Digital technology has entirely transformed the way motion pictures are created, distributed and enjoyed, with game-changing advances emerging everyday. One would expect media students at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the digital revolution was born, to be well ahead of the game. But in the university’s atypical M.F.A Documentary Film program, students are being trained to create documentaries using 16-millimeter film, a medium rendered virtually obsolete by the technological might of the 21st century.
According to Jan Krawitz, director of the program, the practice of teaching students how to use film has become markedly unusual. “We are one of the very few programs that still has students shoot in 16mm,” she said.
Stanford’s graduate film program is also remarkable because, although many graduate programs offer some instruction in nonfiction filmmaking, “it is rare to find one that focuses solely on the craft,” according to Independent Magazine. The program instructs students how to write, direct, and produce documentary films, while providing a historical and aesthetic framework for the art of nonfiction film production.
“We don’t do anything else but documentary, we breathe, eat, sleep it,” said Jamie Meltzer, one of the program’s associate professors.
For the past few weeks, the first-year students have been rushing to edit, polish, and finalize their documentaries for their first screening on Stanford campus. The works of eight students, each one produced in the anachronistic format of black and white, non-sync 16mm film, will be screened tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Stanford’s Annenberg Auditorium, followed by a Q&A with filmmakers and a reception with family and friends. The subjects of the films range from American football players to Polynesian rugby players, from beached blue whales to the secret life of pens.
Throughout the two-year program, the students’ projects alternate from film to digital, which means they commence each year with film work. After their first project, the three-to-five minute 16mm film, they jump to a longer high definition production. Then they return to 16mm, this time synced and in color, and conclude the program with a 20-minute HD thesis project, edited in Final Cut Pro.
So students produce half of their documentaries using film, despite the fact that we are “at a time when the death of celluloid seems to be taken as a given by the culture at large,” according to Richard Suchenski, in his article for the academic film journal “The Moving Image.” Part of the reason for the steep decline in film and film processing is its high cost—16mm film continually requires expensive material costs, whereas digital only requires initial hardware expenditure. Furthermore, film cannot compete with the accessibility, technical capabilities, and ease of distribution associated with digital movie making.
However, many filmmakers still prefer, or at least appreciate, the visual qualities of the film medium. Suchenski argues for the aesthetic value of 16mm, noting the “quality of light projected through a film print, the highly nuanced color range of the resulting image, and the artistic potential of all aspects of the film strip.”
Krawitz cited aesthetic intent, as well as pedagogical guidance, as the primary reasons for instructing students in 16mm format. The program functions under the belief that in order to teach masterful filmmaking, it’s important to start with the basics.
“It imposes a certain rigor in approach,” Meltzer said. Working with film forces students to focus on the individual components of filmmaking — light, shooting angles, the economy of scenes, planning, focus, and composition. “It’s hard to get an exposure rather less a beautiful image,” Meltzer said in an interview with the film website Video Student. Since there is only a certain amount of footage, students must plan out exactly what they want to shoot, and how they want to shoot it.
Editing film also helps students creatively score their documentaries. According to Krawitz, because the students are shooting in non-sync, which does not match location sound to footage, they must develop an experimental sound design, based on their own judgment and ingenuity. Mitchell Block, an Academy Award-winning documentarian and a professor at USC, said that he prefers working with editors who started their careers editing film, because “video editors don’t really understand how to edit sound the same way.”
The most significant benefit of film editing is that it “obviates the tendency for many beginners to use the video camera like a fire hose and shoot indiscriminately,” said Krawitz. Before shooting anything, the student is forced to conceptualize a coherent vision, to develop a storyboard, to question the purpose of the movie and of each scene. Instead of deferring these concerns until post-production, the student establishes a methodical and ideological approach to filmmaking.
In 2006, the documentary program left the Communications Department to join the Department of Art & Art History. According to Meltzer, the Art Department better reflects the philosophy of the film program. “Our view of documentary film is that it is an open and flexible art form, so it involves a lot of creativity and visual poetry.”
For this to be accomplished, the filmmaker needs to develop a strong artistic vision. 16mm film teaches students to first envision a list of focused sequences, which should develop into a unique narrative. Paul Donatelli, one of the first-year students, admires the fact that their film work “can bring out the inherent poetic nature of everyday life – that these real images can be crafted into a story that is based in reality and yet has your own fingerprint on it.”
Donatelli, whose project follows the poetic musings of a retired professional boxer, said that he developed a love-hate relationship with film during this first project. “I love the look of it, film has a much more romantic quality to it and transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary,” Donatelli said. However, he said that film is extremely challenging to work with, because it is not as “forgiving of mistakes as video,” and so the process requires much time and deliberation.
Another first-year student, Duygu Eruçman, also expressed frustration with the lengthy process. During a shoot, if something unpredictable occurs, capturing it with 16mm film proves difficult or even impossible. However, she said that throughout the process she developed “a better sense of how to interpret light.” This emphasis on interpretation leads to a more sensitized awareness of composition, light, and movement. “And when a filmmaker that has worked with 16mm moves to video, I think that sensibility stays,” Donatelli said.
The students of the M.F.A. program have developed into recognized filmmakers, producing internationally acclaimed works.
“Every one of the graduates that I’ve known is either working as an independent documentary filmmakers or working in the field,” Meltzer said.
Their films have garnered some of the most prestigious awards, such as Student Academy, Student Emmy, and IDA (International Documentary Association) Awards. Just last year, two first-year students, Kevin Gordon and Rebekah Meredith, won the Student Academy Award for “Dreams Awake (Sueña Despierto),” a feature that explores the poetic and intellectual interiority of Doroteo Garcia, a janitor at the Cantor Arts Center.
Stanford has “what many consider the best documentary graduate college training programs in the U.S.,” wrote Mitchell Block on the IDA website. Meltzer attributes the program’s real strength to the subjective nature of the students’ works, their distinctive perceptions that lead to powerful, stylized portraits.
The work of strong documentary filmmakers stems from a developed artistic vision, and the M.F.A Documentary Film Program engenders “filmmakers who have very clear visions and are able to bring those to life,” Meltzer said.