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Many people who want to become a documentarian opt to go to school to learn about the techniques they can use, the ethical issues they may encounter, and the art of storytelling and drawing people into documentaries in a way which will ensure that they watch them. This is not the only way to become a documentarian, however, and those who are not interested in attending school have a variety of options. Whichever method someone pursues, it is important to be aware that the documentary market is small, and that many documentarians spend much of their careers earning little money and minimal recognition. A “hit” in the documentary world is a comparatively small, and people do not go into documentary filmmaking or journalism for fame and fortune.
Numerous colleges and universities offer programs in documentary filmmaking for people who want to become a documentarian. It is also possible to work as a documentary journalist or photographer, in which case journalism programs might be more suitable than documentary programs. Many graduates go on to complete graduate work with gives them an opportunity to train with notable people in the field. A master's thesis can also be used as a demo reel or portfolio project which may help a student get a foot in the door.
Another option for someone interested in training as a documentarian is to apprentice with a documentarian. In this case, the student can become a documentarian by working with someone who makes or produces documentaries. One advantage to this type of training is that it plunges the student into a world of work experience immediately. It can also allow opportunities to work in many different crew positions and to learn about the work behind getting financing and distribution.
People who would like to become a documentarian through on the job experience often start out as unpaid interns. Many documentarians work independently and may have limited funding available, and when they do have contracts with larger studios, they are often expected to keep costs low by using unpaid interns on their crews. As an intern gains more experience, she or he can start to take paying jobs, although the pay may need to be supplemented with outside work.
It is also possible to approach documentary work from a background in film or television production. In this case, someone can receive training in this area and may also have work experience, before turning to documentary production.
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