Traditional documentarist changing with technology

Scrambling between meetings, Maggie Burnette Stogner races to her office.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, frantically combing her blonde hair with her fingers as she unlocked the door. “It’s just one of those days.”

Stogner, a documentary filmmaker, has been busy as she finishes final shooting and editing for her upcoming film In the Executioner’s Shadow.

The film, which she and her company Blue Bear Films has been working on for the last three years, follows three characters and their changing opinions on the death penalty in the United States.

“I always understood that a good story with interesting characters that draw you into some sort of struggle is a very effective way to engage audiences and make people care,” Stogner said.

The documentary focuses primarily on the experiences of Virginia’s former chief executioner but also features the stories of a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing and parents who fought for the life of their daughter’s rapist and murderer.

For this film, Stogner has done the majority of her own filming on her Canon 5D Mark III camera.

“I knew I wanted to shoot it myself for the most part for several reasons. One, because I knew we were going to be working with low budgets. Two, I didn’t want to be dependent on having to hire a crew every time I wanted to shoot something,” Stogner said. “I also knew that some of the situations were going to be really emotional, tough interviews to film, and I wanted to keep it really low key.”

During many days of shooting, Stogner worked the camera while a graduate assistant helped her with sound. She credits her ability to get raw interviews to her small partnership.

“If we had had a crew in there, we would have never gotten what we got. It was such an intimate, non-threatening approach,” she said. “There’s an advantage to being able to work that way.”

Stogner enjoys doing her own filming for her projects.

“I don’t have the equipment and the expertise to do really fancy stuff, but I feel very confident that I can do the basic stuff, and I want to model that for my female film students,” Stogner said. “There are not many female cinematographers, and there should be many more.”

However, she does higher other people to assist her in editing.  At Blue Bear Films, she has two part-time employees who edit using Adobe Premiere software, since it easily transcodes different formats, Stogner said.

Since Stogner’s start in filmmaking in graduate school over twenty years ago, she’s always paid attention to the story and the production.

“I’m a strong believer in filming, having a good production quality,” she said. “I think it engages people more fully and immersively, and I think it also means that the film will have a long tail, a longer shelf life. Because ultimately the film is to be a catalyst for conversation.”

After graduating from Stanford University’s communication and documentary film graduate program, she worked to make nonfiction programs for TV. Her work has been featured on PBS and NBC. Also, she briefly made feature films under LucasFilm.

“I really liked documentary film, so I decided to go forward with a dream and a long shot.”

Further into her career, Stogner started working for National Geographic TV and Film, where she stayed for 10 years.

“I came in as a temporary producer and then they offered me a full-time job, and I couldn’t say no,” she said.

She became the senior producer of the National Geographic documentary series Explorer. During her time as senior producer, she supervised numerous programs including In Search of the Afghan Girl and Africa Extreme.  Under her supervision, the series won many Emmys, a Peabody award and a Dupont award.

“As cable television started moving more toward reality TV, I knew that that was not a good fit for me,” Stogner said. “And I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

In 2005, Stogner started her independent film company Blue Bear Films, and she started to make films and immersive media for large traveling exhibitions and museums.

“That just opened a whole world for me,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to do cable TV, and I knew I didn’t want to do reality TV, but I didn’t want to stop making films.”

Framed posters from those films line her office walls, including the title plate from her film Roads of Arabia, which is featured at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

According to Stogner, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of putting film elements into museum exhibitions. Museum curators felt that visitors should just come to the museum to visit the object on display, she said.

“Well, you can come in and experience an object if you already know a lot about it, you may glean more depth,” Stogner said. “But to have a little text label and object and not offer more than that makes an awful lot of those kinds of exhibitions inaccessible to a very large range of people. So why not try to engage more people?”

Her latest exhibit The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great,  recently closed at the National Geographic Museum.

“I think what I’m most proud of about that exhibit is that it was a way for people of ancient Greece to tell their own story rather than us westerners today telling their story,” she said.

Although she works with a lot of traditional documentary and admires the work of Stanley Nelson, she hopes to work more with new technology.

“There’s so much that can be explored in creating exceptional storytelling using different technologies,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about gimmicks. I think it’s about finding that solid ground of storytelling.”

In her upcoming film Gold Mountain, set to be released in the United States next year, Stogner is experimenting with the treatment of archived photographs.

Pictures of reenactors are cut out and layered between archived photographs to make it look 3D and more dynamic, she said. However, Stogner is afraid that the practice may cause controversy upon the film’s release.

Either way, Stogner is excited for the future of digital storytelling, and she’s excited to continue making films.

“I’m very fortunate to have found a — I don’t know — it’s more than a career, you know? It’s a passion.”

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