Producing A Documentary For An Academic Institution
Lessons From The Field

By Guest Blogger: Steve Ellzey/Executive Producer
February 15, 2013

The Blob: (1950’s Science Fiction Movie with Steve McQueen)

When I think of blog (as in “blogging”)…for some reason I think of Gilda Radner on a Saturday Night Live Newscast saying, “What’s all this fuss about blobs? Who cares about a big old slimy thing that eats houses and cars and people? And why would anyone want to go blobbing?” Eventually that image retires, but I’m still stuck on blobs, because that was what my most recent documentary could have easily become.

Last April, my organization was commissioned to create a documentary about a prestigious academic institution. At the time I knew nothing about making a documentary about academia…my memories of college were an Animal House blur of cramming for exams, marathon celebrations of Coors in kegs, and an insatiable desire to write poetry. My most recent projects had to do with remote underwater vehicles and famous ocean filmmakers. So here’s what I did.

Step I - Start At The Top

Few people in an academic institution have as wide a snapshot of the organization as the President. My first stop was at his office for a lengthy chat on where he felt his school was and where he’d like to see it in 3 years. He also told me what departments were doing exceptionally and then set me up with his Chief of Strategic Communications.

Step II - Drop To The Bottom...

...only in a figurative sense. I arranged for a focus group of students. Before we met (12 students, myself, and my newly appointed liaison from Public Relations), I sent all attendees a list of questions I’d be asking and requested they think about them. The questions ranged from what their major was to what, if any, work experience they had.

When we met, I threw them a curve and asked more emotional questions such as “what feeling do you get when you walk across campus”.

This focus group was key because it gave me a valuable insight into the student community. They were incredibly ambitious, amazingly bright, and absolutely clear about what the institution was doing to prepare them for life beyond the ivory towers.

Step III - Start The Cameras Rolling

I wanted to start capturing footage before I wrote an outline in order to get a feel for the campus before I formed any pre-conceptions. So my videographer and I walked around, interviewing students, visitors, and staff outdoors as they crossed out path. We also attended a couple of seminars , shot footage and listened.

Step IV - Write An Outline

I dug into the schools website, explored the various departments and majors, and found out from my public relations ally, who absolutely must be in the documentary from an insider’s point of view. Who carried the big guns, got the most grants, published the most widely read papers. Once the outline was finished, I presented it to my main contact and got approval for the concept . I never did write an actual script, but rather caught the footage necessary to follow the outline.

Step V - Start The Cameras Again

We then created a virtual set for the studio that matched the school’s theme. We also hired an amazing duo of musicologists from USC film school. These two geniuses wrote, performed and perfected a 60-second musical theme that we used for the open and close. We also used clips for transitions inside the documentary.

Interviews with the schools big guns took place, followed by more campus interviews, some key event footage and then we shot the graduation. I felt showing the graduation during the close brought a feeling of…well, closure to the piece. As the student body and the faculty is comprised of people from over 50 countries, the graduation ceremony was much more colorful than most, as everyone is encouraged to wear native garb.

We started editing at this point to see what we had, what we were missing from the outline, and what we should add. My editor is a great researcher, so he was adding b-roll to cover a lot of the talking head footage and make the documentary more compelling.

We edited over the summer and once school began, we were able to pick up the segments that we missed, or needed to shoot over.

Step VI - Final Polishing and Last Minute Shoots

As the documentary was commissioned, there was a definite idea on the part of the client as to how it should look in its final form. We massaged, edited more and were ready for the first viewing.

This is when I started to get scared. I’d given an unlisted YouTube link to my contact, and she passed it on to the President and a few others. Then we waited…and waited.

After a month, we were told what changes to make. We’re doing those now and looking forward to the finished product in a week. Thankfully, it has a true shape and feel, and much more form than a blob. Whether it will eat cars and houses remains to be seen.

Steve Ellzey

About The Author

Stephen Ellzey is currently Executive Producer and Development Director for Access Monterey Peninsula Community Television. He’s received International, National and Regional awards for his video productions. Stephen holds a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and a Masters in Creative Writing: Poetry, from the University of California at Davis. He can be contacted at ellzey(at)ampmedia.org.

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