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Situated in the Department of Art & Art History as part of Stanford’s program in Film and Media Studies, the Master of Fine Arts program in documentary production provides a historical, theoretical, and critical framework within which students master the conceptual and practical skills for producing nonfiction film and video.
The MFA degree is designed to prepare students for professional careers in film, video, and digital media. Graduates are qualified to teach at the university level. The philosophy of the program is predicated on a paradigm of independent media that values artistic expression, aesthetics, social awareness, and an articulated perspective. Students become conversant with the documentary tradition as well as with alternative media and new directions in documentary.
In addition to the core production courses, students take a range of film studies, documentary film history, art history, and art practice courses, helping them situate their documentary film practice within a context of critical engagement with the world. The MFA degree is designed to prepare students for professional careers in film, video, and digital media. Graduates are qualified to teach at the university level.
In their first year, students learn the fundamentals of visual storytelling, working in a range of media, from black and white 16mm film to digital video. Each film is made within a collaborative partnership, and while students serve as directors of their own projects, the partnerships encourage collegial interaction and foster community, one of the strengths of the program. A testament to the success of this approach is the number of long-standing professional relationships among our graduate alumni.
In their second year, the students produce a 15-20 minute thesis film over the course of the academic year. The films engage with pressing social issues while taking a bold, cinematic approach to documentary storytelling. Thesis films from the program have gone on to screen at major festivals (Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca, among others), have been broadcast on PBS’ POV and Independent Lens, featured on the NYTimes’ Op-Docs, and have won major awards. Stanford films have garnered more Student Academy Awards in the Documentary Category than any other college or university.
A minimum of 76 units is required for the M.F.A. degree. In the production core, students are required to conceptualize and visualize their ideas in a series of writing and producing courses that focus on documentary story structure. These courses are taken in tandem with project-based production courses that provide training in the technical and conceptual aspects of cinematography, sound recording, and editing. Discussion of form and content is a signature component of the writing and production courses. The production core is complemented by a series of required film studies courses in documentary plus elective courses in the history, aesthetics, ideology, and theory of all genres of moving image media. All courses must be taken for a letter grade.
M.F.A. Thesis Project
In the second year of the program, each student produces a 15-20 minute documentary that constitutes the thesis project. In FILMPROD 405 Producing Practicum, students research and develop their project and write a proposal for submission. A project may not begin production until the written proposal has been approved. Most of the production and post-production occurs (in Winter and Spring quarters) in FILMPROD 406A and FILMPROD 406B.
The program is intensive and requires residency for two consecutive years. The admissions committee seeks applicants who are highly motivated, have some work experience beyond their undergraduate years, and can articulate why they want to learn documentary film and video production. The committee looks for evidence of the likelihood of success in an academically demanding program that emphasizes creative work. The conceptual and technical skills required for documentary work are sufficiently different from fictional narrative to make the Stanford program inappropriate for students interested in narrative filmmaking.
University Application Materials
The application for admission as well as general information about applying is available from the Graduate Admissions website, please visit to Graduate Admissions to apply. Prior to applying you must first determine if you are eligible - application eligibility (undergraduate degree requirements). International applicants, please also see Bechtel International Center and Graduate Admissions International Applicants for more information and any additional application requirements.
Prospective students may begin to apply late September (please verify this date on the Graduate Admissions website). The following documents are required by the university and can not be waived, please click on the links for more detailed information about each:
- Three letters of recommendation: Letters must be received by the application deadline. The department does not accept applicant recommendation via a letter service (i.e. Interfolio or other service). For additional information, please see Submitting Online Recommendations. It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that letters are submitted to the electronic application by the published deadline.
- Transcripts : Upload a scanned copy of your official transcript(s) into the on-line application. In addition to uploading a scanned copy of the transcript, applicants must arrange to have two official hard copies of transcripts sent from every post-secondary institution attended, for at least one academic year, as a full-time student directly to the department. Please see Transcripts for more information and guidelines on submitting official transcripts. (Note: The department does not accept electronically-delivered transcripts. Please mail your official hard copies of transcripts to the department.)
Department of Art & Art History
355 Roth Way
Stanford, CA 94305-2018
- Statement of Purpose: You must indicate in the first sentence of your SOP the name of the program to which you are applying and the area you wish to study.
- Application fee: The application fee $125, is non-refundable, and must be received by the application deadline (fee waivers are available to eligible students. Please see Graduate Fee Waivers for more information). Please do not contact the department requesting to waive the application fee
- TOEFL scores: Required when first language is not English; IELTS is not accepted. Please see Required Exams for more information, including the minimum TOEFL requirements. Please note that the department can NOT waive the TOEFL requirement. If you wish to submit a request for TOEFL waiver, please see GRE and TOEFL Requirements. It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that the scores are submitted to the electronic application by the published deadline. (Note: To bypass the entry of TOEFL scores in the application, enter a future test date. You can add in the additional information section of the application that you have received a waiver from Graduate Admissions.)
- Complete online application
Writing Sample Requirement
In addition to the University application materials listed above, applicants are required to submit a writing sample. You should upload your writing sample along with your online application (only one writing sample will be accepted). It should be a five to ten-page essay on a film, film director, or any other film or media studies topic of your choosing. This may be an essay written for the application or from a College/University course taken in the past. Please submit as a PDF.
In addition to the above University and departmental application requirements, applicants must submit an online portfolio by the application deadline. Your portfolio must be submitted through SlideRoom: http://stanfordart.slideroom.com (note: name on your application must match the name on your portfolio). There will be a $6.00 fee. Please follow the instructions on how to upload your portfolio in SlideRoom (for technical assistance with this process, please email firstname.lastname@example.org). If possible, we would like to screen a film or video work for which the applicant has had creative control. The work must be well labeled and accompanied by a brief synopsis, running time of the clips, and the applicant's creative role. Total running time for the work sample should not exceed 15 minutes and may consist of more than one project. Please do not submit work on which the applicant had only a "production assistant" role. You may submit student work. Applicants who have had only minimal film or video production experience should submit an example of their best creative work, in any visual medium. Please note we do not save or return portfolios
The application review takes place between mid-February and mid-March; applicants are notified by email of their status by March 15th. Accepted students are admitted for the following Autumn Quarter; no applicants for mid-year entrance will be considered. You will be contacted via e-mail regarding your application status after the deadline; please do not contact the Department.
Documentary Film graduate students normally receive a generous amount of fellowship support. In the past several years this fellowship support has covered anywhere from 80-90% of the full tuition costs. If admitted, students are notified of any tuition fellowship we are able to offer in the first year of study.