Documentary Film Historical/ Research Consultant
I talked to two researchers who performed research for production companies, one for a smaller company focusing on documentary and commercial work and the other for a larger company working on small, independent films. From them I discovered there are two main options for being involved in the research aspect of documentary/ motion picture filmmaking.
The first is to be a freelance consultant. This allows you to specialize in a certain field of research, say chemistry or European history, and work with several production companies. This option values your expertise over your research skills. The downside to this option is that by working as a freelance researcher you constantly have to seek out clients in order to make your business profitable. This means that you could go months between jobs and it may take a long time to build up your reputation in the business. Additionally, once you specialize in your area of expertise, you are limited to working on films covering that subject. If only one film on the Black Death is filmed per year, and you are lucky enough to be hired, it may be the only income you get from films for the year. Most of the people in this profession work as authors, professors, and other full time jobs and do this a side hobby or passion.
The second option is to work as a full-time researcher for a production company. This option allows you to work on a wide variety of research topic and values your research skills over your specialized expertise. With this option, you typically work with one production company (or two if they are partnered production companies) and you work on whatever projects are currently under production. You may research the impact of red tides for one film and the Biblical basis for creation for another. The downside of this option is that you may have to work on projects you do not enjoy and do not develop an expertise on any one given subject. The upside is that you have a steady stream of income and work.
Some of the considerations for both of these jobs are that there is a lot of overtime, travel, and additional work involved. Often the job of researching is just one of the aspects of someone’s job. They may also be an associate producer, secretary, production coordinator, or even host. The smaller the team working on a given project, the more roles each person will have to fill. One of the things that both people I talked to agree upon is that in order to work in the documentary film business, you must have an educational background that includes some documentary production experience and education. This is a little less important for the freelancers than the contract researchers, but it makes both more attractive hires.
Both of their paths were pretty similar, so I’m going to talk about them as one general path. They started by working on student production in college, then did internships with production companies as gaffers (holding lights) and production assistants (helping with setting up equipment), and were finally hired. They agreed that to start in any position in this industry you have to be willing to work for free for a while. Their degrees were in communications but they thought that the MAHR might be an attractive option for researchers to look at. They work on a variety of projects from commercials, to short how-to style documentaries, to small, independent films. They said that on top of their jobs they often do a lot of volunteer work for other filmmakers. This is because most independent films are either paid for by the filmmakers or a donor, but never heavily financed. This also means that researchers who work on smaller projects are likely to get paid less, if at all, for their work than contract researchers.
Another consideration of these jobs is that depending on whether you are working on a documentary or a feature film, your role and the production’s adherence to the research may vary. For a documentary, most filmmakers want to maintain credibility and therefore stick close to the research. Though they do have the problem that faces many historians: how do they edit the material without sacrificing the voice and meaning of the original subject? Many interviews can go for an hour and only sixty seconds will be used for the film. How do you maintain the meaning and intent of the person while getting the most interesting of their comments?
For feature films, your role may be more of guidance than an authority. If you discover that the union army used a certain type of gun powder that produced a small puff of smoke but the director wants to use a type of gunpowder that produces a large plume of smoke, chances are he will go with his choice. For movies, historical research may take second consideration to the visual or storytelling aspects of the film.