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.

Tom Dziedzic

Stephan, I try to get written releases from everyone I interview and who may be in the film. Or if it's a quick spontaneous interview or scene, I get a verbal agreement while the camera is rolling before or after the interview.

I can't recommend this book enough, it has helped me tremendously: Clearance & Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television by Michael C. Donaldson. It's an essential reference book to have around.

Peter Brauer

If you want your movie to end up on television or in theaters, you generally need to have a release from basically everyone in the film. You can use a very simply worded release that people will understand. So yes, I think you should get releases from everyone in the film. That is unless you don't intend on buying E and O insurance to show it publicly.

As for the b-roll question, you don't need releases for crowd shots. However if one person is singled out on screen for any significant amount of time you need a release.

As for logo's in the background of the frame, so long as you didn't put them there, you are good. Incidentally shot logos are generally covered by fair use, which means you don't need clearance. However if you intentionally put a logo in frame, that is another story.

Tsvetina Kamenova


Hello all,

I am in the process of drafting various funding applications for a feature-length documentary currently in production and firstly I want to thank you for the amazing wealth of information you have all helped to create on the d-word. I have a few questions, however, that I have not been able to answer by looking at past posts.

1. Is it a good idea to reference other films in the proposal as a way to describe intended style, structure etc?

2. I know that some funders say they like pictures in the proposal, but is it ever not a good idea to put pictures? If you do have pictures, how do you usually use them?

3. Does anyone have experience with the Sundance Documentary Fund application? I am looking through their guidelines and they specify that they want a summary and then a synopsis. Do you know if by synopsis they are really looking for a treatment? (Is it ok to contact them and ask?)

I would really appreciate any input you might have.

Thanks a lot.

Doug Block

Hi, Tsvetina.

1. Yes

2. Use photos if they're very strong and support and enhance what you're saying in the text. I'd wrap the text around them, but you can also put it at the top of your synopsis or treatment.

3. By all means you should call them. They're very nice and helpful and speaking to them will give you an opportunity to get your film on their radar (especially if you've found a good way to describe it in a sentence or two). Wait until you have a couple of questions, though.

Christopher Wong

call Kristin Feeley or Win-Sie Tow. both of them (women) are extremely nice, and will answer any question you have about the application.

i was lucky enough to get a grant from them back in 2007, but when i applied, there was only a request for a "Statement of Objective" and a "Narrative Summary". there was no mention of a synopsis, which i basically folded into the Narrative Summary.

Tsvetina Kamenova

Hi Doug and Christopher,

Thanks a lot for your responses. It helps to know that I am on the right track generally with the film references and the pictures. I was a bit confused before since, although in interviews representatives of the funds would say they like pictures for example, I never saw any in the "Example" proposals on the websites nor do any of them reference other films.

And Chris, thanks for letting me know who to speak to.

Good luck to both of you with your projects and I hope I can be helpful in return in the future.

Many greetings from Beijing,


Doug Block

From Beijing, huh? Well, maybe you can become Skype buddies with the Sundance folks ;-)

Nicole Bracy

Next week, I will be in Washington, D.C. at a national conference where we have the exclusive rights to videotape the entire conference. Big names will be presenting, Ted Kennedy will be accepting a Legacy Award. In addition to taping the conference, we are hoping to get exclusive interviews. The problem is we're working with a broad release. We were informed by our lawyer that the language was so broad that no one of that stature would sign the release. Could you point me in the right direction as far as language used in such a release?

Gregory Rossi

I'm moving onto a new phase for CONNECT USA, my Connect Four doc. I'll be interviewing media analysts, think tankers, talking heads and news types to discuss/investigate the notion of the USA being a nation politically divided. I can find contact information for many people but some celebrities are more elusive like Janeane Garofalo. Are there any suggestions for getting a hold of someone like her?

we live in the same neighborhood but I just can't roam these streets forever...

Andrew David Watson

Tsvetina do you live in Beijing? I may end up in Beijing the first week of September and may have some questions.

Marshall Burgtorf

I've got a copyright question. I've found a a couple videos on youtube that I am wanting to use in my project on violence in youth sports. One of the videos was posted on a California newspaper youtube page. I contacted them to get permission to use it. Unfortunately they no longer know who the original owner of the video is. It is a video of parents going crazy at a football game.

The other videos are of the same subject matter but went viral years ago and it seems impossible to track down the original owner of the content.

I've read through The Code for Best Practices in Fair Use and it would appear that I can use it. I want to make sure everything we do is legal and I also want to give credit where credit is due.

Any ideas from the most knowledgeable keepers of all things documentary?

Jill Kelly

hello, i have a question about which way to direct my focus within my indie film making career.This would all be under the assumption that the films are of good quality,well shot,directed and edited.

what would be the pro's and cons of two directions?
one being funding the doc's ourselves completely, then once completed pitching them to television broadcasters.
Two being to search for funding,and/or produce in cooperation with a broadcaster.
I have the general ability to go either way, neither is really very easy alas my inquiry, Thanks

Doug Block

No worries, Marshall, you'll get the hang of it. The important thing is you're posting again.

Monica Williams

I have a question about independent educational distribution. I have a copies ready to go of a 1 &1/2 hour film of an interview I did with Susan Neiman on her book Evil in Modern Thought. I'm very happy with it and it is in demand with a certain group of professors and philosophy students.

I'm building a website for it, but I'm clueless about the appropriate & practical steps to independently distribute something like this to universities and conferences. I have an endorsement from a professor who used the film at Loyola and I have been receiving requests for the film. I don't see the need to look for a distributor, but I may be wrong.

I have an idea about a price structure. For educational purposes, $1000 and individual copies at $30. Are there legal papers that someone paying the higher price to show in front of an audience will have to sign? Should I sell the personal copies for the much lower price, through my website? Does this lower my chances of receiving the proper payment from professors looking to use my film?

Any advice is so appreciated – Thanks

Elan Frank

My name is Elan Frank; I am a documentary film maker residing in LA.
I am now in the process of developing a documentary film on the co-existence between Jews and Muslims in Morocco and got to the sage of presenting investors with a business plan and production package, including a proposed budget.
I was wondering if anyone could refer me to samples of such packages/forms, what is essential to have in them, and a one-page budget sample form that is satisfactory to investors (I have my budget format, but it is in excel and very details, not something you provide investors. I am looking for a designed one page with the essentials.
Thanks you. I am glad to be part of this documentary family here in D-word!

Robert Shore

Hi all- I haven't posted in a while. I've got a new series that I am writing up for the August deadline for the National Endowment for the humanities. Does anyone have any advice, specific or general, about NEH-specific grant-writing? Thanks, Rob.

Dustan Lewis McBain

Hey guys, quick questions, im shooting a high school reunion with 300 people, and im using a panasonic dvx 100b. Firstly, what mic should i use? and secondly, what preferences should i shoot under? Maybe i could shoot with a slow shutter speed? idn any ideas?

Sudeshna Chowdhury

Hi this is Sudeshna here. I want to be a filmmaker and really keen on making documentaries. RIght now am working for a news channel. could you plaese tell me how do I start. Yes, I was told that I should start making videos and post it on websites. Could you please let me know how do i begin and which are the potential websites i should send my work to?

John Burgan

It depends very much on you, Sudeshna: what interests you? What's going on in your area? What stories do you want to tell? The website part is easy (you can use Youtube or Vimeo), but it's the work that counts. Are there any films which have inspired you?

Sudeshna Chowdhury

Hello John
Yes films that mostly deal with social and religious issues interest me. I have watched a couple of documentaries by Satyajit Ray whicb have insppired me a lot. Also this film called La Americana have motivated me to further explore subjects. I have also watched a copule of documentaries on Maoists in India. Well these are teh kind of stories that I intend to tell. Am making short videos( which i shoot with my handy cam and right now cany afford one due to financial constraints)but what i am looking at is to become part of an organisation that will give me good exposure. These of course are my views but i don't know how it actually works. Your seggestions please??

David W Grant

ABOUT VIDEO ESSAYS that use docu-drama – Where do 'documentaries of the future' exist? A film that posits a possible future? Such a film obviously could be declared 'fiction'. Is there a genre of this type?

Craig Schneider

Hi all,
Does anyone have any advice/experience shooting Sweet 16 videos? I'm shooting one this Friday documentary style, so i won't be directing so much as just capturing the moments (and there's plenty of dance numbers and such to capture), but it's my first paid job as a documentary videographer and my first Sweet 16, and I know the family, so I want to do this right. I have experience shooting formal events with my cousin's wedding and a friend's wedding. However, I'm shooting this on my own, with a Panasonic DVX100a, and my journalistic instincts. Would you recommend a lav mic on the birthday girl if she would have it? I wasn't going to bother just to simplify. If i do direct at all, is there anything fun you'd recommend shooting with her and her "court" or her court alone? I can let the photographer take the lead on this stuff of course during the photo shoot, but I think it may also be good to have her close friends and family say/do something. Would you recommend I use a separate mic during the party for that? I have a RES50B. This is really a big deal for her and her family, and they trust me to do an amazing job. I know what they have planned for the day and night, and i plan to capture some behind the scenes, getting ready moments, and the excitement and fun. I also posted in the legal section to ask about a contract template just to protect myself (I've only done pro bono before). Other than charge my batteries and get close with the camera and shotgun mic, work my angles, am I forgetting anything? I also do mostly handheld so i'm thinking that a monopod vs. a tripod would be better. Lastly, if anyone can recommend a place in NYC to pick up a spare and relatively inexpensive DVX100a battery, let me know. It's going to be a long day.

Doug Block

Craig, as someone who's shot well over a hundred weddings, I say don't fret too much. Unless you're a hopeless incompetent (which you're not), they're gonna love what you shoot, I guarantee it. Normal people aren't used to seeing themselves captured verite-style and it's always a hoot for them.

Technically speaking, I'd simply use a good directional mic on the camera (like a Sennheiser 416), get in fairly close as much as you can, and definitely shoot handheld. Screw the tripod. And I'd set up as little as possible, just be a total fly on the wall. But that's me.

Have fun and lotsa luck.