Short Documentary Assignment


Paul Van Ness, awards Victoria Robbins the first place award as co-director for the film STAINED GLASS. Photo by Mary Shea Photography
Paul Van Ness, awards Victoria Robbins the first place award as co-director for the film STAINED GLASS.
Photo by Mary Shea Photography

Objective: Create a 3 to 5 minute non-fiction film that explores a subject interesting to the student through interviews and visuals. We will enter your films into this year’s Salem Film Festival’s Five Minute Student Doc contest. Link: Salem Film Festival

Possible topics: A biography of a subject; an exploration of a hobby, sport, or passion and the people who do it; an investigation of a controversial topic, exploring both sides of the issue; documenting an event; a historical documentary, using still images. See examples at the bottom of this post.


  • Subject is student’s choice, but must be approved by the teacher
  • Topic is concrete; film should also explore a theme or larger idea
  • No more than 5 minutes in length
  • 1 main interview (more if needed)
  • 30 shots (“b-roll”) to illustrate that interview
  • Still images, historical images or “found footage” (pre-existing media) if needed
  • Music can be used for montage sequence(s), intro and ending
  • May use text or a voiceover to convey information beyond the interviews


  1. Choose a partner, or choose to work alone. Your teacher may pair you up with someone you haven’t worked with before.
  2. Identify and research three subjects.
  3. Discuss them with your teacher.
  4. Identify and arrange interviews (subjects, locations) or an event to document
  5. Type up a pre-production packet: 
    • In a treatment (4 or 5 sentence paragraph) describe your film (story, characters, theme)
    • A list of interview subjects (with a one sentence description of each)
    • Interview questions (at least 5) for each interview subject
    • A list of locations 
    • A list of shots (“B-Roll”)
    • voiceover script or on screen text (as needed)
    • A production schedule (when you will be shooting, and where)
    • An equipment list for each shoot
    • A list of five next steps for your production (what do you need to do from this moment to get your production rolling)  … download this production packet template here: Documentary Production Packet
  6. Practice technology needed for shooting (wireless lavaliere microphones, camcorders, location lights with umbrellas)
  7. Shoot the video
  8. Rough Edit (Shooting may continue while you begin editing). This means putting the pieces in place to tell the story. Resist using effects or doing extensive audio editing until the story is complete
  9. Screen for fellow students and teacher
  10. Fine cut (trim, effects, color correction, transitions, titles, credits, audio effects and mixing)
  11. Share and screen with the class


Search the Short Film of the Week website to find short documentaries on your own. Also, watch these select outstanding short documentaries for inspiration and ideas…

The Most Quoted Man in the News

Follow Your Fears

A Brief History of John Baldessari

Mo’Ne Davis: Throw Like a Girl

In Guns We Trust


Every Runner Has a Reason

Marie’s Dictionary

A Kiss Deferred

Clint Smith: Beyond This Place


Pre Production

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.41.09 AMYour Pre Production Packet for your film should include:

  1. Your crew names and production company name (with contact information)
  2. Your film’s working title
  3. A cast list (names of actors and which roles they are playing; with contact information)
  4. A location list (interiors and exteriors)
  5. A list of props
  6. A list of costumes
  7. Any makeup or special effects
  8. Any sounds that need to be recorded on location or separately (wild sound or sound fx)
  9. Equipment list: Which camera or cameras? Camera mounts–ie tripod, steadicam, jib, or is it all handheld? Lights? Sound equipment (mics, boom, cables)? Make a list down to batteries, chargers, cables, etc! 
  10. Production schedule – all days and times of shooting, and on those days, which shots in which order.

Special Presentation: “Our Disappeared” award-winning documentary film – Director present!

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 11.07.25 AM
Mr. Pohl (Spanish) is organizing a special multi-disciplinary, in-school field trip that will take place on Thursday, October 22nd. Students from International Issues, Spanish, and Filmmaking classes will view the award-winning film Our Disappeared / Nuestros Desaparecidos in the auditorium. The director, Juan Mandelbaum, will be here to speak and answer questions from our students at the conclusion of the film. This program will run during A, C, and G blocks.
 Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 11.09.37 AM
The following is a blurb from Imdb about the film and the director:
“Our Disappeared”/”Nuestros Desaparecidos” is director Juan Mandelbaum’s personal search for the souls of friends and loved ones who were caught in the vise of the military and “disappeared” in his native Argentina during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. The film is a personal journey into the past to reflect on the political and personal contexts that led so many young people to fight for a more just Argentina. After finding out that Patricia, a long lost girlfriend, is among the “desaparecidos” Mandelbaum returns to Argentina to find out what happened to her and others he knew who also disappeared. As he revisits the dreams they shared for a revolution that would transform Argentina he grieves the tragic losses and examines his own choices: not signing up with any of the radical groups at his university and leaving Argentina in 1977 at the height of the repression, to escape the pervasive climate of fear. Using extraordinary archival footage, Mandelbaum brings the energy and tension of the time and place to life. In this return voyage to Argentina’s past Mandelbaum learns much about his friends’ tragic stories, and about his own. Now we can hear from three generations affected by the state of terror, and the passage of time allows for deeper reflections. Thirty years after the military coup Mandelbaum explores what happens when brutal regimes attack the fabric of a country with great impunity, causing enormous suffering that lasts for generations. The pain that seemed so distant is still very much present.d

Film Clip Presentation

First Assignment: Film Clip Presentation


 Essential Question: What makes a movie “good?” What are the pieces of a “good” movie?


  1. Decide whether you are going to present on your own or with a partner. 
  2. Alone or with your partner, choose one or two 3-5 minute clips from a movie, TV show, or short film –something you feel the class needs to see. Think carefully about which film and which clip(s) you choose to show. Th clip(s) should represent the film you are showing (ie give us a good idea of the style of the film, and what the filmmaker is doing. You will be encouraged to choose something the majority of the students in class have not seen. Look for something classic or independent.
  3. Write a short paragraph (3-5 sentences) about each of the elements of cinema, below.
  4. Present the film clip to class. Plan, rehearse and deliver your thoughts on the clip. Put your clip in context of the longer movie (etc) that it comes from–where does it fit? Overall, tell us why you chose this piece of media and why WE should see it too.

Analyze the following elements of cinema in your presentation:

  • Storytelling (The Script / Writing: Plot, Beginning / middle/end – structure; Dialog; Characters; the IDEA)
  • Acting & Directing
  • Mise En Scene (‘What you see’ – Locations; props, costumes; makeup)
  • Cinematography (Shots: Composition, Lighting, Viewpoint / Perspective / Angle; Movement)
  • Soundtrack (Music score; Mix; Compliments visuals and story;
  • Editing (Tells the story; special effects; continuity; pacing)

Delivering your presentation. You have some choices:

  1. You may choose to introduce the film to put the clip into context for the class, then let the clip show in it’s entirely before delivering your analysis.
  2. You can talk while your clip is playing, starting and stopping at times to point things out to us.
  3. After your introduction, you can play the clip through once, then play it through a second time, pointing out elements of the film you want us to notice (this works better with a shorter clip, say 3 minutes).
  4. You can find your own way to present and lecture on this film that combines the approaches listed below.

Download the rubric here:  Film Clip Presentation rubric