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Rising Stars: A Love of History Leads to Documentary-Making

By Emma Beavers

Betsy's medium of choice was actually time--the study of history--until a chance realization led her to work with a major documentary filmmaker and reoriented the path of her professional life. Since then, she's produced and written films for an independent film production company on subjects ranging from Oklahoma heritage to Woodstock.

Name: Betsy Timbers
School: Dartmouth
Major: History
Years Out of College: 5-10
Title: Producer/Writer
Company: Northern Light Production
First Steps

Betsy's career in documentary film production was more of a surprise than a predetermined goal. She began by studying history at Dartmouth College, but when she heard that the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (famous for his films on American history) lived nearby, she got in touch and nabbed an internship with his production team.

From Then to Now

After college, Betsy received a master's degree in modern Irish history but continued to study film, including creating a film for her thesis. Then she moved to Boston to look for a job, sending out resumes and making plenty of phone calls. She got her break after talking to a former college advisor who knew of a production company another student had worked at.

Once Betsy had landed a position at Northern Light Production, she traveled a standard path, first working for several months as an unpaid intern. After that, she was hired on contract--meaning no benefits and no paid holidays--for 10 months, and then graduated to full-time work. The process of becoming established in film is a long but necessary one, she said, and "if you have a positive attitude and really put yourself out there, people will see that you're willing to work hard and are bright." She's been at Northern Light for more than two years now and is currently working as a producer and writer on projects such as films for state museums and documentaries for the National Park Service.

My Experience

The day-to-day responsibilities of an associate producer, which was the first position she held, included helping the producer perform archival research, setting up shoots, and contacting interview subjects. And since Northern Light is a full-fledged production company, Betsy gets to be involved in all aspects of a project. "A really big part of a lot of filmmaking is dealing with clients: because everything is funded, you have to balance listening to what they want with giving your own suggestions for making things work best."

Another option is the more commercial side of the industry as represented by Hollywood and the film studios, which isn't as far removed as it may seem to be. Northern Lights, for example, might hire a screenwriter who has worked in Hollywood. Any disconnect between the two is more philosophical. "They represent two very different lifestyles. Documentary filmmakers are generally more content-driven, while movie studios are focused on creating the next blockbuster."

Next Steps

In Betsy's experience, there are numerous options for continuing a career in film: going freelance, working in television news programming, teaching, even starting your own production company. "People bounce around a lot since everything is so project-oriented," she says. While freelancers generally have the advantage of making more money, they don't have the security of being able to expect a regular salary and must also be established, which means not only networking extensively but also constantly maintaining that network.

Advice for Others

First and foremost, Betsy stresses the importance of perseverance and working to create the best opportunities for yourself, since film companies don't exactly come knocking on your door. Moreover, the industry's heavy reliance on interns means that part of getting your foot in the door may require taking on an unpaid internship you really want as opposed to settling for a job that's not quite right for you just because it's available. She also emphasizes networking as much as possible. "Talk to lots of people. You may have certain expectations about a job, and talking will help you see how things really work and give you a sense of the politics involved."

Finally, Betsy advocates taking advantage of all of the resources available in college, both tangible and intangible. "You realize later how expensive the equipment and studio time are, so the more you can do in college, where things are often free or subsidized, the better." And there are many invaluable opportunities to learn from others in settings more casual than an informational interview by going to shows and screenings and "seeing other people's work as much as you can. Be involved in your community."

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