The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

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This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

Ben Kempas
Just be honest and include yourselves. Use narration or title cards
to explain the constellation.

I once filmed an interview with a British professor twice: First in
English for the English version of the film, and then in German for
the German version, as his German was excellent. But the poor man
seemed totally exhausted during the second part of the interview, so I
wouldn't do anything like this ever again. Well, the prof was almost
90 years old, but still... When in doubt, always opt for interviewee's
native language.

As for professionals to give their opinion the guy's film, what about
Mogens Rukov?
Rianne Tol
About Mogens Rukov; he is a teacher at the academy and we tried to
contact him as so. So the waitinggame begins again.
I am still in doubt of in- or excluding ourselves, but decided to
include us and see what happens when we start editing after this
last trip to Denmark.
Enjoy the idfa if you are going, and thanks for your replies &
Ben Kempas
You're welcome. Good luck, Rianne. Maybe see you at IDFA?
Deleted User
I'm new to all of this. As I said in my introduction, I've been away
from video and film for about 10 years. I'm really struggling to
figure out the best way to switch careers and at the same time learn
all I need to. I know a lot about the production process in general
and what it takes to get a production completed sucessfully (many of
Doug's old journals rang very true to me at one point in my life.)

My passion has always been editing and it certaily feels like it is
still that way. I did a whole lot of work "back in the day" with the
Avid Media Composer and I don't think it'll take that long to get up
to speed (went to a demo last week and it felt like getting back on a
bicycle.) I don't have a lot of cash laying around to go and buy a
Final Cut or Avid Mojo system so what's the next best thing to get
back up to speed on all of this tech?

My perspective might be a bit skewed as well, considering I've been a
technogeek for all this time! I'm just feeling confused about the best
way to get started.

Do I go into debt to buy one of these and a camera and do weddings to
pay it off?

How do I get a body of work when I have nothing to edit or edit with?

I plan on going back to school at Duke in the next year or so at their
Center for Documentary Studies, but what should I do up until then to
get into the game?

Am I being impatient?

I know this is a lot of crap to just dump out there, but I would like
to get some more perspective from people who have been through this

Thanks for listening,
Doug Block
Here's my 2 cents, Aaron. Get Final Cut Pro. Ideally, the new G5
and FCP 4. Complete with 2 monitors and the works, probably would set
you back $6,000 to 7,000. If you can't afford it, get a used system
for half the price.

Edit some weddings, anything, to pay it off. Get really proficient
at it. Then, find a way to start cutting docs.

A body of work doesn't happen all at once. It builds up slowly over
the years. Take it one work at a time. And just stick with it. Stay
in the game.

Lots of luck.
Rianne Tol
am in Denmark at the moment getting our last shots. Can only attend
IDFA on the last sunday, which ofcourse I will do.
Doug Block
Rianne, I'll make sure to post this within The D-Word Community, as
well. Good luck.

(Just so you and others know, the Classifieds topic is the better
place for notices like this.)
Stephanie Friede
Hi everyone,
My name is Stephanie and I am currently a Junior at Cornell
University. I study Communications, Government, and Film and I am
looking for a summer internship in documentary film makeing. I live
in New York City and am looking to work in documentary film makeing
this summer. I was wondering if any film makers are looking for
interns or help around NY this summer 2004. I will be studying in
Barcelona, Spain next semester so I am hoping to line up the
internship before I go. Let me know, you can email me at if you have any leads. Thanks so much for all your

Doug Block
Actually, I could use an intern this summer, Stephanie. I'm also a
Cornell alum. Work in NYC. Let's talk more on email:
Shazia Malik
ok...I seemed to have created a bit of a crisis for myself... I've
been in New Zealand for about two years now but feel I dont know the
country well enough to have an "opinion" or a "perspective" and
consequently be able to question. I really want to make something
that I strongly feel about... how do i start off??
Erica Ginsberg
What about the perspective of someone who has only been in a country
for two years and surely must have some perspective on what it feels
like to be experiencing a different culture?

Alternatively, does your film program encourage collaborations?
Sometimes finding someone else who does have a stronger (or at least
clearer) opinion and ability to question can help bring out your own

Good luck!
Deleted User
Hi, I'm wondering whether any of you have ideas about affordable
storage of original footage shot for a doc., preferably in the NY
area. Are any of you interested in sharing space?
Johanna Kloot
Hi there. How do I protect my ideas/stories as I go about pitching
and looking for professional partners? Is there a format for
pitching that works well for the doco? It seems some countries buy
finished docos and others, like my Australia, strongly prefer pre-
sales. What are the advantages of either system and is there a
trade proforma/secret on how to secure pre-sales?
Thank you for your valuable time donations.
Doug Block
Johanna, those are great questions and each one requires a long,
detailed answer, so I can't get to all of them.

The short answer to the first is... you can't protect your ideas. Not
fully. You can't copyright an idea. So the more fully developed they
are when you present them, the more it's clear that you've done the
work and someone would be foolish to try to do it themselves when
you're imminently going into production, well... hopefully, that does
the trick.

As far as format for pitching, TDF at Hot Docs, IDFA and a number of
other places have formal pitching sessions for international docs
during the year and they all have a similar format. You can read up
on it at the TDF website:

The only trade secret on securing pre-sales is to shoot a lot of
great footage and make it into a fantastic sample tape. And, if you
can, allign yourself with producers who have international experience
and contacts (all but necessary in int'l co-pros and presales).

Lots of luck.
Johanna Kloot
Thank you so much for your valuable advice. I will take heed. It
must feel great to know you are making a difference.
Thank you again, Johanna.
Sarah Richards
Does anyone have any tips on getting into the industry for a lawyer
turned documentary filmmaker? Do I need to go back to school? Is it
realistic to want a career in documentary? Am I crazy???! Cheers,
Doug Block
Yes, Sarah, you're crazy! Totally bonkers!!! Then again, so are all
of us. So, you're in good company. But you're also ahead of the game
since much of producing is doing all the agreements yourself that you
wish you had the money to pay a lawyer to do.

I'd also say don't go back to school. What for? Use all that money
you save towards making your film. There are plenty of ways to learn
outside of school. Just one recommendation: if you're gonna wind up
shooting yourself, get a camera and practice, practice, practice.
Doug Block
Sarah, just noticed you applied to the community. We don't normally
let in inexperienced doc makers, but if you promise to hang out in our
Legal Issues topic and restrain from asking too many basic questions
we'll make an exception. When you get in (later today), please
introduce yourself again there.
Lynnae Brown
do you have any recommedations for transcription services? I'd like
to have my footage transcribed for paper editing..thanks
Shazia Malik
Hi every one,

Forgive me for sounding stupid... Ive finally managed to shortlist
two topics for my first school documentary:

1. Since Im an immigrant Im very interested in the plight of
children born of Immigrant parents.

2. The Hare Krishna Consciousness and their way of life (supposedly
aiming for a kind of spirituality). What kind of spirituality are
they aiming for really?

Now for my question:

Im in America at the moment and have to hand in topics the day I
land NZ (where I study and will be filming). So I have chosen topics
based on very minimal research done abroad. Im scared that mid way
in my research if I discover that there really isnt much to

I guess my fear is partly born out of the fact that I might not be
able to go back and change my topic...

Hope Im not sounding too vague...

Erica Ginsberg

Without knowing more about your circumstances (when is the project
due, whether you are working with a crew of fellow students, whether
the school is funding it entirely or you have to fund part of it,
etc.), it is hard to give really good advice, but here are a few

I'm assuming by your saying this is your first school documentary
that this means you will probably go on to make a second school
documentary. So, in a sense, you could think about both of your
choices as possibilities -- one for now, one for later. Your real
choice is which one are you more passionate about right now and which
one seems achievable given the likely limitations of time, money,
crew, etc. Do you have an advisor at your school who has given any
feedback on which one looks more realistic as a first project?

It'obvious what led you to choice #1, but how did you get interested
in choice #2? Are you Hare Krishna or do you have connections to
Hare Krishnas? Are there many Hare Krishnas near where you are in
New Zealand? It is certainly not a requirement to have a pre-
existing connection -- sometimes being somewhat removed from a topic
but curious about it can make you look at it more objectively. But
you do have to be interested enough in it to carry your passion
through the ups and downs of following the subject (starting with
research and getting the access and the trust level of people who may
feel they have been misrepresented in the past)

In terms of the first topic on children of immigrants, it is one
which has been done a lot, which is not to say don't do it. Issues
of cross-cultural identity are always ripe for documentation. I am
not sure how many other documentaries have been done specifically
about immigrants in New Zealand compared to issues in U.S., European
countries, Australia, etc., so I am not sure if the stories would be
similar or different. I assume you may have noticed some
similarities and differences between immigrant experiences since you
have been in the U.S. You may also want to look at other films which
have dealt with this topic.

The advantage of having a personal connection to a story is that you
could either introduce yourself as a character or have a means to
make your subjects more comfortable since you share something in
common with them. The disadvantage is that you may make assumptions
that those who don't share that identity might miss. So it's also a
question of who is your audience? Would you want this film to reach
others who are immigrants to make them feel they are not alone? Do
you want it to make people who don't share that identity and either
know nothing or think they know something to know more about the
experience of immigrants? These are two very different audiences and
it is hard, but not impossible, to make a documentary which would
appeal to both.

Good luck, what ever you decide!
Shazia Malik
Thanks so much for responding Erica.

Well to tell you the truth, a lot of this apprehension stems from the
fact that Im in America and have to make a documentary in New

I was on a summer break all this time and will start my third year
the day I return. I have to pitch three topics to my school on paper
the day I land and that is creating a lot of frustration because I
havent got a chance to directly meet the people/ institutions I want
to film. And there is only so much preliminary research you can do on
the internet. So the deal is, my tutors will pick a topic from the
three I shortlisted.

This will be the only documentary I make this year. It is a
collaborated effort... I will have a student crew and the doc will be
under ten minutes. I have done a bit of reading... I read the Rabiger
book on making docs and I completely agree with you... right from day
one I really want to make something that I strongly feel about. I
definitely want to avoid at all costs a shallow "dabbling" in
something that is apparently different.

The Krishna Consciousness subject is definitely something that I'm
more than curious about. On the contrary its something that I
strongly question. Not to give you an offhanded summation of their
spiritual philosophy, their spirituality which believes in
renunciating materialism strongly triggers off questions like
escapism (from the real world) etc... which brings to mind a

You mentioned something about your subject being able to develop a
trust in the film maker... how does one then approach a subject who's
practice you question from the start...

Thanks again for your time...

Doug Block
Shazia, you just need to show the subject that you're genuinely
curious and that you've done your homework and you'll gain their
trust. It's not about whether or not you agree with them or question
their beliefs (though I certainly wouldn't flaunt that). As long as
your not out to get them from the start you'll be just fine.

Good luck.
Lorenzo Meccoli
Hello everybody, my name is Lorenzo Meccoli and I am a documentary
filmmaker and producer. I recently finished with Gabriele Zamparini a
long documentary, "XXI Century" ( which was
recently showed at IDFA and had a very good response from the public.
The question is: anybody knows were can I find prices of how much
buyers pay, on an average, for documentaries (small and big
broadcasters, DVDs and Tapes distributions, Theaters ecc.)? I know it
is a very general question but maybe, gaining some information here
and there I can try to have an idea. I read the whole forum "SELLING
IN THE INTERNATIONAL MARKETPLACE" but there were really not the
information I was looking for. Also: has anybody had experience in
selling in Italy to the printed media market? It is very common there
to buy film at the newsstand/bookstores where tapes and dvds are sold
with magazines, newspapers and books. Thank you for any help you can
give me.
Doug Block
Lorenzo, please join The D-Word Community where the doc professionals
hang out. You're much more likely to get answers to these kinds of
questions there. Go to:

As for what buyers pay, it varies, of course, and fluctuates all the
time. What ZDF/Arte paid me seven years ago for Home Page (90 minutes
in length, contractually) is almost irrelevant to what they'd pay now.
Also, you're talking about separate distributors for the various
ancillaries -- broadcast, theatrical, dvd/home video. Each with their
own price ranges.
Ben Kempas
Doug, Lorenzo is already a member of the Community.

Lorenzo, you'll find a Marketing and Distribution topic in
Doug Block
Well, shut my mouth. A perfect illustration of how the community is
growing faster than my poor beleaguered mind can follow.
Diane Bernard
Hi to all:
It's been a while since I checked in here, glad to see engaging
questions since my last visit. Of course, my question is fairly
mundane in comparison.

I've shot a good amount of footage for my doc and am about to edit a
demo reel. I've installed Final Cut Pro 4 and am in the market for a
new external hard drive. Does anyone have any good recommendations? I
know it needs to be 7200 rpm but beyond that, I have no experience
with what would be good.

Any info is greatly appreciated.
Lorenzo Meccoli
Dear Diane, I had a very good experience with the La Cie hard drives.
But you should not look at the new ones (Porsche design) which they
told me are not strong as the traditional ones. You can check on LaCie
website PS: they
are not paying me! Actually I paid them more then one time!!!
Diane Bernard
Thanks a mil for the advice. I checked out the La Cie info and it
looks good and I also found a good price on one at a nearby Apple
Store. So I'm about to go out and get one.
Erica Ginsberg
In answer to question posted here about music rights

Even if you have a signed agreement with the cabaret performers for
rights to their rendition of the song, in most cases, you will also
have clear rights for the song itself (usually with the publisher).
You can check with ASCAP to see if the songs you want are created by
one of their members. It doesn't really matter if your project is
not-for-profit. If you are planning to screen your film in any kind
of public space (including the Internet), you will need rights.

Can't recall if you said you were based in NYC, but, if so, AIFV is
holding a session on production legal issues soon, so you might want
to attend to get more specific answers to your questions.
Deleted User
*I am producing a documentary about a cabaret group in NYC. The main
feasibility questions that arise are about music use. Hopefully you can answer
these questions or can give insight as to who can help me with them.
*The project is not for profit. The songs used in the shows are popular ones,
but they are being played by a piano player with a singer. Must I secure rights
to use the music if it is being played by someone else in a stage show? What
other legalities must I look into to use it in a doc?
*Any information you can give would be greatly helpful and appreciated.

Thank You,
Erica Ginsberg
see my answer in the post prior to your question (makes me feel like
i have psychic powers)
Maureen Futtner
Hi filmmakers,

Just introduced myself & now I have QUESTIONS!

In the early stages of production of my first documentary on a
transgender pianist/singer who will be returning to her home country
(after having not been there for 25 years!) to perform in a series
of concerts. That's all I want to say about the project right now.
My question is regarding how much footage to shoot.
The return trip/concert is not for nearly another year and a half
yet, and I already have 16 hours of footage! Now, partially, I
realize my collaborator & I will have a ton of footage 'cause we're
novices, and need to work out a lot of kinks. But I'm also
concerned 'cause I keep wanting to shoot so much of her life. I do
plan to have the return trip be the final shoot, and we'll begin
post shortly after we get back. But, as I said, that trip is still
a year and a half away. Should I have a plan NOW for a maximum
amount of shooting to do? Any wisdom and advice would be greatly
Doug Block
Hard to answer that question, Maureen. It's largely going on
instinct. Wouldn't hurt to do a lot of interviews with your subject,
particularly when she's in the midst of doing something. Also seems
you have a possible built-in structure of beginning as she's taking
off for her trip, then continually flashing back as the concert tour
moves forward. Sort of like the past colliding with the present. In
the end, I recommend erring on the side of shooting, but also trying
not to overdo it. Tape is cheap but editors can be expensive.
Carolyn Projansky
Greetings to all: I haven't been here in months, and never
really "got to know" the folks in D-Word, but I need some advice.
I've recently moved back to the US from South Africa and I'm
struggling to catch up with changes in the production world in the US
since 2000. I'm pricing a job now, trying to figure out what kind of
camera equipment to budget for. In SA everybody was using DVCam or
miniDV (PD150) for almost everything. Here that doesn't seem to be
the case. I'm trying to choose between shooting in BETACAM-SP or
DVCAM for a project in which the video segments will ultimately end
up on the web (for use in a web-based training program). The
surprising thing is that DVCAM seems to be more expensive than BETA
here. In South Africa it was the reverse. Anyone understand my
confusion and can help enlighten me? Thanks. Carolyn
Doug Block
That's a surprise to me, too, Carolyn. Can you give us some examples
of the pricing you've run across? Because a PD150 shoots dv-cam and
goes for, what, $3500? Where can you get a beta-sp camera for near
that price?
Carolyn Projansky
Doug: I think the price comparison was not for a PD150 versus BETACAM-
SP, but for a bigger DV-CAM camera, compared to a BETA-SP. I'll have
to get the specifics from my production manager. But do you, or does
someone else know whether it matters what I shoot with if it's going
to end up in a tiny box on the web? Will a better camera give a
crisper image so its better to spend the money? Or will it all end up
looking tiny and grainy so who cares?
Ben Kempas
A bigger camera is always nicer for its easy handling, decent
exposure, proper lens, less depth of field, and better reliability. As
long as your footage ends up on the net, the format really doesn't
matter. Could be a 300 or 500-series DVCAM, any Beta-SP, or anything
down to S-VHS. :-)
Carolyn Projansky
Thanks Ben. If anyone else out there has a opinion about format for
shooting direct-to-web I'd be interested.

Meanwhile, as long as I'm on the subject of cameras ... I have two
doccies I'm developing that raise camera questions, too. One is
definitely for int'l TV broadcast and I'm targeting the BBC
particularly. Is it best to shoot 16X9 these days and then compress,
or whatever you do for 4x3screenings? I'm still budgeting and so I
can select the shooting format as I choose. Although this one isn't
an "intimate" story, I generally prefer a smaller, more unobtrusive
camera for a documentary. Will all the broadcasters accept DVCAM
(the big kind) or is it better to go for HD nowadays? I'm not sure I
like the look of HD for a documentary. Are people having good
experiences with the "look" and "feel" of the format? What type of
film does it seem to work best for?

My other project is a very intimate doc which is destined either for
US tv or might be a feature doc for some cinema release. It depends
on how the characters work when we start shooting. We're going to do
a demo. But I don't want to shoot the demo material and then throw it
away. I'd like to start shooting with the format we're going to stay
with. What do you recommend? An intimate "family" story, needs to
be unobtrusive camera but great looking.

thanks very much! Carolyn
Erica Ginsberg
Hey Carolyn. Erica from WIFV here. Glad to hear you are back from
South Africa and welcome back to D-Word.

I'm surprised by the price differential too. Even if you are looking
at getting a crew with one of the higher end DVCAM cameras, it should
still be less expensive than Beta-SP. HD could be more expensive
though. How did you get your crew quotes? Did you try posting on
the WIFV listserv?

I'll let the cinematography experts answer your other questions, but
my understanding is that BBC absolutely requires 16X9.
Ben Kempas
What's wrong with the "look of HD for documentary"?

As a cinematographer, I've worked with HD - but not for "doccies".
Carolyn Projansky
I still don't have the specific price quotes but I spoke again to a
production manager who gets quotes all the time. She says that a
bunch of the major houses that rent camera equipment in the DC area
have all just recently upgraded to top DV Cam equipment and they're
now renting their "old" BETAs for less. Interesting. Plausible. I
haven't check the price quotes myself but this person is very
reputable. I'll check into it myself by the end of next week and
report back.

To Ben: I'm a complete novice with HD, but from what I've seen, it
has such sharp, detailed look that it is almost the antithesis of
film with its warm, soft, shadowy edges. It's hard to describe. I
think living in an HD world will take gradual adustment.
Carolyn Projansky
Sorry, Erica, I forgot to say, "Hello" back to you. No, I didn't
post this on the listserve, but I've been working with a production
manager we had recommended by the listserve. Thanks for your
comments. Carolyn
Erica Ginsberg
Carolyn, you would probably get better quotes if your production
manager went to individual cameramen or a boutique house rather than
a major house (or, if you already have a cinematographer sans the
right camera, it may be cheaper to buy him the camera as part of his
payment than to rent one for him). If the major houses think they
can charge top dollar for the same camera quality as a cameraman with
his own equipment, they will likely go the way of top post production
houses which can no longer compete for the offline market while
everyone has Avids and FCP in their home offices. While you were
gone, Henninger went bankrupt and then had to retool their operation
and, as you know, Roland House recently went out of business