This week on The Alaska Show I sit down with Rob Prince, Associate Professor of Documentary Filmmaking at University of Alaska Fairbanks and the founder of Dark Winter Nights: True Stories from Alaska. Rob and I discuss documentaries, how DWN was founded from his experience with reality tv, who controls Alaska's image to the world, and what makes a great story.
As a special bonus we include one of the great stories from DWN at the beginning of the program! Go check out the show wherever you listen to podcasts or go to DarkWinterNights.com and get tickets to a live show! Next one is tentatively planned for the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Fairbanks.
(0:55) Intro (3:27) Dark Winter Nights Story (13:59) Rob Prince Interview
Interview Notes Robert Prince is the Associate Professor of Digital Journalism and Documentary Filmmaking at University of Alaska - Fairbanks He was interested in video as a kid and he was amazed he could make a living making videos. As he got into college he took some tv criticism classes that opened his eyes to the power of television to be a force for good in the world and how it falls short. He wanted to make a difference in the world through his field. He liked being able to entertain and educate people at the same time. He also likes it because it’s a form of filmmaking you can do almost single-handedly. To get into fiction you have to convince people to act in the film and make them good at it. Are documentaries journalism or entertainment? They’re both. It’s like paper journalism, it’s whatever you put on it. It can be long-form journalism which is why he’s in the journalism department. There are programs like Frontline on PBS that are great examples of documentary journalism. Then you have fun baloney documentaries and some that are downright evil. In the best way it’s both. Alex’s favorite documentary is Queen of Versailles. The dream of most documentary filmmakers is to have things unfold right on-screen. Queen of Versailles is a combination of luck and hard work. Rob’s favorite documentaries depend on his mood. One of his favorites is “Flag Wars.” It was produced clearly by someone who was new at it. Some of the best documentaries are made by people that are not great filmmakers, but are just passionate about a subject. It’s the story of gentrification of a historically African-American Baltimore community by the homosexual community. Great documentaries leave you with more questions and things to think about. Rob also likes anything by Errol Morris. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control and Thin Blue Line are both fantastic. Errol Morris - 90% of his stuff is awesome. On Netflix “Dirty Money” is a thing he likes. Rob doesn’t love True Crime because he doesn’t know if it makes him a better person. He can’t let go of horrible crimes and true stories. He started watching a documentary about priest abuse and the murder of a nun. He was waiting for the story to get to some point of justice but he couldn’t. Rob’s biggest problem with True Crime is “Mean World Syndrome.” The theory is the more tv you watch the more dangerous you think the world is than your neighbor. His concern of people who watch tons of true crime and news is it will warp their sense of how dangerous the world is beyond reality and lead them to do things they don’t need to do. If there’s a vote in the city for more policing vs more funding for schools, people who are afraid will vote for more policing. For example it would be hard to be killed by a serial killer even if you tried. It’s like being a police officer. Alex loves business documentaries but thinks there are very few good ones. Often they’re a little too heavy-handed. Some are almost messianic biographies of people which is insufferable. He loves business documentaries like Silicon Cowboys on Netflix about the rise of Compaq computers out of Texas. How these guys founded the company and overcame IBM. Why are business makers so hard to make? The key to a good documentary is access. There aren’t more because what disgraced CEO wants to invite a filmmaker in? If it’s an uplifting story that might be a different story, but billionaires don’t necessarily want to let people in like that. Rob tells his students he votes with his time and dollars. If you want more business documentaries watch the heck out of what they have and they’ll make more. Frontline has great business documentaries for free streaming at PBS.org The other documentaries Rob likes are those that change people’s lives and impact the world like Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock. It had a sweeping effect on McDonald’s and fast food. Another example is Blackfish and how it stopped the breeding and showing of Killer Whales at Sea World. It will entertain you and change the world at the same time. The subject can be so good that the documentary works. Nature documentaries are a good example. All you need is good footage and some facts and a good voiceover. You are learning all the time whether you want to or not. Rob’s students think that just because you are watching something student you aren’t learning, but you’re always learning. TV doesn’t always tells you what to think, but it tells you what to think about. When you watch a nature documentary you are thinking about the planet. When you watch reality tv you are thinking about super rich people and their lives. When you watch tv you are basically surrendering your current thought process over to whatever that topic is. What do you want to be pondering in life? That you aren’t as rich as you want to be? Make a conscious decision of what you watch. In the 70s advertising had to cut from 60 seconds to 30 seconds, so advertisers didn’t have the time to practically convey their product vs another one. Once you shifted to 30 second short ads they don’t have time - all they can say is “here is how my product makes you feel.” It was no longer about the quality of the product anymore. Our attention spans are shorter. Nobody reads anymore. Rob doesn’t read anymore. You can convey so much less information in a debate or talk or documentary vs text. People can only take it in the first time. They’re not going to rewind and hear it back again. In a book you don’t have to do that. What’s the value of education in a creative field like media/journalism/entertainment? Rob doesn’t look down on people who don’t have college degrees, but it depends what you want to do. These days with the competition it’s something that’s going to be important that separates you from the crowd. It’s not always about what you learn but who you meet and know. You’re more likely to hire someone you know and trust that you have a relationship with rather than someone off the street. College is tribal - it’s a social club. You can use that time and take advantage or not. In creative fields it will accelerate your learning dramatically. Rob was mostly self-taught. Rob is the founder of Dark Winter Nights. It started because Rob was frustrated how Hollywood was showing Alaska. This was 2012-2013. We gave over the reins to Hollywood to control their image. A production company in LA called Rob and were looking for people living in a dry cabin to do a house hunting show. He was used and never credited and was frustrated. He was a big fan of radio programs like This American Life. The way he approached it was he knew the world of podcasting was saturated. His idea was to build a local audience, raise awareness, and use it as a launching pad to show folks outside Alaska. He needed it to resonate with Alaskans before it went to the outside world. The live events have way more tangible payback. If anything they almost “forgot” about the podcast and have focused on live events. Last November they had 900 people. They have about 1600 podcast subscribers. He’s gotten distracted by the live audience side of it. This spring was their 6th year. They can do that now because of income from live events. The other thing he wants to do is go on tour because he thinks people in the Lower 48 would eat it up. There are a lot of logistical issues. His ultimate goal is to share the real Alaska with the world through podcasts and maybe a tour. His goal for the live events is to be the best dinner party you’ve ever been to. Real people are telling true stories in a natural way. It’s not a Ted Talk, things aren’t planned out to the millisecond. There’s a reason we love stories, we learn stuff from them. They’re entertaining, but it taps into our empathy. We can put ourselves in others’ stories. Horror movies are so scary because you feel like you’re a character in that film. It’s a body-snatching thing in a good story. Stories are bad because they can’t put themselves in others’ shoes. What makes a good story? Most people can tell a story and with some coaching they can tell it a lot better. After 45 minutes they can make great progress on their story. There are some people who are inherently not great at storytelling. They can get better but they take more work than others. The process is not that hard. There’s the element of making sure the audience can see what you see. One thing people forget is the audience doesn’t know what they know. The audience can’t picture it. What year was it? What season? You have to convey these things. How old were you? What did the environment look like? Things need to get more and more interesting until the climax, and then the audience needs a moment at the end to bask in it. Any story will be ruined by being too long. He aims for stories to be in the 15 minute range. That’s kind of the magic number, but they’ll range from 3 minutes for kids up to even low-20s. It’s enough time to settle into the story and feel a connection without being so long they get bored. A good 15-17 minute is Rob’s favorite. The most cliche way to wrap a story up is have the storyteller say what they learned. But it usually always works. Stories can be over-practiced and start to sound scripted. It’s kind of like a Ted Talk. Their job is to convey information in a very polished way. Rob can struggle with telling a story too many times. You’ll come to a part of it that you’ve perfected too much. At that point you’re acting, you’re doing a bit, your not telling a story. Rob doesn’t want people to write the story out because we don’t write the same way we speak. Maybe an outline, but not too much. He’ll meet with storytellers two weeks out so they have some time to practice but not too much. The consolation prize for doing something stupid is having a good story to tell. Go to DarkWinterNights.com the fall show is typically the Saturday before thanksgiving in Fairbanks.