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.

Rob Appleby

God, am I really the right person to offer advice? Probably not, but here goes.

I would recommend writing a "white paper" laying out as briefly as possible the issues you're interested in. Then try to imagine what characters you need to explore those issues. Like, an issue might be that farmers are out of touch with international commodity price fluctuations (!), if you're dealing with cash crops. Well, then you might have a farmer who is actively trying to get information about that on-line and is adjusting his crop accordingly, or one who has a bumper crop of something that has suffered a severe price drop – or is about to have a great year because of a rise in prices. If you have a character or two around each issue – and better yet if they overlap – then you can illustrate the issues by following their fortunes.

That sounds very mechanical; but the more you get interested in the individuals you have identified in this way, the more you will find them, and be able to make them, engaging even independently of your issues. And then your audience will care more about how the issues affect them.

That's how I would go about it, anyway. But issue based films are not really what gets my juices flowing, which is why I suggest getting deep into your characters.

Erica Ginsberg

Sam, I don't think your position in which you find yourself is specific to Egypt. We've all at times felt lost like we are not sure what we are looking for or seeking to achieve.

I would say there are four elements you need to succeed: purpose, identity, patience, and community.

Maybe it would help to tell us a bit more what is the story you are hoping to tell. You mention something about breaking myths about Egyptians. What are these myths you hope to break? Who do you see as your audience? Cairo-based Egyptians? Others in the Middle East? Europeans? Americans? What preconceptions is your target audience coming to the film with that you hope to dispel?

Are you yourself living in Egypt and simply returning to a village from the big city? Or are you an emigree coming back to the home country? Whether you are a character in the story or not, your own identity – real or imagined by your subjects – can color the production process in terms of the level of trust and access you can get with your subjects.

You say you have been there for several weeks and shot seven hours of footage. But if you are really trying to get to the heart of the place and the trust of your characters, you may need more time. Do your best not to be overly constrained by production schedules, money, or time. Continue to work hard at listening – and not just when the camera is rolling. Perhaps what you have already shot is simply research or practice. Maybe the real story will emerge as you spend more time. And this does not necessarily mean you have to live in this village for a year. It may be a process where you make repeat visits over a period of time to see how things develop with your characters or the life of the village.

Yes, it is tremendously helpful to have others with whom to share your experiences, gain new knowledge, and simply have a place to vent the joys and frustrations which accompany any creative endeavor. D-Word can certainly help you in terms of some virtual community. And I have no doubts that there is a community in Egypt which can help fill that need in a more face to face manner. You can search the D-Word database for other filmmakers by country to see if there are some fellow Egyptians to e-mail directly (since not everyone checks into this forum frequently). And others here may have some more specific advice.

In any case, best of luck. It sounds like an amazing project.

Mikal Jakubal

Great advice from Erica!

For what it's worth, feature length docs routinely require 20-100 hours of source material. Not to suggest you be careless with rolling tape, because that will only be burden later, but if you're still in the research stage with only seven hours shot and no clear direction, it's no huge deal yet. You just don't want to come home with 40 hours of tape and no clear story focus or structure.

You might consider approaching subjects with only a mic (good quality!) and do all your initial interviews audio-only. That way, you can assess what someone has to say, how "listenable" they are, the level of rapport you might be able to develop and whether or not you will want to have them in the film. Audio-only is much less intimidating than a camera for most people and you can always use that as voice-over later if someone says something brilliant and you decide you want to keep that person as a character.

Good luck!

Sam Rabeeh

Thank you so much everyone,
I've known I would hit this wall but you are all providing small steps to overcome it.

Purpose: Egyptian Identity – Are Egyptians Arabs? Myth Breaking – Who are Egyptians really? The camel riding arab in the Sahara? Are Christians a minority under duress and assault in Egypt? I imagine some of the additional myths are that Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacology did not begin here in Egypt, these are some of the vague ideas so far.

Identity: I left Egypt when I was very young and grew up in Canada. I've been back several times. The village is my home town, I was born in my grandfathers house, it's special to me in a way I can't describe. How many of us can say we sleep in the same bed we were born in? My family is originally Fellahin, farmers. I can't count how many times people have dismissed Egyptians as terrorists, thugs, thieves............When you see my family and friends, young and old, working in the hot sun, all day, cutting wheat, prepping the ground later for rice, I can't help but be overwhelmed that the greatest things in the world come from the ground, especially the people.

Patience: I realized the other day that there are many opportunities to record audio only and open the door with many people, and I did not capitalize on it due to illness, lack of sleep, or some other sad reason. Perhaps my frustration also comes from the fact I am realizing that I will have to work on this for a longer period. And to film in Churches has led me to require the proper paperwork which I will need to prepare, for the next trip.

Community: I found two contacts and one has old information but I will endeavor to dig deeper into the database to see what comes up. I'm closer to the internet for the next four to five days so I have that will assist. But just as quick feedback, D-Word rocks.

Jennifer Davis-Lewis

I agree w/Erica. WE've all been there. Keep shooting. I know that I had more than 70 hours of footage. It seems like a lot and believe me it is when you start transcribing. But it 's worth it. Know as well that you may start out with one purpose and then when going through your footage something else comes through the back door if you know what I mean and you might see your doc going in a slightly different direction. Don't panic. This is normal. Making a doc is like writing a book. You have many different versions/drafts. Characters are important. Their stories will bring what you want to convey across in a more accessible way for your audience. There's my 2 cents.
peace and good luck

Darla Bruno

Logistics . . .

So my dp has the files, and I only have DVDs with no time codes (we did this for back-up at the last minute).

If I go to hire a translator (someone here kindly explained to me) I'll need DVDs with time codes. I asked my DP to do this (he's in Milan) and then my potential translator can watch the footage and put their translations with time codes. But my DP is kind of whining about the time it will take to do this (we have 16 hours of footage).

Is there another way?

Erica Ginsberg

Sam, I wonder if you should be a character in your film. It's not appropriate for every film and can often be seen as an overly easy way to tie a loose storyline together, but, in this case, you are a bit of the bridge between cultures and stereotypes, so that might also be interesting to explore. Or at least have on tape, which you can later decide to keep or scrap. (I say this, having produced a film with an emigree director going back to his homeland where he didn't make the conscious decision to include himself as a character until he returned and could not afford to go back, so it was a lot of patchworking to bring him in as a character after-the-fact).

Wolfgang Achtner


"Someone" was me (or, at least, I was one of those who answered you).

If you search all the old posts that I wrote several months ago, you'll find that I'd pasted examples of how I do transcriptions.

ONCE AGAIN, you're asking the same questions. I don't mind helping you – to the contrary, I'm quite happy to help you (and I'm sure that this is true for everyone else) – but since it takes time and concentration to answer a question I don't think it's appropriate for you to have the generous people who participate on this board waste their time by asking the SAME questions, several times. As a matter of courtesy, you ought to check old postings first, as I pointed out to you just a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, you'll need DVD's (or VHS videocassettes or whatever) with time codes.

First of all, someone, the translator (in this case) needs to transcribe the entire content of each cassette containing interviews.

When writing down the transcription, the translator needs to indicate time code corresponding to the BEGINNING AND TO THE END OF EACH AND EVERY PARAGRAPH.

Then, passage number two, the translator writes out the translation maintaining the same time codes at the beginning and at the end of each paragraph.

The reason you MUST do this is that – when you'll have written your story outline or the script – you'll be able to find any soundbite you are interested in, within a few seconds time. If you don't have time code, it could take you a long time to find the 'bite.

Immagine that you might build your documentary (as I have in some cases) without any voiceover narration. In a situation like this, your script will rely totally on the soundbites of your character(s).

When you start editing and you build the story, it'll be easy to find and assemble – in the correct order – all the relevant soundbites along the timeline. If, at any time, you should decide to substitute a given segment with another, it'll only take you a few seconds to identify and grab it.

What is your dp whing about?

A) Having to do the translation?

B) Having to indicate time codes?

It may take a while – especially if one person has to do it all – to translate and transcribe 16 hours of interviews and it will take a lot of hard work and concentration. That's why people who have to do this – unless you're doing it yourself (not in this case) – want to be payed well. But, if he's accepted to take on the job, you must have already covered this issue.

It may take him several weeks time to complete the translation, but ince you're not in a rush, who cares. Of course, he might prefer to be out shooting, that's why you have to pay him!

If he's referring to B), it only takes a few extra seconds time to write down the time codes.

Tony Comstock

I'm putting up a topless avitar to see if it makes Wolfgang any more eager to help me!

Wolfgang Achtner


I don't get your sense of humor. And it's not the first time.

I'm more than "eager" to help Darla or anyone else; in fact, I answered her question.

I just pointed out that Darla has a habit of asking the same things more than once. I wrote: "As a matter of courtesy, you ought to check old postings first, as I pointed out to you just a couple of weeks ago "

What's your problem with that?

Tony Comstock

Wolfie, I'm just hurt that you've (more or less) dimissed me as being unwilling to make real sacrifices to pursue my cinematic vision; drawing unfavorable comparisons between me and John Cassavettes. I thought maybe if I took off my shirt, you'd give me a second chance! ;-)

Wolfgang Achtner


I hate to disappoint ya. I didn't draw any comparisons between you and anyone, in fact I never mentioned you.

I wrote that I didn't pay for interviews and my experience has taught me that (with rare exceptions) it's possible to convince people to talk without paying them. It just takes a lot of patience and time and perseverance or whatever skills to convince them.

In any case, you don't have any hopes at all. You're not my type.

Doug Block

Wolfgang, I acknowledge your generosity. But if you're tired of answering the same questions over and over again, why not just try not answering?

And Darla, honestly, your domination of this topic is getting tiring. It's not all about you. Pick your spots and please don't repeat yourself, okay?

Rob Appleby

Darla – is there any way you can import the dvd footage to quicktime? There is software which enables you to punch in the timecode while you're transcribing (Inqscribe, for instance) while running a quicktime movie. Don't quite know how it all works, but you can also set a timecode offset, so if you know the start timecode of your original footage, you can sync it with the transcription quite painlessly.

But another option to consider, is to simply create a new audio track in fcp (or avid, whatever) and then translate with a voiceover to that track.

I have used both methods and they both have their advantages. Good luck.

As for asking a question again and again, I think it is slightly churlish to make a big deal out of it. If we (I say "we", but I am as much in need of help as anyone) are prepared to help someone with a technical issue, then we should just help. These are all complicated issues and there are many solutions, so it isn't always evident which is the best way to go about things the first time round.

In this case, I think transcribing from a DVD or cassette without using widely available specialised software would be a real waste of time and energy. But that's just me, no doubt Wolfgang doesn't agree.

Christopher Wong

darla, go ahead and keep posting in here whenever you need help. if someone feels like they've already answered your question, they don't need to respond again. or, if you prefer, you are always welcome to send an email to any of us who have offered helpful advice before. it's not easy starting out on your first project – especially one with an international bent – so we definitely want to encourage you on your way.

Wolfgang Achtner

Hey guys, I really didn't think I was committing a capital sin by pointing out to Darla that we'd already answered her question.

Please notice that I made this observation at the end of my answer to her question.

I happen to work in communications so I try to pick my words carefully.

Since others – as well as myself – had given Darla good advice the first time around, it seemed logical to suggest that she ought to check out the old posts.

Regardless of what you may think Rob, this hardly constitutes making "a big deal" about anything, much less "churlish" behavior.

Tony Comstock

Wolfie, you're a blowhard and a bully who can't remember what you've said from one day to the next, let alone showing any evidence of being able to pick your word carefully. Rather than Darla re-reading your old posts, how about you go back and read your own bloviating post about your supperlative interview technique and tactics.

Wolfgang Achtner


I have no difficulty admitting that some of my posts were long-winded. But does that make me a "bully?"

And you didn't even take off your shirt for me...

Guys, allow me to say my intentions were – are – good and I feel that I've been misinterpreted. Anyway, for me 'nuff said.

If you all don't mind, I'd prefer to drop this matter and get back to ... answering questions and reading interesting answers.

Erica Ginsberg

Guys, guys. I'm not sure if you are all going back and forth in good fun or not, but we should remember that the mentoring room is part of the D-Word public forum, so whatever is posted here may show up anywhere. Not everyone in here knows our backstories, backposts, or personality quirks and it may not make some folks feel welcome to have fighting in here nor any discouragement of questions or discussion.

I'm no topic cop, but might make a citizen arrest to suggest any further discussion of who is in the right or wrong be taken to the private forum parking lot, so we can focus here on providing constructive advice.

Doug Block

Erica's right. You're certainly welcome to meet in the Parking Lot and go 15 rounds (you could even take your shirts off first). One of the pleasures of professional membership.

Darla Bruno

Totally not sure what's up here. Wolfgang, you answered a question I never asked.

Doug, is there a limit on posts?

I asked a question that I never asked before – how best to get my footage into a format with time codes to give to the translator. Sometimes, since I'm very new at this, I don't always know how to ask the question most eloquently.


Darla Bruno

By the way, thanks Rob, and Erica, and Christopher – and of course, all of you.

My footage is on PAL (yes, I know you all know this), so I've gotta get someone with a PAL camera deck to run my tapes through FCP and then do time codes (assuming I will also edit in PAL) and put all that back out on either DVDs or Quicktime files to give to my translator. I think I'm understanding this correctly.

I'm close to NYC, so I guess I can just pay someone to do this for me. I really don't have too many other resources (no camera, no FCP).