Teach the World Through TV with Documentary Filmmaking

Documentary filmmaking is an excellent field for those who enjoy learning and teaching through film. A mixture of nonfiction and art, this discipline both awakens and rewards human curiosity. People who work on documentaries live rich and meaningful lives as they do research, travel, and meet people around the globe to teach audiences about fascinating (and visually stunning) topics.

Making documentaries provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore any subject of interest to them, and these nonfiction films are even enjoying a moment in popular culture. Gone are the days of dull, heavily formatted, and even patronizing films forced on bored students in a dark classroom; today, everyone is talking about the newest and splashiest HBO or Netflix documentary they watched for fun the previous night.

Films that provide new perspectives on heritage and cultural experience, such as Black history documentaries, are becoming particularly important, popular and powerful in the present moment. In 2017, four Black directors were Oscar nominees for Best Documentary.

Headshot of Wiley College female student television reporterAspiring female documentarians may choose to draw inspiration from resources like Black Women Directors, a digital library that honors Black women and nonbinary filmmakers the world over, or this list of Black women film creatives.

Whatever their interest, students who plan to pursue documentary filmmaking may first enroll in a film degree program. Film majors include a wide range of related course subjects, which may include:

  • Animation or digital arts
  • Cinematography or videography
  • Producing
  • Directing
  • Art direction
  • Screenwriting
  • Cinematography
  • Post production

Careers in Documentary Filmmaking

  • Performance and Acting: Roles in these careers may include cast members, body doubles, stunt coordinators and casting staff.
  • Production: Film directors, assistant directors and production assistants, production designers, producers, location scouts and managers, transportation staff and screenwriters are all part of production departments in film. 
  • Cameras: People who work with cameras can be cinematographers, camera assistants, camera operators, videographers or film editors.
  • Sound and Music: This department is made up of sound mixers, designers and editors as well as foley artists and engineers, who create sound effects and manage the equipment needed to record them.
  • Lighting: The gaffer heads up the lighting department and works on lighting setup; the key grip manages lighting and rigging crews and ensures that film sets are constructed with safety in mind.
  • Makeup, Costumes and Props: This department includes makeup artists, hair stylists, costume designers, wardrobe stylists, prop masters and food stylists.
  • Art Department: Roles in the art department include art directors, construction coordinators, storyboard artists, effects technicians and compositors (computer programmers who create digital textures and effects for film images).

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How to Prepare for Success

Documentary production majors should be hands-on learners with an interest in cinema and an understanding of the many teams and components needed to make a film. You should also have a strong work ethic, good collaboration skills and a willingness to take on multiple and flexible roles.


UNCF Schools to Consider

Four UNCF-member schools offer film programs for students interested in entering the field of documentary filmmaking, including:


Professional Organizations

There are also many professional film organizations that may shed more light on what it’s like to work in this industry:


Scholarships Available

Several scholarships are available through UNCF. The UNCF General Scholarship Awards are an excellent opportunity for any student going to a UNCF-member college, regardless of their major. The Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Scholarship Program awards a $10,000 scholarship to one exceptional HBCU senior each year who has demonstrated high academic achievement, strong leadership skills, commitment to community service and unmet financial need.

Keep an eye on the UNCF website for current scholarship opportunities. Students should also check with each college or university to see if there are additional scholarships available to study film.

Reach out for guidance by submitting a major interest form if you are interested in a career in documentary filmmaking. Submit the form on our website to get started. And follow us on UNCF social media channels to receive notifications about our scholarships and member HBCUs. Reach out today!