in filmmaking involves teamwork with people who take care of specific aspects of the process. Networking is key to success as a documentary filmmaker.

Different roles

In filmmaking, you can take on any combination of tasks: research, writing, marketing, production, administration, directing, editing, hosting, and interviewing. As with any career, go with your strengths and be willing to try new things. One thing to be aware of is that films vary, of course: some deeply probe scholarly questions, while others are more anecdotal or playful. The approaches of scholarly history and film can be in tension. The outcome depends on your approach, the expectations of the production company, and the mandates of your distributors and funders.

Film as a Method of Oral History Collection

Documentary filmmaking can dovetail into oral history. With more affordable access to high-quality equipment, historians can more easily propose oral history/documentary history projects to government agencies, private corporations, and individuals. While oral histories are often recorded in audio-only format or transcribed, filmed oral histories have the added benefit of bringing out the full character of those recalling the past. These oral histories can be compiled into a documentary film that can be included in museum or other public history exhibits, made part of an online collection (see new Media), distributed as one part of published projects, or even distributed on their own as a short or feature film. The opportunities are limited only by your ability to find and create projects that can be funded. Projects can also vary in size, from interviewing a single individual and their key colleagues to expansive efforts to collect histories of larger and diverse groups of people.

There are educational programs that focus on developing skills in oral history collection, including interviewing and documenting. Education and experience in film is still beneficial. A historian who enjoys oral history collection can pursue this career path, whether working as part of a production company or independently (see the section on Historical Researchers & Consultants for more tips).

Some starting points

There are many ways to gain experience in documentary film. Increasingly, people are putting their own films on streaming video websites such as Vimeo and YouTube – the trick is to get viewers. The more traditional routes include film festivals, some of which focus exclusively on documentary filmmaking, such as Toronto’s Hot Docs. Film production companies and broadcasters are places where one can seek a job in filmmaking; these are always highly competitive and they seek people with experience and/or education. Another way to gain access to the world of making films is to join a local non-profit filmmaking cooperative in which independent filmmakers converge. For those with experience and accreditation, there are a variety of professional associations that will help in gaining contracts, employment, and funding. Speaking to local people working in the profession that you seek to pursue as you find your way into this career will be highly beneficial. As with many media careers, building a CV and portfolio are crucial. Check out the Documentary Organization of Canada, the International Documentary Association, the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, and Women in Film & Video for ideas and resources.

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Do you have further insights on careers involving documentary filmmaking and history, or additional information that we can add here? If so, please contact us so we can refine this resource.