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15 March 2019

A Masterclass with Head of Documentaries at The Guardian – Charlie Phillips

By Giuseppe Bruni | Categorised in News, VIP Guest Speakers, Industry Interviews, Filmmaking Tips

MetFilm School was thrilled to welcome Charlie Phillips, Head of Documentaries at The Guardian. Charlie had worked in this position for just over four years; previous to this he held directorial roles at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Chatting with Lisette Johnston, Head of ScreenSpace, Charlie let us know what it’s like to work for one of the UK’s, and the world’s, leading news sources, gave us his opinion on the growing online documentary industry and imparted some advice for our students.

On The Guardian

It’s important to stay ahead of the news. “The Guardian used to only do reactive videos, but in 2014 The Guardian expanded its video output and now we’ve put out about 80 documentaries. Maybe more.”

Keep things fresh and interesting, “What we try to do at The Guardian is try and mix journalism with independent documentary film making, which is a hard thing to do.”

Trust the people you’re working with “Once we’re happy with what the filmmaker’s making, we leave them to make it.”

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On the Online Documentary Industry

Charlie doesn’t believe it when people claim online viewers will only watch two-minute films, “People watch lots of different things on lots of different devices”, he states “I really don’t know what the difference is between TV and online platforms. It’s all just stuff you watch on a screen.

Documentary has as high a reputation now as it’s had for as long as I’ve worked in it.”

In terms of online video, the first couple minutes has to be really good or else you lose people. You can do this by either being super obvious and hit people over the head with a really traumatic scene, or keep things strange and be experimental.”

Advice for Future Documentary Makers    

“The first thing we look at is it a story we’ve never seen before. You want something that makes you say ‘I didn’t know about that’. The second thing is, it has to be visually interesting. Is it justifiable to have this as a visual documentary instead of a written piece?”

“We try to do films in lots of different countries and lots of different languages and something really specific where its only one person who has access to one community is good.”

“At The Guardian, we always want our films to have a direct address from a central character. No mediation between you and the testimony.”


Are you looking to start a career in documentary and factual industries? Find out more about our Documentary Filmmaking Courses, or request our prospectus.

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