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.

Monica Williams

I am making a trailer to privately raise money with. If I use this trailer to apply for grants, will I get in trouble if I don't have all of the rights to the material used? I'm not sure if I need to consult a lawyer for this one, but any help will be most appreciated.

Christopher Wong

you won't get in any legal trouble, monica, and people do this ALL the time... the only "trouble" you might get into is if the clips you are using are well-known and absolutely indispensable to your film. The grant agency may question whether you can raise enough money to use such clips. for instance, if you wanted to use MLK's "Dream" speech... but if you use a photo of an old Model-T car, no one's going to blink an eye.

Mikal Jakubal

Another thing to consider is how the owner of the rights to the clips would feel about you using their material to raise money for your film. If it were some corporate newscast or promo film of some mega-bucks rock band, I'd say don't worry about it. <puts on flame-retardant suit> On the other hand, friends of mine—starving documentary filmmakers who risked life and limb to get dramatic footage—have had people cherry-pick their films to make fundraising trailers for their own films, sort of conveniently forgetting to mention to funders that they haven't shot an inch of tape themselves. It really sucks to find out that others are using your work for their fundraising while you yourself are living below the poverty line.

The point is that even if you intend to license the footage at market rates later, if you're using footage owned by a real person who is not a multi-millionaire or faceless corporation, you should have some arrangement with them. Yes, you can probably get away with it, but it's not ethical.

John Burgan

Yes, but hardly relevant here as Monica's looking for historical images – see her original post & project website.

Mikal Jakubal

Oops, I did read the original post, but forgot since it was a couple days ago and never got around to taking a look at the site.

Katinka Kraft

Thank you Mark! I really appreciate your input. Sadly it was Canon who we sent camera to for repair and it worked for 3 months and then malfunctioned again.

Mark Barroso

In reply to Katinka Kraft's post on Sat 21 Jun 2008 :

I sent my DVX out for repair once – for a similar problem, actually – and the shop did a lousy job (Repair Specialists in Tennessee). I found the Panasonic service rep for the entire southeast and he agreed with me, told me which shop I should REALLY send it to (on his dime) and chewed out the shop that failed to fix it properly. "Squeak! Squeak!" said the wheel.

grinner hester

make a reel and get busy.
Take the first job offered and never stop looking for better paying gigs.
My first tv job paid a whopping 3.35 per hour. My next one paid 18k a year at 70 hour work weeks. I did not look at it as being exploited. The year before I was paying good money to learn this craft and now I was getting paid to learn much much more.
With every addition to the family, I simply had to quit and get rehired at a different level elsewhere. At one point in my career, I moved my family to five states in as many years, salary climbing and dream-chasing. I worked my way into a six figure salary, a bald head and an ulcer or two.
I'm self employed now. Still love what I do. I pay bills by editing and shooting for clients and I still dream chase by making labor of love productions on a constant basis.
Don't stay in one place too long. It'll make ya feel secure.
I think my record for a staff gig was 2.5 years.

Monica Williams

Thanks for the valuable advice Christopher, Mikal and John :) This takes some of the pressure off.

Eric Klein

Alright: I'm a radio reporter, and I want to buy enough video gear to start making movies next week. These would be short docs for the internet. I want to spend less than $10,000 total on a camera, computer, and software.

I am forming a plan that includes the Canon HV20, an iBook (my apt is too small for a new desktop), and Final Cut. Then I figure I want a wireless lavaliere to supplement my existing "radio" gear. I have a zoom h4.

Keeping in mind that I'd love to upgrade my gear once I pay off this round of credit card debt, where's the best place to cut corners now?

If I'm very proud of a movie that has started life on youtube and then I want to submit it to festivals, what should I know?

Mark Barroso

Before you start making any more movies, there's a secret to filmmaking that we all had to learn the hard way, or in my case, pay thousands of dollars. But since you asked, I will tell you. You always should rghopdjjjjjjjjjjjjjj (chokes on pork rind, keels over dead).

Joe Moulins

Eric...Speaking as a radio reporter who started making movies a few years ago, I'd say you're on the right track. You can make the move for a lot less than $10,000. More like three thousand.

You could make do with Final Cut Express, rather than Pro. It's still an amazingly powerful app, and you'll get a discount when you upgrade to Pro.

Get a Macbook rather than a Macbook Pro, with the smallest drive and the bare minimum of RAM. Upgrade the RAM and hard drive yourself. You can Get 2gb of RAM and 300 GB internal storage for less than $300. Buy a 30 dollar external case for the extra hard drive, which is now your "traveling" media drive. The Macbook will run a 20 inch monitor. Get a couple of massive firewire drives, one for media and one for backup.

With all the money you save, splurge and buy a great microphone.

You'll still be using it long after the Macbook and the Canon camcorder are a memory.

Equipment-wise, this is a great time to be starting out.

Le Sheng Liu

I recently started a blog for a feature documentary I want to develop on trends in American crime reporting as they relate to gender, racial, and economic discrimination. I would like to share my findings and insight with anyone who is doing research for a similar project or is just interested in the topic. Here is the main link.

You can either set up an RSS feed to your page/Google or have my postings sent to your email. And if you are a member of any of the following sites, the blog also appears there...
LiveJournal –
Wordpress –
Facebook –

Thank you and let me know if you have any questions!

Tony Comstock

In reply to Eric Klein's post on Mon 23 Jun 2008 :

Joe's pretty much nailed it, especailly about the sound gear. Still using the same mics I bought 12 years ago.

The only thing I'd add is that if you really have $10K, pick up some lights/stands/grip gadgets. A medium sized softbox, a flood fixture and focusable fixer will go a long way to doing good looking talking head interviews. And like sound gear, light gear lasts forever. I've got lights and stands going on 20 years old, still as good as the day I bought them.

Monica Williams

Is anyone familiar with the use of European and American art (17th-20th century) in documentary film? If so, I am looking for any information that will be useful as I make preparations for a trip to Europe to gather images. I have talked with The Bridgeman Art Library (a provider of high-res images for a price) but I'm wondering if there are cheaper ways to get rights to use images from museums. Is something older than 200 years, passed its copyright? Do I still need permission to use these older images? Is it fairly easy to obtain permission or a minefield? Any information regarding this area of documentary will be highly valued.

John Burgan

I think you should be OK for old paintings, but you probably would need a license from the photographer/museum to use the photograph although the work of art itself is in the public domain.

If you have a few hours free, you might wish to browse through this link:
Jo-Anne Velin

Monica, if you are shooting a painting hanging in a European museum, just contact their press person and explain the not for profit nature of, etc., if this is the case. Over here they might treat you like a regular journalist and allow you free or almost free use within your film, if the images are presented a certain way (I am guessing criteria will change from place to place). As you know, you'll need to get releases and whatnot, no matter what.

Stills: some museums have been digitising some of their collections, but not all.

If you want to share where you are going in Europe, great.

If to Berlin, and if to shoot specific pictures or objects, you're welcome to email me and I can phone around for you here to get a starter answer and contacts' names for you. (You'll also need to send me your film's story and provide any other amunition to help open doors).

Terri Hartley

I've read through lots of the posts before making my own and I am curious. There have been a few people who shoot loads of footage and then seem to review it to find their story later. Stupid question, and I dont mean to sound like an ass, but dont you go in with a (if not the) story already in mind? I was half (and not the creative half) of a karaoke doc some years ago. I was the person getting releases signed, lining up the next interview, working the crowd, manning the equipment, and operating the camera. The vision of what that story would be was not mine, not my project. I shot what I was told to shoot.

Now I am shooting in Thailand where the story is whatever I find and want to tell. How common is it that the doc is shot in such a way that you just get as much footage in general as you can and decipher the story later? I like to have a plan but I would say that is working against me here.

Wolfgang Achtner


It can happen that you may start to shoot a story without a precise idea of where it's going. You haven't really explained what you're doing so it's hard to know how to help.

First of all, it may sound obvious but, as a general rule, it's not a good idea to try to tell more than one story at a time.

Secondly, don't expect that if you shoot a lot when you return home you'll automatically have a story. You might end up with a lot of (pretty) wallpaper and nothing else.

This much I can say: since the best stories are usually character driven, I would suggest that – while you are on location – you ought to try to find one or two subjects who will be the protagonists of your story.

Try to tell the the small story as a way of telling the bigger story; what I mean here is that by telling the in-depth the story of your subjects, you should be able to tell the bigger story or how whatever it is relates to them, influences their lives, etc.

If you want more – and more helpful – suggestions, you need to go into greater detail as to what you're doing, why you're doing it and what you expect to say. The answers to these questions might help you restrict your field of action and help you come up with a specific story idea. In any case, if you find one or two strong (and interesting) characters, you'll most likely be able to find out whatever story it is that you ought to be concentrating on.

Terri Hartley

Thank you very much for your reply. Your comments are very helpful.

To give you more detail, there is a guy from the states who basically chucked everything he had stateside (penthouse apt, Lexus, very cushiony job in advertising) and now lives very much hand to mouth, operating a legit charity overseas. I am trying to get the story of what drives a person to make a decision like that. Turns out he is a super SUPER quirky individual, not in a nutcase way, but in a very funny way. I've interviewed his family stateside already and they also are very personable on camera. The other volunteers, also very camera friendly. My problem has been this guy. The MAIN GUY! HE goes all deer-in-the-headlights as soon as the camera comes out of the bag.

So far, I have shot around him but its do or die time for me. It is like he is pure long as the camera is not rolling. But he clams up and is like a sack of potatoes if he thinks I am recording. I am wondering how much of a story I might salvage if things continue this way. Would it be possible to build a story around an "absent" character if enough input is given by those in his immediate orbit? The main struggle this guy faces is how he can get more traffic to his website, which is his only source of funding for charity projects, and all the stuff he goes through in that struggle (such as a live webcast of a record breaking karaoke event coming up). Thank goodness I am not having to pitch this idea because my words dont do it justice really. But he is everything you would dream of in a central figure for character....all except for that teensy issue about being a garden stone when I'm rolling.

I do have a secondary storyline of sorts...not storyline so much as a profile of two young students he found in the streets and was able to get in to a school again after not being able to go for two years. That was supposed to be my "touching" serious segment against the main comedic line the rest of the doc dances with. I've been following their progress from the streets to the classroom and how they are adjusting.

So there is a tiny bit of it. Any other comments to help me deal with this obstacle would be greatly appreciated. I very much like the comment about telling the smaller story as a way of telling the bigger story. Gives me something to consider there.

Robert Goodman

My suggestion is to follow the guy around long enough that you and the camera disappear. Don't interview him shoot him going through the course of his day. At first he will freak out but after a week or two you'll become background wallpaper. Get his cooperation and promise him that you'll protect him despite his fear of the camera.

Doug Block

Terri, Wolfgang has great advice and I agree with Robert's suggestion, too. I would add that instead of thinking of an interview as something sit-down and formal, that you pop the occasional question to your subject as you're filmming the b-roll. Often doing something physical relaxes a subject, and it often makes for more interesting and intimate interviews.

Paul Kloeden

Just remember the sound. Mike him up in the morning with a lapel mic and then just film around him. You'll be surprised at what he says when the camera (but not the mic) is pointing in a different direction. Think of sound and vision as potentially separate elements.

And don't forget to make sure that any red recording light on the camera is turned off.