Reflections on a Semester

On Tuesday, I delivered the final documentary presentation with my team. We had made great strides since our last update, and considering the numerous obstacles we encountered making the film, I am proud of what we accomplished. The film is embedded below:

We also sent out a survey, and we got a better than expected results, both in the number of people who responded and the things they had to say. Most of the weaknesses pointed out in the free-response section of the survey were points with which the team grappled a great deal while editing.

Jody Cook, the director of Special Olympics sports for Columbia Parks and Recreation, attended our final presentation and praised the documentary for its unvarnished and realistic look at what it means to be a Special Olympics athlete. Once graduation is over and I have some free time in the next couple of weeks, I plan on taking a second look at the film and seeing if I can make it even better.

One of my professors, who used to work as a photo editor for the AP in Chicago, commented that she couldn’t have undertaken such an ambitious project in only a few months. I guess what my team did was pretty remarkable. Despite our setbacks and second thoughts, we made it.


Finishing Up: A Reflection on Making the Documentary

This past week, my team and I finally finished the rough cut of our first documentary, which we have titled “Playing Along.” It’s the story of a family in Missouri with two special needs children who finally found a place for them to play sports in Special Olympics. I know what you must be thinking—this sounds like more of a promotional video than a documentary. But that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

In January, I went to a Special Olympics basketball practice in Columbia not knowing what to expect. Having had little interaction with people with intellectual or physical disabilities, I was unsure of how to ask my questions or even how to say hello. My insecurities are obvious in the photos and videos from the first few days of filming. I felt very awkward at first with my DSLR around my neck, snapping photos from a distance because I didn’t want to interfere with the practice or upset the balance of the players practicing.

Fortunately, my teammates and I found wonderful interview subjects in the Wilsons, a family of six from Ashland, Mo. I actually think we got closer to them than I initially thought we would, simply because the bulk of the documentary was shot over a course of several weeks. With every practice I attended, I gained more confidence in both my interviewing and reporting skills and became more and more invested in the project.

Our group makes its final presentation next Tuesday afternoon, where will outline the strengths and weaknesses of our work, explain our reporting process and contemplate how we might pitch this project to a third party.

RJI Innovation Week: Community Engagement

This past week, the Missouri School of Journalism hosted the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Innovation Week. What is Innovation Week, you ask, and why would I want to write about it on a documentary blog? Well, the connection between community engagement and documentary filmmaking may seem tenuous at first glance, but great filmmaking requires community involvement. In addition to attending the event on community engagement, I also volunteered with KBIA to assist with coordinating the audience’s questions. In the end, though, we were overstaffed and I was able to sit down and listen to the panelists.

The panel itself was a live broadcast of the KBIA program “Intersection” on Monday afternoon. The Columbia Missourian’s director of community engagement (and my former professor) Joy Mayer, Jana Byington-Smith the president of Second Gift and Sam Robinson, the director for healthy community initiatives at PedNet. I learned a great deal about community engagement last year in Joy Mayer’s class, including what it takes to get people motivated an interested in a cause. Documentary filmmaking is much the same way—a lot of films appeal only to a niche audience, but if that audience is passionate and willing to take risks to help it grow, the results can be amazing.

I’ll update later with more thoughts on the process.

Hitting the Home Stretch

It’s crunch time with our documentary. In the past week, the team has logged, transcribed and edited footage. In addition, we’ve battled bothersome storage limits on our server because of our large HD video files. The audio story I wrote about last week is complete, but I’m taking a few days to reconsider some of the decisions I made with it. It’s a three-minute audio postcard on the Wilson family, who graciously allowed us into their home last Thursday to finish filming for the audio and video documentaries. Though this documentary began as a look at Special Olympics athletes and the sports they play, it has become a story about the family moments off the court. Most people don’t realize how interesting they are, and that’s what makes capturing seemingly mundane moments my favorite part of the process.

At this point in the production, it becomes very difficult to edit the material. I’ve grown rather attached to all of my material, and so it’s difficult to trim. At times like these, I need to keep going back to my script and editing, re-editing and re-re-editing until it’s where I want it to be. I mapped out a storyline with the team late last week, which has been a great help assembling the script and determining which clips to save. We’re planning a screening later next week (Thursday or Friday), but we have quite a bit of work to do before that. So I’d better get back to work…

Creating Longform Radio Docs

This past week, I’ve been trying (with varying levels of success) to create an audio story for KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate. Audio stories are just as difficult to assemble, if not more so. To get inspired, I listened to some interesting pieces from NPR, its affiliates and from the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

The story I’m putting together at the moment is an audio documentary on the family my capstone team has been following closely. Instead of assembling a traditional news feature, I’ve decided to approach it with a more creative, character-driven structure. Ideally, I won’t be narrating any of it, but I’m still in the planning stages. The audio doc will supplement the larger film, and it will be less broad in its focus.

At any rate, I encourage any of you to listen to or to download some of the Third Coast pieces. Some of them aren’t journalistic, but pretty much all of them are worth your time. I can only hope my story will be just as interesting.

Inside “The War Room”

It has been a while since I’ve written about documentaries I’ve watched, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching. The War Room, a 1993 release, chronicles the jobs of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who guide Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus didn’t have direct access to Gov. Clinton, but they were able to follow Carville and Stephanopoulos as they navigated an unusual campaign season.

The film itself begins with the New Hampshire primary, which ended with a surprise Clinton victory. The rest of the film was mostly shot in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton’s campaign headquarters. Surprisingly, I have no memory of the election, as I was 2 years old at the time. I first saw The War Room in 2007 in my AP Government class (thanks, Mrs. Zang), and I was very, very impressed by it. What makes this film so special is the level of access the filmmakers received and the quality of footage they collected. Reporters usually don’t get a campaign’s inner circle until after the election, if at all. D.A. Pennebaker, the celebrated filmmaker behind Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968), has a long track record of making quality films, which probably helped.

As Election Day 1992 grew nearer and nearer, the filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the uncertainty in the Clinton campaign. Twenty years later, the outcome is known, but the filmmakers portray a campaign with a less certain fate. It’s hard to say what this film might have looked like had it been made 20 years later, but it’s interesting to note that the campaign was dealing “image” issues that are still relevant today. The film received a March 20 release by the Criterion Collection.

In an election year (or any other year), it’s a must-see film.

Criterion trailer:

Clip of Carville talking about MSM coverage in 1992:

Putting It Together: Logging, Sorting, Editing

We made a great deal of progress on our documentary last week. In addition to both nights of practice, two of us followed a Special Olympics athlete as he celebrated his 11th birthday at a restaurant. The main challenges have been technology-related, as we’ve experienced some problems with using DSLR cameras for HD video. My CompactFlash card holds 16 gigabytes (even less than that, actually), and that fills up after about an hour or so of solid recording. Fortunately, the footage we have been getting is beginning to show the slightest bit of direction in terms of the story we want to tell. The documentary was originally envisioned as another way to look at competition; but in the course of reporting and just talking to families, we’ve discovered something a little more nuanced. I’m not sure what it is, but I know we have something special. I am looking forward to finishing main shooting and moving toward editing and post-production.