Doc Soup Man Tom Roston tackles the age-old question with input from self-taught filmmaker Matt Morris, professional doc director Brent Huffman, and Jan Krawitz, the head of Stanford’s documentary MFA program.

Recently, I was contacted by twentysomething, up-and-coming documentary filmmaker Matt Morris, who has had some success on the film festival circuit with short documentaries. I watched his Pickin’ & Trimmin’ and Mr. Happy Man, which just screened at DOC NYC, and I was impressed by the films’ polish. Morris knows where to put the camera and has a good editing touch. His topics may be slight (a barbershop where some old boys get together to play music and a nice old man who greets people by the roadway), but that’s OK with shorts.

And it led me to one thought: This guy must have gone to film school! When he told me he hadn’t, it got me thinking about that old saw: Is it better to go to school to learn to do something, or is better to just get out into the world and do it?

“I took three filmmaking classes in college, none of them documentary related,” Morris told me. “And I’d say they weren’t too important in shaping who I am as a director.  I’ve gotten more out of watching films, reading books, listening to DVD commentaries, filming with friends, and learning from my mistakes.”

When Morris decided he wanted to be a filmmaker, he bought a camera and used iMovie, which had just been released, and “ran around and filmed my friends.”

Matt Morris, the filmmaker behind the documentary Pickin’ & Trimmin’, learned about filmmaking by making films, not from film school.

Pickin’ and Trimmin’ was his first documentary, which he made before he could even name a documentary film he’d seen. “I learned about documentary film after making one,” he says. “At first just because I didn’t want to sound like an idiot at film festivals.  Then, of course, I discovered some amazing films.”

Morris thinks that the current trend among budding filmmakers it to “just go out and make a film,” he says. “Cameras have gotten so good and so cheap that I think people just want to go out and make something.”

And, he adds, “Martin Scorsese went to film school, Errol Morris did not. I think you just have to have a good idea of who you are and what you need.”

To keep things fair and balanced, I asked Brent Huffman, who got a BFA in film production and then a masters in Journalism at UC Berkeley with an emphasis in documentary, what his take is on this question. Huffman is a filmmaker whose work has aired on The Discovery Channel, The National Geographic Channel, NBC and PBS. He is also, I should add, an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he teaches documentary production.

In an email, Huffman laid out the three key positives of film school:

  1. You get the chance to direct a documentary (or several) and crew on many other projects all the while being mentored by experienced doc. makers. A young filmmaker can really find their voice and experiment this way. In many ways the doc. degree is replacing the unpaid internship/PA starting position. Graduates can graduate with a demo reel of professional work and enter the workforce at the assistant producer/camera operator/assistant editor type position.  Or go on to seek funding/or be commissioned for a documentary they direct themselves.
  2. A sense of documentary history — taking documentary history classes to know the incredible canon of work created in the past.
  3. You get to find out what you love and more importantly what you hate about documentary production with a peer group that will help you find work and be connected in the larger industry after graduation.

Huffman adds that this all depends on the actual film school, noting that “there are many terrible ones out there seeking to exploit students using the same talking points I just mentioned.”

Jan Krawitz

Jan Krawitz (Big Enough, POV 2005), professor and director of Stanford’s documentary MFA program

I am far from an expert on film schools, but it seems safe to say that Stanford’s MFA program in Documentary Film & Video, which has been around for more than 20 years and whose alum have racked up a slew of student Academy Awards (including two out of three last year), is in the top tier. Jan Krawitz, a professor there, and the director of the Stanford program, is, naturally, a strong advocate of attending her school:

“I believe there is a lot of value in our curriculum that transcends what a documentary filmmaker can learn on their own. The concentrated two-year MFA program requires the students to learn all aspects of film including proposal writing, pre-production and research, shooting, recording sound, editing, and outreach for their projects.”

“They leave the program with a portfolio of four films — (on) three of which they were the sole producer/director/editor. The fourth is a co-directed project. They also crew for other classmates so their aggregate production experience is substantially more than (they) would typically get working on their own or as a production assistant for a more accomplished filmmaker. They also gain a substantive understanding of the history, theory and aesthetics of documentary including North American and international filmmakers.

“Perhaps more importantly, they leave the program with a cohort of colleagues with whom they will typically work in the future. The Stanford alumni network boasts many post-graduate collaborations (even among students who were not necessarily in residence at the same time.)”

Krawitz adds that a number of her applicants have spent years toiling in the industry as production assistants and that they were unable to move up. I would have thought that she’s been inundated with applicants, considering the increased popularity of the genre, but Krawitz says that the numbers have stayed relatively steady. Maybe that has a lot to do with the price tag of the two-year program: $39,000 a year.

Although the school has fellowship funding that brings that number down for most of the students, that’s a pretty daunting sum for someone who knows they won’t get rich even if they have a lot of success in the trade.

Thinking this through, I went from dismissing school to believing that if you can afford it, one should go to one of those top tier school, if possible.

What do you say? Is it worth it to go to film school to study documentary filmmaking?

(For those of you who say yes, you should know that applications to Stanford’s program are due by January 10. Good luck!)

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen