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.

Doug Block

Glad to help out, Maria.  We have a weak spot for those who care for animals. Keep up the great work!

Erica Ginsberg

I'm sure both sociology and biology are super helpful being a vet tech since you have to deal with animals and their human companions at their most vulnerable.

Anyway if you do bounce back to Maryland, let me know.

Vivian Kleiman

In reply to Maria Covell's post on Thu 16 Jun 2016:

It's not difficult to teach yourself how to use a camera and how to edit.  But what's not easy to learn is how to tell a story. 

If you take a good class on storytelling, or bite the bullet and go to a good film program, you will be exposed to rigorous review  -- both by instructors and fellow students -- that you cannot get from friends and family.  Some people are natural born storytellers.  But most self-taught filmmakers need the help of a more experienced filmmaker.  And a class is a great way to get that training. 

If you have the resources, it can be helpful to hire someone like myself (a brief moment of self-promotion here!) as a storytelling consultant or consulting producer to get feedback and guidance.

Rene Mayo

In reply to Daniel McGuire's post on Tue 7 Jun 2016:

Hi Daniel, I'm no master, but the answer to your question is yes, but it is also yes if you don't have 4k. Many things are shot with one camera, but with multiple takes to get the shots needed. The reason for this is that the lighting for each subject (and cheating backgrounds to make shots pretty :)) should be different to highlight certain characteristics or to communicate a certain mood or idea with each shot. However, if you don't care about any of that you can shoot one shot with 4k and you essentially have 4-1080HD shots (actually more depending on where  you choose to crop) based on the fact that you can fit 4-1080 shots in one 4k image. I hope that makes sense.

Jesse Zook Mann

In reply to deleted post on Thu 30 Jun 2016:

Documentary cinematography is a lot like a sport, so there is a lot to the advice "keep doing it." Muscle memory is huge, and nothing quite teaches you what to shoot after you mess something up royally. I do think people who keep doing it under some kind higher stress environment... be it a local news network, or cable tv, or weddings do get better faster than someone who keeps doing it on their own.

I think you could learn a years worth of practice in isolation in two weeks on a news/ doc show. If you mess up there are consequences, and there are lots of people who can show you how to work. Online resources can be great for some things. I love them for motion graphics and color. But for longer edits it hard to teach effectively imho. However for story, I think the Save the Cat podcast is stellar. I study from there all the time. That will get you on the path of thinking like a great editor, not just a button pusher. That you can learn the functions of Adobe Premiere on Youtube in a few days.

Russell Hawkins

In reply to deleted post on Fri 1 Jul 2016:

I second Jesse's point that you can learn a lot from working with other people, working in a team environment, or assisting a cinematographer or editor exposes you to proven techniques, workflows and equipment . 

There is a lot of great technical information out there in online forums, but also a lot of misinformation and gear fetishisation.  They each have their own focus and culture, some are good for solving technical problems, others for researching equipment or for tutorials. 


digital photgraphy review



philip bloom


Daniel McGuire

In reply to Rene Mayo's post on Sat 25 Jun 2016:

I guess I wasn't clear in my question. I was talking about a verite situation - something that only happened once, while you happened to be there. My question was about shooting wide and positioning the (handheld) camera  in relation to 2-4 subjects, who hopefully have some space between them. I wondered if, by shooting with 4k, you could freely crop this wide master shot into multiple singles and medium close-ups in the edit room. Also curious if anyone has done this, or seen it in a doc film. 

Nigel Walker

Lenses are designed to optimally capture the full frame so there could be issues with focus and distortion on the glass edges. This would be a bad idea unless an experimental project.

Doug Block

I plan, likewise.  The race is on to see who gets there first.

Nathan Doody

I am posting to find out if anyone has heard of the state of Vermont's so called (black list) made by the department of children and families. The problem with dcf in Vermont is that they do not have to obey the laws, they are on a power trip and putting everyone they investigate on this list . They are putting people on this list with no warrant to do so, and in turn ruining people's lives. I spoke directly with the director of dcf and she said they are above the law beccause they have backing from legislature. Don't know or care how but it's unjust , the people of Vermont who do not want their homes invaded because of an anonymous phone call with no proof need to stand up. Any thoughts on this anyone???

alexander palmer

Hey Community

I have a question regarding my Canon XA 20

I have only recently starting shooting with it action from a distance 50+ metres

It is terrible and can not focus clearly beyond 50 metres.  It is a fixed lens and f 3.67-73.44 mm ..  20 x optical zoom and 35mm equivalent of 26.8 - 576 mm

Under the specs you would expect it to achieve a decent clarity of focus over 50 metres ( 70 odd yards )  ?  

Any clear feedback would be much appreciated 

Am thinking that maybe the internal lens may hv been damaged ?

thanks in advance


Doug Block

Alexander, this topic is pretty much just for Fans to get advice from our Pro members.  As a Pro, you're much better off asking this in the Cinematography topic where more folks will see it.  We don't usually encourage members to double post, but in this case go right ahead.

chung winner


Hi all. I'm creating a series of short profiles of people living life's extremes. It's very difficult to find quality subjects, especially without a casting director. Any suggestions from more experienced documentary filmmakers?



Howard Weinberg

If you do the reporting, you'll find the people who can help you find your subjects -- the one person you need is YOU!  You should speculate about the characteristics of each subject, but be open to the realities of whom you find in your search process.  Each subject should contribute to and advance your general theme, not just be a variation on it.   To offer more advice, I'd need to know more about your constraints.  I have produced profiles throughout my television journalism career and taught a course in same.  Good luck. 

Christopher Wong

In reply to chung winner's post on Sun 7 Aug 2016:

chung, half the battle of making any film is finding the right subjects. they are not just there waiting to be asked! for your particular project, you need to get much more specific about exactly what kinds of "extremes" you are looking for. you should have an idea in your head what you want, e.g., BASE jumpers, ice climbers, or people living off-the-grid. simply putting an ad out there on CraigsList for people who are "living life's extremes" is not going to be helpful to you.

even after you find a few prospects, it will still be difficult because many of them will not be camera-ready, so to speak. they may be too shy, they may not be able to clearly express their thoughts, or their life may simply not be dramatic enough for you. Or, at the last minute, they may decide that they don't want to give you approval to tell their story. You have to earn their trust by being genuine, and showing them that you actually care about them, not just their story.

so, yes, this is extremely hard. but it's supposed to be, so don't get discouraged. get specific about what you want, search the internet for communities that cater to those lifestyles, and start making contact through emails, phone calls, and events. one person will lead you to another person, and pretty soon, you'll be properly connected. just make sure you have a clear vision for the film you want to create, and make sure that you know how to passionately explain that to your potential subjects.  good luck!

Daniel McGuire

Is there any documentary script format/WP program that folks are in love with? I've been with Scrivener for a while, which has many great features, but the documentary template there isn't very good. I like 3 columns and use them for Image/narration/sound but they are terrible for formatting purposes. Does anyone have a Google Doc template or other alternative? Thanks.

Damian Kudelka

Hi.  I'm seeking guidance about what information to include in introductory interview request letters/emails to potential interviewees?  Thanks for your help!

Niam Itani

Welcome to The D-Word, Damian. In your introductory emails you would want to introduce yourself, what you're working on (Film, web video, series, etc...) and a brief synopsis. You then have to mention why you are writing to this specific individual and ask if you can have a conversation with them. 

If you can start a conversation based on the first email, you would have achieved progress. 

Don't make the first email too long. At the same time, don't make it too short or too vague. 

Damian Kudelka

Thanks! Do you have any suggestions how to convey professionalism? I'm anticipating surprise emails may be considered spam by recipients and would be immediately deleted. Are there common industry phrases I should use indicating I'm a legitimate filmmaker?

Christopher Wong

damian, i can understand your hesitation to dive right in, but you are definitely overthinking the process. it's just like meeting anyone new -- make a good impression by being polite, direct, and warm. be clear about your request (e.g. "I'm looking to film for a few days with someone who makes their life as a circus performer...), and then see if your subjects respond. if they don't, just move on. if they do -- and people often do -- then continue to move forward as professionally as you can: show up on time, take care of your subject's expenses, do your research and ask good questions. in the end, it really is that simple.  (later on, the editing and fundraising can get complicated!)

Niam Itani

"Dear Damian, 

I read your profile on The D-Word and was really impressed with your biography as an aspiring filmmaker. 

I am currently working on a documentary about aspiring filmmakers and was wondering if we can have a conversation some time later this week. 

I look forward to hearing from you,


Mobile# 111-111-1111


Something along those lines almost always warrants a response :)

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