RealJobs: Michael Rossi

“So what do you do for work?” That’s a question I’ve heard over and over again since graduating from Boston College. I find it difficult to answer, or at least answer in a way that makes sense to most people. In simplest terms, I am a documentary filmmaker. Technically, it is a trade that allows me to tell stories through motion picture and sound. The only underlying principle is that the stories explore real people and real events. That’s what I love about it. Chasing those stories has provided me with a variety of opportunities in the film and television industry. I’ve worked on music videos, commercials, TV shows, and Hollywood film sets. Working as a freelancer, my jobs are mostly project contracts that last anywhere from a few days or weeks to multiple years. The majority of my work has been for Public Broadcasting and its largest station, WGBH.

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I certainly did not set out to be a filmmaker upon entering Boston College. Like most students, I spent my days pondering what to major in and how to apply a liberal arts education towards a productive career that would make a difference. I eventually decided to major in history, feeling that it would provide me the most balanced liberal arts education. The more I studied, the more I realized there was a lot I didn’t learn while growing up in a small suburban town. I wanted to find a way to bring these stories to someone like myself back in my hometown. Sophomore year, while sitting in Professor Karen Miler’s African American History class in O’Neill Library, I decided motion picture was the most effective way to do it. I figured some things would have to be sacrificed in order to reach a large audience – you can’t make a film about some of the extraordinarily in-depth topics explored by historians – but the payoff of that large audience would be worth it.

The only problem was, I had no idea where to start. BC did not have a formal film program at the time. I decided the best thing to do was to propose making a documentary film for my history Honors Thesis. Professor Andrew Buni was brave enough to agree to be my thesis advisor, supporting the unorthodox idea of making a film. But he was pretty blunt in saying that he knew nothing about filmmaking. An internship at Cramer Productions, a company in Norwood, MA, helped me brush up on technical stuff – how to shoot B-roll, what the difference between a gaffer and key grip was, the language and vibe of being on live studio sets and on location, the ins and outs of edit suites and audio gear. I learned a lot. I landed another internship at WGBH, working on Africans in America, a six-hour series about the history of slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War. This amazing opportunity introduced me to what it takes to produce a national production. I was also cast in a few reenactments, which was a lot of fun! Together, these experiences helped me complete my first documentary, a modest history of East Boston.

I decided to stay an additional year at BC and get my Master’s degree in history. I wanted to refine my analytical research and writing, with the ultimate goal of applying these skills towards documentary filmmaking. After finishing grad school, I reconnected with a contact at WGBH and was hired as a Production Assistant in the Educational Programming Department. That foot in the door led to the past fourteen years of producing, directing, shooting, and editing on national programs for PBS, including films for American Experience and Frontline, as well as an engineering series for tweens.

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