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Tips for Applying to Documentary Film Internships

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 3/28/2011

Here are a few tips for those who are looking for documentary film internships.

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    Documentary Film Career

    Many people think that documentary film is a little more niche and "art house" oriented than conventional narrative film, but in reality is that the opportunities for documentary work in film and television far outweigh fiction projects. Thought documentary film follows many of the same production and post-production workflows that narrative film does, it goes beyond that because the rules for storytelling and preparation are completely opened up. Montages, re-creations, experimental segments, interviews, direct cinema moments, stock footage, and live performances all play together in a documentary film, and are built on concrete research, huge amounts of networking, as well as documentary film funding. You can only get so much experience through film school and to really develop your skills as a documentary filmmaker and get professional experience to extend your career in the field you will need a professional film internship with a non-fiction focus. Here are a few tips on how to find and apply to intern for documentary film productions and companies.

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    Internship Programs

    As with most film internships, you are going to want to focus your documentary film internships at companies that actually hold internship programs. This means that they have their internships coordinated so that they have fixed periods of time, types of tasks that you will do, and a correct contact person that you are supposed to deal with. These will often make the experience a little more valuable for you since it will give you control over what you will be covering and will bring in a much more educational experience. This also secures that you are contacting the correct department and that you will not be risking sending annoying spam to those that are not fielding documentary film internship applications. It will be best to intern for documentary film companies that are also going to give a summation report about your work, as well as provide references later on.

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    Choosing Companies

    A good documentary film internship is really going to be a balancing act. It is a good idea to apply at locations that both have a recognizable name and active productions, but if the company is too large you may end up being very far from any practical elements. The best way to focus this is to try to find a documentary film internship at a production company that has produced some of the documentary films that you admire and look closely at what they offer in terms of internships. For example, Participant Films is a well known company dealing with progressive film projects that have a minor activist element to them. They have a very varied set of film internship programs, some of which deal with documentary film and some that do not. Make sure to find the one you want here, but if you want more production experience then their program in Documentary Development may not be the location for you.

    Television offers a lot of internships, and documentary focused channels like The Smithsonian Channel at National Geographic Channel are great places. As they are so large, and since production happens in varied locations, you may end up working more on the operations of the channel and less in production, though they can set you up with the production companies that are actually producing the shows. Here they act more than just as sources of documentary film funding, but also active in the production that is done by independent production companies.

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    Intern for Documentary Film

    Documentary film is actually a lot easier to get started with, mainly because there is a specific audience and the production costs are a lot lower. When you are an intern for documentary film you will likely be actively involved in the production because of its smaller crew and the ability for different segments to be produced in differing workflows. What this all means is both that you will be relied upon when you are in your internship and that this may lead directly to a job or even the greenlight of your own documentary project. Since this is the case, you need to focus your documentary film internship on the work that you have done even more than just the academic experience you have had. Before applying to documentary film internships you may want to put together a good documentary reel or set of examples of your work. This can be the first step for a documentary film career, so try to give as much material as you can as long as it is professional and of a high quality.

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    Source: Author's own experience.