Tip o’ The Month: Differences Between Documentary and Narrative Filmmaking

When I first started Columbia, the foundations courses in the Film & Video department didn't include a documentary component. I waited until I could take a pilot of what is currently the foundation courses my sophomore year. Luckily, in the second semester, we got to make a documentary (see a snippet of my first doc below).

Even if you're a student interested in primarily cinematography or directing or screenwriting (not necessarily doc), there are definitely a few things that can be gained from the insight of a documentary filmmaker's mindset. Here's why:

1. No form of filmmaking isn't easy. It requires the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. And documentary filmmakers (especially those of the verite variety) have to deal with this all the time.  Documentary filmmakers have to make fast decisions when filming events, on-location, interviewing, etc.  Being able to make quick calls that will save you time and money is something that can be very helpful (especially to producers) in a narrative atmosphere.

2. Documentary filmmaking requires trust.  On large narrative sets, where you might not even know 1/3 of the crew's first name, it's good to remember the personable nature of documentary set.  When preparing for interviews, it's very common for documentary filmmakers to conduct “pre-interviews” without cameras present so that they can get to know the interviewees and make them feel more comfortable.  This is a good tip for emerging narrative directors, especially when working with student actors.  When you're working  with an actor, maybe get to know the person first…their actual personality might yield clues as to how to elicit more from their character's persona.

3. Documentary film sets are often minimalist.  Narrative sets are typically the opposite, but it never hurts to know how to do more with less.  Especially when approaching upper undergrad years and graduation, a lot of students from various concentrations get the opportunity to make a little extra money freelancing for things like wedding videos, event videography, etc., and you will likely be by yourself (if you're very lucky, you might have another person).  It's good to know how to do one-man-band so that you can acquire skills in directing, producing, cinematography, sound, etc., so that in case one of your crew calls in sick, you can pick up the extra slack with little effort.

Likewise, doc filmmakers — even if you have no desire to, say, work on practicum (ahem), it's also good to have experience on a narrative set. Here's why:

1. The idea that great documentaries can be made completely “on the fly” is a myth.  Learning the role of a narrative director, line producer, and creative producer is helpful in knowing how to preconceive what a story might be, and how to plan ahead and deal with some of the logistics of shooting (where to park, when to eat, how much to spend, etc.).  Even though a documentary filmmaker may not always know what to expect going into an interview or situation, it's the fact that you knew this element could be essential to your story that's important.

2. It's very atypical for narrative directors to edit their own films.  In many cases, big-name narrative directors will just take a break from the footage for a few months before entering in on the process to give feedback to the editor.  Many documentary filmmakers, on the other hand, insist on editing their own films.  There are times, though, when it's good to take a step back and maybe get a second piece of advice, especially if the content is very sensitive or runs a little too close to home.  What may be seemingly less important to you an interview may  be more important to somebody viewing the film is more detached from the situation and people.

3. Narrative sets are full of tedious paperwork.

Viva Doc Alumns at Kartemquin Films

One of the advantages of being involved with Viva Doc is meeting industry professionals and other great networking opportunities.

Recently, Viva Doc is proud to announce that a number of our current members and alumns have found themselves interning and even working for esteemed, award-winning documentary production companies (including Towers, Kurtis, and Kartemquin).

Viva Doc alumns Naomi Kothbauer, Jeff Perlman, Mary Horan, Patrick Lile, Jonathon Vogel, and Orion Pahl are among some of those who have interned with Kartemquin Films.  Jeff was recently hired on  for part-time outreach work, and Patrick has been also hired on to do outreach for The Interrupters, a new film from the makers of Hoop Dreams which is already being called a potential Oscar contender.

We interviewed Naomi Kothbauer (last year's Viva Doc president) about her experience interning for Kartemquin Films.  If you are considering getting an internship, there are some great tidbits of advice below.  And as always, please come to our meetings this semester for more workshops and networking events that can prepare you for an internship.

Jeff Perlman (right), Viva Doc alumn, has been helping out at Kartemquin

Viva Doc: So, tell us about your general experience with internships?

Naomi: Well, I've had three so far…my senior year, I interned at Towers and Kurtis, and I just wrapped up a summer internship at Kartemquin.

Viva Doc: What is the internship application process like?

Naomi: Well, it really depends on the place.  No matter what, though, it's important that you follow the directions they supply.  Deadlines, references, application forms…all that.  Violate anything and you are automatically disqualified.  Internships are highly competitive, so if they see something wrong, they will usually toss that application just to thin out the pile.  Same thing with film festivals, usually.  And as far as Kartemquin is concerned, I (and many others) had to apply twice or even three times to finally get an internship.  The first time I applied, I didn't even get an interview because over 200 people had applied for just 5 positions.  So, don't get discouraged if you don't get a call back after your first time applying somewhere.  Just consider it to be a chance to strengthen your resume for the next time you apply.  The more you apply, the more they know that you're really serious about the internship and about committing yourself to their work.

Viva Doc: What did you like most about the Kartemquin internship?

Naomi: There was so much, honestly.  In general, internships can kind of drag when you're stuck doing a lot of the tedious work, but with Kartemquin, they tried to get the interns involved with a lot of different processes.  I got to go on shoots, transcribe, help with social media/marketing/PR, and every week they had workshops where the interns got to learn from Kartemquin filmmakers.

Viva Doc: What are you experiences with internships and pay?

Naomi: Well, due to the economy, most internships don't offer pay.  But it's important that you communicate clearly with them from the get-go so that you reach a mutually-beneficial agreement.  You interning is important, but you working and being able to pay your bills is also important.  Especially if you're interning, working, and taking classes…try to not overdo it.  You'll get burnt out really fast.

Viva Doc: What kind of advantage has Viva Doc given you and others when it comes to getting internships?

Naomi: Well, Viva Doc has always offered a lot of opportunities for students to interact with people working in the field.  Networking is so important.  Also, Viva Doc has hosted a few industry professional peer-review sessions where professionals come in and rate student films, and so far many of the Viva Doc members who have shown their films to Kartemquin folks have also gotten internships there.

Viva Doc: What are some tips for those who are looking to build their resumes/filmographies?

Naomi: One of the best things you can do is to consider yourself a brand.  You're essentially selling yourself to them, so think about what kind of imagery you want on your website, your resume, your business cards, etc.  It should be unique and speak of your skills.  Also, for those folks who don't have a lot of work or film experience, just think about the transferrable skills you learned from various things and infuse that language into your resume.  For example, I worked as a shift manager at McDonald's in high school, so in my resume I put a short description like “managed a diverse group of people and helped them perform their best in a high-stress environment.”  I told them what I accomplished at that job, not just what I did.  Nobody cares that I made burgers or handed food out of a drive-thru, or at least, not literally.  My accomplishments, however, could be easily related to a film/production environment.  If you're looking to get an editing gig, try to highlight your organizational skills, no matter the job.  If you're looking for something that involves a lot of interpersonal interaction, try highlighting social skills and group settings in job descriptions.  You know, that sort of thing.

Viva Doc: Thanks for your feedback, Naomi.  We hope to continue our tradition of connecting Viva Doc members to internship and job opportunities!

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