A fulfilling internship in documentary production

  • January 3, 2022

By Caroline Klewinowski 

When I first started interning for Dec8 Productions, I was incredibly nervous and prepared to fail. I had no idea what a production assistant did, let alone how cameras actually worked. I had only learned how to use a DSLR right before the pandemic, and I had sometimes set up tripods at the Press. I always aspired to be a writer and never dreamed of going into broadcast journalism or video editing. 

I started at Dec8 in the first week of June 2021 and kept working through the summer while taking summer courses and into my final fall semester. Dec8 Productions, being a small business, co-directors Arhtur and Qinling threw a lot my way. I was responsible for pitching, managing the team, interviewing, contracts and more. 

My work for Dec8 was overwhelming, especially while juggling school and work at the same time. I remember when I first started, Dec8 co-director Qinling Li told me that I might have to work one weekend to help the director and meet a deadline early in the week. Sunday came, and I was barely halfway done with my work that was due Tuesday morning, and the director called me to ask a few questions. She ended the phone call saying that I should enjoy my day and go to happy hour. I felt compelled to tell her I was working all weekend with her too; there wouldn’t be any happy hour for me. I distinctly remember starting to finish up homework one night and checking my email one last time before going to bed only to find an email asking me to Photoshop something for tomorrow morning. 

It was incredibly nerve wracking in the beginning; every task felt like life or death. Not only did I have typical anxiety about starting a new job, I was worried about not having enough production or film experience. Co-directors Arthur and Qinling encouraged me to pitch new documentary ideas, but I wasn’t sure I knew what made an interesting film, as opposed to a story.

As I started suggesting ideas slowly, I started to get more confident about what would be good to film. Documentary production proved to be incredibly fulfilling. It was wonderful seeing research and interviews slowly coming together into documentaries that were getting bought by a publication, and then later published online for millions to watch. 

Dec8 taught me how to manage long-term projects that can take months to develop, and weeks to cultivate relationships especially when it comes to creating informational and character-driven pieces. During the production of one video, Arthur and I spoke to two brothers who had struggled with mental health and substance addiction for years before turning to psychedelics for help. It was amazing to see how we had real conversation with them and they in turn entrusted us to tell their story and film them as they took psychedelics. Even if the end product is still a 15-minute video, it can take a month to work on. It taught me when I should reply to midnight emails and when I shouldn’t answer weekend calls. Beyond the technical skills I learned, the job taught me how to set boundaries for myself. 

I remember I was conducting an interview with a psychologist who did a lot of work in the psychedelic community, and I asked him about how taking psychedelics helped or hindered his mental health when he was younger. He said that in retrospect it had hindered him; his ego and sense of self were so fragile, he didn’t need psychedelics to break down who he thought he was. He already had an unstable sense of self just because he was young and inexperienced. But he strangely reminded me that having fun is important too. It strangely struck me, maybe I stopped trying to have fun with journalism? 

As my last semester is slowly coming to a close, I was starting to realize again that documentary and video production was not the career path I imagined being on a few years ago. I used to have so much fun with writing, it seemed to have disappeared from my life so quickly by taking a job unrelated to it. My bosses offered to take me full-time, yet all I thought about was applying for other jobs that were more in line with my original dreams in journalism. I always wanted to bear witness, show people’s stories that were microcosms for national issues, and find underlooked issues. I wanted to dig deep into journalism. 

What appealed most to me in the beginning of my time at Dec8 was the ability to create a longform story and cultivate relationships with sources. It’s one of the things that pulled me into writing and journalism in the first place. I remind myself now that I’ll be doing the same thing in video production at Dec8, it’s just a different medium. Writing always felt natural to me, but video can challenge me in ways that writing never could. I can write about anything, but I’ll need to think carefully about what makes a great film. There are so many variables that can make a wonderful story.