We believe that crafting stories from real life is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences available to you as an artist. Our program guides and supports emerging artists to fully explore the possibilities of the documentary, and, in so doing, to find innovative ways to examine and communicate the core experiences and events that define us. SVA's MFA in Social Documentary Film gives students the opportunity to learn how to find and capture important stories that speak to varied audiences on subjects of public concern, within a social, political and cultural consciousness that can change how we view our world.
At SocDoc, we also recognize that there are skills, both narrative and technical, that are specific to the toolkit of the documentary filmmaker. These skills can sometimes be lost or overshadowed in departments where the focus is on fiction film making, and the aspiring documentary filmmaker can find themselves spending a good deal of time mastering studio cameras while never learning the observational and improvisational skills required to effectively cover a vérité scene.
The debate over whether documentary filmmakers are journalists or artists is raging. While we do offer courses in Visionary Journalism, as part of the School of Visual Arts, MFA SocDoc is decidedly not a traditional J-school.
We believe that all filmmakers must figure out for themselves where they fit in the spectrum between art and journalism. In our department, each of our faculty members walks this line differently. Some consider themselves artists, some consider themselves journalists, and many locate themselves somewhere in between. All believe that the documentary filmmaker must follow some sort of ethics. The exposure to a wide range of viewpoints within the program helps our students to develop their own ethical codes as filmmakers.
We do not offer courses in fiction filmmaking, but we understand that in this age of hybrid forms, students may wish to learn techniques that are associated with traditional fiction film production. SVA graduate students may take one free class per semester in the Continuing Education or Undergraduate programs; so our students often take advantage of this to learn fiction filmmaking techniques. Some students also choose to complete fiction film projects outside of class, which is allowed as long as equipment isn’t needed for class-related projects.
When you study documentary at SocDoc, you immersed in NYC, one of the most vibrant and active documentary communities in the world. All of our faculty are active filmmakers, working as producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, sound recordists, and programmers. Their ongoing experience brings a reality check to theoretical debates, and keeps our students ahead of the curve on industry issues.
Of course, there are other reasons to love New York. From the standpoint of an artist, the city provides a rich variety of stories, and a network of collaborators that extends far beyond the department walls.
With the advent of digital filmmaking, the internet and the new technologies available in camera, sound and editing—the potential to make films and share them with an audience, has become accessible to almost everyone. However, the artistry of storytelling and the critical judgment required to make successful creative decisions can be elusive.
Some of our students began or completed documentary projects before joining our program. As they can attest, making a film on your own can be a lonely and lengthy experience. We like to think of the SocDoc department as an incubator for films and filmmakers, a place for students to focus on their creative work and build a community of peers and collaborators. Students are encouraged to shoot their thesis films using the camera, sound and lighting equipment owned by the department, and to edit their films in the department, nearly eliminating the cost of equipment rental and purchase.
As such, we cultivate a supportive yet honestly critical environment where creative experimentation is encouraged and story ideas are interrogated. We work with students to help ensure that students’ thesis ideas are viable before they go into production. During production, faculty and staff are available to consult on any unforeseen issues. And, throughout the edit, students are engaged with faculty mentors to help solidify their stories in a way that communicates the ideas you as an artist want to express. We also work to help illuminate documentary industry as a whole, from funding to festivals to distribution, including consideration of the potential market opportunities for thesis films. We aspire to help students find their niche in the industry, in NYC and around the world.
Yes, and many do. During the summer preceding the thesis year, and during the thesis year itself, students may check out equipment from the department for international shoots, subject to availability. All students are required to purchase an affordable insurance package that protects them from liability should equipment be lost or damaged.
We require that students make a thesis film of at least 30 minutes to graduate.
Students begin to develop thesis films at the beginning of their second semester. They refine these ideas over the course of pitch sessions with a faculty panel, comprised of the Department Chair and senior faculty members. At the end of the pitch sessions, students have a thesis film and often a backup idea that are approved by the department. Students are then assigned a faculty advisor and begin production on their films.
In the second year of the program, students focus on their thesis films. During the first semester they edit a proof of concept scene(s), in which they establish the characters and stakes of their films, while beginning to work out the story arc of the longer film. In the second semester, students are expected to spend most of their time editing, and attend editing and directing seminars two evenings a week where work is regularly screened and critiqued. Students also meet with their thesis advisors during this time to ensure that they are on track to complete their films.
At the end of the second semester, fine cuts of thesis films are reviewed by the Department Chair and the student’s advisor to determine the student’s fitness for graduation. Students are then given the summer to make final tweaks to the edit, graphics, mix and color correction before the department’s public Thesis Showcase screenings in September.
All films and footage are owned by the students and may be screened, sold, or distributed by the student.
Each film is different. In some cases, students may find that their material warrants a longer film. The thesis committee will explore this possibility with the student, and make their suggestion for the length the film should be at final thesis review. After a successful thesis review, students are free to expand or truncate their films for film festival submission or distribution.
With the advisement of our cinematography and sound faculty, we regularly reassess our equipment offerings, and make purchase decisions accordingly. We currently have a student to camera ratio of 2:1. For more details on our inventory, please see the Facilities page.
Currently, we have 5 private edit suites, and 12 editing classroom systems running current versions of AVID Media Composer, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Final Cut Pro X. In addition, we provide a complementary assortment of industry standard visual and audio effect plugins and tools, such as Boris Continuum Complete and Izotope's RX Suite.
We do not believe that the ability to tell non-fiction stories is tied to a particular piece of software, nor do we believe that mastery of every piece of software is necessary for one to call oneself a filmmaker. That said, we offer editing labs throughout the first year, and encourage students with an interest in delving deeper into to post-production to enroll in classes in either the undergraduate or continuing education departments.
For more details on our current system configuration, please see the facilities page or contact us.
Our department space, edit suites and equipment are available to our students free of charge throughout the summer, and staff are on hand to help with any technical or creative issues that may arise. We do not hold classes during the summer, as most students choose to do the majority of shooting on the thesis film in the summer between the first and second years. Additionally, we allow graduated students free access to the department between the end of their final semester and the September Thesis Showcase so that they can do necessary finishing on their thesis films.
We’re interested in people from varied life backgrounds who are driven to find and tell unique stories. Accordingly, we pay the most attention to the film treatment and the visual submission portion of the application when assessing potential students.
We do not require prior professional film making experience. (But it doesn’t hurt! )
No, we do not currently offer dual degree programs (i.e. a joint degree in MFA Social Documentary and MFA Computer Art). However, students whose interests lead them to explore other disciplines are allowed to audit up to four courses offered by the undergraduate and continuing education departments. On rare occasions students may audit courses in another graduate department, subject to the approval of both department chairs.
Our MFA program is designed to be completed over the course of 2 years of full-time study. In exceptional circumstances (such as illness or family issues) an extension will be granted.
An MFA offers more post-graduate opportunities for roughly the same investment of time and money required by many certificate programs and MA degrees. The MFA is recognized as a terminal degree, and allows graduates to seek tenure track employment in academic settings.
New York City is one of the major hubs of non-fiction film and television production in the country, so our students are at an advantage when it comes to finding work post-graduation. Instead of relocating, many of our students choose to stay based in New York, and make use of the contacts they’ve made through the SocDoc department.
They are directing their own films (we just had our first alum win an Emmy!). They work for notable production companies and as freelancers as cinematographers, producers, and editors, as well as camera assistants, associate producers and assistant editors on documentary features and series, in advertising, and even in fiction. Alumni are teaching, working as broadcast series and festival programmers, and many other opportunities.
Visit our blog to read more alumni news, or find us on Facebook, Twitter @svasocdoc, Instagram @svasocdoc. Feel free to contact us if you’d like to speak with an alumnus directly.
You can see a selection of Student Films on our website.
Our alumni have also won an Emmy, a Student Academy Award and received multiple major awards nominations. Alumni have been broadcast or received theatrical release across the U.S., as well as in Russia, Germany, and Japan; and played festivals around the world including Berlin, IDFA, SXSW, Full Frame, Hot Docs, Tribeca, Hong Kong, Busan, Outfest, and DOC NYC.
To stay up to date on when SocDoc films will screen in your area, find us on