The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

  • Public

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.

Erica Ginsberg
I would echo what Doug says. I've asked two different lawyers and
gotten two different answers. The one I like better is to get
releases (1) for those with "speaking parts" and (2) for others if
the environment is one that could be controversial or embarassing to
the subjects (a strip club, an infertility clinic, a communist party
meeting, etc.). Of course, a park may not seem controversial, but if
you catch a man and a woman holding hands and they just happen to be
having an illicit affair, well how are you to know? But it's not
something to worry about too much. As Doug said, when it comes to
documentary filmmakers, it's not like we have so many assets to drain.

When filming a speech or a performance, you can also put signs at the
entrance or have the speaker announce your presence and what you are
doing this for so those in attendance have at least been given fair
warning. I know this could be an issue on an upcoming shoot I have
where I'll be filming a church service where there may be many
illegal immigrants in the pews. I am planning to ask the priest (who
speaks the language of the congregation) to announce the filming one
week in advance so those who do not want to be filmed can opt to go
to a service at a different time.
Deleted User
Dough & Erica,

Thanks for the response. This is one of those areas that seems
to be a catch 22. There seems to be no 100% right or wrong
answer. If there are large groups of people in the footage, there
is just no way humanly possible to get to all of the people unless
the whole thing is staged. Well............... I guess the only option is
to get as many releases as possible and pray about the rest !
What else can you do. Thanks.

Stephen Goldberg
Doug and Erica:
Im a lawyer and and a filmmaker. Im also shooting in a controversial
environment.The release in a situation like the "illegal immigrant"
context has no legal effect. You cant be sued by someone doing
something illegal for filming them while doing it. Its simply to
get cooperation and access when filming. Also people doing anything
in public have no "expectation of privacy" thus releases are legally
unnecessary. Still for my peace of mind I try to get a release from
anyone I shoot in an enclosed space.
Deleted User
hi people,
this is veena almad drom india. i am a student of mass media and i
am crazy abt movies....direction do let em know if anything on
direction and screeplays....
and i wish to know some filmmakers plz help to know anyone from i have an internship coming i have
choise but to do it...for film making...
Doug Block
Veena, we're crazy about movies here, too! If you have a specific
question, feel free to ask.
Erica Ginsberg
Stephen, would a church be considered a public space or an enclosed
Deleted User
hi people,
i wanted to know how does a movie start i.e. feature
film ....i.e. 1st the screeplay writer approaches or the company
(prod. houses)... and whom to approach for working in movies...
thanks crazy film people....
Ben Kempas
The thing is that with documentaries, you rarely have a screenplay

There is just no general rule for all this.
So what's your ideal vision of what you want to do?
What kind of project are you thinking about?
Doug Block
Veena, the Distribution panel covers the gamut of all indie film, but
The D-Word focuses on docs. So we probably can't give you much help
in how to get a screenplay produced.

I think there are a bunch of listserves and discussion boards for
screenwriters, though. You can try a Google search, or maybe someone
else knows..?
Deleted User
thanks people....
for caring abt me and writing....
Deleted User

Good Question. Is it the fact that the person is enclose in a
building that makes this situation "private", or is it because of the
fact that a "religous" ( my spelling sucks) or personal act is
taking place and that makes it "private"? I recently shot over 6
hours of footage of native american and african cerimonial
activities. It was outside but it was spiritually based. I wonder if
that could be considered "private"? hummmmmmm? Another
legal grey area.


Michael Oko
Hi~ I am in the process of trying to finish my first independent-- ie
self-funded-- doc. Two questions for the "pros" (this is my first
posting, hope its the right forum):

1. What are the latest thoughts on Final Cut 3 with a new G4. Is
a dual processor G4 867 going to do the trick, or do I need
additional speed (1 gig or 1.25). What are other common pitfalls
in purchasing and configuring a new final cut setup? And of
course, any tips on where to shop to save some dough? Or is
my best bet to go to Tech Serve and load up on what they

2. A question on length. At this point, I am doing the project on
spec and hope to enter festivals, and mostly to use as a selling
card for myself. Of course if someone wants to buy it, great! My
gut says that 1/2 hour is a good length. Do I need to worry about
timing it out for commercial breaks in the event that a network
would be interested in airing it? Is there a standard reference for
this? Also, should I try to expand it to 1 hour-- is that a more
"saleable" length? Any thoughts would be appreciated!
Mike Green
hmmm, there are people alot more pro than I and perhaps they'll jump
in but...

1. G4867 is plenty fast enough. make sure you load up on RAM.. it's
hard to get too much... go to and read all about how
to set up your system... it's a fabulous concise set of guides. It
will answer all your fcp3.0 and other questions about systems. As
for saving dough... buy from someone legit who'll talk to you if you
think you'll need support. I bought my system from and
they provide good telephone support because I had no experience with
macs... but you pay more for your system (a few hundred dollars
more).. but they assemble and burn it it before shipping. Or try If you're mac savvy, shop around.

2. my 2cents: do a 30 minute project; there are more slots in
festivals for shorts; the pbs length is 26:45 I believe. you can
check producing for pbs link; and it's faster to do than
creating a 60 min program that works. It's not usually possible to
stretch a 30 minute program to 60 mins... it's sometimes possible to
cut shorter versions of a longer program. 60 minute programs are
commercial norm but unless you break the mold your first 60 minute
project will not likely find its way onto pbs or cable.

with your 30 minute project, plan ahead, think about what you want to
do and how you want to represent that with video images. try not
to 'overshoot'. Then think about your edit and outline things before
you start logging tape into your mac. But most of all, enjoy it and
learn from it. That's what your first project should be about.
Blake Barratt
OK so here goes
I have a camera and a good idea just have
the fear of where to start.
I want to make a doco about my experiences at
festivals and touring around
there is lots of juicy material and want to shoot it up
close and personal like
part diary style part fly in the crowd style still working
on this aspect.
However i really could use some advice re preprod
and what i need to think
about re working out an angle and a premise so that
i can be more directed
with my shooting.
It seems if i just shoot everything i may not get what i
want in the end.
and eveything i have read on the net leads me to
suspect that a great deal of
careful planning before hand will help.
It will be self funded as basically all the material is
there and i just need to go
and get it and follow myself around with a camera.
it is very Doable kind of
like a cops but on the subject of performing arts festivals.
so any tips or links for info would be very appreciative
i have the next 6 months for preproduction and planning.
I would like to eventually try and find a buyer for the project as a one off or as
a series type thing.
Basically the first one would be a kind of pilot or a great short.
there will be lots of great footage of crazy performers interviews etc.
I have been doing this for six years and only just realised there was the
potential for a great doco there.
Doug Block
Blake, you just start by starting. Begin shooting. If nothing else,
it will help you sharpen your camera skills.

But keep in mind - always - what is your story? And what are the
themes? Is there any particular point or message you want to convey?
And then look for situations that might illustrate it.

Most doc makers start in without knowing where, exactly, in the
overall story they are at. They trust that if the subject matter is
right, it will eventually all come together. Sometimes it actually
does ;-)
Blake Barratt
thanks Doug that is a good pointer basically
that is the part i am having trouble
what are my themes and what am i trying to convey
getting it into a form where i can articulate it is
tough for me so that advice
helps i will now ask myself these questions and
see if the answer is in my
brain somewhere i hope so!!:)
thanks for the welcome nice to be connected to a
community of this kind.
doesnt feel so lonely anymore.
Doug Block
That's the whole point, Blake!

BTW, I've found a book called "Art and Fear" extremely helpful in overcoming creative blocks. You might want to check it out.

Michael Oko
Mike Green, thanks for your input... I will check out those sites.
Anyone else care to weigh in (see above). Thanks!
Stephen Goldberg
Erica and John:
The question of whether a church is legally a public or private
space for the purposes of determining whether a release is necessary
has probably been addressed by some court somewhere. My guess is
that the stronger argument is that worshippers have a reasonable
expectation of privacy in the interior of a church which cant be
seen from outside and that their permission to be filmed should be
secured. But pretty much anything done in public or which can be
seen from the outside ie through a window is fair game.
Blake Barratt
Hi guys i have a lsight tech question.
I shot some bmx guys in a skate hall last night and
it all came out great except it was fluro lighting and
my new mx500 doesnt seem to like low light situations a whole lot.
I got the cam because it is really small and inconspicuous
for the kind of doco stuff at festivals and the like i wanted
to shoot now i am worried that all my lower light stuff will
be excessively grainy.
Maybe this becomes an aesthetic i can use.
I am reading lots of stuff now about the gl1 being better in
low light etc.
the shutter speed doesnt go below 1/50 but it does have gain
up settings and manual whitbalance.
Any comments would be cool. I just didnt really have the budget
for another grand for the gl2 .
Doug Block
Blake, I have the Canon GL-1, and it's pretty good in low light but
not what I'd call fantastic. I haven't shot enough with other cameras
to make a comparison. If it has a gain up setting, I'm not aware (and
I shoot a lot with it), but cameras that effectively give you a gain
up effect with a shutter speed give you that pixellated look when you
move the camera (which is sometimes nice, but not always). As for
manual whitebalance, it has no affect on low light shooting.

Anyway, my gut reaction is you take your own advice and use the
excessive grain as an aesthetic. Could work very well.
Blake Barratt
Thanks Doug I have since the last post reviewd the footage on a television monitor instead of the lcd screen of the laptop and realise that the quality is not too bad and the grain from a bout a metre and a half from the tv isnt bad and the shots are not too dark so i am happy again. Just read a lot of stuff about the gl2, xl1s etc seems everyone has one of these and i feel a bit inferior with only the mx. It shoots great in normal light and what i have read is that it beats a lot of these for image quality too. Well who really knows i may have access to an xl1 for doing some of the more set up night shots of shows and stuff but if i really think about it all the night stuff will be suited to a diary style look anyway. I get comfort from the fact that there is a lot of interesting stuff to shoot and if i can get my camera skills up to scratch then the interest will be in whats in the shots and not a bit of grain here and there. I just really want to make this film and keep trying to learn lots about the techy stuff as well and get bummed out by all this what cam is best stuff. I have made a descision and well i think it will work out ok in the end. The mx is great for being inconspicuous and i dont want to distract from whats going on around me by having a hi there i am making a film camera. Neway thanks for the post I think I was just having an oh my god i spent the wrong 2000 euros moment. There are always lights as well :) cheers Blake

Deleted User
My partner and I have spent the past year writing a proposal and
refining our concept, approach and goals for a documentary
we've become obsessed with making. Probably not the best
idea to put all our eggs in one basket, but we've learned a lot and
hopefully we'll find ourselves able to be flexible if the need

The project involves a pretty big, but not neccessarily
controversial (i.e. Walmart) corporation as the setting and the
vehicle to understanding people within the environment and
ultimately ouselves as a whole. I suppose similar to Neiman
Marcus in Fred Wiseman's film. We have finally made contact
with them and are sending them information on the idea. They
were abrupt and skeptical, although polite in our phone

Our approach to the film is one of personal, intimate
open-mindedness and we believe the film will be a celebration
of the place and certainly not critical or exposing in style. What
tone should we use in our letter and correspondence? For
example: sheer desperation, PR-style convincing,
sentimentality? I know that sounds false, but as I write the info
sheet out I can't help but fear that one step in the wrong direction
could blow everything. Also, the advice we were initally following
was to just send a letter of introduction but our telephone
conversation was so abrupt and marred with miscommunication
that we feel we should provide enough info to prevent any
misunderstandings. What we really want is to meet with this
person face to face, in the hope that our honesty and passion
will prevail. In moments of fear, I feel why in the world would they
care enough about us and honest personal filmmaking to say
yes. Any ideas?

Also, the info sheet we're writing is a page and a half bulleted
with headings, etc. Does that sound right? What other materials
or ideas should we include?

Whoever's out there, thank you very much for all your help.

Heather & Margaret
Doug Block
H & M, if I were a big corporation like Walmart, I'd be skeptical,
too. What could they possibly gain from having two unknown, indie doc
makers probing around with their video camera? These companies spend
millions in advertising and take their branding and corporate image
very very seriously.

If I were you, I'd think long and hard from their point of view about
what you could offer them by doing this doc. What promotional value
could it have for them? How will it enhance their image? My guess is
that the doc you wish to make isn't alligned with the public image
they wish to convey.

I assume you want total editorial control, so there is probably zero
chance they'll go for it. However, given that, you have nothing to
lose. My approach would be as honest as possible (it's almost always
the best approach in trying to get access, anyway). Explain what
you're attempting to do and convey your passion for your project as
best as you can. You never know.

Lotsa luck.
Deleted User
Hi, all. Um, there's a good chance I'll be commissioned to make a doc
for a production company. Problem is (and it's not, really), I'm a
movie guy and think in 'cinematic' terms. So I was wondering if
anyone could, and would, be kind enough to post a link to ANY online
web tutorial or article that covers the basic outline (subject
approach, research, blah blah blah) of Documentary film
writing/directing. I don't really need this information but an
objective (i.e. theoretical) perspective might prove a great time
saver in organizing my thoughts & actions.

Muchos gracias.
Erica Ginsberg
Heather, it sounds like a great idea for a project but I would have
to agree with Doug's comments. Also I wouldn't be too quick to say
Walmart does not involve controversy. Michael Moore made them look
pretty bad in "Bowling for Columbine" (if you haven't yet seen his
film, he takes WalMart and K-Mart to task for selling firearms and/or
ammunition in their stores. K-Mart changed its policy as a result of
his film, but now Moore is campaigning vigorously on his website
against Walmart). I'd be very surprised if Walmart would agree to
any filmmaker doing an observational doc about them.

Space, docs can be every bit as "cinematic" as fiction films -- with
a storyline, a protagonist/antagonist, a climax, a conclusion, etc.
The main difference is that most documentaries (barring those dull
historical films with only a narrator and archival footage) are not
scripted in advance of the shoot (though, of course, the director may
have an outline and a fairly good idea of what he/she is looking for)
and you have more leeway in structuring than you do if you come from
the Syd Field school. Sometimes the footage is just given to an
editor who re-constructs it. Sometimes it is tightly scripted. Even
when scripted, the format may look considerably different than what
you would be accustomed to with a fiction script. Others here may
disagree, but I find the 2 column approach works best, especially for
films that use a lot of voiceover over visuals.

I would recommend two books to you: "Directing the Documentary" by
Michael Rabiger (excellent overview of the process)
and "Scriptwriting for High Impact Videos" (covers industrials as
much as docs, but gives some suggested guidelines as far as script
Deleted User

Thanks for the info. I am well aware that a doc can (and
should) be cinematic, but I always feel that some kind of 'outline'
of objectives is always a great way of aligning ones thought process
before starting any kind of project (cinematic or not). I have heard
about "Directing the Documentary" and I'll probably buy a copy as it
seems to be very highly regarded by those in the doc circle. Anyhoot
thanks again. Also, any additional info (or links?) to the '2 column
approach' would be welcome.


Space Ludwig

P.S. FYI, I can't stand that insufferable, patronizing Syd Field. I've
bought and read three of his books which I've given away.
Erica Ginsberg
Then you've come to the right place. Don't think there's much love
lost between most documentarians and Mr. Field though some folks
would argue that docs can and should follow a similar structure to
the 3-Act fiction film.

Not sure of too much on the web in the way of formatting. Closest I
could come is
<> If I'm
doing a paper cut based on window dubs, I usually also add a column
to note Tape Number and timecode.
Deleted User

Thanks for the link. Also, I just won "Directing the Documentary" on
ebay for $5, which is a bargain, I guess, so that should provide some
useful info. Apparently this is THE book to read. However, I heard the
same thing about Field's books which turned out to be a pedantic
farce so I'll wait until I read it to pass judgement. I'm looking
forward to readjusting my thinking process. Thanks for your help and
info. I'll post my progress and hopefully the 'veterans' can give me
advice along the way when I hit road blocks.


Space Ludwig
Robert Goodman
There is no THE BOOK to read other than Aristotle.
Directing the Doc has some useful info but is hardly the end all and
be all of making nonfiction. If you want insight go to the library
and look at the vast array of nonfiction books. That's the
possibilities that exist for nonfiction films. Everything from "In
Cold Blood" to Dave Barry Cleans His Sink.
Deleted User

Um, I believe the rules laid out in Aristotle's poetics, if I am
correct in assuming this is what you are referring to, were
thoroughly - and successfully - refuted by the movie 'Pulp Fiction'.
If you read ALL of my previous posts you will realize that what I am
looking for is not info on how to write a story, nor am I lacking in
creative inspiration, but rather a basic outline of what to consider
when making a documentary picture, i.e. technical information. Dave
Barry cannot help me in this department. Thanks anyway.


Space Ludwig
Robert Goodman
Pulp Fiction refuted nothing. Technical information for making docs
is no different than making any other film. They don't use different
presses for printing nonfiction and fiction.
Margot Roth
I think Robert is taking the word "technical" too literally here.
Obviously Space is referring to the methods, the thought organization,
etc., not literally issues of tape stock, e.g.

And indeed there is a big difference in approach to making a fiction
or doc film. They are entirely different beasts.

Space, you might want to hire an a.p. or co-producer who is
experienced in docs to help you. I don't think a book can replace
human knowledge and experience in this case.
Margot Roth
Heather, good to see you here and your idea sounds excellent,
although the challenges do seem a bit daunting. I wonder if you could
go ahead and do some shooting and cut a short demo for Walmart to look

It's all rather unfortunate with the timing of Michael Moore's movie.
Did Michael Moore shoot inside Walmart? Did he get permission?

If the angle of your film is a Fred Wiseman type of
humanity-revealing through a microcosm, I'd imagine it would be great
publicity for Walmart. What makes this tricky is you don't know who
you're pitching to, exactly. If you can pitch in person, you can
gauge their sensibility better. You could pitch it to them as almost
a reality series built around Walmart (crass, but whatever). Of
course, if you pitch it to someone with a brain and sensitivity, pitch
the humanity/vérité angle.
Robert Goodman
Margot - disagree - the thought process for making a fiction or
nonfiction film is much the same. The only difference is that in
fiction you need actors and the outcome of the film is
predetermined. Figuring out what the scenes are and who you need to
talk to and how to go shoot it require same skills. No special
cameras/crews required for docs versus drama. Planning is planning.
Prepro is prepro.
Deleted User

Im very new to this site, and I was hoping there may be some people
out there willing to share their views on the work of Nick
Broomfield, controversial british doc maker, with me (Biggie and
Tupac, Kurt and Courtney,The leader..., Heidi Fleiss etc..). I am
currently compiling a biography and analysis of his career and
works. Im especially interested in a discussion on doc ethics, with
an emphasis on new documentary. I would also like to know if anyone
knows of anywhere, apart form the N Broomfield official website,
where I could gain access to a biographical outline of his career

Any comments would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks- Hayley
Doug Block
Hayley, no need to post the same request twice. We read all the
different topics.
Leslie Bielanski
Hi all! I am a little new to the world of docs having been a
television producer for many years. My husband and I have recently
started our own company and are in the middle of our first
project. Here's my question-We are aiming to make a one hr piece
and our initial thoughts were to go for something like the History
Channel, Discovery, PBS etc. Assuming we self fund the project at
say $125,000 budget and we present the finished project to these
channels what would they typically pay? I understand the concept of
domestic international rights etc. Lets say for instance we were
looking to give them domestic and home video rights and leave the
international marketing to another company. We are just trying to
get an idea of a typical pay out from the nets. Thanks so much for
your help!

Leslie Bielanski
Okay. So if you don't mind here is a second question. In two parts:

Where does an international market other words how much per
country-is it reasonable to expect say Germany to perhaps pay
$100,000 for a $125,000 budget piece if they are interested? Is it
better to work with a distributor who has international connections?

Secondly-I have been in the TV business for a good many years and
have worked freelance for a documentary production company. How do
these companies make any money? Does say History Channel pay little
more money once you have become established? I do love making
documentaries but I am also trying to make a living at it and trying
to figure out the best way to do that. Thank you again for your

Doug Block
Leslie, I strongly recommend you read the Jan Rofekamp conference on
Selling in the International Marketplace: {LINK NOT IMPORTED} It will answer your
Deleted User
Hello everyone,

First, thank you for your replies. It's super encouraging to hear words of advice and interest when you feel like you're floating in a
worldof what-to-do-next's.

I think I miscommunicated one thing and I'm curious to see if this changes anyone's angle/opinion/advice. The company we're
thinking of is actually not like a controversial Walmart-y kind of place. Although it is big and national, the branches we're interested in
are actually some of the smaller, less intriguing, and famous parts of the main company. Also, they have appeared
lately on dating shows and segments of David Letterman. So although I know image is a huge factor for them, it's not clear to me
exactly what they need to protect or project. Also, I think as a place on the fringes of big business I'm not sure if I can actually say -
'what have you got to lose'? Am I naive?

(btw - hello margot and thank you!)

-Heather & Margaret (again)
Doug Block
Yes, you're naive, Heather. But that's not a bad quality for a
documentary filmmaker. Nor is stubborness or persistence. If your
heart is set on this, you should just plow forward and try not to take
no for an answer from anyone -- including anyone here at this forum.
Deleted User
Hi everyone,
My name is Laurie and I am new here. I have been working on a feature
documentary with a friend for the past 3 1/2 years. This film is
about the life and music of a musician who has passed away. This is
the first film for both of us--so we are a bit inexperienced and have
just run into a problem we were unaware of when we started editing a
year ago:

All of our interstitials (photos, journal entries, artwork) are
digitized tiff files. The Avid's ability to manipulate digital stills
(panning, zooming, various effects) is poor. People have suggested we
use Boris Effects, but we don't have the money to purchase this
software, nor the expertise to use it. So we're not sure if it's a
worthy investment. Our editor is someone who works on weekends and
after hours so the Avid is not "ours" and we probably couldn't
install the software anyway.

Is it conceivable to use After Effects and integrate into our Avid
timeline? Any advice and/or suggestions about professionally
integrating our interstitials is much appreciated.

Thanks in advance for your time. LT
Robert Goodman
I'd ask the person who's Avid it is whether they have After Effects
or Boris. Also if working on XpressDV, there's a pan and scan plug.
Another option is StageTools - a plug-in that's available on the web.
Hard to believe anyone has an avid without one of these tools.

The last option is to print out your files - shoot them with your
camera and cut the footage into your show. That works too.
Deleted User
Thanks Robert. I am going to bring you e-mail to my editor and see
what her Avid has. I really appreciate your advice!
Elise Green
Bay Area Video Coalition Vs Film Arts Foundation

We are in the process of pitching for sponsorship from FAF and BAVC
in the San Francisco area. Does anyone know whether BAVC can equate
with FAF in terms of the following:
- working connections in public TV, private networks and festivals
for docs
- successful films they have supported
- industry success ie similar brand name

Thanks in advance.
Robert Goodman

Not sure that fiscal sponsorship will make your film more or less
attractive to PBS, festivals, et al. One or the other may carry more
weight with particular funders which is why you'd make the decision.

Also, I would venture a guess that both orgs will say nice things
about you and your film if they like the film to people in the
business because you are from their neighborhood.