Story to screen

A student skilled at card tricks. The curious popularity of a new campus health drink. An elaborate Egyptian opera, never performed, that lives on the shelves of the Wheaton archives. These are just a few of the stories students have been exploring through film this semester in Patrick Johnson’s “Documentary Storytelling” course.

The class, which was offered once before as an experimental course and is now an official part of the curriculum, focuses heavily on doing rather than discussing. The bulk of class time is spent making movies: the best way to learn, according to Johnson, assistant professor of filmmaking.

“The goal of the class is to give students exposure to the conventions of the short documentary film and provide them with tools and techniques to successfully produce their own,” he said. “In my opinion, there is no better way of learning than being actively engaged in the making process. You try, succeed or fail, learn and repeat.”

During the semester, students were asked to make two solo films outside class as well as three in-class films as part of small groups. Both opportunities provided unique lessons and challenges.

“Working in class is a great experience, because we can work with our peers and collaborate on the filmmaking process, while out-of-class projects let us explore our individual interests,” said Josh Zaleznik ’16, a film and new media studies major.

In class, Zaleznik worked on a video highlighting the Wheaton Autonomous Learning Environment, or WHALE Lab. Outside of class, he produced a piece about a Wheaton student and former Boy Scout who practices his survival skills in the great outdoors.

“That’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve done, mostly because I love the act of actual production and I worked two cameras and audio equipment simultaneously, which was a huge challenge,” Zaleznik said of his short film, “Nick Argy: Survivalist.”

For some students, adjusting to the style of documentary filmmaking was its own challenge.

“Since documentaries are not scripted like fiction films, the story has to be composed throughout the process of interviewing, researching, shooting and editing. Sometimes it’s hard to find a clear story, and a lot of thinking has to be done,” said Ellie Levine ’18, a film and new media students major.

The documentary class offered another way to explore filmmaking, and Levine said she has picked up valuable new skills.

“I’ve learned a lot about a side of filmmaking I wasn’t familiar with, and especially how there really is a story in everything,” she said. “A technical and creative skill I’ve learned is how to research and appropriately handle found footage from online and archival sources—there’s so much that can be included, and it’s tough to decide what will be the most informative and captivating image to add.”

For one of their in-class projects, the students teamed up with Zephorene Stickney Helmreich, who oversees the Marion B. Gebbie Archives and Wheaton’s Special Collections. Working in groups, the students selected items—such as a Florida voting booth from the 2000 presidential election (the year of the “hanging chads”) or a 19th century woman’s corset—conducted research and collected news and sound clips to develop individual short films that explored each item’s history.

“They made archival materials ‘come alive’ in a manner that usually only lives inside my head, and I am delighted that they were able to see and capture the potential for these otherwise inanimate objects,” Helmreich said.

Helmreich plans to post the films on the archives web page as a way of illustrating the rich diversity of Wheaton’s collections and to encourage other creative uses of these collections.

The archives project was a favorite of Lauren Hirata ’16, a double major in film and new media studies and religion. Hirata’s film focused on an opera, “The Diadem of Stars,” which was written by a woman based on conversations she claimed to have had with the Egyptian god Ra.

“It was incredibly interesting to hear about the history of the composer as well as see sketches of set pieces and costumes,” Hirata said. “I was able to take a new creative approach to the film, and it worked really well. Seeing myself take a risk that resulted in a successful product was rewarding.”


Here are a few of the short films produced this semester by students in Assistant Professor of Filmmaking Patrick Johnson’s “Documentary Storytelling” class.

“AK The Magician” by Lauren Hirata ’18
“The Hidden Harpist” by Eleanor Levine ’18
“WHALE Lab” by Josh Zaleznik
“Diadem of Stars” by Lauren Hirata ’16
“Wheaton Rooms: Then and Now” by Emily Gustavson ’17
“Beauty Is Pain” by Amanda Albert