Documentary School

6 Environmental Documentaries to Watch on Earth Day

For nearly fifty years, Earth Day has been celebrated worldwide to demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection. Originally, environmental issues ranged from cleaning up air pollution and acid rain to safety oversight over fossil fuel companies. The last few years has seen more of a concern of global climate change and the wide-ranging effects warming and acidifying oceans will have on both weather and sociopolitical dynamics around the world.

Environmental topics have been the focus of countless films, including narrative disaster films like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow, which sees the world overtaken by everything from giant tornados to tsunamis that freeze over. Even Pixar film WALL-E features a garbage-covered Earth that is no longer habitable to life.

Perhaps the most interesting environmental films of all are the true ones though—documentaries that portray the delicate balance of natural life on the planet, and all the ways society can upset that balance.

Here are just a few documentaries you can check out this Earth Day:

The 11th Hour

Directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, The 11th Hour gained a lot of buzz when it was realized for its association with producer, co-writer, narrator, and creator of the film—Hollywood megastar and noted environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio. The 2007 film interviews a murderer’s row of scientists, politicians, and activists, and places a focus on the myriad problems that pose dangerous threats to the planet, while offering possible solutions that are just as varied in their strategy.

Our Planet

The high profile docuseries Our Planet is Netflix’s own take on the Planet Earth series—Netflix went as far as working with Planet Earth producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and hiring David Attenborough to narrate this series as well. Each of the eight episodes of the series focuses on a specific part of the planet, from seas to deserts to forests and everything in between. The docuseries has become event television this spring, with an early Hollywood screening in February moderated by NYFA Acting for Film alum Lana Condor giving Our Planet some early buzz.

Everything’s Cool

Everything’s Cool was directed by Dan Gold and Judith Helfand and was first shown at Sundance in 2007. Unlike many other environmental films, the documentary focuses more on the politics and public perception of climate change, rather than the science behind it. This important angle is especially key at a time when the world’s scientists have come to a consensus that action needs to be taken to prepare and respond to climate change, while the laws and practices of nations and private corporations have yet to catch up.

Gasland

The 2010 film Gasland was directed by Josh Fox and showcased harrowing footage of local families dealing with the disastrous effects of corporate fracking—the process of stimulating natural gas production by injecting the ground with copious amounts of liquid chemicals. The film made fracking a hot button issue to this day, and brought to light some of the shocking side effects of the drilling method, such as water coming out of kitchen sink taps that could be lit on fire with a match.

An Inconvenient Truth

The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth helped kickstart the latest wave of environmental activism, as well as a slew of environmental documentaries that followed in its wake. Based around a slideshow given by former Vice President and environmentalist Al Gore, the film focuses on carbon dioxide’s effect on climate change, and won two Academy Awards for its efforts—Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song.

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio from 1982, with a score by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke, who mostly used slow motion and time-lapse footage of both urban areas and natural landscapes. The avant garde film is very much open for interpretation, allowing its viewers to lose themselves in its sometimes haunting imagery and music. While nothing is told outright to the audience, the relationship between humanity, technology, and nature is clearly the focus of the film, raising questions about how these connections affect the world around us and will affect the world around us for decades to come.

With every passing Earth Day, these questions are becoming more important than ever.

2019 Oscars: Best Documentary Feature Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards, to be given out during ABC’s televised ceremony on Sunday, February 24. New York Film Academy (NYFA) is incredibly proud that two of the nominees, Free Solo and RBG, were worked on by faculty members of our Documentary Filmmaking school.

The Oscars will cap off a months-long awards season featuring industry veterans, newcomers, and as always, endless debates about who deserves to go home with the golden statue.

New York Film Academy takes a closer look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature:

2019 best documentary

Free Solo

Free Solo profiles Alex Honnold as he attempts to free solo climb, without the aid of ropes, El Capitan. The film has already won several top awards, including the BAFTA for Best Documentary, and was edited by NYFA instructor Bob Eisenhardt and directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. This is the first Oscar nomination for Vasarhelyi and Chin, who also directed climbing doc Meru. Vasarhelyi also directed the documentaries A Normal Life, Touba, and Incorruptible, among others.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Hale County This Morning, This Evening won the Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at Sundance and documents the citizens of Hale County in Alabama’s Black Belt. The film has already been nominated for and won several awards, including Best Documentary at the Gotham Awards. Ross has worked as a cinematographer, producer, and editor, all positions he served on Hale County. This is his first Academy Award nomination.

Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap showcases three young skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois and won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival. This was the directorial debut of Bing Liu, who worked a cinematographer on the short films Collinsville, Mistress, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Zombies, and crewed on Hollywood blockbusters like Jupiter Ascending, Divergent, and Transcendence, as well as television shows Shameless, Sirens, and The Girlfriend Experience.

Of Fathers and Sons

Director Talal Derki risked his own safety and life to document radical jihadism and terrorist training camps in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, following the Osama family—a father and two sons—as they dig deeper into their beliefs and face the consequences that ensue. The film won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, among other accolades. Derki previously shot and directed the documentary The Return to Homs. This is his first Oscar nomination.

RBG

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is profiled in the wildly popular and successful documentary, RBG. The film was shot by cinematographer and NYFA instructor Claudia Racshke and directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. This is the directorial debut of West, who previously produced films such as Whiz Kids, Constantine’s Sword, The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem, and The Lavender Scare. Cohen has produced for Dateline NBC and directed the documentaries The Unforgettable Hampton Family, A Joyous Sound, The Sturgeon Queens, and American Veteran, among others. This is the first Oscar nomination for both.

 

Check out the New York Film Academy Blog after this year’s ceremony for a full list of the 2019 Oscar winners and losers!

When is it Right to Expand Your Documentary to a Docuseries?

There’s no denying the growth in popularity of documentaries in the last 20 years. From Morgan Spurlock’s fast food adventures in 2004’s Super Size Me to the focus on SeaWorld’s controversial orca in Blackfish nearly a decade later, documentaries have been making a difference as more people show interest in factual and not just fictional stories.

Docuseries, however, have shown the greatest surge of late, almost entirely due to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and the expansion of HBO’s original content output. Audiences have a better ability than ever before to watch what they want when they want — the perfect platform for episodic content.

If you’re entertaining the idea of expanding your documentary to a docuseries, consider the following to help you decide if it’s the right (or wrong) move for your project:

Netflix

You have something truly unique

Perhaps one of the best ways to gauge if your documentary would be more effective if expanded into a docuseries is by asking yourself one question — is your subject fresh and exciting?

Elaine Frontain Bryant, Executive Vice President of A&E, shared an interesting nugget of information concerning how vibrant and competitive the docuseries market has become: “In the world of the DVR and trying to be Netflix-and-streamer-proof, it’s the subjects that people haven’t seen before that feel the hottest,” she said during a talk with realscreen.

Additionally, your access to the story should be unique. Whether that comes through your own personal drive and good research (see below) or a natural, personal connection to a subject, your documentary should be one that only you can tell. It is this unique angle that will make your story fresh and interesting to an audience looking for something new.

You have a story you really care about

If you’re putting in the effort into making a film, be it documentary or narrative, you likely already have a personal investment in the story. When it comes to creating a docuseries that requires following a subject or people for an extended period of time, you will need that passion throughout the process.

Docuseries often need extra time as you research, plan, shoot, and edit each and every episode. The less interest you have, the harder it may be to maintain a high level of creativity and dedication. Find a subject that you’re so passionate about that you are willing to give your all to tell its story.

Camera

Your subject is interesting enough

If you feel that your subject matter is unique and you have a lot of passion for it, the next thing to ask yourself is if people will still be interested after the first two or three episodes of your series.

Many of the most groundbreaking documentaries in recent years were effective because they formed an emotional connection with viewers. Although docuseries can provide powerful and thought-provoking content, the story needs to be especially captivating if you want to preserve interest for several episodes as opposed to single feature-length sitting.

You’re ready to do the work

Filmmaking is tough endeavor, no matter what kind of project you have in mind. The fact that docuseries are episodic and require additional hours of content means you’ll inevitably have that much more work to do.

This includes through research, following leads, fact-checking, creating outlines, shooting and editing content, and so much more. If you don’t think you’ll have the time or energy to take on such a feat, expanding your documentary film into a docuseries is probably not the right choice.

Interested in studying documentary filmmaking? Check out more information on New York Film Academy’s documentary school programs here.

A Q&A With New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton on Creative Circles Forum

New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton has made her career by producing incredible films on the history of Broadway. She is a member and Co-Chairperson of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers-West, and an expert on documentary filmmaking. Her work includes productions for KCET, WABC, NBC and Discovery. She recently sat on a panel at Burbank Arts for All to discuss the future of documentary filmmaking.

Hamilton took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss why these conversations are important to the community with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith.

NYFA: What is the goal of Burbank Arts for All?

Hamilton: Burbank Arts for All, or BAFA, is a foundation that provides funding for arts programs and arts-related materials and equipment to educational institutions located in Burbank. Because the budgets for school arts programs are often limited, BAFA raises funds from corporate donors, then turns around and gives grants that enable dance, music, visual and graphic arts programs to thrive in the Burbank schools. Schools can apply to BAFA and get, for example, musical instruments to replace broken ones, a ballet barre for a dance studio, lighting for theatrical productions, or a 3D graphics printer.  

NYFA: How did you become involved in the project?

Hamilton: I became aware of BAFA because I teach NYFA’s Community Film Project, and I researched local nonprofit organizations that my students could choose from to do pro bono work.  My 2014 MFA class selected BAFA to be the recipient of a promotional video that the students produced, and it was well received.  

As a result of this working relationship with BAFA, I was then invited to participate as a panelist in their annual Creative Circles Forum on Documentary Films, held Nov. 8th.  The panelists included Chief Financial Officer, Rugged Entertainment  Kelly Bevan, Burbank High School Digital Video Production Teacher Amy Winn, Writer-Director at New Filmmakers Los Angeles Varda Bar-Kar, and Academy® and Emmy® Award nominated Director/Producer and President/CEO, Rugged Entertainment Peter Spirer.

NYFA: What topics were you most excited to discuss?

Hamilton: We spoke on the industry from our various perspectives, and I talked about documentaries as a creative art form. There was so much to cover, and not enough time to cover it all, but the most important discussion for me was centered around recognizing that documentaries have become a major source of valuable information. In the last few years, the increasing popularity of documentaries has made them a welcome alternative to news outlets for information that’s trusted.  

NYFA: What was your goal for the evening?

Hamilton: My goal was to show that creating documentaries can be just as interesting as narrative filmmaking, and can lead to job opportunities in entertainment beyond documentary production.  I also mentioned that the international student population at NYFA provides a great forum to network and develop lasting relationships that are helpful in the professional world upon graduation.  The time flew by, and there was plenty of insight provided by the panel.   I certainly enjoyed the evening, and hopefully, the audience took note of the great information that was shared.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Denise Hamilton for taking the time to speak with us about her endeavors.