5 Reasons Not To Study Documentary-Making at Film School or University - Raindance

I’ve taught at most of the major film schools in London. I also run my own documentary consultancy business (www.thedocumentaryconsultant.com) and teach short courses at the NFTS and Raindance. Increasingly I’m beginning to realise what exceptional value a great short course and/or a good documentary consultant can be – and how going to a film school may not always be the best route if you want to make documentaries that get seen. See if the following convinces you (though please note that I do not include the exemplary National Film & Television School in the film schools that I’m talking about here):

1. A Recent Graduate Of A Top London Film School Told Me: “I Learned Nothing About Documentary Making On My M.A.”

I recently led a one day documentary making seminar at a top London film school on my rules & principles of documentary-making. A recent graduate was there and I asked him what he’d learned about documentary-making on his M.A. His response shocked me: “Nothing”. He then went on to tell me about his graduation film; something didn’t seem to chime with me. I asked him a few questions about it and then suggested a fix. Immediately he got excited and agreed that for the first time his film could work. I find it shocking that so many film schools fail to teach an effective, structured approach to documentary filmmaking, and also fail to help students understand how to make documentaries that an audience might want to watch (and a broadcaster might want to show).

2. Documentary Tutors Can Give Simply Terrible Advice

A student who recently attended my Raindance Documentary Foundation Certificate told me that after struggling to find a focus and a story in her film school graduation documentary the advice that her tutor had given her was to “just keep filming and you’ll find your film.” Two years later – surprise surprise – she still hadn’t found it. In my opinion that isn’t great teaching. In fact I’d argue that it’s a terrible waste of the student’s money to be given such ill-informed advice. If medicine was taught like this then there’d be hundreds of criminal cases against medical schools. In my opinion documentary structure and its concomitant principles or rules need to be taught – and taught properly.

And need I add that it’s always better to learn from someone who has excelled in their field than someone who hasn’t.

3. Many Documentary-Making Courses Are Just Glorified Film Studies Courses

Many students of mine tell me that they learned more over two or three sessions with me as a documentary consultant or teacher than they had over their entire MA or BA. Considering you’re paying in the region of £23,000 for a degree or Masters, that’s in my opinion very poor value.

Many film schools purport to teach documentary-making but in reality teach a glorified documentary studies programme. A friend of mine teaches on a filmmaking degree at a London university and recently mentioned to another tutor how he spends three days preparing his weekly lecture. The other tutor told him that they personally never bothered preparing their lectures as all they did was show a film to the students and then got them to talk about it as: “everyone’s seen so many films in their lives that they have an innate knowledge of it.” I totally disagree with this approach to teaching – by the same logic you could argue that everyone has heard so much music in their lives that all they need to do is pick up a violin and start playing. There’s a huge amount of knowledge to learn before you can go off and make an engaging documentary and much of this is counter-intuitive and so has to be taught clearly and effectively.

4. I Learned Nothing About Documentary Making Over 3 Years At My Film School

At my film school I learned a lot about feminism, cod-psychoanalysis and post-structuralism. I could even drop the words “Jacques Derrida” into an essay, however when I left film school I went straight to unemployment. It was only as I started develping my own documentary ideas that I had to go out and discover how to make documentaries that the BBC might commission. All my teachings as a documentary consultant or film tutor come out of my hard-earned, tried and tested rules that I developed through research and practical experience working as a researcher and later as a producer/director at the BBC.

5. It Might Be Better To Spend Your £23,000 Film School Fee In A Different Way

What if you do as Paul Thomas Anderson did and eschew the film school route? What if instead of studying documentary making at university you instead spent, say, £750 on a short, truly inspiring course and several great documentary consultancy sessions? This can be a far more cost-effective way to learn what you really need to know to make documentaries that audiences want to watch.

As Werner Herzog says: “All you need is $10,000 (and guts) to make a feature film.” So with the £22,000 you had left you could go out and make two short and two feature length documentaries.


***To see how Col Spector could help you with your film and to read some testimonials from filmmakers who have used his service go to www.thedocumentaryconsultant.com




BA (Hons) Film & TV London College of Printing, Raindance MA in Film . Col is an award-winning writer/director who started in non-fiction at the BBC and now works primarily in fiction: writing and directing feature films for the cinema. He also runs his own documentary consultancy business. You can learn from Col in person at the Raindance Documentary Foundation Certificate.