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.

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 :)

Frank Herr

Hi all,

I'm a molecular biologist with absolutely no film experience whatsoever. None.

However, I have (what I feel to be) the premise of a great short film/doc. Are there any resources/forums/groups geared towards folks like myself?

Thanks for any insight (here or via email).



Christopher Wong

Frank, we all started at one point with absolutely no experience, so welcome to the club. (Personally, I started out in the financial world as a bank officer...)  In any case, here are three great starting points for you:


2) Read Michael Rabiger's book "Directing the Documentary" (it's an oldie but goodie, and still regarded as the best one out there)

3) Take an introductory class on production at your local community college -- learn the basics of camera operation and editing

As with molecular biology, documentary filmmaking is not easy and requires a whole set of skills that can only be learned over a period of years (not weeks). But this site -- and the steps listed above -- will get you a long way towards developing the necessary fluency and competency so that when you are ready to embark on your own project, you will actually be able to make something both beautiful and meaningful.

Nigel Noriega

Dear D-word,

This is my first post. I’m attempting to compile info and responses from more than a dozen conversations. I’m posting to ask about mentorship for “next steps” as a first time filmmaker with no budget or recognition, but a project with “reach” on a lot of topics. Thank you to all the people who were so helpful to me at the IDA conference “Getting real”. This post is in response to some of the feedback I received regarding my first-time film project. Two trailers intended to represent different ends of the spectrum are included in this post as follows:


1) Recent “movie” version


2) An older “ask for support” version, aimed at ecosystem support communities as well as film funders. I present this older trailer here to show the original intent of highlighting people in the story.


A bit more about me can be found here: introducing-filmmaker-nigel- noriega-competing-reelpitch- challenge/


A summary of feedback from Getting real (my first film conference) is tallied in categories as follows


A) You need to get a producer/Who is your producer? (more than 10)

B) This is a documentary conference, but you need to go to one that focuses on science (3 comments)

C) We'd like a human story to follow (4 comments)

D) You are very competent (3 comments)

E) This looks like a scientist trying to promote his work (1 comment)

F) This is extremely interesting, let's talk more (5comments)

G) You really need to talk to "X" (more than 10 comments)


It seems the overwhelming consensus is to get a producer and talk to suggested people.  Talking to the recommended people (filmmakers as well as “higher ups” at film festivals and networks) is what produced the comment list above.


There is more that I’d like to film to flesh out the story, but it seems like some people want to see a rough cut of what I already have (complete enough to be informative, but requiring key footage to be entertaining).  Is this a good use of effort?  Or would it be better to develop the story coverage more fully so that people take me more seriously? 

I’ve asked to speak to several producers. Hopefully I’ll hear back from them soon.

Thank you for your time. If I posted in the wrong section of D-word, might you kindly direct me to the most appropriate spot? 

Warmest regards,






Erica Ginsberg

Nigel, glad to see you've found your way here to The D-Word and been so forthcoming with the feedback you got at Getting Real. I will try to take a look at your links soon when I am on a real computer.

Margo Precht Speciale

Dear D-Word - My co-producer and I are currently in the development stage of our doc and we are both newbies to documentary filmmaking.  We need to get input on what order to do the following:

1) start interviewing - especially those older people who might be facing declining health

2) create budget 

3) create treatment

4) hire director and director of photography - how do we do interviews and maintain a certain aesthetic without at least a dp in place?

Any advice, guidance or recommendations would be apprecaited!

Niam Itani

Margo, if you and your co-producer are newbies and will need financiers for your film (Or you are not self financing it) you will need to hire an experienced director with a well known name to those who finance documentaries. To do that, you will need to have a fantastic story because that is what attracts filmmakers (and financiers). Once you do that, you will probably have to trust the director with who to choose as a DP and/or to maintain the directorial vision. 

You should definitely start putting together a rough budget and a rough treatment (These will always be changing as time goes by) and try to improve them and edit them as you learn more from The D-Word and other resources online and offline. 

Christopher Wong

Margo, Niam's advice is very good if you absolutely don't want to direct the piece yourself. However, whoever originated the idea is probably the best candidate to actually be the director. A director-for-hire (big name or not) may not have that enduring vision that you will personally bring to your film.

Hiring a DP is obviously a very necessary step, but not one of the first you should take, unless your film is primarily concerned with visuals. Of much greater initial importance is the budget and treatment.

Margo Precht Speciale

In reply to Niam Itani's post on Sun 16 Oct 2016:

 Thank you, Niam and Christopher.  Great advice!  What are your thoughts about when we should start interviews? We feel pressed to get some interviews done now for some older performers, but we have not raised money yet to bring on a well know DP. Any suggestions on how to tackle this part?


Margo Precht Speciale

I would like to add one more question to what I asked above.  Niam, you recommend putting together a rough treatment.  The problem I see with that approach is that treatments I have read and samples I have seen include visuals.  We have a fantastic story right now but without a DP or Director, our treatment would lack that visual piece that draws the reader in.  Is there away around that in the interim?  

Niam Itani

In reply to Margo Precht Speciale's post on Mon 17 Oct 2016:

There is indeed :) 

You can certainly include images of places / locations where the shoots will be happening and people who look similar to your potential interviewees and includes them as "samples".  Exterior and Interior images, color palette that you think the film will be gearing towards, and faces of senior citizens as I am assuming you will be focusing on them. 

If your story is about a specific senior citizen then it is very important that you decide on your treatment and figure out your DP or Director quickly. However, if it is about senior citizens (in general) then you can develop it and proceed to production afterwards. 

However, you can always proceed with interviews. Even in the worst case that you can't use them in the final film, they are important for development & research, you can use them to show funders what type of story this is, and you can most certainly use the audio from these interviews even if the video doesn't make it to the final cut. Make sure the audio is good :) 

Margo Precht Speciale

Thanks again, Niam.  I keep thinking to myself - what comes first the chicken or the egg.  Our story will be told through archival footage with interviews from performers, some who are now in their late 80s.  Their are a few that we feel will be especially important. Glad to hear you are encouraging us to move forward with those.  You are absolutely right about audio!  

Doug Block

Especially since your subjects aren't getting any younger, Margo.  There seems to be a real urgency about shooting them sooner than later.

Marco de Mooy

In reply to Ken Kenderson's post on Fri 13 May 2016 (

Hey Ken! You wanted to have a project to work on, i got one that needs help to get finished within a certain deadline. Also have enough different things that need to get done and so i offer u choices aswell regarding the work u maybe can do. Let me know if your still available and interested m8. Here is my email for direct contact possibly :

peter olsen


I am making research for, hopefully, my 1st documentary. I have trouble to find scripts of previous documentaries as to make my mind regarding their "codification". I mean: I have worked previously in fiction screenwritting and I know their codes, but as for documentaries I am in the need of taking a look to already finished documentaries in order to get more examples.

By the way, I am already familiar with common issues (people who dont work with script at all; people who write it after shooting it; people who write it previous to the shoot; etc)

Thanks. Regards.

Merav Klein

Hi, I am working in Tali - The Collecting Society of Film and Television Creators in Israel.

Lately We have been trying to accurate our doc-press/doc- investigation definition in our repertoire rules document. we are trying do find definition that distinguish a documentary film from a 'light' documentary film that mainly engaged in specific news event (most brodcast in a magazin shows).

I would appreciate any help in that matter.


Niam Itani

In reply to Merav Klein's post on Wed 26 Oct 2016:

Hello Merav, you are probably looking to differentiate between a current affairs program (sort of a longer news report) and a proper cinematic / in-depth documentary film. I am not sure there are definitions set in stone, because -as you know- the lines blur in the arts. 

Meredith Lobsinger

Hello All! This is my first post here. I'm thankful to have been introduced to this community. 

I still find hesitancy in proclaiming myself as a filmmaker. I attended one glorious year at Emerson College's MFA Media Art program with a focus in documentary, but decided to step away upon fully realizing the weight of school costs. I will indeed one day finish that degree, hopefully with a few more credits and a greater chance at some scholarship funding (if higher education doesn't crumble in the distant future.) 

In my short student career, I edited two films, both of which made festival rounds and won some awards (not THE awards, but they're good films). I have since moved to NY and am without my Boston community of filmmakers. How do I put myself in a position to start working on a team again as an editor? Should I start reaching out to student productions to begin? I'm  very hungry to be playing the game again and figured honesty was the best way to start. 

Thanks for listening. 

Erica Ginsberg

Welcome Meredith. Sounds like you are a filmmaker to us, degree or no degree.

Aside from The D-Word (which has many NY-based members), seems like you should also check out other face-to-face professional development gatherings there. I keep seeing posts on FB that the Karen Schmeer Editing Fellowship folks are having a get-together during DOC NYCon Tuesday, November 15 at 7:30 pm at Vol De Nuit Belgian Beer Bar (148 West 4th St., near 6th Ave.). RSVP to info AT karenschmeer DOT com = seems like that would be good for you to attend. Thew New Yorkers among us can suggest other things.

Judith Steele Parolini

In reply to Frank Herr's post on Tue 4 Oct 2016:

 Frank, Agree with all of Christopher's suggestion's. One more is to go to the location (?) and take a few on the run pics- with you i-phone so that you do not look professional. Bring the image in early in the process is a golden rule- you will be surprised at how inspiring that is.!

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