Course Outline

program overview


UPDATE: Program structure is likely to change as the program transitions to new leadership. We will not be accepting applications for 2021. Read our full statement here. 

What We Believe

This six-month program (January through June) is both a theoretical and hands-on exploration of the creation of documentary films. We believe that great documentary films are made with intention, vision and foresight. Filmmakers must have a very strong sense of how to achieve their goals with the palette of visual modes available to them. And they need to hold, in the highest regard, the documentarian's ethical responsibility to find the truth in all subject matter. In other words, documentary film is not created by taking out a camera, shooting things that are "real" and then hoping, once you arrive in the editing room, that a compelling story reveals itself to you. It is from this basic premise that the Institute has developed into one of the leading programs in the nation devoted to the production and teaching of non-fiction films.

What to Expect

This is a rigorous, demanding and intensive course. Applicants should think of the Institute experience as a "boot camp" for documentary filmmaking. We make no pretense in being able to cover everything offered by a two-year film school. But we do engage an extensive array of conceptual and practical material during the six months of the program. Our primary focus will be on the art and craft of creating documentary films and we will briefly touch on other elements, such as the business side of producing film.

First and foremost, we require that our students think intelligently about film; to see many films, deconstruct those films and understand the critical elements of making films in various genres. Our students do not pick up a camera and instead learn to edit right away. In the first phase of the program, we bring our students to a common vocabulary and understanding of documentary filmmaking prior to learning the more rudimentary lessons of how to operate the tools to make such films.

Students learn more about cinematography, lighting, sound and editing through technical training workshops and in the two months of production for the student-produced film.

It is expected that our students come to us with a concentrated commitment for this six-month period. Our participants find that there is time for little else, especially when you are working on your story-board project, when you engage technical training and finally when you are in production on the capstone film. In addition, we seek to have our students not only take responsibility for their own progress but equally for the progress of those around them.

January through April

From January through March, class will meet from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Classes range from lectures to seminar discussions on issues related to all phases of documentary filmmaking. There are a variety of written and visual assignments due within the first months of the Institute that help students explore the fundamentals of documentary filmmaking as building blocks to actual production.

Beginning at the end of February and continuing through April, there are technical trainings that are held in intensive workshops and additional small group exercises. During March and April we will continue to meet periodically, as per the syllabus, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. 

Most importantly, there are two mandatory full weekend trainings in camera, lighting, sound and editing. All students, no matter what their skill level and experience, must attend the full weekend trainings. Because of the personal one-on-one nature of our workshop approach, we cannot provide additional makeup workshops. Failure to attend the trainings can result in dismissal from the program by the Graduate Dean, CCAS.  

The schedule for these weekend trainings for 2020 are:

  • Friday, February 28, beginning at 6:00 PM through Sunday, March 1, at 5:00 PM
  • Friday, April 3, beginning at 6:00 PM through Sunday, April 5, at 5:00 PM

Additional group exercises and assignments are required throughout March and April and are normally scheduled at the convenience of the students in their respective groups.

May and June

All of May and June will be devoted to the group production of a single short documentary. If you intend to work while you study at the Institute, make arrangements with your employer to take substantial leave during these final two months while you complete your production.

You will not create a film on your own, as we emphasize that filmmaking is a collaborative process at the Institute. Most groups have approximately eight members, all serving in a variety of roles of each participant's choosing.

You should not come with a preconceived notion of what they want to make the group film about. Your ideas, perspectives, and insights into "what works and what doesn't" and "what's possible" will change radically from the first day of the Institute to the date by which the group decides what film to produce.


PLEASE REMEMBER: You must receive at least a "B" in both the spring semester (six graduate credits) and summer session (three graduate credits) in order to successfully complete the program and receive a Certificate in Documentary Filmmaking.