The Australian Screen Production PhD

23 Aug 14

Four colleagues and I, who have all recently completed our doctorates involving the production of a film, have got together to compare our experiences. We decided to write about our PhDs/DCAs in relation to:

  • Creative works: genres, length and formats
  • Exegesis: purpose and rational
  • Methodologies: reflective practice strategies and approaches
  • Theoretical approaches: Genre-centred, practitioner-led or creativity-based.
  • Generating new knowledge: identifying the heart of the research
  • PhD Research publications: peer reviewed research outcomes

We are in the process of writing a journal article together but thought it would also be a good idea to publish the original reflections on this blog. The people involved are:

  • Susan Kerrigan (University of Newcastle)
  • Leo Berkeley (RMIT University)
  • Sean Maher (Queensland University of Technology)
  • Michael Sergi (Bond University)
  • Alison Wotherspoon (Flinders University)

Susan Kerrigan: Reflections on her PhD experience


My practice-led PhD explored the relationship between my documentary practice and creativity, from both a theoretical and practical perspective. I investigated the creative process of documentary making through the production of Using Fort Scratchley (Kerrigan, 2008a), a low budget video documentary and the production of an idoc Fort Scratchley a Living History, (Kerrigan, 2008b). This research was underpinned by Grierson’s definition of documentary, which is the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Grierson, 1933:8). The PhD theoretically and practically explored how I created the two documentaries, using oral histories from the Fort Scratchley site, and how I tacitly drew on my past producer/director television practices while the exegesis used creativity theories (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) to interrogate and analysis my filmmaking practice.

The PhD research provides a lengthy answer to a very simple question: ‘What is the creative process of a documentary filmmaker?’ Using a particular confluence model of creativity, the Systems Model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999), a Group Creativity Model (Nijstad & Paulus, 2003) and three staged creative process theories (Bastick, 1982; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Wallas, 1976) this research question was explored and answered. The PhD was completed in seven years part-time, the two Fort Scratchley documentaries were made between 2004-2008 and the exegesis was written post-practice, and submitted in December 2010.

Exegesis (purpose and rationale):

A creative practice PhD from the University of Newcastle is required to produce two outcomes, a product that exemplifies the practice and an exegesis, a contextualised written account of that experience (University of Newcastle, 2014: online). The University of Newcastle’s (UoN) PhD degree rules state that there is no stipulated weighting for either component submitted for examination (UoN, 2014: online Clause 7) but the written component should not normally exceed 40,000 words excluding appendices, tables and illustrative matter. (UoN:, 2014: online clause 5). My exegesis exceeded the word count, I presented a 59,000 word exegesis titled ‘Creative Documentary Practice: Internalising the Systems Model of Creativity through documentary video and online practice’. The project was sent to 3 examiners for marking, 2 were international and one was domestic. The University of Newcastle had a preference for at least one International examiner.

There are a few structural approaches used for PhD creative works and exegeses, I used the Research Question approach where ‘both the written and the creative component of the thesis are conceptualised as independent answers to the same research question’ (Milech & Schilo, 2004: 6). The original research topic, conceived in 2005 was ‘Investigating the creative process, for the role of a producer/writer/director on a documentary video production’ (Kerrigan, 2006b: 2), and the question was adjusted to include the production of the online documentary in 2007.

The exegesis discusses and analyses how creativity theories can be used to demystify creative documentary practice by deconstructing how I mediated external contexts, knowledges and skills, and drew on internalised and previously embodied knowledge throughout the production processes. Though this research is specifically contextualized in the Fort Scratchley documentary production context, this type of creative practice research could have been undertaken using any documentary subject matter. Therefore, the findings present a generically applicable explanation of creative documentary practice that should hold true across multiple documentary forms, and with further research may even transfer into other unrelated creative arts endeavours.

Methodologies: reflective practice strategies and approaches

Practitioner Based Enquiry (PBE) is an auto-ethnographic methodology which I employed because it allow for me to be both a researcher and a filmmaker. PBE provides an insider’s perspective on creative practice (McIntyre, P. 2006: 1) because it offers a structural framework that allowed the subjective voice of the researcher as practitioner and the practitioner-as-researcher, to expose the constraining and enabling affects of contextual, structural or agency related conditions, which affect the quality of the research and the accompanying creative works.

Murray and Lawrence argue that the benefits of a researcher undertaking PBE research includes the practitioner moving ‘towards the acquisition of intellectual autonomy, improved judgment making and enhanced technical competence’ (2000: 10). The PBE methodology allowed for the employment of the ‘reflective practitioner’ approach advocated by Donald Schon’s (1987: 26) and expanded upon by Cowan’s through his reflection-for-action (1998: 37) addition. I identified methods for collecting data to reveal each of the three reflective stages of, in, on and for action from within the documentary production context because some months passed between the filmmaking practice and the analysis of my own documentary practice. To assist in the process I collected ‘data’ from my own creative process, the primary form of evidence was the reflective journal that was kept through out the phases of production. The filmmaking activities revealed in the journal were verified through other production paperwork which included – logging sheets, transcripts of interviews, archival lists of documents, photographs and films, documentary scripts, documentary planning files, personal emails and website information architecture.

Theoretical approaches: Genre centered, practitioner-led or creativity based.

The production of these two Fort Scratchley documentaries provided a research environment that interrogated the effectiveness and appropriateness of a particular confluence model of creativity, the Systems Model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999), a Group Creativity Model (Nijstad & Paulus, 2003) and three staged creative process theories (Bastick, 1982; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Wallas, 1976). These creativity models and theories were seen as being complementary because they allowed myself as researcher to investigate my own creative assumptions about documentary production practice.

The structure of the exegesis drew specifically on the System’s Model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999: 315) that is compromised of three components – Domain, Individual and Field. These three components became the bases for the three self reflective practice chapters. This data analysis revealed the layers of complexity within these theories; layers that account for collaborative practices as well as explaining a practitioner’s intuition and embodied knowledge. In particular, the exegesis discussed and analysed how these creativity theories can be used to demystify creative documentary practice by deconstructing how I mediated external contexts, knowledges and skills, and drew on internalised and previously embodied knowledge throughout the production processes. In conclusion the exegesis argued that it was necessary to revise the System’s Model of Creativity (Kerrigan, 2013: 114) in order to more clearly situate creative practice inside a system.

Generating new knowledge: identifying the heart of the research

My documentary practice-led research rejects person-centered theories of creativity and instead endorses the confluence approaches to creativity as described in ‘The systems model of creativity’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1999: 315). The new knowledge generated in my PhD, asks documentary practitioners to re-conceptualizes creativity and to acknowledge that a filmmaking agent is immersed in a cultural and social system that enables and constrains creative practice. The new knowledge is presented through an updated version of the systems model that provides a more effective representation of how a practitioner internalizes their creative
System (Kerrigan, 2013: 111-128) by placing ‘creative practice’ at the center of such a system. I argue that ‘the Fort Scratchley creative system contextualizes my practice, which confirms the systemic nature of creative documentary practices as non-linear, iterative and recursive’ (Kerrigan, 2013 p 115).

My PhD has produced 12 research outputs to date these include two creative works (Kerrigan, 2008a, 2008b). I began publishing in 2005 and I continue to do so with three journal articles (Kerrigan 2013a, 2010a,) one was co-authored with my supervisor (Kerrigan & McIntyre 2010), four refereed conference papers (Kerrigan, 2005, 2006, 2008c, 2009) and three conference presentations (2013b, 2010b, 2007). The documentaries were also peer-reviewed through an Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association (ASPERA) process for refereeing screen works.

Leo Berkeley: Reflections on his PhD experience


The PhD I undertook involved the production of a feature-length film drama called How To Change The World (www.leoberkeley.com/film.html). My objective was to make the film without a screenplay (at least as understood in the conventional sense) and with only a negligible budget. My research focus was on exploring improvisation in performance and what I described as the ‘micro-budget’ screen production environment. While the focus of the research shifted and developed over the course of the degree, it was always clear that I wanted to investigate the practice of screen production and to produce knowledge that would be of use to other filmmakers.

As someone with considerable prior experience as an independent filmmaker, I saw the project as building on an existing body of creative practice and the initial focus of the research was on surfacing and articulating the tacit knowledge in that practice (Schon, 1983). Making the film was relatively straightforward and completed in the first half of the candidature. Articulating the knowledge that emerged was a less familiar, more challenging but very worthwhile second stage. I also saw the research project as an opportunity to take creative risks that would rarely be possible in the professional environment, in relation to content, style and production process issues, risks that might produce new knowledge that could be applied in other contexts in the future.

Exegesis (purpose and rationale):

At my university, the guidelines for an exegesis supporting a creative project state it is ‘a thesis defining the purpose and theoretical base of the work and the factors taken into account in its conception, development and resolution’ [Project Policy – Higher Degrees by Research (http://www.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=yxsxgby0a44g1)]. The requirement for a PhD by creative project is for an exegesis of 20,000-40,000 words. The exegesis I wrote was at the upper limit of this range. I was aware of the existing literature in relation to the shifting status of the exegesis in creative practice doctorates (Fletcher & Mann 2004; Dovey 2007, Krauth 2011) and the concerns about excessive weight given to the exegesis in the examination process [references?], so in writing the exegesis I was conscious of keeping the focus on the film. My objective was to position the film work in relation to my prior productions and the broader field of screen production, as well as articulating the new knowledge produced by the creative practice research, situating it within the field of knowledge in relation to improvisation and micro-budget production.

At RMIT, the examination of a PhD by project includes a presentation to the panel of examiners and the public, followed by questions and discussion [Project Policy – Higher Degrees by Research]. Following advice from my supervisors, I tried in this third element of the examination to not duplicate what had been covered in the creative work and the exegesis, focusing the presentation on a discussion of ‘behind the scenes’ footage that addressed elements of the production process had been difficult to cover in the exegesis.

Methodologies: reflective practice strategies and approaches

I devoted a considerable section of the exegesis to a discussion of methodology, on the basis that how screen production can be understood as academic research is still in its infancy, with little relevant and discipline-specific literature available. I investigated social science and fine art approaches to research, especially action research and auto-ethnography. I was particularly drawn to two theorists, Pierre Bourdieu and Donald Schon, who had written about the epistemological specificity of practice as a form of knowledge. I described my methodology as reflective practice, with the principal reflective methods being a research diary and a ‘making of’ video. Feedback activities included work-in-progress screenings and a review of the multiple iterations of the edit.

Theoretical approaches: Genre centered, practitioner-led or creativity based.

In reflecting on my filmmaking practice, I wanted to explore both the creative possibilities and logistical constraints within the micro-budget approach. I found the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1980, 1993) on practical knowledge and the field of cultural production resonated strongly with my own experience of the production process. The social and collaborative dynamics within the screen production drama environment and how they influence the creative process were a focus of the research, in particular the relationships between the cast and crew and how the needs of these important creative contributors can be in conflict. Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic capital was a particularly useful way to think about exchanges of ‘value’ that occur in the micro-budget environment that are not economic and his analysis of the field of cultural production as a relational ‘positioning’ gave me the tools to better understand the trajectory of my filmmaking career and the factors that informed the multitude of creative decisions that a director makes on a film production.

Improvisation in performance was discussed with reference to the theoretical work of Bakhtin (1981) and his concept of the dialogic, as well as work in performance studies in relation to theatre (Schechner 1988) and jazz music (Soules 2004).

Generating new knowledge: identifying the heart of the research

A key finding of the research was in relation to the broader significance of the concept of improvisation to my filmmaking practice, which extended well beyond how I worked with actors to how I handled the social and creative dimensions of the overall production environment. I argued that improvisation can be considered a key concept in understanding how decisions are made in the creative and practical environment of a screen production shoot and the development of improvisational expertise can enhance the outcomes of this process.

In some respects I also argued my contribution to the discipline was through the research proposing a methodology for research in screen production practice. This methodology involved developing an understanding of the practitioner’s identity through an analysis of their dispositions and positions within the field of screen production (Bourdieu 1993, p. 61), then examining how that identity is evidenced in the decision-making that occurs in the production process. I argued this methodology had been applied to my practice in the production of the film How To Change The World, leading to the development of a framework of ideas for understanding my practice in new ways, a framework I described as ‘conversational’.

Finally, during the course of the PhD, I produced three peer-reviewed publications, two refereed conference papers and one journal article (Berkeley, 2008a; 2009; 2011). The film was also peer-reviewed through an Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association (ASPERA) process for refereeing screen works (Berkeley 2008b).

Sean Maher: Reflections on his PhD experience


The creative practice PhD I undertook between 2006 – 2010 at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) was conducted as practice–led research in the ARC Centre of Excellence Creative Industries and Innovation. Supervision was shared between ARC Centre Director, Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham and Head of Film and Television in the Creative Industries Faculty (CIF), Assoc Professor Geoff Portmann.

The completed research, “Noir and the Urban Imaginary” addressed intersections between urban representation in Australian film, cinematic impacts on historiography like film noir’s relationship to Los Angeles and the role of filmmaking in contemporary place making. Practice and filmmaking were instrumental to the investigation as a means of testing, and adapting the findings and applications drawn from urban theory and approaches and authors associated with Los Angeles School of Urban Studies and genre theory and film history.

The practical components resulted in extensive still photographic assets and a short hybrid film, The Brisbane Line (29mins). The hybrid nature of the film is in its part documentary and part fictional basis. The innovations around this kind of formulation and delivery were made possible by the film functioning as a research output first and foremost.

The exegetical component resulted in a 50,000-word thesis that mirrored conventional traditional theses with a comprehensive literature review and chapter based argument and discussion. The actual exegesis comprised a single critical and reflective analysis of the processes involved in the production and the practice leading the research.

In total, the research comprised both a practical and theoretical investigation where the 29mins film functioned as Chapter Four in a five-chapter thesis analysis.


Creative practice research at QUT requires theoretical and critical framing through what is termed the exegesis. The extent to which the exegesis represents an accompanying critical discussion as opposed to a critical interrogation of the processes behind the creative practice is open ended and determined by the nature of the research. Creative practice in a PhD can be weighted by as much as 75% leaving a 20,000 word thesis/exegesis to comprise the remaining 25%.

In my own research I found the separation between exegesis and thesis an impediment. The design of the research investigation was approached holistically and alternated across filmmaking practices, critical, theoretical and historical inquiry and critical reflection. The notion of ‘practice-led’ research was an established method across CIF but it did not reflect my research processes. The research unfolded in a much more fluid manner that saw my investigations enter cycles of reading and writing phases that would inform pre-production phases of the filmmaking, especially scriptwriting. Further periods of traditional research and data gathering would then commence and then break as film production commenced. A prolonged period prior to editing the film was then consumed by intensive thesis writing and critical reflection. Finally, post-production on the film commenced and simultaneous to this I was redrafting the thesis chapters. The constant cross-fertilization of ideas and processes could not, I found, be reduced to the descriptor of practice-led.

Methodologies: creative practice, reflective practice, Third Space: Strategies and approaches.

Creative practice based research encompassed the overall approach of my PhD. Central to creative practice research is the production of a creative artefact and one of my key aims was to ensure it was the kind of creative artefact that would optimize the commercial free constraints supported by doctoral level research. As an established filmmaker I aimed to embrace new ways and modes of filmmaking to produce a text that was an irrevocable component of a larger researcher project.

Traditional research methods were based in established qualitative approaches like textual and comparative analysis. The analysis and findings of this extensive textual analysis phase were then utilized in the manner outlined by Edward Soja in his formulation of Third Space theory. Originating in urban studies but combining elements like social geography and literary theory, Third Space reconfigures the role of texts in relationship to notions of place and place-making and it offered the basis on which to apply a new filmmaking practice.

Generating new knowledge: identifying key outcomes of the research

The hybrid form, docu-fiction and manipulating its possibilities like any other genre was a key outcome of the research. One of the central findings was the manner in which contemporary approaches to historiography had opened up to fictional texts in an effort to broaden empathy and understanding of the past. The original contribution of my research was to apply these principles in a very specific and local manner in relation to Brisbane and its recent history by blurring fact, fiction, documentary and drama filmmaking.

As a published outcome the film, The Brisbane Line (29mins) was accepted into competition in the 2011 Brisbane International Film Festival. A draft chapter entitled, ‘Triple Helix: Los Angeles and film noir, making history, making movies in the most contemporary city’ was presented at the Film History Association of Australia and New Zealand at Otago University, Dunedin NZ in September 2008.

Michael Sergi: Reflections on his DCA experience

My Doctor of Creative Arts (DCA), titled At the Moment of Creation, investigated a very specific duty of the film director. It asked the question: How does a director comprehend and assess an actor’s performance on set while the camera is rolling? I very deliberately steered away from enveloping into this question other tangential, but related, directorial areas such as: how directors direct actors, or techniques they might use to adjust or shape performance, as research has shown that these areas of directorial practice are reasonably well covered in existing literature, although continued investigation of such areas in light on new knowledge is essential.

The literature review I conducted I examined the extent to which leading texts and scholarly articles discussed this topic of directorial practice and I demonstrated that overall this area is underrepresented in industry and academic discourse, as is much of filmmaking creative practice.

Consequently, a multi-disciplinary approach was adopted to answer the exegesis question, which was predominantly focused upon the naturalistic style of modern screen performance that has evolved from the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski. The literature review examined the writings and knowledge of some of western cinema’s most notable directors and actors, as well as industry specialists, and film scholars who have examined the practice of directing and especially the directing of screen actors. I drew upon the work of several theorists and theoretical frameworks, including performance studies, cinema studies, tacit knowledge, creativity studies, cognitive science, neuroscience, embodied knowledge, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, phenomenology, and empathetic projection to examine the multiplicity of elements involved in a director comprehending and assessing actor performance.

Although in some regards these might be seen by some as competing epistemologies, the exegesis argued that they are, to a worthwhile extent, useful approaches that shine a light upon directorial practice from a multifaceted point-of-view. Interviews were also conducted with highly experienced Australian directors and actors and I drew upon my twenty-five years experience as a director, and sixteen years as an academic teaching film and television production.

My DCA consisted of an exegesis or approximately 42,000 words, a 29-minute short film Gingerbread Men (Sergi, 2007) as the major creative work, which I wrote, produced, directed and edited, an 87 minute low-budget feature film 10 Days to Die (Sergi, 2010) as an additional creative work, which I produced, co-wrote, and co-edited and attached as an appendix, and a set of research interviews with Australian directors and actors filmed and edited in documentary style of approximately 70 minutes (Sergi, 2011).
Through Gingerbread Men I tested, through my own creative practice, the challenges a director faces in accurately comprehending and assessing actor performance during film production. However, the major challenge I faced was maintaining the authenticity of the actor’s performance, as comprehended and assessed during production, throughout the production and post-production process.

The intensified continuity shooting style describe by Bordwell (2005) outlines the conventional Hollywood approach to directing that is typical of modern narrative filmmaking. This style requires the director to film multiple sized shots of an actor’s performance, from different camera angles, so the performance can be re-created in editing. Consequently the director and editor are able to re-create the performance in the editing suite to such an extent that the performance seen at the cinema could, potentially, be quite different from that created by the actor on set.

I argued that this style of filmmaking required a different approach to actor performance comprehension from the director, because as Travis (2002, p.257) argues, “It is important at this time to remember what your task is during the filming process. This is not about achieving that one perfect performance. It is about recording a sufficient range so that you can recreate the performance in the editing room.”

Instead I turned to the work of Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, some of the work of American directors John Cassavetes, Paul Williams and Otto Preminger, who favoured the single long-take per scene approach to cinematic staging, because the rhythm and power of the actors’ performance in a scene is allowed to fully develop. They believe that the long-take shooting style produces a type of performance that is inherently different to that obtained by using the intense continuity style.

Because I was using the making of Gingerbread Men to test my ability to comprehend and assess the actor performance I felt that adopting the cinematic style of Rossellini, Angelopoulos and Mizoguchi, and other non-mainstream directors, would be the most suitable, because it meant I had to correctly comprehend the actors’ performance on set for the entire take.

Typically on a film set any crew member is able to call upon the professional opinion of their colleagues to assist in making a creative decision. However, the role of the director demands that they do not consult with either the cast or the crew when evaluating the actors’ performance. Indeed their calibre as a director could be called into question if they appeared indecisive when exercising their judgement in this area. This places the director in a creative position that is fundamentally different to that of any other crew member.

Consequently, it forces the director to locate their knowing solely within their own knowledge base and experience, rather than the collective decision-making that occurs with all other aspects of filmmaking even though the director may have the final word. Filmmaking might be perceived as a team-work activity, but when it comes to the comprehension and assessment of actor performance the director is expected to act alone.

This outcome caused me to focus on how directors perceived their relationship to actor performance. And it turned out that many directors see themselves as the ‘first audience’ of the actor performance, and, almost without realising it, adopt this position from which to evaluate the actors’ performance.

At this point, I argued that according to Lakoff and Johnson (1999) assumption-free observations are not possible, and so it is unfeasible for directors, with all their prior knowledge of the character, the screenplay and the film’s narrative, to experience the actors’ performance in anyway like a cinema audience, who primarily use the actors’ performance as a way of making sense of the film’s narrative. Instead whether they are aware of it or not directors are in essence decoding the constant stream of facial, physical, verbal, emotional, and psychologically complex language signifiers embedded in the actors’ performance as a way of ensuring that only the correct communication messages regarding character and narrative are being transmitted to the audience, so that the audience is able to make the most appropriate, and least confusing, determinations regarding the character, and thus the narrative. In essence, directors seek to eliminate all confusing performance signs and signifiers from the actors’ performance.

This lead me to recent discoveries in neuroscience, mirror neuron theory, cognitive science and embodied knowledge as useful tools in demystify how directors firstly comprehend and then assess an actor’s performance. Consequently, I was able to show that not every human being is able to distinguish, with the same degree of accuracy and depth, the emotional reactions of other people, and yet the ability to comprehend and interpret facial expressions is essential to achieve empathy, and empathy is necessary for the director to fully engage with the actor and the character. Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) notion of empathetic projection is indeed part of what a director does.

Furthermore, I demonstrated that that not everyone is able to correctly perceive all the infinitesimal details of the actors’ performance which are necessary to truly comprehend and be able to assess the performance. Therefore acute perception and emotional experience are essential requirements for the director.

However, one of the more illuminating outcomes from my DCA has been the realisation that the intensified continuity shooting style potentially removes a great deal of creative agency from actors, because the director and editor can create not only a performance that the actor may not achieve on set, but also an interpretation of the character that the actor did not seek to construct. This is the style adopted by James Cameron during the making of Titanic (1997), “I made a decision early on to just say to everybody [the actors] going in, ‘We’re gonna shoot a lot of takes, so you’ve got a lot of room to figure it out.’ We gave everybody permission to explore, to screw up, to find different ways of doing the scene on film” (Cameron quoted in Kagan 2000, p. 153).

Although this might appear to be giving the actors creative freedom in reality this places the actor in a position unlike any other major creative contributor to the film. Although modern digital post-production allows the director a great deal of opportunity to alter aspects of the film when it comes to the production design, wardrobe, make-up, props, etc, generally speaking the director does not radically change what was previously created by these crew members on set. Even the cinematography, which can be significantly digitally enhanced, also generally remains within the creative range created by the cinematographer But as the Cameron example demonstrates, a director who adopts the intensified continuity approach, and has the resources to film a large number of takes, can become the sole definer of the character by asking the actor to continually provide a broad range of varying performances for all the multitude of takes and shots that make up every scene. This ultimately allows the director to make the final choices that shape and define the character in the editing suite, rather than on the set in collaboration with the actor.

However, the long-take single shot per scene approach used in Gingerbread Men allows the actor greater creative agency, because although the director may shoot a number of takes, and might be the sole determiner of which take is ultimately used in the film, the creation of the character in that take which lasts the entire scene is wholly that created by the actor. For me as a director this was a profound revelation and it will greatly influence how I choose to work in the future.

To date my DCA has generated six research outputs. Two journal articles (Sergi 2010 and 2013), two conference presentations (Sergi 2010 and 2013), Gingerbread Men was peer-reviewed through the Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association (ASPERA) process for refereeing creative screen works, and 10 Days to Die was screened publically at an Australian international film festival.

Alison Wotherspoon: Reflections on her PhD experience


My PhD went through a number of ideations during its decade long gestation. It initially began as a traditional thesis looking at Film Australia but shifted as I embarked on a creative and research collaboration with academics in the School of Education at Flinders University. This partnership allowed me to recognise that my work as a filmmaker could form the basis of a PhD and I became the first RHD candidate in the Department of Screen Studies at Flinders University to undertake a creative PhD.

Using Department of English guidelines, my PhD thesis became a combination of a creative work in the form of an educational documentary and an accompanying exegesis. Due to changes in technology, notably the shift from video to DVD, this original concept developed into a series of seven films that underpinned an educational resource Reducing Bullying: Evidence based strategies for schools (Wotherspoon, et al, 2006).

The films were completed in the first part of my candidature. During the production process I began to struggle with what an exegesis was and what form mine would take. The exegesis presents a case study that focuses on the production of the resource, reflects on educational content production and forms the basis for a production model to produce educational content in the twenty-first century within universities. The videos and accompanying resource was produced through a University Industry Collaborative Research Grant (UICRG) for, what was formerly known as, the South Australian Department of Education and Children’s services (DECS).

Exegesis (purpose and rationale):

Currently a creative PhD in the department of Screen and Media at Flinders University is not overly prescriptive or strongly promoted. Flinders University’s course rule for a PhD does not mention creative work or exegesis. In the School of Humanities and Creative Arts there is a lack of consistency in the length of an exegesis between departments. It is between 50,000 – 75,000 words in length in the Drama Department; to consist of a creative work of no more than 70,000 words and an exegesis of no more than 30,000 (plus or minus 10%) words in English and Creative Writing and in Screen and Media the exegesis should be no shorter than 25,000 words and no longer than 55,000 words.

When I embarked on my PhD there were no agreed guidelines in the Department of Screen and Media so I followed those of the Department of English and Creative Writing. I was warned that if my exegesis was too long it could be failed. I managed to submit and pass with an exegesis of approximately 38,000 words. Guidelines for a Creative PhD now exist in Screen and Media and candidates are required to submit a thesis, which consists of a creative product accompanied by an exegesis. The creative product can take the form of a multimedia production, documentary, or fiction film. The research informing the PhD should include creative and critical texts that are evident in the exegesis and creative product. The exegesis should provide a conceptual framework for the creative work, present a clear research question/s, describe how the creative product has been informed by the research of relevant creative and critical texts, and how the theoretical and/or historical practices have been incorporated into the creative work produced. It may also investigate the development of the creative work in a way that explains the processes by which it was produced. The expectation, as with all PhDs, is that the thesis will demonstrate that the candidate has become an expert in their field of inquiry and have made an original contribution to knowledge. This may be in the form of the creative work as documented in the exegesis, or from the discursive relationship between the creative product and the exegesis (http://www.flinders.edu.au/ehl/screen-and-media/postgraduates/research-degrees/research-degrees_home.cfm accessed 11.5.2014).

Methodologies: reflective practice strategies and approaches

My understanding of reflective practice was informed by the work of Argyris and Schön, Boud, Keogh and Walker. Although much has been written about documentary production the complex decision-making process by which a documentary director makes decisions is rarely described. To explore this decision-making process I found participatory action research (PAR) methodology to be effective. Yoland Wadsworth describes PAR as
research which involves all relevant parties in actively examining together current action (which they experience as problematic) in order to change and improve it. They do this by critically reflecting on the historical, political, economic, geographic and other contexts that make sense of it (Wadsworth 1998).
In Reducing bullying: evidence based strategies for schools the relevant parties involved in its making were academic researchers, policymakers, educational practitioners, social workers, community police, psychologists and students. PAR offered me a way to examine the dynamics and relationships involved in the production of documentaries, especially those that are commissioned, not for broadcast or made for a specific audience.

Theoretical approaches: Genre centered, practitioner-led or creativity based.

The texts that informed the exegesis were an interdisciplinary mix that ranged from educational research into bullying, documentary theory, to reflective practice. An article by Jack Shonkoff provided a theoretical approach that allowed me to examine the role of the filmmaker in navigating between the different cultures of academia, policy and practice during the production process (Shonkoff, 2000). Returning to the writings of Grierson provided a way in which I could define my work as documentary, and acknowledge the history and contribution of educational documentary filmmaking. The texts that informed the bullying research was extensive and included work by Hawker, Boulton, Peplar, Rigby, Slee, Shute, Smith and Spears.

The initial research phase of the UICRG project investigated the extent and frequency of school bullying in the middle years of high school in five South Australian schools, and the results of this quantitative and qualitative research identified examples of best practice in bullying interventions. This provided an evidence base that underpinned the content of the documentaries. The role of the filmmaker after the completion of the data collection and in the production of the documentaries was to interpret the research outcomes, present these findings on screen accurately and disseminate this knowledge in an accessible way to a non-academic audience.

Generating new knowledge: identifying the heart of the research

The interdisciplinary mix within the exegesis provided a context within which to present a new model for the production of educational content. The model offers screen practitioners producing educational screen content a way in which to understand the collaborative processes that take place when working with academics, policymakers, clients and communities, and the role of the filmmaker within these partnerships (Wotherspoon, 2012).

Since completing my PhD I have successfully repeated this non traditional research output model to produce a number of educational series, which include: Coping with School Bullying (4 short dramas); Come Into My World (8 part docudrama series about handling patients with dementia); From research to policy and practice: Innovation and sustainability in cyberbullying prevention (12 minute and 7 minute versions for EU European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST)); Promoting community leadership – embedding sustainable community building within communities(3 x 8 minute documentaries on community leadership); Research to practice: Sexual and reproductive health promotion for women, including those over 30 years of age (4 x 30 secs commercials); WIL in Humanities. 3 x 5 videos) and Aspergers and Bullying (15 part series about young people with Aspergers). I have recently received funding to film in India and am currently working on a series of films for the Australian-Indian and EU-Indian Research Networks.

With each of these projects there have been opportunities to produce traditional research and travel around the world presenting my findings. Since 2009 I have been lead author on 2 book chapters, co-author on an A2 category book, co-author of 2 refereed journal articles, presented individual papers at 6 international conferences, in Lisbon, Budapest, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Patiala, Nice, and Chandigarh. I have presented at conferences in SA, WA, Vic, NSW, Tas and Qld, and been invited to be a keynote speaker at a national conference. Research partners at a further 4 international and 4 national conferences have also presented my work. I am the lead author on a book chapter commissioned by Routledge on Mental Health and Wellbeing and there is interest from an international publisher on a proposed book based on the Indian research project, for which I have been invited to write a chapter on the use of film to enhance cross-cultural understandings of well being in schools. The exciting part of being involved in a number of collaborative research teams is that I am now invited to join new research projects undertaken by these partners and included almost as a matter of course in the funding applications. My research has been funded by a range of grants, and has included the Australian Academy of Science Eminent Speakers Grant, Flinders University Creative Research Fund, Office of Learning and Teaching Funded Project, Autism SA, SA & NT Dementia Training Study Centre, Channel 7 Foundation and the Federal Attorney General’s Department. At the moment I am fortunate enough to be working on a slate of research projects that stretch into the foreseeable future and find that the most difficult part of my research is finding enough time to write about it from a filmmaking perspective that would fit in the FoR 1902 code for ERA.


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