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UC Berkeley's journalism school opening experimental center to safeguard the documentary
24 Aug 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - The Center for New Documentary at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism is dedicated to creating new, affordable and innovative models of documentary film.

"Documentary film is worth fighting for in this society," said journalism professor Jon Else, head of the journalism school's documentary program and director of the new center.

A national Emmy award-winner, Else also is known for his documentaries such as "The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb" (1980), "Cadillac Desert: Water and the Transformation of Nature" (1997) and "Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle" (1999).

Else and others contend the documentary's original views and independent voices round out a democracy but are jeopardized by ratings-driven, mainstream television that features increasingly expensive non-fiction projects paid for by corporate underwriting and foundations.

The center will commission documentary filmmakers to explore more affordable and innovative models with new methods for telling compelling stories on film. Films must be shot with inexpensive, mini-digital video technology. And filmmakers will experiment with new shooting styles, production management, editing, use of archival material and the Internet, and methods of broadcast and distribution.

The center also will convene professional working groups to explore innovations in sound, editing, camera work and production management and launch a national discussion about ethical standards for the new digital documentary.

The documentaries will focus on stories that occur naturally, lend themselves to low cost production, and can be filmed with the hand-held digital video camera, without costly and time-consuming travel. Stories should have a short "natural arc" of time, said Else. Center films should serve as a model for filmmakers looking to produce documentaries quickly and easily.

Sharon Tiller, senior producer of special projects for the Public Broadcasting System's "Frontline" program and a member of the new center's board of directors, said "Frontline" integrated digital with beta film in almost half of its "Secrets of the SAT" documentary. The program aired this year. It tracked several college-bound Bay Area high school students for several months, and without digital video, the project probably would have been pared down to follow just one or two students to save money, Tiller said.

But such a mix of digital and traditional filming requires skilled cinematographers and technicians, as well as new equipment and the willingness to take a risk, she said.

One of the veteran filmmakers eager to try digital video for the first time is Frederick Wiseman.the creator of such films as "Public Housing" and "Belfast, Maine," along with "Titicut Follies" and "High School," Wiseman will come to UC Berkeley next spring and begin his first digital video documentary and his first film of 90 minutes or less.

Films done at the center must be produced for $100,000 an hour, or less. The final product will be not just the documentary, but the lessons learned.

"If in the next year we can come up with four or five really brilliant ideas, I would say we have succeeded," said Else. "Or, maybe it's an ongoing experiment. Let's see how it goes in the first year."

"The experiment is very much about what stories do you chose to tell in this new medium," added Tiller. "We don't know exactly what the signature of this new storytelling will be. The only way to do this is to experiment."

She is hopeful that the center's work will spur public television programming for this kind of documentary.

Peter Nicks, a graduate of the journalism school and the center's administrator, has been selected to make his own documentary there. He's opting for a personal essay that looks at his journey from a prep school childhood of privilege to a prison cell doing time for a drug offense.

"We're really kind of searching for the new thing, a new way of storytelling, which ultimately gets closer to the human experience," he said. "We're not trying to replace those $500,000 films or make a $1 million film for $100,000."

"Frontline" airs 18 new programs a year, and each one costs close to $500,000, Tiller said. Some projects require that kind of financing, she said, but not all.

"Most of us now spend most of our time finding money. It's wearing us out, wearing us down," Else said, noting that 20 years ago, the task "wasn't a lot easier, but it was doable."

Raising the approximately $400,000 needed to make "Sing Faster" required 137 funding applications over nine years, he said. To produce four-part "Cadillac Desert" required 307 applications and four years.

"That's a recipe for driving people out of the business or into madness," Else said.

So far, financing for the center comes from a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and another $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. It's still not enough; Else is busy talking with computer makers about potential equipment donations.

Links:

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

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