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. The 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 herself spending a good deal of time mastering studio cameras while never learning the observational and improvisational skills required to effectively cover a verite 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 film making, but we understand that in this age of hybrid forms, students may wish to learn techniques that are associated with traditional fiction film production. We encourage these students to seek out courses in the undergraduate and continuing education departments to supplement their education at SocDoc. (Students may take up to 4 courses in these divisions free of charge over the course of the two year program). 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 are in no way isloated from the larger filmmaking community. All of our faculty members make their living as part of the non-fiction media industry in New York City as producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, 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.
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 strongly advised 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 the second semester and refine these ideas over the course of two pitch sessions with a faculty panel, comprised of the Department Chair and two senior faculty members. At the end of the second pitch session, students have a thesis film and 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 “sizzle” reel, 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 screened and critiqued. Students are also meeting 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 a 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 graphics, mix and color correction before the department thesis 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 advent of digital filmmaking, the Internet and social networking, as well as the 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, and love it when students come to our department already passionate about a film they’d like to make.
As such, we cultivate a supportive yet honestly critical environment where creative experimentation is encouraged and story ideas are interrogated. We do everything we can to ensure that students’ thesis ideas are viable before they go into production, and while in production faculty and staff are available to consult with on any unforeseen issues. 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, eliminating the cost of equipment rental and purchase.
Each year, under the advisement of our cinematography and sound faculty, we reassess our camera package offerings, and make purchasing decisions accordingly. At least half of the camera packages we have are replaced each year, and we currently have a package to student ratio of 3:1. For more details on our inventory, please see the equipment page.
Currently, we have 5 private edit suites, and 10 editing classroom systems running AVID 7 and Adobe Creative Cloud. Many of these are dual-boot systems that also run Final Cut Pro software.
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 both semesters of 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 Kristian Gonzalez kristian (at) mfasocdoc.com.
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 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 Fall Film Festival 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! )
We do not currently offer dual degree programs (ie 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. Only in exceptional circumstances (illness, family issues) will an extension be granted after the thesis year. In that case, a matriculation fee will be paid by the student to remain enrolled in the program.
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.
Please visit SVA's Student Accounts site for up-to-date tuition and fees information.
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.
Our students are currently working as DPs, producers and editors, as well as camera assistants, associate producers and assistant editors on both documentary and commercial non-fiction projects. Visit our Facebook or twitter feeds to read more about what they’re up to, or contact us if you’d like to speak with an alumnus directly.
We’re still a relatively young program (our first class graduated in Spring 2011) but SocDoc alumni have already had their thesis films programmed at various festivals around the world, including the Berlinale, SXSW, Hong Kong, and True/False. Additionally, two films received large ITVS finishing grants and aired nationally on PBS during 2013.
To stay up to date on when SocDoc films will screen in your area, find us on facebook or follow us on twitter. (And, for a sneak peak, take a look at the “work” section of this site.)