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.

Poppy Walker

Hi There,

I'd be grateful if someone could steer me in the right direction in deciding which camera to buy. I'm almost done studying doco, and really want to buy my own camera. We've been using the PD150 & 170 and a chunkier DVC Pro. I'm really comfortable using the PD, but uncertain about the lack of native 16:9. I know it's an enormous question, but which cameras would you recommend? Is it intergal to shoot 16:9? many thanks -

Eli Brown

As someone who actually bought a camera recently (an HVX200, for the record), it's a really difficult decision to make - especially if you're just starting out and (presumably) don't have a lot of capital to begin with. You may want to find local rental houses and see if you can look over their selection to see the pros and cons of the cameras that they offer. My knee jerk reaction to the 150 & 170 is that they're a bit dated technologically speaking these days. Sony's HDV offerings have usurped them in a lot of respects and gives a bit wider possibilities in terms of producing for future distribution. Canon, JVC, and others have some interesting models, and Sony has some HDV cameras that are much cheaper than a 150 or 170 and might be able to do what you need (or might not; hard to say without knowing more about your intent). Having used a 150 (6 years ago, now), I'd be a little hesitant about buying a unit that hasn't had any real upgrades in nearly half a decade. But that's the technologist in me talking.

From the strict "producer" point of view, I'd also note that "owning" a camera is actually not necessarily a great investment, largely since the minute you buy it, it loses value (and continues to do so) and also establishes a fair amount of risk (This changes if your project is one of those 200 days of shooting/personal travelogue type of projects, at which point, owning a camera is a far better deal). If you know that you're going to be getting the return on the investment (or don't mind thinking of it as a luxury expense), then that seems reasonable. Alternately, though, I might encourage you to think about renting for the first few projects - both to get a sense of what cameras/formats will work well with what you end up producing, as well as to limit your initial expenses in regards to starting out. Also, working without a camera can truly hone one's ability to know what to shoot (when you do finally rent the camera, for instance). Sometimes limitation is a great creativity booster. Hope some of that is helpful...

Christopher Wong

poppy, if you want to stay in the SD realm, i really recommend the Panasonic DVX100A/B camera. shooting in 24p, the look from this camera so far exceeds that of the PD150/170 units. all of the functions are really well thought out and it's a camera that is tried and true in the doc world, especially among us D-worders. in addition, you should be able to find DVX100's at some really good prices now - probably around $2000-$2500 now. The B version is slightly better, but the A version is definitely good enough and will be significantly cheaper.

Brian Boyko

One quick question: for shooting a documentary, should I be going with 24p or 60i? 24p looks more film-like... but 60i looks "realer" - and considering that I'm making a documentary...

Complicating this fact is that I'm hoping to release in theatres, NTSC, and PAL regions.

Christopher Wong

by "realer", i think you really mean "amateurish". there are certainly times when 60i is preferable, but unless you are shooting something like "Cops" or "Jackass", where you want the feel of the piece to reflect the fact that you are not using pro camera ops, then I would shoot 24p. it's just as "real" and a whole lot more beautiful. there are numerous docs that have been shot well in 60i too, but they would have been just as good if not better in 24p. lastly, if you decide to go with 24p and you want to go to theatres eventually, shoot in 24pAdvanced mode (not "Standard" mode).

Steven Krasnopolsky

One of my school assignments is to interview three different documentary filmmakers. If you would like to volunteer your help will be greatly appreciated. The interview should run by phone or in person. No e-mails or IM. You should allow me about 30-45 minutes of your time.
Thank you.

Poppy Walker

Thanks so much Eli and Christopher. Really good advice from both of you. I really appreciate your help. I am going to head down to my local camera shop to have a bit of a browse...

Leah Cameron

Hi Everyone,

What a great community you have going. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Leah Cameron. I just signed up and I had a big question, so I thought I'd jump right into the forum.

I'm currently directing my first doc and I received two small government grants for the project. We've begun shooting on DVCPro HD. Now I'm looking to secure a broadcaster and get further funding.

Two broadcasters have expressed interest in seeing footage, so I figure it's best to show them a trailer. While I've studied story structure, I'm not as familiar with the elements that make a good trailer. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Oh. I should also mention that the film is a personal point of view documentary. My father is learning to fly airplanes again after 40 years and I'm following him to understand the battle he faced with mental illness and his life-long love affair with flight. For as long as I can remember, he's been obsessed with flying, but he hasn't been able to fly.

A little backstory: He lost his father in a plane crash in the RAF when he was six and his fiance in a plane crash in his late 20s. He got his license in the early 60s to get over his fear, but soon suffered an emotional and mental breakdown because of the grief. He was rehabilitated, but because he was on medication, he was barred from flying.

Until now that is. Now 70 and drug-free, he's passed his medical and he's learning to fly again. For him I think this is a journey about feeling in control again. For me, it's an attempt to try to understand my father and what he went through.

Any help is much appreciated.

Thank you!


Tanya Coovadia

Contract help, anyone?

Hi, all,

My embryonic production company has been approached to work on the pilot for a series that has attracted the attention of a television channel. Not having anticipated the need for a lawyer (and certainly not having the budget for it), we don't even know where to begin. Are there any sites that might contain information or templates or even some hints as to the types of items that are covered in a contract of this nature?

Thanks in advance.

Christopher Wong

leah, sounds like an amazing project. and i think by your very description of it in your last posting, you already might have the structure for your trailer.

essentially, it could go like this:
1) Start out with some scene about your father preparing to fly again. This could be anything from reading a flight manual to laying out his flying clothes (whatever that might be) on the bed. This could be a strictly observational scene where the audience doesn't really know what's going on, but is intrigued; or you could put a VO underneath with your father talking about what flying means to him.
2) Cut to a still photo (or old 8mm film?) of either his father or his former fiancee. Using old newspaper clippings or something else (VO again), communicate the tragedy of what happened.
3) Cut to interview of Dad explaining medications he used to take (perhaps holding an old medicine bottle) and the details of his emotional breakdown
4) Close with shot of him walking towards an airplane (as if he were about to enter it for his first flight...) Fade to black.

Obviously, I have no idea what footage you have, so some of those suggestions might not be viable. But that kind of structure lays out the man, the history, what's at stake, and the drama -- all within a tidy 2-3 minutes.

If you're looking for theory into what makes a good trailer, hopefully someone else will jump in. (I know nothing about that.) Good luck and count yourself lucky to be shooting your first doc on DVCPro HD!