Cole Sansom ’19 Talks About the Division of Labor in Documentary Filmmaking

Photo of me on the shoot!

This summer I am working on a documentary about the 1976 Bicentennial in Philadelphia. Fans of Decentered may recognize this from previous blog posts. This is no coincidence. Since May we have been working together towards this common goal. As others have discussed, our topic is a fascinating one, and one in which has given us the opportunity to research and enhance our knowledge of Philadelphia (and American) history. But what has struck me most about this project (production of which is fast coming to a close), are the differences between working on a film of this scale differs from anything I have done before-in time frame and in the roles we each play. 

I, and the other students involved, are versed in documentary filmmaking. But in production classes, and solo projects, we are our own team, sometimes with a partner and guidance from a professor. My experience in Doculab could not be more different.

Jixin Jia ’21 standing in for an interviewee while we set up the shot.

They say “it takes a village,” but in our case, it takes around a dozen; Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Tom Devaney, is our creative director; the project is his idea, he gets in contact with participants and leads the interviews. Aaron and Matt from Greenhouse Media help us with shoots; they have a wealth of experience and assist us with coordinating and conducting interviews. Hilary Brashear ‘13 is our project coordinator; she helps us five students organize, both on location and in the editing lab. (The remaining members of “the Docu-Dozen,” as no-one has ever called us, comprise of HCAH support staff Charles Woodard and James Weissinger, and the city of Philadelphia, which we cloyingly refer to as the film’s protagonist).

The whole gang (students only) on a Tom Devaney led tour of Philly.

On set–shooting an interview, for example—the division of labor is relatively straightforward. We each handle a camera, or a microphone, or sit in a chair making sure the interviewee has everything they need. During pre-production (everything that occurs before we unpack the camera), things become more complicated. Devaney will communicate with the interviewee, while  Hilary, along with Eddie, the leader of us students, and Greenhouse folks, will plan the shoot. The rest of us students might do background research, prepare gear, or any number of tasks. I enjoy doing archival research, and have taken the lead on diving into Temple University’s “Urban Archives,” finding photos and videos from ‘76 that we can use in the film. 

Once the shoot is complete, we will return to the editing lab and undertake the lengthy process of importing, transcoding, proxying, transcribing, selecting, compiling, and many more gerunds! We delegate these tasks between us, but have to communicate who is doing what, and when. Working on two hard drives means an extra degree of preparation is required to ensure everyone is able to accomplish the tasks. Sometimes it is a one person job, and the rest of us will have to sit back and wait. Other times we take an all-hands-on-deck approach. At all times we are working together to make a great MOVIE!

Written by Cole Sansom ’19, English major

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19