If you walk into the Park School of Communications and ask students to respond to the words “documentary workshop,” I can guarantee some amusing responses -- whimpers, alarm (“Are you taking that class? Why are you taking that class?!”), and sighs of relief if the student has survived this difficult course.
Many of the students attribute that difficulty to one man: Ben Crane, associate professor of television and radio. An Emmy award-winning documentarian himself, Crane makes it no secret that by the end of the semester he expects to see quality work, projects that could be seen on PBS or the Discovery Channel.
I was one of 11 students braving Crane’s class last fall. I was nervous going in as the only journalism major in the class because the longest video I had ever produced was a two-minute package for the news.
The class was immediately hit with a 30-page syllabus outlining our assignments for the semester, and we learned that we’d be treated as though we worked for a real-world documentary production company and were seeking professional funding for our projects.
Watch this clip from Hanging On: A Nation in Recession, the short documentary the author's group produced in Professor Crane's class.
This approach meant that we’d be required to develop and present a 13-minute speech pitching the pilot, a 15-minute video pilot, and a comprehensive research book of at least 100 pages describing all the information we had gathered on our topics -- all by the end of the semester. The three-prong project would be presented to a panel of judges consisting of faculty and students from past documentary classes.
Our first task was to divide into groups and pick a topic to research. My team pitched hundreds of ideas to Professor Crane over several weeks with no luck. In desperation I finally pitched the last idea on the list -- a feature on lobstermen in Massachusetts.
I told Crane that the recession was forcing lobster prices to plummet, and with people less likely to spend their dollars on “celebratory food” like a lobster dinner, the lobstermen were losing their livelihood. Crane said that creating a successful documentary on this topic would ride on our abilities to find great characters and show the crisis visually, but he approved it.
We got right down to business, planning two shoots in Cape Cod on weekends. While there, we woke up at 4:00 a.m. to follow our subject, a lobsterman named Rob, for a day out on his boat. We shot footage of Rob’s family, customers from his lobster truck where his catch is sold directly to people, and a lobster dealer who sold Rob’s catch to restaurants.
After screening a 12-minute rough cut, Professor Crane told us that we had shot “a very well-produced home movie about Rob.” He didn’t find our character convincing, and the importance of the story wasn’t being shown visually.
The group made the tough decision that our near-finished project was not up to Crane’s standards, and we said goodbye to the lobsters, all of our contacts, two critical weekends, and more than 20 hours of footage.
Thanksgiving break was only a few days away, so we scrambled to select a new topic and plan our first -- and undoubtedly only -- shoot. We decided on an anthological piece on the failing economy, with different chapters focusing on foreclosures, homelessness, unemployment, and food pantries.
Dozens of phone calls were made, and we chose to film in New Jersey, as it was one of the first states to declare a record rise in unemployment. The group shot over most of Thanksgiving break, including Thanksgiving morning at a soup kitchen.
Once back from break, we had to edit 18 hours of footage down to a 15-minute sequence. I was in charge of the speech and the book, so I narrowed down the research and started writing.
Despite our earlier setback, we found ourselves in the Park Hall Auditorium on December 11, ready to present our project. It wasn’t easy; a couple of the group members hadn’t slept in three days because they had been working overtime to get the work ready to present.
The presentation is a big deal, and I was nervous. Friends and families often come for the viewing, and the panel of judges was there to critique our work. The dean was also present. We hoped that our sweat and tears hadn’t been shed in vain.
In the end we not only survived the night but also got some amazing feedback on the importance of our topic and the quality of our work. Park School Dean Dianne Lynch told us she was so moved by our piece that she had shed a few tears.
Looking back, I learned an important lesson about perseverance. I pushed myself further than I ever thought possible. And I managed to juggle this enormous project on top of my other schoolwork.
Although hesitant at first about being in the class because I was not a film major, I discovered that my journalism skills were an asset, as my research background proved indispensable when it came to finding characters and their stories.
This class was truly one of the most challenging I have ever taken, and I can’t wait to be asked about it so that I, too, can let out the melodramatic sigh of relief of a Documentary Workshop survivor.
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