Documentary filmmaking is an amazing way to express ideas to a large audience in a way that’s fun and informational at the same time. You can go to some specialized documentary film schools to learn how to make documentaries.
Even though film schools in the United States are many, there aren’t many that offer a specific program targeted to documentary filmmaking.
Some programs are affiliated with universities but mostly independent, and others may have a few courses within the filmmaking department. Other colleges may have documentary filmmaking-specific courses under the journalism or communications programs.
This actually makes sense, since there are so many different kinds of documentaries: feature films, TV shows, or even short films.
Below, we have listed what we feel are the best documentary film programs and schools. Remember that each kind of program has its own format, so you’ll need to consider that before you apply. In some cases, you’ll just be able to sign up for the course.
In other cases, you’ll need to enroll into a larger degree program, and in other cases, you can find documentary making classes within other liberal arts programs.
Film schools that have documentary filmmaking courses
1. Stanford University MFA program in Documentary Film and Video
MFA stands for Masters of Fine Arts, and the Stanford program is one of the top documentary filmmaking programs available. The program is 2 years, and incredibly exclusive: only 8 students are accepted every year. Once you graduate, you can teach documentary filmmaking at university level yourself.
Throughout the course, you will learn about the artistic side of filmmaking as well as the history, skills you can use to make documentaries, and of course, the assignments you complete will help you form a portfolio of documentaries before you graduate.
2. University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts
Our next choice for the top documentary film school isn’t necessarily number 2 on the list, but we would consider it on par or even better than the Stanford University program.
While the focus of the program is not specifically on documentaries, students can choose to focus on fiction and non-fiction filmmaking.
Fiction and non-fiction both go hand in hand in making compelling films. Learning fiction filmmaking helps you tell a good story that keeps your audience hooked, and learning non-fiction filmmaking will help you make better characters and let you develop more realistic and believable stories.
Liberal arts colleges with film courses
3. Columbia College Chicago
Home to the largest film school program in the United States, Columbia College Chicago is unique among liberal arts colleges. On the surface, it would seem like any other liberal arts college and the courses they offer are quite similar. However, they have a large Cinema Art and Science department, which has the Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary Film.
Columbia College Chicago offers more than 30 classes in documentary filmmaking. Most of these will be part of the Cinema Arts and Science program but some courses will fall under the Television department too.
4. American University School of Communications
The Center for Media and Social Impact at the American University School of Communications literally wrote the book on documentary filmmaking. They have published the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, which is still considered to be the manual for documentary films.
Interestingly enough, the American University also has a dedicated sub-specialization within filmmaking called the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, which makes this school a huge plus for students who wish to specialize in environmental and nature films.
5. UC Berkeley School of Journalism (Documentary Film Program)
UC Berkeley has one of the best Journalism Schools in the United States. Within the Journalism school, you can learn about documentary filmmaking. The unique thing about UC Berkeley is a focus on television documentaries(not necessary feature films).
Television documentaries are growing in demand and popularity, and final submissions by students are often picked up for primetime broadcasting by PBS and cable TV networks.
Students’ projects also get regular exposure in regional broadcasts and at film festivals.
6. Duke University Center for Documentary Studies
One of the first documentary film programs in the USA is at Duke University. The Center for Documentary Studies has a very wide array of classes that lead into a documentary filmmaking education. These start with comparatively simple topics like photography and build up into the production and academic facets of making documentaries.
Duke is home to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival which takes place annually and is one of the best documentary film festivals in the country.
You can opt to enter their undergrad program, work on an MFA, or take their continuing education classes which anyone can enroll in during the summer.
Documentary film courses
7. Maine Media Documentary Film School
At Maine Media you can attend a four week workshop on documentary filmmaking. You’ll participate in hands-on sessions in making documentaries. The topics you’ll study include researching, developing, producing, editing, and how to work as a team. Films created through the program have been featured at festivals and broadcasted nationally on public television.
8. New York Film Academy
Interestingly enough, the New York Film Academy’s documentary workshop/course is offered in both New York City and Los Angeles. This is a one year course divided into two semesters.
You’ll start out with the history of the subject matter, as well as the artistic side of it, and you’ll progress to hands-on filmmaking as well. You’ll be shooting various documentaries during this program and your passing will be subject to a completed thesis film.
9. George Washington University
George Washington University has a six month program for learning documentary filmmaking. It is very intense and covers a lot of subject matter, split into two. The first is the history of documentary film and why it is such an important genre, mixed in with some camera workshops.
The second is a project where the students work as a group to create a short documentary all the way from concept to final product.
You will learn about everything including genres, lighting, shooting, editing, and screenwriting.