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Student documentaries

Cobbers create documentaries influenced by historical hollywood films

Documentary: the very word evokes ideas of records and facts, but documentaries are more than recounts of how something happened. Students learn this in Donald Rice’s Documentary and Historical Film capstone course as they make their own documentaries. These documentaries, which are the students’ final semester projects, will be premiered in class Dec. 10.

“A big part of the course is figuring out what a documentary is,” said Rice, director of media studies. “[My students] are finding out that very few of the documentaries that we see are really that slavish to the actual details of the events. Many of them include reenactments. Many of them are highly persuasive.”

Rice has his class watch a wide variety of documentaries, alongside a few other historical hollywood films for comparison.

“I always show at least one Michael Moore film. ‘Sicko’ is the one that I showed this year, which is about the health care system in the United States compared to other countries. Of course, then it just causes a big discussion about how biased he is,” Rice said. “And then there are things that are happening [for the film ‘Sicko’], so I always say to the students, ‘if something happens for a film, it’s still real, it’s just that they made it happen.’”

Other names usually include “My Life with Marilyn,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Born into Brothels,” “Grizzly Man,” “Sixty-five Red Roses,” “Man on Wire,” “Murderball,” “The River” and “Nanook of the North,” according to Rice.

“The films they watch in class become models for their own filmmaking later,” Rice said.

His students are seeing these ideas firsthand as they create their own 10-15 minute documentaries within their groups, which are made up of four to five students each. Rice is careful to put students with film experience in groups with students who may not have film experiences, as the class is open to all majors. From there, Rice tries to dictate as little as possible when the groups chose their topics, although he mentions becoming responsibly engaged in the world.

“We could choose anything we wanted and do it in any style we wanted, just as long as we implement what we’ve learned this semester,” said Benjamin Habegger, a senior mass communications major. “Our group chose to do a documentary film showcasing the theater scene in the Fargo-Moorhead area.”

Rice has seen the rough cuts, which are the first version of a film after preliminary editing, of all four of the groups’ films. Between them, they cover a wide spectrum of topics.

“All of these topics are very visual,” Rice said. “[Habegger’s film is] especially focused on Theater B. It is a professional theater company in Fargo, and they do a lot of new plays, and “avant garde” type plays, just things that you don’t see other places.”

According to Habegger, his group took a Michael Moore approach in their documentary.

“Michael Moore films are very humorous, very tongue-in-cheek, a little bit sarcastic, so we have that kind of tone in the movie, but in a light way,” Habegger said. “It has a very fun, light feel to it and it’s all about the theater in the Fargo-Moorhead scene,”

The theater scene is just one of four other topics that each of the groups chose. The other topics include Cats Cradle Shelter, which is a rescue and adoption center primarily for cats, mental health on campus and 3D printing, according to Rice.

“Ours is on 3D printing, specifically 3D printing in Fargo, because it’s actually a thing, so we are going for a more informative approach, just letting people know that it’s out there,” said Ryan Modahl, a senior theater and communications studies major.

Modahl’s group was inspired by another group to focus on the topic of 3D printing. The other group had already picked their topic, but had a group member that really wanted to see 3D printing become a project, according to Modahl.

“He has a 3D printer in his house, so it’s something that he’s really passionate about. He came to us and said, ‘Hey, how about this?’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it,’” Modahl said.

Prior to 3D printing, Modahl’s group had been considering covering Ugly Food, which is an organization that buys up food that is aesthetically unappealing and would otherwise not be sold in the grocery store.

“We were going to do [Ugly Food], but then we [realized] that the growing season stopped a month ago, and we needed to film two weeks ago. So we had to think of some other things,” Modahl said.

Picking a topic was just one of the difficulties that the students in the class faced.

“First of all, it was picking a topic. And then just scheduling. We’ve got one gal who works every evening during the week, and then we have another guy who works every weekend all day, he does doubles on Saturday/Sunday,” Modahl said. “So just figuring out when we could all meet at a time that was actually productive where we could get things done has been the biggest challenge.”

Beyond scheduling issues, the groups had to divvy up the roles among their members and balance the duties of filmmaking with both skills and schedules, according to Habegger.

“The duties have included going out to film footage and interviews, editing the video, collecting music and possible pictures to use for the documentary and contacting people for rights for certain music that we use and all of those duties. Because some people are more busy than others with other classes, it’s sometimes hard to have everyone have a balanced amount of work,” Habegger said. “We try as best as we can and everybody has definitely contributed in some way.”

According to Habegger, of all the duties of filmmaking, he likes editing best. He is in another class where he has been learning a great deal about video editing, and editing is a part of his major.

“I want to go into media production, so I have overseen a large portion of the editing for the movie. It can be a tedious process at times, but it’s something I really enjoy doing,” Habegger said. “That’s where I feel my greatest strengths lie and I’ve enjoyed watching the video come together, and looking more and more complete every time that I’ve gone into the studio to edit it.”

Another issue that Habegger’s group has had, which he has noticed as the editor, is having enough B-roll. B-roll is footage of different things that can be played on top of an interview, music, talking or any other overlay. Its purpose is to cover up jump cuts, which are parts of a film that would otherwise cut right from one part to another

“You put B-roll over jump cuts to make it look smoother and more pleasant to the eye. These are things the audience doesn’t even really notice, but they are important,” Habegger said. “You also have to have them in a sequence of at least two B-roll shots, and you naturally have to have a lot of it, [otherwise]… you might find yourself with all these blank spots. You really have to make sure that when you are going out to film that you film as many different things as you can.”

The students in the class have learned a lot about the behind the scenes of filmmaking, although Rice has a more hands-off approach to teaching the more technical parts of the process.

“I’m not teaching them the nuts and bolts part, I’m using the power of the groups and what I know that the students already bring with them to the project,” Rice said. “And then I react and respond and give them tips, but there is very little actual sitting down and going through say how to edit or that kind of thing. It’s more just do it. Put together a good concept and give it a try and see what comes out.”

So much of the learning comes then from doing the work and learning from mistakes as those mistakes are corrected, which is an experience that Modahl’s group faced.

“One of our locations had poor lighting, so we were a little worried. When we saw it on the view finding, it was good, but once we got it uploaded onto the computer, it was dark,” Modahl said. “We did some editing, did some tweaking, and we got it to where it is a pretty good picture still.”

There is a lot that goes into making a documentary, or any film for that matter. According to Habegger, ordinary people often don’t even think about these details.

“You have to make sure that the lighting is just right, you have to make sure the angle is good, you have to make sure that when you put a mic on someone that the sound isn’t scratchy, that the mic’s not rubbing up against their shirt. Little things like that most people don’t even think to consider until they start working in that field,” Habegger said. “And then you realize, wow, every little thing matters.”

All of those little things and more are key to the documentary making sense and are an important aspect. Students sometime struggle with the details as they get too close to their own projects, according to Rice.

“Show your rough cuts to other people, so that they can make sense out of it, and maybe tell you the places where it isn’t making sense,” Rice said. “You need to tell them what the importance of each segment or person is.”

Through this process, the students have learned and gained experience, but what Rice really wants his students to take away is the larger picture. He wants them to know how to make a documentary that is their own, and what a documentary really is.

“I want them to have a sense of style — that they’re not just going through the motions, but that they know who their audience is, who they’re trying to project this towards,” Rice said. “From the beginning of documentary, there is always that question of what is okay? What are the boundaries of what you can and cannot do?”

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