October 29th, 2011 at 8:06 AM by Joonas Rokka

Are you about to engage in the business of doing academic films? Or do you already have a nearly finished film project on desktop? Before you move on, here are some key considerations that you should take into account that may help you in overcoming some of the most common challenges in film production. The insights are based on reflections and discussion from ACR 2011 special session on “making better video ethnographies”, chaired by Paul Henry and Marylouise Caldwell (University of Sydney).

As increasing number of academics are planning and doing academic videographies – i.e. academic research on video format – it is worthwhile to consider some common themes that often have a significant impact on the success of such projects, especially in the case where the researcher’s aim is to produce ethnographies on video. Among these, we feel that following points should be acknowledged.

Composition of the research team
Although we believe that it is possible to do academic films also as solo projects, we think that having a team may offer several benefits. Most importantly, simply the act of filming and interviewing at the same time is rather hard – especially if you want to use several cameras and points of view. So having multiple members in a team will help. The second most important consideration could be whether you want to make one of your key informants (i.e. insiders in your research scene) a team member too. Our own experience with the films ‘Pushing the Scene’ and ‘Brothers in Paint’ has been that “insider member” is like having a guarantee for your film success. Building your film on a dialogue between your key informants is way more interesting than more direct Q&A style of interviewing between the researcher and the researched. This leads us into the second key point:

Access to informants / phenomenon
Doing ethnography means having access into a (cultural) phenomenon and people in it. Although as in any ethnographic project, we believe that when shooting video, this aspect becomes even more challenging. Pulling a camera out in an interview situation may scare people off and make them nervous. Here also having an insider member may help significantly.

Storytelling in video
Making academic films is always a business of building a compelling story and showing evidence on your topic/argument. However, telling a compelling story on film vs. academic paper is something that we should investigate and practice further on. It seems that filmmakers tend to rely on storytelling tactics common to academic papers – something which may not necessarily work out as well on film. Here, watching what documentary filmmakers (and why not other similar artists) are doing may prove helpful. For example, think about different ways of showing emotion, affect, and contrast on film! In addition, embedding your story into an authentic material and spatiotemporal context is a crucial yet difficult task.

Theory building and linking
Should your film include theory or references to prior research? Yes. The business of academic film production is always a business of building theory and/or linking your study within wider interpretive frames that stand on existing research/literature. Of course, again, there are different ways of doing this and we believe that references to others’ work can be done in a discrete manner (and just a personal tip – it’s not a very good idea to show the article or book cover in the film!), employing either voiceover or text on film. In addition, it is also inevitable to communicate your conclusions / contributions to theory – something that STILL seems to be missing from some of the films. Using visualization and graphical (and why not symbolic as well) expression here is a good idea.

Narration
Voice of god or talking heads? How to narrate and communicate your story? Common trend in documentary filmmaking is the use of “voice of god” type of voiceover which explains what the film is about and what happens in it etc. We think that here filmmakers could be more creative and reflective in their approach. We wrote about this point in an recent article (it can be found in my thesis, page 128-151).

Planning!
Yes, it seems that you cant plan enough for successful film production! This is a very good point brought up by Marylouise and Paul. Not to mention having enough battery and memory in your cam, there are different ways you can also script and blueprint your film beforehand. This saves you energy and time. Think about which sections, arguments, locations, sites and key informants you actually need in the final film. And finally, don’t forget to shoot b-reel film. It can save you in a number of ways once you get into the editing phase.

And the list continues… hope you find these helpful! Thanks for the participants in the session ;)

Leave a Reply