Rant: Rules for ethnographic film

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The students in my Visual Anthropology course are busy in production on their ethnographic films about various aspects of life in New Haven. We talked on Monday about common pitfalls and guidelines when filming and editing an ethnographic film:

Rules when making an ethnographic film

  1. Don’t expect anything to go right. Don’t expect informants to get back to you. Informants will avoid you. Informants will get kidnapped or arrested.
  2. Sound is CRITICAL.
  3. Think about your storytelling. What is primary: the audio or visual channel? Choose a primary channel and then watch your film with the sound off or without any visuals and make sure that your primary channel works w/out backup.
  4. No one cares how difficult it was to get a particular shot/interview. If it sucks, it sucks and you shouldn’t include the vestiges of it in your film for sentimentality’s sake.
  5. Pacing is very important. Understand what beat your film is at and try to maintain it, or use change of pace/beat as a deliberate creative element.
  6. Short is good. Shorter is better.
  7. Storyboard. Storyboard. Storyboard.
  8. Think of your film in terms of shorter sequences that work to establish your story. No sequence/section should be more than 3-5 minutes long.
  9. You will run out of tapes/film/batteries/power cables at a critical moment.
  10. Talking heads suck. Sometimes it’s better to condense a 10 minute interview into three or four points that an overlay, intertitle, or VoG (voice-o-God) can summarize.

Thoughts? Comments? Please post!

p.s. of course, all rules are made to be broken! ;-)


I teach a similar class at Kansas State University and all I can say is yes, yes, yes, yes, etc. on all 10 counts. Great post. I might also add Rule 11: If you have seen it done someplace else, you can probably do it yourself. Watch TV, movies, commercials, videos, *everything* with the eye of a visual artist and feed your creativity.

Sorry to be a bit off topic. But there is "Babel" a current film which K. Nakamura has potentially significant chops to comment on.

let the story emerge organically, be open to your film, listen to your footage, don't be so rigid and push it into directions it doesn't want to go in...

subtitles are good if there is ANY question of comprehension...

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on November 14, 2006 8:47 AM.

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