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.

Matt Dubuque


I would highly recommend you attend film school if you really want an in depth knowledge of the deep traditions you are working in and attempting to build upon and if you can afford it.

However, if you just want to get as much cash as quickly as possible, that may be necessary.

But consider the case of James Longley. He is thankful that he attended two years of film school in Russia, studying Soviet montage. And his films are truly masterful in their editing. Check out his mastery of Soviet montage in Iraq in Fragments. I daresay you haven't seen editing of that caliber frequently.

Longley has only made three films. However, all three have been nominated for Oscars, and deservedly so. I'm sure he would tell you that film school was not irrelevant in that score.

And ask yourself, if you have only made three films and been nominated for three Oscars, what are your career prospects?

So if you are interested in more than fast money, I would recommend you actively consider it.

Just my view. There's 100 years of film history by people more profound than myself that deserve more than cursory and casual attention.

I just don't see what's wrong with a detailed study of Vertov, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Kurosawa and Kubrick. Study, deep study and reflection, on their own terms, free of hypercommercialized and contaminating influences that command us to: "G go make money now".

The hypercommercialization of cinema (and culture generally) has its drawbacks. They should always be contemplated when making big decisions such as this.

In reply to Ana Da Silva's post on Mon 17 Mar 2008 :

Ana Da Silva

In reply to Matt Dubuque's post on Tue 25 Mar 2008 :

Thanks for your opinion Matt. Making big money is not why I want to go into film. I really do love it as an art and am disappointed with the mainstream industry. The catch-22 is that not being money-driven, I'm money-less so I've started studying and researching on my own in the meantime :)

Lucia Small

New to New York. My hard drive has fizzled.
I had taken my G-5 to the genius bar three weeks anticipation of trying to prevent something going wrong, and it did today.
I've been on the phone with my Boston computer guru for an hour. We need to take it to the next level...have someone who can help me...
Any great computer gurus for doc folk in Manhattan that do house calls?
Thanks! (I know this isn't real mentoring, but....)

Stefani L. Weiss

I'm working on my first documentary (and my first film since film school 25 years ago!). I'm having trouble determining some of the line items to prepare a budget. I have so many questions it's hard to know where to start! I'll try a few for now and any help would be greatly appreciated!

One of my main questions would be how to determine crew costs. I will be contracting out all production and I will need to travel overseas to two different locations. Should I submit my treatment to production companies to give me quotes on their costs to do the filming? (a friend did a documentary and his production company quoted him on all his overseas costs, but he didn't have to do a budget up front, he funded everything himself. I'm not in that position!)I'm not sure that I can accurately determine any type of shooting schedule because I have not done a site visit. I should probably do a site visit before, but I don't have funding yet. I feel like I'm in a catch-22 every way I turn! In order to pitch for funding, I need the budget, in order to determine the budget, I need money! I also don't know how to factor in licensing costs on footage or photos I may have to purchase. My subject is an Olympic athlete and I have already contacted the Olympic Television Archives Bureau, but they want to know what footage I would need and how it would be used before being able to give me an approximation on cost. Until I know who will be funding the project, I can't tell them how it will be used! (They want to know if it will be cable, international, etc...what I INTEND and what may actually become reality may be different!)

Also, what is a realistic salary for writer/producer/director? I will need to factor that in to the budget as well so I at least have a salary to work with.

One more item for now would be if anyone has a recommendation on budget software/film software, etc. I've read about many different programs and mixed reviews on whether or not they are needed. I thought maybe it would be helpful to use a software program so I wouldn't leave out any important line items! One program that caught my eye online is called Gorilla...any comments on that one?

Thanks in advance for any help. I hope to one day be able to apply for membership here!

Tara Hurley

Hello everyone. I am very close to finishing my film. I just had a small viewing, and general point of view was that I needed to shorten it and add some more p.o.v. of the women. (It is so hard to cut when you love the footage!!!) Anyway, I have begun to cut, and I found an area that I will add. I have a section that I want to add about what the women want to do with their lives when they get out of the business. One of the women keep saying how she wants to own a Dunkin Donuts. I know DnD never pays for product placement, and I am sure they wouldn't pay for it in my film, and I am not asking for that, I just am wondering if they could sue me for leaving them and their products in my film.
For information about my film check out the trailer at
or check the website
Thanks in advance.

Christopher Wong

tara, how do you know that Dunking Donuts never pays for product placement? did you ask them? (not that i don't believe you...) i actually have quite a few Dunkin Donuts references in my film (none of them at all negative) and was considering approaching them for a long time, but just never got around to it.

in terms of them suing you just because you keep a reference to them in the film, you shouldn't have to worry about that. Fair Use covers you completely as long as the mention or appearance of Dunkin Donuts occurred incidental to your filming (and not intentionally so). and unless one of the women in your film is using one of their products in a rather blatant, lascivious way, i can't imagine Dunkin Donuts caring.

Tara Hurley

I do know that they don't pay for product placement because I worked at a place once that tried asked, and they said they didn't. It is also on their website. And, the product appears in my film 2 times, one time she refers to her husband when she first met him walking in with a DnD ice coffee in his hand, and the second time she talks about how she is saving money trying to get enough to open up a DnD location.

Doug Block

If they sue you it could be invaluable publicity for your doc. The bigger problem might be getting E&O (Errors & Ommissions) insurance should you want a broadcast. But I think Chris is right, can't imagine it being a huge isssue. You should join up as a full D-Word member , Tara, and ask again in the Legal topic.

Sam Rabeeh

Hi everyone,

I have several treatments and not sure how to proceed.

My main concern is copyright as I want to develop the ideas further. This isn't documentary related but I hope some of you will come to bat with some opinions.

Can I copyright a treatment? Do I need to develop the ideas further into a script and submit it to the Canadian Copyright office at that point?

I want to share the treatments so I can promote their development. How do I protect myself?

I have so many other questions but I'll leave it at,


John Burgan

Yes, you can copyright a treatment, it doesn't need to be a full script.

Be aware, however, that you can't copyright an idea.
Robert Goodman

There is no point in copyrighting treatments. If you are writing a fiction film script and are a novice, you need a killer script sample. That means a full well-realized script. If you find people who like that they'll pay you to write treatments or to develop a two paragraph pitch into a treatment.

Ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. Execution is all.

Sam Rabeeh

I should further elaborate. I wish to make these films myself. As you say Robert, execution is all. Some of the ideas I'm exploring for documentaries have crossed over into dramatic as I'm curious about using the tense "is happening" rather than "has happened".

I have no illusions about the daunting tasks that lie ahead but I know with diligence and and a stepped approach I will realize these in some way. My experience over the past 25 years has shown this in everything I do so this is no time to change my thinking.

How did other filmakers discuss/collaborate their ideas and treatments in the past? I'll use the example of Lucas who only had a treatment for "The Star Wars". I stress I'm not Lucas but to bring a project to realization using a treatment only is possible. I'm not a script writer I want to make documentaries and films that hopefully communicate the ideas i envision.

John, when you say the idea can't be copyrighted, can we use an example? Is Indiana Jones, handsome archeologist professor saves the world from nazis by finding the lost ark, the idea?

So I can make a handsome, professor archeologist just as long as names, places and ark are not the same?

I apologize for the broken writing but I'm wee tired.


Boyd McCollum

Don't forget Lucas had THX1138 and American Graffiti under his belt, so Star Wars wasn't the first thing he did. He was also one of a group of directors (including Spielberg and Coppola) that were given relative carte blanche on their projects at that time.

Yes you can make your version of Raiders if you want. Happens all the time in the low-budget world of B- and C-movies (even A-list movies). All variations on a theme.

As for collaborating and discussing – lots of these folks have friends that also make films or write, etc. I have several good friends that are also filmmakers that I've known for over 20 years. We'll chat endlessly on any number of projects we have going at various stages, from writing to post-production.

Occasionally I'll stop in a bookstore and read some books on how other writers or directors got their start. Many great books with interviews out there. Just a quick search at Amazon on "directors first films" turned up this or this .

Robert's right. Write an excellent script and it'll take you places. Keep in mind what Robert McKee says in his book STORY about Hollywood:

"With rare exceptions, unrecognized genius is a myth. First-rate screenplays are at least optioned if not made. For writers that can tell a quality story, it's a seller's market – always has been, always will be."

Sam Rabeeh

Oh I haven't forgotten about THX or the situation. For example in Canada I hear a treatment is more likely. I have to re-iterate my target is not hollywood. I'm not sure why we thought that. But anyway, I bought a copy of Syd Fields books which helped out alot in answering this question.

My original question was related to how to protect a script in order to collaborate in any sized project. From a 30 seconds spot to a feature film. I have used NDA's before but I know there had to be something with more teeth.

Don't get me wrong though, it's not as though I haven't thought about writing a great script and having hollywood make it, or myself, who hasn't? :-)

Boyd McCollum

We probably thought Hollywood since you used Lucas and Raiders as examples.

Copyright on a treatment can work, the value is in how detailed the treatment is. Are you talking about a treatment that's only one page long and just basically expresses your idea? Or are you talking about a 10-15 page treatment that details how the story unfolds scene by scene? The latter can work and it'd be good to copyright.

Not sure how Canadian law is for copyright, but here in the states, copyright attaches as soon as you put it on paper. You can also send it to the Library of Congress. Here's the procedure from the US Copyright office.

Probably the best protection is to deal with professionals with proven track records. Is there a well-known producer/filmmaker in your area that you can try and contact? S/he may be able to give you some suggestions for moving forward in your area and people to work with.

Overall, I wouldn't worry too much that someone will steal your idea – except maybe in commercials since they are basically ideas anyway – Ideas are actually pretty easy to come up with, it's being able to flesh them out that's hard.

Patrick Kwiatkowski

I am currently producing/directing a short nonfiction piece for a senior thesis course in Film/Video production. The piece is a short video portrait of an elementary school with a rare teaching approach. The piece aims to mesh elements of documentary and experimental filmmaking. Now, I have produced a short doc on the passing of Gerald R. Ford, and I have directed a promotional video for United Way: Student Service Learning... both projects I networked and dealt with adults.

Has anyone any advice on working with children? I have permissions and everything on the producing end in order (which took me more than 4 months!), but we are gearing up and almost ready to introduce the camera to the children. I have done all the prep I can think of, but was just wondering if anyone had any experience with filming children, and any last minute advice before I jump off the deep end with this project!

John Burgan

The film that springs to mind is Nicolas Philibert's "Etre & Avoir" about a school in rural France. Check out the director's comments about working with children in the interview section of this website

Theresa Tall

Hi there! I'm new so hope I'm doing this all right!

My story is that I've got a great general interest educational documentary series idea. It's going to include many episodes (each following basically one subject) that will be shot over a long period of time (the series will be shot over a long period of time, each episode will take about 2 weeks to shoot). The problem is I really don't have any idea as to how to get started. I have studio film experience, but only on the marketing side. Basically, I have many questions which I hope you all have the answers to and I'm hoping you'll share your expertise with me  Hopefully one day I'll be at the level where I can share my expertise with everyone else!

What do I need to do to get started? If for the first couple of episodes I will be just following around one person, do I need to hire just one camera person (digital) and a boom operator on a payment differed basis?
Basically, initially I just have to follow a person (who will be the subject) throughout their week. I will choose someone who has limited locations and interacts with not so many people, just so start simply. Should I just worry about getting footage first? In which case, who do I need to hire? A cameraperson (do digital cameras come with great sound, or do I need to hire a boom operator too?). Then do I need to hire an editor? What should I offer them in a standard deferred payment agreement? Again, I want to be fair. A percentage, an hourly fee?

I know I could take some camera classes, but I want them to be professional quality, not shaky.

How will this footage they get be stored? It's going to be digital, so I can just store it on a virtual server, or ask them to hold on to it? Or is the footage just stored on a digital tape, so I don't need to store it anywhere? Yes, I really don't know about this!

Do I need to figure out the formatting/runtime in advance before shooting? For example, let's say I plan on distributing the episodes on my own website, but I would like to have the opportunity for this series to air on public television or something –do I have to keep that sort of formatting/editing in mind in advance before I start shooting to be sure it'll be okay to air on public television, or will all the original footage just be recut to fit the format of the particular method of distribution? Is this not something I need to think about at all at this point?

Advertising money
Then once I have this video edited, should I put it online to show to potential advertisers?

How do I go about getting advertisers, and when should go about getting advertisers?
Should I make one finely crafted episode to show to potential advertisers? Or should I pitch the idea to advertisers before I even start shooting, that way I can pay the small crew I hire right away rather than do a deferred payment agreement?

Do I need to decide the business model/method of distribution before I start filming and editing? My original idea was to just have my own website with tons of my own videos that people could choose to rent or download. I think the best model out there might be free for the user or ad supported. I'm also willing to have people pay like $2 to rent it. If they can download it online, is there any way to make each episode non duplicable so that it won’t be spread around? How does itunes stop it from being duplicated?

Releases/Legal Questions
What sort of releases do I need if I am following the subjects on certain locations, such as their workplace or school?

Non-Profit versus For-Profit: or is there some sort of hybrid?
If I do decide for this series to be fully free for the user and to be fully advertiser based, how much money can I expect to make? How much could I expect to change an advertiser? How do they decide how much they'll pay you – based on click through rate?

If I elected to go the non profit route, I'm pretty sure this would be eligible for grants, but would that limit me to only air in certain venues? If I went the on profit route, could I show my work for free on my own site, but still expect to get paid a lot per episode, with residuals, etc? Is there such a thing as a hybrid non-profit for profit where I could accept advertiser funding and also make a strong revenuer for myself? How would I pay myself, if I went for profit, as writer/producer (I believe the laws are that it has to be a reasonable income)?

Are the business models something I need to figure out first or can figure out later – should I just worry about getting the footage now and working on how it will be distributed later?

As you can see, I’m a bit paralyzed by all these questions before I’ve even begun. Can someone tell me what I can do to get started now? Should I just worry about getting the content on tape first and then figure out the rest later? If someone could just tell me the steps, I’d be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL.

I'm open to any suggestions, advice, book recommendations, anything.

Thanks so much, Theresa

Lenville O'Donnell

Phew, Theresa, it would take a very long time to provide the answers to all your questions in one fell swoop. For starters, you might start here and buy a few books on documentary filmmaking and read them. The other thing it sounds like you might need to help guide you through the maze for the first time is to partner up with or hire or otherwise engage a producing partner with some experience in the industry. But I'd definitely recommend doing some reading first. Maybe taking some classes would be helpful. Good luck!

Christopher Wong

if you're going to read a book, most of us in this community like Michael Rabiger's "Directing the Documentary". you should be able to get a used copy online somewhere.

if you're going to take a class, take an editing class. to learn to shoot, you actually have to learn first what shots you need in the editing room. it sounds backwards, but sometimes the best shooters are often the best editors too.

if you know the school you are going to be shooting in, start getting releases now. you have to get them from one parent of every student who shows up in the film. and it takes a LONG time... getting releases is also a good time to start building trust with your future subjects. don't just get them to sign a form. get them to "buy-in" to your idea first; then get the form signed.

lastly, forget the whole business end of the doc right now. there will be time to think of it later, but you need to concentrate on the film itself. "it's the story, stupid" (quote from a wise filmmaker)

as someone who is currently engaged in a 3-year odyssey to finish an educational documentary, i wish you perseverance and lotsa good luck!

Patrick Kwiatkowski

I am currently working on a short piece on a school, and I can say from my experience that the obstacles are many, from preproduction thru post. One way to eliminate some of them early on, which is explained in detail by Michael Rabiger's book, is thorough preproduction. Especially when documenting an institution, first sell your idea to the head authority. The first thing I did was write a letter to the principal. Email is does not catch their attention quite like a letter, and as far as phoning your pitch, no one wants a pitch to from someone they've never had contact with before. Write a letter, BRIEFLY explain yourself as a film/videomaker, and simply request an audience with them.

Although the principal took more than three weeks to respond, she thought my letter was very professional and innocent enough to at least hear me out. From there I was able to convince the principal, and with her on my side convince the staff, and with the staff on my side convince the parents, and with the parents on my side, ultimately, convince the children to participate. Definitely, pick up Rabiger's book! Its been a great help to me, especially when it comes to tackling preproduction!

Earl Franklin

Hi all, I am Earl. I have a project I am ready to begin to produce, a documentary project that has been dropped in my lap. The story is about how a city, police and community (businesses and residents) will come together (or not) and combat prostitution. The City Police, City Hall, and Community. The community has petitioned the city, the city charged the police, and the police are reacting. What we want to show (besides the prostitutes) is how these three will solve this problem. Suppression, Prevention, and Intervention.

I have met with the police. I have DIRECT access to all parties, willing participants, it was "dropped in my lap" by the police. They are the ones that want to document the story. The city manager has asked them to be creative in showing the problem with the cities prostitution because the community has rallied. The police want to create the documentary.

Like I said it has been dropped in my lap. Where do I start? What do I need, who do I need? I need to shoot this in June and July. for viewing in Fall. I need to crew build. Needs to be broadcast quality.

All thoughts are welcomed and needed!

What process would best help in me trying to obtain an experienced producer. Since I have never shot a documentary, everyone is pretty much saying that would be my first step. (1) Find/Hire/Partner with an experienced producer. Would everyone agree? How is that done? Do I need to start a production company?

Mentor me!

Christopher Wong

earl, others with more experience that me should answer, but as one who is basically "one step" ahead of you in the documentary process, this is what i would suggest to start:

1) watch as many docs as you can that have multiple groups and perspectives represented. usually, these groups are warring against one another, but not always. but since your story is one where you will constantly have to get the other side (e.g. police, prostitutes, city hall), you want to figure out early on how you want the action to unfold. so, examples like Barbara Kopple's "American Dream" (workers, union, company) will help you see how one person did it. or, if you want to see what a doc is like when the filmmaker gets involved, any of Michael Moore's docs (especially "Bowling for Columbine" or "F911") will do. but i would doubt that the people who are commissioning the doc want that style. also, figure out if you want to make an "issue" doc where there are a lot of talking heads and interview segments, or if you want to make a "verite" doc where the story evolves as you go, and the characters actions drive the narrative.

2) In addition to the D-Word, look for a producer by first contacting film organizations. Most producers won't take your pitch seriously (especially if you haven't done a doc before); but if you first "sell" your story to a film organization that the producer is familiar with, and the org refers you, then the producer will listen with more interest. Different organizations would be: IDA (based in L.A.), National Black Programming Consortium (contact Leslie Fields), KCET or any local PBS station that might even be able to give you seed money or resources to do pre-production on a story very important to the L.A. community.

anyways, that's a start... hope this helps.

Don Dobrez Jr.

Hello All (again)

Its been many months since I was last here and I am in the final stages of editing my film about the destruction of the oldest drive-in theater in the state of Illinois. In my closing "argument" of the piece, I want to talk about the homogenizing of the suburban landscape, and want to include a very quick montage of images of typical storefronts, like Starbucks, McDonald's, etc.

So, my question is, what can I use and not use? Can I use shots that show part of the name but not all of it? Can I drive down a street with my camera taping? Or is it fair use to show a full-on shot if it's only on for a second or two? Or if I show the building but not the sign? All told, the entire sequence of shots would last no more than 15 seconds total (if that matters).

Thanks for the help!