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The Golden Gateway to Documentary Training: Bay Area Poised to Become a Global Production Center

By Mitchell Block

Filmmaker Rob Epstein, who recently launched a documentary MFA program at California College of the Arts

The San Francisco Bay Area offers a wide range of film and video training programs for college undergraduates, graduates and individuals wishing to take high-quality continuing education classes in all areas of film and video production. With Stanford and University of California at Berkeley offering what many consider the best documentary graduate college training programs in the US, and Film Arts Foundation offering outstanding seminars, workshops and community facilities, there is an educational program for almost everyone interested in obtaining training to make documentary films.

With active representation on the Documentary Branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, some of the strongest theatrical showcases for documentary films in the nation--including the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley and numerous area film festivals--the San Francisco region is one of the most documentary-friendly areas in the US. San Francisco is easily the third strongest production center after Los Angeles and New York.

It takes more than just a studio facility or a college program for a region to be a film production center, despite what many state or local film location services might represent. What makes this community so strong is the vast number of working documentary filmmakers with both national and international reputations based within a hundred miles or so of the Golden Gate Bridge. The dynamics of the community allow for formal and informal job training, internships for students, entry-level positions, post-production and equipment rental and repair facilities, and marketing and distribution channels. While there are not the masses of network buyers, there is a strong tradition of venture capital funders who are supporting films, major computer software and hardware companies and many potential sponsors. Finally, local PBS affiliate KQED and numerous production rental facilities and post houses provide Bay Area filmmakers with the necessary technical back-up so this region can be a global documentary production center.

The area's many secondary film programs make for a growing and vibrant young documentary community. California College of the Arts (CCA) is ramping up the nation's newest documentary MFA program, headed by two-time Oscar-winning director Robert Epstein. Epstein, who is creating the program from the ground up, writes in an e-mail, "At CCA, our graduate film students will have the opportunity to work in both documentary and fiction. During their first year, students will produce projects in both genres, and then, for their thesis projects, they will choose to work in either documentary or fiction--or in some cases, multi-genre. More than ever, there is crossover and interplay between the modes and methods of narrative documentary filmmaking and those of narrative fiction filmmaking. We will be preparing students to be well-versed in both. This is one of the things that will make the CCA Graduate Film Program unique. Also, we will be one of the very few all-digital programs in the country, which I believe will put us ahead of the curve." 

The Directory of Documentary Training Programs in the Bay Area (see below) is compiled from the schools' websites. The nine programs include both for-profit and nonprofit schools. The programs for undergraduates are varied, have diverse student bodies and range from being very selective and academic to being open to anyone with a sincere interest in the field. The teachers in the programs range from Oscar winners to individuals with extensive broadcast journalism and other professional experiences. All areas of documentary production training are covered--from the very experimental (and non-narrative) to Academy Award-level works made with the support of Film Arts Foundation or at Stanford and UC Berkeley. 


Directory of Documentary Training Programs in the Bay Area

Compiled by Mitchell W. Block

Editor's Note: At press time, all information was checked with the organizations' websites and/or catalogues. Please contact the author regarding omissions and errors.


Academy  of Art Colleges -- San Francisco and other Locations

Continuing Education  This for-profit collection of schools located in various cities throughout the US offers excellent classes in this degree-granting collection of campuses. In addition to offering a wide range of certificate programs, AAC offers numerous specialized classes in film and video.

Undergraduate and Graduate Programs  With a small film/video production faculty, this program offers an ambitious BFA and MFA program. AAC is rich in acting teachers and short on film writing, directing, producing and craft-area faculty.


California College of the Arts

Undergraduate Program  A nonprofit fine arts college founded in 1907, California College of the Arts (CCA) is the largest regionally accredited, independent school of art and design in the western United States. The undergraduate programs offer a film major.

Graduate Program in Documentary Film  Beginning in Fall 2008, this new program will focuses on narrative filmmaking in documentary, fiction and experimental forms. On a technical level, the program is exclusively digital. While the program is currently in-process, one can hope that program chair Robert Epstein is building a strong faculty and worthwhile documentary program on the graduate level at this excellent institution.


City College of San Francisco

Award of Achievement  This four-semester program with a large and diverse faculty offers training that allows for a documentary emphasis. As part of the California. community college system, this program offers very inexpensive classes. Fees for non-residents and international students are also very low.


Film Arts Foundation (FAF)

Continuing Education-Part of a Media Arts Center  Film Art Foundation's seminars and workshops-taught year-round by working professionals-deal with a wide range of topics of interest to independent filmmakers, no matter what their experience or background.


San Francisco Arts Institute

Undergraduate Program  This fine arts film program offers an undergraduate degree in film. Since 1947, the program has focused on experimental filmmaking. Chaired by George Kucha, this nonprofit art school has offered a wide range of classes with its excellent faculty.


San Francisco State University

Undergraduate and Graduate Program  The College of Creative Arts has the only academic program in Northern California primarily devoted to the creative arts. Comprised of a variety of disciplines, interdisciplines and departments in visual, media and performing arts areas, the college provides unique opportunities for specialized focus, collaboration, interdisciplinary learning and multidisciplinary pursuits.


Stanford University

Undergraduate Program is intended for liberal arts students who wish to build a fundamental knowledge of communication in society. Majors take courses from two communication orientations within the Communications Department, plus a selection of elective courses. In addition, undergraduates take one class in statistics. Courses include both theory and practicum courses in media and society, print journalism and communication research. Through electives, including an optional senior project or honors thesis, a student may build greater depth in any of these areas.  

Graduate Program in Documentary Film and Video in Stanford's Department of Communication is designed to teach students the conceptual and practical tools for producing nonfiction film and video. The program emphasizes the development of ideas and the means for effectively communicating them through visual media. The philosophy of the Documentary Film and Video program is based on creating an environment in which students learn the methods of documentary through their own productions and through collaboration on the projects of their classmates. Students also participate in rigorous critiques of works-in-progress. The program is intensive and requires residency for two consecutive years. Stanford's experience indicates that mature applicants with work experience tend to flourish and excel in the program. The conceptual and technical skills required for documentary work are sufficiently different from fictional narrative to make the Stanford program inappropriate for students interested in feature filmmaking.


University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Center for New Documentary

Graduate Program  The Center for New Documentary at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism is dedicated to creating new, affordable and innovative models of documentary film. "Documentary film is worth fighting for in this society," says journalism professor and filmmaker Jon Else, head of the journalism school's documentary program and director of the center.


University of San Francisco

Undergraduate Program  This Jesuit program is part of a college with a 150 year history. The small program offers undergraduates a media studies major that provides a wide range of classes that would be useful for an undergraduate interesting in doing a documentary emphasis on the graduate level. The program is mostly staffed by full time academics. Fees are competitive with similar nonprofit private undergraduate programs. 


Mitchell W. Block is an executive producer of CARRIER (working title), a 10-hour documentary series he conceived and co-created, and he is a producer on the companion feature, both for Icon Productions. His nonprofit distribution company, Direct Cinema Limited handles many documentaries and shorts. He has been teaching independent producing in the Peter Stark Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1992. He can be reached at

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