MA Ethnographic and Documentary Film (Practice Based)

In October 2014 UCL Anthropology launched a new MA in Ethnographic and Documentary Film Practice. This unique programme builds on the experience in professional-standard technical training that the Open City Docs School at UCL has built up since 2008, as well as the world class strengths in social science research at UCL.

The programme allows students to draw on the world-class expertise and resources in the Department of Anthropology but will also allow you to take courses in other faculties and schools at UCL including the Film Studies Programme in Arts and Humanities, The Slade School of Art, and Computer Sciences.

Our programme is unique in the UK because it is based in a university but run by leading film practitioners from the world of professional media. By choosing to learn how to make documentary film here you not only receive the highest quality practice based learning, but you do so in a university research environment. Documentary film makers need to understand the world they live in – this course provides you with the full range of skills needed for this.

As a practice focussed MA the core of the teaching programme is practically oriented training in all the technical issues surrounding the preparation, production, editing and distribution of visual image. You will be taught not only how to make powerful, engaging and technically professional film narrative but also to think about the fundamental question of ‘why’ we make films and to think creatively about questions of form, allowing you to give new shape to the social realities that your film research brings into being.

This MA will allow you to benefit from UCL’s unique position in the heart of London, from the many activities in film within the Department of Anthropology, and also from work done in The Slade and The Bartlett – both of which have established moving image programs. You may also benefit from collaborations with Film Studies work in the Film Studies Programme and SSEES.

Open City Docs

Open City Docs is an organisation created by Dr Michael Stewart to run a range of projects from which students on the MA will benefit. You will also benefit from our national and international recognition and partnerships with organisations such as the British Council, Picturehouse Cinemas, Dogwoof Distribution, The Grierson Trust, One World Festival in Prague, Jihlava Fim Festival, Astra Foundation for Visual Anthropology in Sibiu, the new Budapest International Documentary Film Festival and the relaunched Tehran Documentary Film festival.

Open City Documentary Festival

UCL now houses London’s Global Documentary Film Festival, Open City Docs Fest, which will, in the first year of the MA, run its fifth edition.

Open City Documentary Festival Website: http://www.opencitydocsfest.com/

You can:

  • participate in the curation and delivery of this festival;
  • gain experience in the delivery of a major pubic arts event;
  • benefit from Open City Docs established partnerships with world-famous institutions such as the The Science Museum, the British Film Institute and DocHouse – soon to be rehoused in a dedicated documentary centre a few minutes walk away;
  • attend weekly film screenings, masterclasses with leading industry professionals and regular lectures.

The MA programme will be structured into three elements.

  • A core course will provide practical training including a weekly screening and seminar on the history of documentary film.
  • Options will allow students to do further courses in film theory and history.
  • Credits taken within Anthropology or in other departments within SLASH will provide training in social theory and social research.

Those seeking to work in Ethnographic mode – and without previous anthropology training - will take the Social Anthropology Core course as well as another option within Anthropology – concentrating their training in appropriate areas.

The course will use UCL’s camera and computer-editing equipment, the extensive collections in film and the visual anthropology laboratory. It can run in the existing facilities but discussions are underway with ISD and other departments over establishing new Media facilities at a campus level.

Core Course Outline

The course is designed to teach camera and editing skills in a context of critical enquiry about the social world. It is delivered in four hours a week of lab practice, each week over two terms (36 hours); four hours of further screenings, seminars and tutorial in the first term, followed in term two by two hours of screenings and two of supervised exercises. In total the core course will take 72 contact hours to deliver. The practical elements of the course are taught in pairs of 2 hours. In the first session of each pair the seminar is teacher-led and instruction-based. In the second, students’ practical coursework is appraised, with the tutor providing individual guidance and feedback on their video practice and project diary.

Students will spend a minimum of twelve hours each week completing camera and editing exercises. Students will spend approximately 30 hours per term reading and 50 hours watching films (160 in total). Over the course of the next term they will spend a further 110 hours preparing and filming assessed work that will also prepare them for their graduation film. Students will need to spend at least 110 hours editing their various Video Projects in the Anthropology department’s Visual Media Laboratory. A total of 450 hours learning is allocated to the course and the assessment will combine formative and marked work, building up a portfolio of work over the period October-April. Students will be encouraged to use their own computer equipment to allow off-site working and will need their own external hard drive, but will be able to rely on the departmental cameras, radio mics and associated kit, decks, editing suite and workstations.

In summary, the core course structure includes the following elements: Practical/technical issues in Documentary and Ethnographic practice; Equipment, insurance, nature of film, filmic and digital methodology, technical handouts, field notes and Project Diary.

In detail the practical training will run as follows:

Cinematography / the history of the shot

Methods of image capturing – effects and differences (technical and ideological) of camera types, lenses, shot length, composition and framing; shooting styles, history of the shot; history of ethnographic filming techniques and how changing technology has influenced creative outcomes.

Introduction to Digital Camera Functions / Technical

Battery use, tape formats & insertion, timecode, camera caveats, tripod & hand-held, manual white balance control, holding a frame, zoom control.

Advanced Camera Functions / Technical continued

Manual control of focus, depth of focus, exposure, aperture, gain, neutral density, shutter speed; lighting techniques, sequence construction, edit points, and shooting to edit.

Audio Functions / Documentary Sound

Interviewing, framing, composition, backgrounds, techniques & methods. Audio monitoring, manual audio control, modulation, microphone choice & recording technique, Wild & atmos tracks.

Sound Design and Music in Documentary

Use of sound elements and music in documentary. Exercises in shooting to music and using sound creatively.

Ethnographic and Documentary modes

Discussion of the representational capacity of documentary. Examination of a range of the technical, stylistic, aesthetic and representational dynamics deepens. Discussions of the ‘truths’, ‘fictions’, styles, genres, ethics and modes.

Production and Logistics

Film proposal & narrative structure: the production process, release forms, copyright issues, legal & ethical responsibilities, informed consent. Writing a proposal, budgeting and scheduling. Scripting & storyboarding. Style & aesthetics. Pre-production and preparation.


Presenting a film project to diverse audiences: subjects, funders, and broadcasters. Issue of audience and form – matching and challenging expectations and capacities.


How to direct the production and create own methodology: making a shotlist; interview techniques, styles and ethics; working with production team on location; working as self-shooting PD (producer/director); studio shoots; setting up scenarios; collaborating with subjects; authorship and responsibility.


Transcription, paper editing, batch capture digitisation, browser administration, subclip creation, storyboarding, and timeline assembly.

Rough Cutting

Narrative structuring, synchronicity, continuity editing, cutaway insertion, transitions, effects, motion controls, key framing, subtitling, sound balancing, laying rough commentary, music and FX tracks.

Fine Cutting

Film pacing, final commentary recording and laying, colour balancing and correction, sound design, foley, music, audio mixing, levels and balance. Captions, subtitles, credits and titles.

Outputting – from Codec to Festival

Rendering, printing to tape, saving image, DVD burning and authoring, reaching an audience, distribution and festival submission.

Key Learning Outcomes

Generally graduates form the programme will be able to:

  • reason critically
  • devise a visual research project
  • apply anthropological and social science approaches to film work
  • identify and solve problems
  • demonstrate and exercise independence of mind and thought
  • critically view and read, analyse and interpret
  • evaluate and integrate conflicting sources, evidence, theories and interpretation
  • think critically about the relations between form and content in ethnographic/ documentary practice

Practically you will be able to:

  • handle cameras to produce broadcast quality image
  • handle sound recording equipment to produce broadcast quality sound for film
  • master the technical skills to use professional editing programme/s
  • produce different sorts of films, of different lengths for varied audiences
  • manage a film project carried out by oneself
  • manage small scale collaborative film projects
  • critically view and review film material and produce argued justification for an analysis of such
  • devise collaborative film making projects

In terms of transferrable skills, graduates will be able to:

  • make a broadcast quality and more broadly screenable documentary film
  • manage the production of such
  • produce professional camerawork
  • record sound for moving image to a professional level
  • edit moving image to professional level and under pressure of time
  • write analytically well grounded and persuasive analysis of film material
  • work on collaborative film projects in terms of conception, management and delivery
  • produce a budget and learn to ‘pitch’ a film to funders
  • manage a range of IT programs and their integration within a given project

Management of the Course and Teaching

Dr Michael Stewart, founding director of Open City Docs Fest and MyStreetfilms.com, is responsible for oversight of the programme design and management.

Leading the MA will be one or more senior tutors chosen form amongst most skilled practitioners of this craft in the UK. You can get a sense of the expertise of such tutors from the web pages for our short courses. The Senior Tutor will give master-classes each term to all the students, attend film-preparation discussion in the spring term, be involved in assessing second term work and then to supervise graduation films through to completion from end of March till Mid September.

The Senior Tutor/s will be assisted by a Teaching Fellow, drawn from a cohort of tutors, with many years of professional film experience, will provide much of the day-to-day assistance and hands-on work for all the students as well as delivering the practical parts of the core course. Like all our staff we will expect the course leader to move back and forth between professional and teaching work.

A series of masterclasses will also be held throughout the year involving filmmakers associated with Open City Docs and our partner organisations.

Who should apply?

If you have a social science or arts and humanities background and wish to undertake training in ethnographic or documentary film production,

If you have a science background but wish to use film to research and investigate the social world and tell stories about it.

If you seek to develop expertise in the practice of factual, ethnographic and documentary filmmaking, rooted in an understanding of the social and aesthetic underpinnings of the creating of factual moving image will find a welcoming home in this programme.

We imagine that this course will attract a wide range of students with diverse interests.

Some of you will be aiming to use moving image as a tool of social research; others will hope to use film to communicate existing research ideas. All students, however, will be trained to use that unique capacity of film to take us deep into unfamiliar places and create new forms of engagement with the social world.

This MA will also work for people engaged in the broad world of media, who wish to take time out to develop their career in a new direction and to train in the unique combination of specialist skills (intellectual and technical) that a film program based in a university environment can offer.

Entry Requirements?

Normally an upper second-class Bachelor's degree in a social science, arts, humanities or science discipline from a UK university or an overseas qualification of an equivalent standard. 

Academically weaker applications will also be considered provided that they are supported by experience in visual arts or film-making. Applicants with prior technical knowledge of film-making are asked to send a video portfolio of up to 20’ duration (Vimeo link recommended). Applicants without a video portfolio are asked to complete a photo essay for assessment. 

All shortlisted applicants will be asked to submit a proposal for a film or video project - to consist of no more than four sides of A4 paper, typed and double-spaced. This proposal should include: an outline of what the film is about; the characters and other elements crucial to the narrative and an outline of the film structure/narrative. (You are not committed to the proposal for the final project.)

What can I do with this MA?

The course will offer you professional training that makes you directly employable in today’s booming media labour market.

Career pathways may include

(1) visual anthropology and visual work in parallel social sciences;

(2) mass media – employing ethnographic and documentary skills and methodology to produce research and narratives of broad public interest;

(3) market research where companies like Ipsos Mori employ ethnography units that regularly use moving image as a part of their work;

(4) the many branches of industry where professional film production is an increasingly important part of communication, both internal to a company and externally to its potential customers;

(5) presentation and adaptation of form and content through new forms of distribution and exhibition, from broadcast through web distribution, and from the cinema to the social space.

Key Bibliography
  • DOCUMENTARIES ... and how to make them by Andy Glynne.. Creative Essentials, 2008. 336 pages + DVD disk. (ISBN - 13: 978-1-904048 -80- 0)
  • THE CORPOREAL IMAGE. FILM, ETNOGRAPHY, AND THE SENSES. by David MacDougall Princeton University Press, 2006. 312 pages. (ISBN 0-691-12156-7)
  • FOR DOCUMENTARY: Twelve Essays By Dai Vaughan University California Press, 1990, 215 pages, (0-520-21695-4)
  • DIGITAL FILM-MAKING By Mike Figgis Faber and Faber, 2007, (0-571-22625- 6)
  • THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX OFFICE: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution in the Digital Era, by Jon Reiss. 2009.
Further less practically oriented texts
  • Documentary Film Reader Ed Mark Cousins and Kevin MacDonald
  • Rethinking Documentary, eds Thomas Austin and Wilma de Jong
  • The Politics of Documentary, by Michael Chanan
  • Issues in Contemporary Documentary, Jane Chapman
  • The Essay Film, by Timothy Corrigan
  • The Cinema of Me, ed. Alisa Lebow
  • Killer Images, eds Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer
  • The Personal Camera, by Laura Rascaroli
  • Creating the Witness, by Leshu Torchin

Transferable Skills

We are training you for careers in:

  • Mass media including broadcast, cinematic and web-based moving image
  • Film and TV industry as camera operators, producers, directors, editors, researchers
  • Academia – ethnographic research, visual media and culture
  • Marketing and research
  • Communication and other media
  • Archives as well as cultural heritage organisations

Industry Training / Placements

There is strong evidence that the increasing demand for social and scientifically trained moving image specialists in the years ahead will continue if not accelerate (many of the graduates of our existing programmes now work in e.g. Ipsos Mori film unit, BBC world service, BBC Education etc.). We do not intend to provide assessed internships within a one year MA since we don’t think you will have time for them!

We do, however facilitate two types of placements. Firstly, we will enable short-term internships at the film companies with whom we already have relationships through Open City Docs. Secondly, we will offer all our students the opportunity to work on the collaborative film-making projects linked to MyStreet Films, and in particular the Doc in a Day workshops that have proven so successful.