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

There is no standard, Marianne. At least in the U.S. A typical scenario, and one I've used when I've come on a film part-way through as a co-producer, is to get a fairly low guaranteed fee (deferred) vs. a percentage of funds raised. And I mean all funds raised from that point on, not just funds the producer raises. And, perhaps, a profit share. Obviously, if the producer raises more money than the guaranteed fee, they get the higher. I should add this also includes revenue that comes in from sales until the film gets into profit (should it be so lucky).

I'd also be very clear about credit. They get producer credit if they stay on through the distribution of the film. If they leave after post but before the distribution, they might get a co-producer or executive producer credit.

But it's all negotiable...

Tony Comstock

I understand the budget for this project is stretch thin, none the less you might want to consider diverting at least a portion to a t-shirt or two, espeically if you're going to be doing boom work.

Wolfgang Achtner


Allow me to give you some advice that will be different than what you may have heard and want to hear.

As I wrote you previously, and Nick has confirmed, you should have NO need for a soundman. Just make sure that your cameraperson/DP is always wearing headphones so they are constantly able to keep track of the quality of the sound being recorded.

That said, I don't understnad how – if your crew will be just yourself and the DP – how you think that you could be recording sound, especially during interviews. Who''l be asking the questions?

Even when you're out and about shooting B-roll, you should be watching what your DP is shooting and watching everything that's going on around you. I'm convinced that it would be a big mistake for you – if you're an absolute beginner, as you've described yourself – to worry about recording sound. There are many other far more useful things that you could be doing instead.

First of all, during interviews, concentrate on the process: make sure that you are listening carefully to your subjects, make sure that you're getting the answers you need, that you've asked all the right questions, etc.

When the DP is shooting B-roll, you should be keeping a checklist on shots, thinking if you've got everything you need, about what else you need, how the different elements (visuals, interviews, etc.) will work together, thinking about how to shoot a particular scene so it will fit in with your story etc.

Some key points here.

1) Preparation work and research can be the make-it-or-break-it factor for any documentary. Have you researched your subject well enough? Do you know what to look for, where to find it? That said, learn to be alert and open-minded because many times, in the field, a story can take an unexpected turn and you need to be ready to see it happen and follow the story down a different lane than the one you'd expected.

2) Do you have a story concept, do you know why you are shooting this documentary and what you want to show us? If you do, you certainly haven't told us! Do you know how to visualize that concept? Have you decided what visual elements you will need? Have you prepared a hypothetical shot list based on your concept? Remember the golden rule: "Show me don't tell me."

3) Treatment. Have you written a treatment? Barry Hampe in his MUST READ "Making Documentary films and videos" writes that a treatment "sets forth the idea of the documentary comprehensively enough to be understood , but with enough flexibility to allow for chance, change, and the occasional flash of creativity. A treatment is often referred to as an outline for a documentary. But it's much more than that. It's really an explanation of the documentary. It describes the content of the documentary and the style in which it will be shot. What it is about. What will be included. How it will be shot. And what il will look like. It includes all the elements – the people, places, thinsg and events – whihc must be a part of the documentary. And it tells how the documentary will be organized to communicate with the audience."

3) Communication. In addition everything else, communication between you and your DP is a crucial factor. Unless you have told her/him everything about the story, what you want to tell and how you intend to tell the story, s/he is shooting with a partial blindfold.

4) Ask for advice. Find someone who has already directed/produced several documentaries that you can trust and be open about what you want to do. Tell them what you would like to do and seek advice.

Doug Block

You shouldn't be monitoring the sound levels, I suppose, but there's no reason you can't be holding the mic. Gives the camera person more freedom and you'll get better sound.

Darla Bruno

Hey Tony – T-shirts? Huh? Why did I get lost on that one?

Wolfgang – Thank you kindly for this super helpful information. Sorry I wasn't more clear to begin with, but I was just posting on sound. This round of footage is essentially part of my research. I just wanted a camera person there with me (since I'm not well-versed or experienced in using a camera yet) while I conduct some interviews, get some b-roll, and aim to put together a trailer when I return, then write a treatment, edit the footage, and begin looking into grants and sponsors. So, maybe this isn't the traditional way, or a little backwards, but it's all learning to me.

I have a mini-production schedule for when I go, a wish-list shot list, and necessary shot list. My days are filled. My aim is to contrast simple village living with the influence of modern life. That will sharpen and take form after this round of footage but that is my beginning angle.

Beyond that, the sound is a concern of mine right now. My DP and I have a similar vision, but our sound man backed out, and while the DP wants to move forward, I'm being particular about sound. I'd CRY if we ended up with bad sound.

I can hold a boom in some situations, but no, it's not ideal for me.

Anyway, I also just noticed that my DP is working in PAL. Yikes. Another issue. So while we have a similar vision, it's the technical aspect of things that are a bit overwhelming at the moment.

I just realized he has a lavalier, so I wonder . . . well, here's what he has . . .

Filming equipment: Sony PD 170 (PAL, grandangular lense, rain/snow cover) + Manfrotto 128RC tripod (I have heavier ones, but this is probably the best choice for the type of work on the field we'd be doing in XXXX) + Sennheiser Wireless Trio 100 G2 Series (full audio kit with a lavalier and a directional microphone).

Megumi Nishikura

Hi, I'm young emerging filmmaker who has a few short documentaries under her belt. I want to make a documentary director's reel and I was wondering if anyone could give me any tips or direct me to some online director's reels.
Thank you and have a happy holidays!

Wolfgang Achtner


Just for your information – and eventually that of other newbies (this is not meant to scold you) – your last post is a perfect example of why one needs to prepare and, in the case of a total beginner, more than anything this means to seek advice BEFORE embarking on a project.

For example, you write: "I also just noticed that my DP is working in PAL. Yikes. Another issue. So while we have a similar vision, it's the technical aspect of things that are a bit overwhelming at the moment." Case in point. Any one who's ever worked overseas would have known that this is an issue that would present itself for a US_based person working outide the US.

Being a non-technical person (as well as the fact that you don't want unnecessary details to get in the way), I will try to limit my exploration of this topic to minimum vital aspects. The US uses an analog TV system called NTSC, France uses SECAM and almost everyone else (excepting Japan) uses PAL. All you need to know is that PAL has a better image compared to NTSC (it has greater resolution because each frame has 625scan lines vs 525).

This "problem" leads to several options. You may want to shoot everything in PAL and only after your final edit, convert your completed project to NTSC. Or, you might shoot PAL this time and NTSC next time around.

Converting video from PAL to NTSC, if at all necessary, is no longer a big deal. Today, if you really needed one, you could buy a cheap converter, otherwise, if you just need to convert a few minutes worth of tape, you can rent or go to a company that provides the service.

The PAL vs NTSC issue was a major concern in the days of analog TV and the early days of digital, but is hardly a big deal, especially with regards to HDTV.

First of all, if you'd been shooting in HDTV, most (or all, I honestly don't remember) videocameras have a switch that allows you to shoot in either NTSC or PAL. I see from your post that you're not shooting in HDTV, otherwise your DP would have told you about the possibility.

Also, the SONY PD170 will give you a 4:3 image and I'm not sure that this is the best way to start off a new project. I'm still shooting my current doc on 4:3 aspect ratio because I'm using a videocamera that I have been using for 7 years now and, especially, because I started shooting it this way 3 years ago. I think you might be best off shooting in native 16:9 (I'm referring to the fact that all modern TV screens have a wider image).

By the way, have you thought of asking your DP to rent a HDTV videocamera? They are easy to find here and that would allow you to overcome the PAL/NTSC issue. Furthermore, have you talked to anyone about whether or not – in consideration of a particular kind of future use – you might want to be shooting this project in HDTV?

In any case, if you decide to edit using Final Cut Pro, you'll be able to edit using both systems, so you'd only need to convert edited segments at the very end.

I'm sure others here who are used to working in the NTSC world can give you all the necessary advice and, luckily – as I wrote – today this is only a minor problem. Again, a good example of X other problems that could be solved, or better yet avoided, by talking to the experts BEFORE you jump.

Unfortunately, the equipment we use to day is so simple that anyone thinks they can use and, as a matter of fact they can, point and shoot. Period. Documentary filmmaking is something completely different.

To make my point clear, in many countries today, almost everyone has a videocamera, so in our minds it has become a simple ubiquitious instrument, almost like a ballpoint pen or a pencil. Everyone could afford a pencil but that didn't automatically make them a Michelangelo or Shakespeare.

Enthusiasm is great but remember that documentary filmmaking is a very complex craft that deserves a little bit of respect. Just because it's cheap – or at least a lot cheaper – than before doesn't mean that it is easy. In fact, in many ways, the possibility to work solo, or in small teams has made projects cheaper and, therefore, in many cases more feasible and it has opened up to the masses a world that was previously reserved to very few people and power centers (this is the more interesting aspect of the so-called "digital revolution") but it has also made things a lot harder than they were before because you need to know learn many skills and perform all of them well.

Also, appropriate research could allow you to find out that it might be better to plan your trip at a time that allows you to shoot a certain popular festivity or activity that takes place at a given time of year, etc., etc.

Regardless of how easy or cheap it seems to fly to Italy to do whatever you want to do, remember you don't want to be wasting your precious time and/or your own hard-earned money unnecessarily, as well as the fact that – even though you might not be aware of it now – you may have a one-off chance to shoot certain events or people (for various reasons) and you need to do it "right" the first time.

Darla Bruno

Thanks, again. This really started out as a question about sound.

My DP has agreed to shoot in 16:9 format. The PAL conversion isn't a concern at this point. My DP is Italian and only works overseas.

Wolfgang, again, thank you for your help. My learning curve really comes around the technical stuff, which is why I hired someone, but since the sound person backed out, I'm left scurrying around to find a solution. Again, my original post.

I can assure you that there is a festival I'm going there for in January; hence, the decision to shoot at that time (otherwise, why freeze my butt off?!) I have interviews set up, a b-roll list, a wish list, an idea for a trailer, a tentative treatment. I'm not sure what gave you the impression otherwise. And I'm not really hung up on any outcome, luckily. This is a true interest and passion and learning the ropes right now is worth every penny I'm spending. (My schooling was in writing and film theory, not shooting/editing/or anything technical), so I'm devouring the information and so glad to be learning and for the people who have given their time generously to help me.

Tony Comstock

January? In that case you'll probably want at least one sweater. Maybe a jacket too.