M.S. Documentary Specialization | Columbia Journalism School

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 9½ 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 classes and show their work at the 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 and Simon Surowicz. 
 

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 14. 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

Video 1/Web & Documentary

Video 2

Student Work

young man and his  reflection in subway window

With ninety days left before he ages out of foster care, Alex has to get it together, or risk going back to the world he’s trying to escape. A film by Christina Shaman and Anakha Arikara, both '19 M.S. Documentary.

Aged and Confused

The players for a dwarf basketball team are heroes on the court. But on the streets of New York, they’re outsiders. The Towers, a film by Doc ‘16 students Oliver Arnoldi and Maria Chiu, follows their struggle for acceptance.

 

 

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

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

Nina Alvarez

CBS Assistant Professor of International Journalism; Director of Global Journalism

June Cross

Professor of Journalism; Director, Documentary Journalism Program

Judith Helfand

James Madison Visiting Professor on First Amendment Issues

Duy Linh Tu

Associate Professor of Professional Practice

Lisa R. Cohen

Adjunct Faculty; Director, duPont/Professional Prizes

Betsy West

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