Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dox Populi: Documentary Film and Academics (Film 101)

I should start this blog off by introducing myself. My name is Dr. Monty Dobson and I am an archaeologist, historian and documentary filmmaker.  My first documentary series for Public Television called America Form the Ground Up is being broadcast nationwide on PBS stations and in the UK on the Community Channel.  Five years ago I knew nothing about filmmaking, television distribution deals, lighting etc. I am fairly certain I could have pointed a camera in the right direction, but probably couldn't turn it on. I decided early on in the process that I wanted to execute my vision for the series. I am the Executive Producer, creator, head-writer, host and control-freak in charge. That's not to say I did it my self, far from it. Film is nothing if not a collaborative process and I am deeply indebted to a number of people who taught me, helped me and flat-out nannied me through the project. But at the end of the day, it is the project I wanted, not that of a commercial production company (a blog-worthy horror story for another day). Which leads me to the point of this blog. How and why should an academic get involved in film? You wouldn't be here reading this if you weren't at least a little film-curious.

The title of the new blog, and this post, are both a lame pun on documentary film and the 'public' voice of academics. For a number of years I have been interested in exploring the public role of intellectuals in American popular culture- even if, at the moment, the terms intellectual and popular culture seem hopelessly disparate. That being said, it does not give us license to retreat into the ivory tower, pulling the drawbridge up behind us.  On the contrary, there has never been a more urgent need on the part of the academy to reach out to the wider public and communicate the value of what we do.

While pursuing my doctoral work at The University of York I became interested in finding ways of communicating with a wider audience.  Since then, my career has leaned toward public history/public archaeology and I have spent as much time working in museums as I have in universities. One of the things I learned from working in a museum is that the public loves a good story. For that matter, so does everyone. And that is the first lesson I learned about filmmaking: tell a good story, and do it with great images, but the story is the key. No one but you wants to hear your conference paper read over pretty pictures.

So lesson 101 on the first day is this: The best tip I can give to anyone who wants to make a film is learn how to tell a story visually and the best way to do that is to break down the story telling in silent films. TCM is a great resource. Tivo a bunch of silent films and use your finely tuned research skills to learn the craft of visual storytelling. Vimeo has some great resources in its film school section. You should also check out the blog No Film School for basic info about cameras, gear and technique.

Over time I hope this project becomes a valuable resource for academic filmmakers, so bookmark it and check back often.  Follow me on twitter @lemont where I tweet about film and television producing and culture.


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