Producing a Documentary as an Undergraduate Student
If you had the chance to make your own documentary instead of writing a traditional research paper, would you do it? In my opinion, you should!
Whether you’ve never edited a video in your life, or you’re already an avid filmmaker, producing your own documentary as a student is a fantastic way to acquire new skills and advance in skills you already have. Plus, it can be a fun way to engage more creatively with your research interests, while opening up an opportunity for yourself to network and interact with other professionals and experts in your field.
For a few semesters, I’d been struggling to decide on a topic for my UHP capstone project. However, when I took the course Introduction to Permaculture (HS 432) with Anne Spafford, I was intrigued and inspired by what I learned, and concluded that my capstone project was the perfect opportunity to further investigate the subject.
Originally, I thought all UHP students were expected to write a standard research paper to fulfill their capstone requirement, but when my sister suggested making a documentary instead, since I’ve always enjoyed making videos and short films, I knew right away that it was what I wanted to do.
Throughout the planning, filming, and editing stages of my project (a process which consumed more than one year) I learned just as much about documentary filmmaking as I did about the subject of my research. I developed and refined, largely through trial and error, a number of skills and techniques.
For any student interested in making their own documentary – whether for academic credit, or just for fun – I’d like to share some tips and insights from my experience, which might save you a little time and trouble.
Trust me on this: The earlier you begin planning your documentary, the less stressed you’ll be later on. I heard this advice frequently, but failed to internalize it, resulting in a lot of unnecessary time-crunch-induced stress!
Conduct a realistic assessment of your options, in terms of people you’d like to interview, and locations you’d like to film. (Consider what you are able and willing to invest, in terms of time and travel.)
As soon as possible, reach out to the people you want to involve. I recommend using emails, rather than phone calls, to avoid putting people on the spot – the people you email will then have time to consider your proposal before responding. In your emails,
- Briefly introduce yourself, and provide a short summary of your research objectives and “vision” – what you’re hoping to communicate or accomplish with your documentary.
- Explain why you’re reaching out to this person (how their qualifications, research, line of work, etc are related to your documentary) and if you don’t already know them, mention how you “discovered” them (For example: Another person referred you to them, or they work for a company in the industry you’re researching…)
- Make your request (For example, are you hoping to come out and interview them for 45 minutes, or for several hours? Is this a one-time commitment, or would you want to interview them multiple times? Do you also want B-roll of their home, workplace, business, farm, etc? Are you traveling to their location, or expecting them to travel to another location to be interviewed?)
- Be specific enough that they know what they’re signing up for if they say yes.
- However, if you’re flexible on some aspects (for example, if you’d rather interview them at a location that’s closer to you, but you’re able to travel to their location if that’s a deal breaker) you should communicate that in your email.
I used a spreadsheet to keep track of who I wanted to contact, who I’d already contacted, who had turned down my request, who had expressed interest or agreed to participate in my project, and who I needed to follow up with later.
Develop a list of questions to ask during each interview, and then tailor your list to each person you’ll be interviewing. One way to develop a list of questions is to work backwards: Consider what information or opinions you would like your interviewees to give you, and come up with questions you could ask to obtain that content. Avoid “yes or no” questions; instead, use questions that get the interviewee to form a complete thought. Also, be aware of your bias in how you phrase your questions, to avoid unconsciously manipulating the interview in a way that skews your results.
What to bring to interviews
- I was able to rent a voice recording device, a clip-on microphone, and a camcorder (including an SD card, battery, and cables) from the NCSU library system.
- I also brought a tripod, a camera that I borrowed from a family member, and an extra battery that I purchased for that camera.
- Even with all three batteries fully charged, at several of my interviews, I ended up burning through all my battery life by the time I was done interviewing and filming B-roll. Depending on your filming location, you may be able to bring your charger(s) and leave your extra batteries plugged in and charging while filming with your other battery. Don’t forget to charge the batteries for your audio equipment, too!
- From my experience, I recommend bringing an extra microphone and voice recording device, because even though I planned on interviewing only one person at each interview, on one of my trips, my interviewee brought over a friend, and their impromptu interview-conversation combo was fantastic – but the audio wasn’t as good as it would have been if they each had their own microphone. Next time, I would bring an extra one!
- I filmed outside in the best lighting I could access, but depending on your situation, you may need to bring lighting equipment
Release forms or waivers
- I wrote one permitting me to record and publish video and audio footage of my interviewee, and one permitting me to record the location where I was filming, especially since I was also filming B-roll there.
- The best approach is probably to print two of each of these forms for each interviewee, so that they can keep one of each for their own records, and sign one of each for you to keep.
- You might be able to find examples or templates online. I found some that closely matched my needs and then wrote my own based on those. However, I’m not qualified to give you legal advice; I’m just providing an example of how I did things.
Your list of questions
- I would print or write down my questions, with plenty of space between lines and in the margins, so that I could take notes during the interview. (Bring some pens, pencils, highlighters – whatever works for you!)
- You may want to bring an extra copy of your questions list, for your interviewee to keep.
- Don’t assume there will be a place to sit just because you and your interviewee have scheduled an interview. It’s worth checking, just in case. Since lighting is also really important, if they have immovable seating (such as a bench that can’t be moved) and it’s in poor lighting, it would be good to have other options.
- In summary, if you can bring your own folding chairs, do it just in case.
Depending on your situation, you might need other supplies or additional preparation, but once you’re ready to get out there and record some interviews, check out my second post for more ideas you might find helpful.
Producing a Documentary – What I Learned about Filming, Interviewing and Editing – read more about Matthew’s Experience and the lessons he learned.