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Documentary by Practice (MA)

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Course overview

This is an exciting and dynamic time for documentary practice; in recent years there has been a renaissance in documentary, seeing huge developments in both technology and form. Documentary stories are now being told via telecommunications, in cinemas, on TV, and online.

In this contemporary course you will be provided tuition in the technological, ethical and intellectual developments in this recent boom in theatrical, broadcast and cross platform documentary. You will be taught by award winning documentary filmmakers and high profile TV, film and cross platform commissioners. Tutors Marc Isaacs , Helen Littleboy and Victoria Mapplebeck, are all active filmmakers with excellent industry contacts and through collaborating with them on work in progress you will gain a unique learning opportunity that will provide genuine vocational experience. We also welcome regular guest lecturers, giving students a direct link to industry professionals and the opportunity to learn from their substantial experience and expertise.

On graduating, our students are skilled in creative and professional documentary practice. We have one of the highest employability rates amongst UK Universities and our graduates have gone on to become award-winning filmmakers and journalists.

This is a split campus course, taught in both Egham and Bedford Square in central London.'

Key facts

Key facts about the course
Qualification Master of Arts
Duration 1 year full-time
Department and Faculty Media Arts, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Partner institution(s) --
Course director Victoria Mapplebeck
+44(0)1784 444110
Contact for more information Angela Godden
+44(0)1784 414629

Fees / funding

Please visit the Fees and funding pages for the latest information about tuition fees and the different sources of funding which may be available to you.

How to apply

Applications for entry to all our full-time postgraduate degrees can be made online.

Further information on making an application, including the documentation that you will need to submit with the application is available in the How to apply section of this site.

If you are interested in applying to Royal Holloway, why not arrange a visit to our campus to see for yourself what academic and student life is like here. More information on arranging visits is available on our Open days pages.


Entry requirements

Entry criteria:

UK Upper Second Class Honours degree (2:1). or equivalent, in Literature, Fine Art, Media or a related discipline.

Students with degrees in other subjects will also be considered, as will those with relevant professional or creative experience

English language requirements:

IELTS score of 6.5 with 6.5 in writing for non-native English speaking applicants.

This is a practical course designed to equip you with the relevant skills to work in the industry. You should have experience of documentary-making and possess the drive needed to succeed in the area.

Students from overseas should visit the International pages for information on the entry requirements from their country and further information on English language requirements. Royal Holloway offers a Pre-Master’s Diploma for International Students and English language pre-sessional courses, allowing students the opportunity to develop their study skills and English language before starting their postgraduate degree.


Additional requirements:

  • You will be required to submit a short documentary or a five -minute extract of a film you have filmed, directed or produced. (This should be on VHS (PAL) or DVD.)
  • You will also need to submit a two page synopsis for a documentary film you would like to make, giving an idea of style as well as content.

Why choose this course?

  • We have had regular lectures from award winning filmmaker Marc Isaacs, Channel 4 commissioner Kate Vogel and Emily Renshaw Smith, commissioner of Current TV. Forthcoming guest lectures include BBC Director Adam Curtis, feature director Chris Waitts and Matt Locke, Commissioning Editor for New Media and Education at Channel 4.
  • Guest commissioners provide students with knowledge of and links to current commissioning strategies. Several of our invited commissioners have subsequently worked with our students on developing their projects.
  • You will have exclusive 24-7 access to six purpose-built editing rooms equipped with Final Cut Studio 2 on Mac Pro editing systems. Our Location Store provides an equipment loan and advisory support service with a lending stock that includes twenty Sony HVR-V1E cameras, twenty Sennheiser radio microphone kits and a selection of professional quality sound recording and lighting equipment.
  • With access to the latest digital recording and editing equipment, and covering areas from authorship to authenticity, this course offers you an in-depth study of creative production, taking you from conception through commissioning to research, composition and exhibition.
  • You will be provided with excellent tuition in self-shooting documentary filmmaking techniques. You will be able to meet the growing demand for self-shooting directors and producers in both the independent and commercial documentary industries.

Department research and industry highlights

  • TRENT is an exciting and innovative collaborative project between the British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC) and Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Led by John Ellis the project brings together the nine existing online databases hosted and curated by the BUFVC which provide important film, radio and television material along with accompanying metadata and contextual information for academics, students, teachers and researchers. This project brings together all the material contained in these databases, yet Trent is not simply a master database. Instead it foregrounds creative searching through a common interactive interface using real-time ‘intelligent’ filtering to bringing disparate databases into a single search and discovery environment whilst maintaining the integrity and individual provenance of each.
  • The EUscreen project is major funded EU project which aims to digitise and provide access to European’s audio-visual heritage. This innovative and ambitious three year project began in October 2009 and the project consortium is made up of 28 partners from 19 European countries and is a best practice network within the eContentplus programme of the European Commission. The Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway’s is responsible for the content selection policy for EUscreen and those involved include John Ellis, Rob Turnock and Sian Barber.
  • Video Active is a major EU-funded project aiming to create access to digitised television programme content from archives around Europe. It involves collaboration between the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway and Utrecht University, and eleven European archives including the BBC, to provide access to content and supporting contextual materials via a specially designed web portal. The team from the Department of Media Arts, who are John Ellis, Cathy Johnson and Rob Turnock, are responsible for developing content selection strategy and policy for the project.
  • Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe is an AHRC-funded international Research Network, led by Daniela Berghahn, which brings together researchers from ten UK and European universities, filmmakers, policy makers and representatives from the cultural sector. The Research Network explores how the films of migrant and diasporic filmmakers have redefined our understanding of European identity as constructed and narrated in European cinema. The project seeks to identify the numerous ways in which multi-cultural and multi-ethnic presences and themes have revitalised contemporary European cinema by introducing an eclectic mix of non-Western traditions and new genres.
  • Lina Khatib was awarded an AHRC Research Leave Grant to complete a book on the representation of Lebanese politics and society in Lebanese cinema over the last thirty years. The study focuses on cinema’s relationship with national identity in the context of the Civil War and the post-war period in Lebanon.
  • Gideon Koppel was awarded an AHRC Research Leave Grant to complete his feature-length documentary portrait of a rural community in Wales, The Library Van, which has been partly funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

Course content and structure

You will study three core units during the year.

Core course units:

From Idea to Screen 
From Idea to Screen introduces the practice of documentary film making - exploring eclectic notions of the genre, from the conventional to those more associated with fine art. The course tutors also use their own work which is deconstructed across all its constituent parts idea, conception, pre-production planning, and research, shooting and post-production. Ideas to Screen will explore ways of translating observations and ideas into imagery – both visual and aural. There will be an emphasis on experimental forms of narrative – at time crossing the boundaries between fine art and documentary. For the final and assessed project in this unit, each student will be asked make a video ‘portrait’ of a character.

Foundations of Production
Contemporary documentary production requires managerial and business skills as well as creative ones. This unit will instruct you in the industrial skills required for the production of video, television and multimedia documentary. These include researching the market, writing proposals, acquiring funding for development and production, drafting contracts, drawing up budgets, copyright clearance, and marketing.

Major Documentary Production – Dissertation
Developing out of study, research and practice from previous units, you will direct and produce a substantial documentary production. This is the largest assignment in the course and is appropriately weighted. The unit is tutorial based.


On completion of the course graduates will have:

  • gained invaluable experience of both authored and commercial documentary production
  • the ability to develop their own ideas, preparing them for the documentary industry but also finding ways to reinvent it
  • an understanding of documentary film genre and its changing boundaries as well as the changing technologies and their impact on the genre
  • an advanced understanding of the processes of making a documentary film from initial concept to final form and the various stages of production.
  • an awareness of the institutions and mechanisms of the UK film and television industry
  • a critical knowledge of the current and changing platforms for documentary film, from cinema to television and the internet.

View the full course specification for Documentary by Practice (MA) in the Programme Specification Repository


Assessment is carried out by a variety of methods including project work, photo essays and written production papers.

Employability & career opportunities

On graduating, our students will be skilled in creative and professional documentary practice. We have one of the highest employability rates amongst UK Universities and our graduates have become award-winning filmmakers and BBC journalists; recently one of our alumni Charlotte Cook was appointed Strand Co -Coordinator of BBC’s prestigious Documentary Strand Storyville.

Our graduate students have won and been nominated for many awards including, The One World Broadcasting Trust Award and The Jerwood First Cuts Documentary. In 2009 two of our students, Aashish Gadhvi and Michael Watts won the One World Student Documentary Fund which funds challenging international documentary projects.

Syed Atef Amjad Ali has recently had his film The Red Mosque previewed at The Amsterdam International Documentary Festival. The Red Mosque was made with production funds Syed received from The Jan Virijman Fund and also from the One World-Broadcasting Award.

Chung Yee Yu has won the Cinematography Award at Next Frame (A Touring Festival of International Student Film and Video) Chung Yee Yu has also won the Silver Award of Open Category of IFVA (The Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards)

Recent graduate Suzanne Cohen has just has her work selected for the BBC’s Film Network website; an interactive showcase for ‘new British filmmakers, screening three new short films in broadband quality every week, adding to a growing catalogue of great shorts’.


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