Teacher resources: Documentary filmmaking

Introducing the medium of documentary filmmaking, to tell a story or present a point of view, is something teachers can do across the curriculum with students of different ages and abilities.

However, the use of technology and techniques involved in producing a documentary require a unique set of skills. To assist teachers in navigating this task, the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) Media Lab has developed a free learning resource and accompanying teacher guide that provide a practical introduction to documentary filmmaking.

The resource includes explanations, worksheets and suggested activities to help guide students through the process – from the initial planning and preparation to a final product. ‘As well as encouraging students to identify the ways in which documentaries tell a story or present a point of view, this resource will help get your class thinking about creative ways to communicate information on-screen,' it reads.

To begin, the resource provides guidelines for teachers to help prepare students for their documentary making. These parameters includes theme or style, duration, and team size and roles.

‘It's a good idea to give students a maximum length for their completed films. For inexperienced filmmakers, a maximum duration of two to four minutes is recommended,' it suggests. ‘You may also like to set a total limit for the quantity of footage to be shot. If students record four hours of interviews or observational footage, editing it will be an extremely time-consuming process, whereas working with 20-30 minutes of total footage will take less time.'

The resource explores ethical considerations in documentary filmmaking and asks students to consider how they handle subject matter and the impact the film may have on the audience who view it. It also discusses different documentary techniques – such as narration, presenting, interviews, dramatic recreations, still photographs and observations.

An entire section of the resource is dedicated to conducting great interviews and how to prepare to film them. It emphasises preparation, knowing what to expect and how to write questions to ensure you get the most out of your subject.

‘It's great if you can learn these by heart, but write them down just in case,' it says. ‘Eventually, with a lot of practice, you can interview people without any pre-prepared questions, but for now – make sure you have a list. Make sure the questions ask for the right information – they need to provide you with what you need to make your documentary.'

Another section of the resource covers camera techniques and provides a practical guide for students. It explains that the three main things to understand when it comes to camera techniques are shots, angles and movements – and provides explanations for each of these areas.

Other sections cover copyright and safety on set, sourcing locations, capturing sound for film, and how to best store your footage and data for editing. Once students complete their documentary, there's also a guide for analysing the films they've created and learning from the students' first experience with the medium.

‘We recommend that you celebrate your students' film achievements on completion. Have a screening in class, get them to watch and talk about each other's films, help them enjoy the creative process and the fact that they have made something out of nothing,' is one of the tips.

AFTRS Media Lab provides media arts resources to Australian primary and secondary teachers and students. AFTRS has also created similar resources for filmmaking, podcasting, screenwriting and stop motion.

Stay tuned for a practical example: In tomorrow's article we hear from David Chapman, Assistant Principal, Teaching and Learning at Macquarie College, about how he's using the Media Lab resources with his students.

Have you used documentary filmmaking in your classroom? What are some of the unique challenges you faced in introducing this medium to students? What did you find worked well? What happened after the films were completed – did you turn the screening and discussion into another learning opportunity?

To download the Media Lab Documentary resource, visit the AFTRS website.