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Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists

How To Get an Archaeology Video Made

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Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists - Cover Image

Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists - Cover Image

Left Coast Press

Peter Pepe, and Joseph W. Zarzynski. 2013. Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. ISBN 978-1-61132-203-3 (paperback), 978-1-61132-203-3 institutional e-book), 978-1-61132-686-4 (commercial e-book). 186 pages, 4 appendices, a glossary, a bibliography and an index.

One of the best forms for presenting archaeological information to the public, in my opinion, is documentary film--whether that film is a video produced for PBS's Nova or National Geographic, a video for a museum shop, or simply a YouTube video of your ongoing excavations or a slide show from a class presentation. Most archaeologists have at least one good idea, one good story in the back of their minds that could make a great documentary, but we're always stopped by the sheer impossibility of the task.

Who Knew?

Who knows how to start getting a video made? Fortunately for the rest of us, film producer Peter Pepe and underwater archaeologist Joseph W. Zarzaynski do, and their 2013 book from Left Coast Press called Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists is simply jam-packed with information about the process, from fleshing out the idea to marketing the result.

The authors of Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists include Peter Pepe of Pepe Productions, who has directed and produced "Search for Jefferson Davis: Trader, Slaver, and Raider" (2011) and "Wooden Bones--The Sunken Fleet of 1758" (2012). Joseph Zarzyansk is an underwater archaeologist, and head of the Bateaux Below, Inc., a non-profit corporation that studies shipwrecks in Lake George, New York; he's been working with Pepe to produced video about Lake George. Together, they've been holding documentary film workshops at Society for Historical Archaeology meetings since 2008, and this book is a direct outgrowth of that effort.

Organized Chaos

Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists covers six major topics that will help prospective film makers, in 26 brief chapters in a fairly chronological manner that I admit found I little disorganized. Several chapters are dedicated to the history of the medium: how documentaries got started in full-feature films and how digital media has transformed the business, making it far more accessible to produce and broadcast. The content you might consider--interviews, still photography, reenactments, animation, historic film footage--is treated in three chapters.

There are a few chapters that describe the kind of equipment and skills of the people you'll need to produce your film; and there are an uncountable number of off-hand tips on film making from knowing which is the best reenactor to choose for your film to how many hours of film you need to shoot to get an hour of movie. For my own nefarious purposes, I put together this informal index:

  • History of the medium: Chapters 2, 3, 5, 21
  • Types of videos: Chapters 10, 24, 25
  • Equipment and people you will need: Chapters 1, 4, 12, 15
  • Process of making a documentary: Chapters 6-9, 11-20
  • Types of content: Chapters 13, 14, 17
  • Tips 1, throughout

The Process of Making a Documentary

But the heart of the book starts with Chapter 6, "The Stages of Documentary Film Production", which outlines the major steps in how to go about the process of making a film. Subsequent chapters help the reader flesh out an idea, pitch a proposal, find support, develop a budget, find funding, assemble a crew, write a script, shoot the film, pick a narrator, set up and make the individual shots, interweave the commentary and other pieces, edit the film, find a distributor, make a trailer, and market and broadcast your finished film. Whew!

Four appendices are thrown in for good measure: a sample proposal, treatment, video script and budget.

Bottom Line

This book is seriously chock-full of suggestions: despite the slight disorganization, and maybe a little because of it, you get the feel of how you might take an idea and develop into a video worth being proud of.

If you have a great idea for a documentary film, whether you think it should be on the History Channel or simply for sale at the local historical society, pick up a copy of Documentary Filmmaking for Archaeologists and read it cover to cover, twice. You just might end up with your name in lights. This also might make a good text for a class in public archaeology: the book is available in commercial and institutional ebook formats.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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