M.S. Documentary Specialization

A select program for M.S. students who spend a third semester making a short documentary. 

We train students to succeed in the expanding world of documentaries. You learn writing, shooting, sound recording, editing and the business of documentaries. Classes are small, focused and hands-on. 

Film Fridays

The Documentary Program

The Documentary program combines world‐class training in how to be a reporter with professional skills in the craft of long-form visual storytelling. Students spend 10 months learning how to develop sources; find and verify information; use data and develop visual skills. They learn camera work, sound recording and editing. They also learn the business side of documentary production – grant writing, negotiations, rights and clearances and how to develop a winning production trailer.

 

The additional semester – completed during the summer – allows students to produce and edit their video Master’s Project. Documentary students generally work in teams and get individual coaching from advisers who are recognized documentary producers. We expect the resulting films to be published: online, on cable or on broadcast.

During the year, students in the Documentary Program meet some of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians who visit our classes and show their work at our regular Film Fridays series. Recent guests have included Alex Gibney, Stanley Nelson, Sarah Burns, Kirsten Johnson, Nanfu Wang, Matt Heinemann, Josh Oppenheimer and Ezra Edelman.  They also attend select festivals at venues outside of campus.

Under the direction of Professors June Cross and Betsy West, students undertake courses in journalism production, visual storytelling, camerawork and editing. Faculty advisers have included Tom Casciato, Nina Chaudry,  Julie CohenRachel Dretzin, Pamela Hogan, Andy Fredericks, Simon Surowicz, and documentary fellow Daniel Nelson
 
 

Who Should Apply

The admissions committee seeks applicants who can articulate their passion for documentary filmmaking. The Journalism School is committed to building a diverse student population and we encourage applications from students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Previous experience shooting and editing is welcome but not necessary.

Curriculum

During the fall semester, students take the core Reporting class, then test into Video 1 (for the inexperienced) or Video 2 (for those with demonstrated experience in shooting and editing). Beginning videographers are expected to develop their skills. Concurrently, during the first semester, students learn about the documentary canon and workshop story ideas for their own films. Projects are approved for production by the time the spring semester begins.

During the spring semester, students get hands‐on production experience and learn to craft compelling stories. By the end of the semester they pitch a work‐in‐progress trailer to a group of commissioning editors from major outlets. In the past, these editors have included representatives from the Sundance Documentary Fund, HBO and CNN.

Students complete their Master's Project documentary during the summer semester and they are due on August 31. They graduate in December at a special graduation event. The following day, their films are showcased at the annual Columbia Journalism School DocFest.

Classes

In addition to the required classes, Documentary Program students choose from the many spring classes that are open to all students. 

Please note: The classes listed here represent recent offerings at the Journalism School. Choices vary each semester depending on faculty availability and other considerations. Classes described now may change or be dropped to make room for new additions.

Documentary Specialization Seminar

Multimedia Storytelling: Data, Design and Animation

Short Doc Storytelling

Storytelling About The Environment

Student Work

Reuniting with their children is one of the most underappreciated challenges facing formerly incarcerated mothers. This is the story of one woman who will do anything to prove that she is worthy of a second chance. A film by Doc ‘17 students Tala Hadavi and Yeong-Ung Yang. Love, Mommy

Finding common ground in a Brooklyn kitchen, a group of political asylees work towards a future in the restaurant business. A film by Doc ‘17 students Thea Piltzecker and Liz Scherffius. A Table For All

Documentary: She's Not a Boy

She's Not a Boy, a documentary from M.S. Documentary '18 students Yuhong Pang and Robert Tokanel, follows Tatenda Ngwaru, an asylum-seeking intersex woman from Zimbabwe as she tries to make a home in New York City.

Doc '17 students Daniela Cruzat and Farrah Lopez are working on Born to Stay for NBC Digital. Daniela is now at CNN; Farrah is working with The Opposition with Jordan Klepper.

Born To Stay

Faculty

Betsy West

Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society

Lisa R. Cohen

Director, duPont/Professional Prizes; Adjunct Faculty