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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.

A poster advertising a screening for the documentary Permaculture in the Piedmont

A digital poster I created to advertise the screening of my finished documentary, Permaculture in the Piedmont.

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.

 

Planning

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,

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

Technological equipment

Release forms or waivers

Your list of questions

Seating arrangements

Interview seating in the landscape

At one interviewee’s home, we just rearranged some chairs that she already had.

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.