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.

Darla Bruno


Newbie here. I just introduced myself in Introductions, but started asking some questions there that are probably better asked here.

I'm doing my first doc film in Italy next year. I have no budget or schedule. To be honest, I'm just kind of jumping in. Got some advice from some doc. film friends and will be buying a camera in a couple months, also doing research and interviews right now.

A few questions. Since this is an international film (will be shot in Italy) . . .

1) How should I handle the language barrier. I speak conversational Italian, but this might involve dialect, and I certainly won't rely on my own language skills to do the interpreting. I'm imagining lots of subtitles and voice overs. Though some of the people I interview will probably be able to speak English, the subjects of the film pretty much won't.

I was advised by two doc film friends to do my own camera work. Yikes! When I first imagined this, I thought I'd hire someone with some experience. Me? I have none.

So, question #2) Do you agree that I should do my own camera work? Do you recommend shooting some practice scenes first? Shadowing another filmmaker? Any other ideas? Is it fairly easy to learn about lighting and audio (I'll be in tiny dark Italian homes made of stone built into hillsides and I want good detail).

3) At this point, If I plan to start filming summer 2008, is there a schedule I can follow? I'm literally following's "10 steps to making a doc. film" (!) Good grief.

4) Is it true that your story comes out of the footage? I don't know my angle/story yet, but I've got plenty of material I know will be good.


Ben Kempas

(1) Sounds like don't really have any other option than to do it in Italian. So why worry about it?

(2) I don't agree. You can't just learn all this within a few months. Work with an experienced camera person (many are willing to work for little or deferred pay if the project is attractive). You should really focus on your story and your characters.

(3) There is no recipe, every project is different. Make sure to read our archived topics, for example the one called Shooting The Documentary

(4) There's always a story in your footage, and it's never the story you had planned to capture.

Reed Thompson

Hi Darla. I don't think the 10 Steps from will cut it. I would suggest purchasing the book, "Directing the Documentary" by Michael Rabiger. I've had my copy since 1994 and still have not found a better book for newbie doc makers. In fact, if you do a search for the book here on d-word you will find that many others would recommend it as well.

Doug Block

Darla, always best to ask one question at a time. Some will inevitably get lost in the flow of discussion. If so, bring them back later.

I'll only address two questions, since the other two are more complicated:

1) Yes, sub-titles and voice-overs seem like they'll be necessary, which may limit sales in English language countries. But what can you do, other than make the most compelling film you can and overcome those kinds of obstacles?

4) Yes. Doesn't mean you don't do a lot of research and planning, though. I generally like to start with interviews to get a feel for the subject matter and who's good on camera. But there are no rules.

Darla Bruno

Hey everyone,

Sorry to break some rules here already! One question at a time then, but thanks to those who answered. I'm just a sponge at this point.

So I will get that book, Reed. Absolutely.

My most important question remains, then.

Do I do the camera work myself or do I work with someone? My inclination is to work with someone. Remember, I have no previous experience. I'm only a film theory student (from long ago) and currently a book writer/editor. No technical experience.

Erica Ginsberg

Darla, ditto on the book recommendation. There's supposed to be a new edition out soon, but even an older edition will work for you (the main changes will probably be the examples Rabiger uses)

Would not recommend you do your own camerawork the first time out. As Ben said, you may be able to find a professional who would work for lower than normal prices if they are intrigued by the idea or at least by the prospect of getting to spend some time in the Italian countryside. You will have enough else to worry about than dealing with the camera too.

And you should probably get an interpreter as well, especially if you are dealing with a dialect. If (reading between the lines) part of your goal is to showcase a local culture, you don't want to force those folks to talk in broken English or even in whatever the equivalent is of the "Queen's Italian". You want them to feel totally comfortable in what is most comfortable to them.

Doug Block

No real rules here, Darla (other than be courteous). Just suggestions.

Darla Bruno

Great advice, Erica. Thank you! I'm feeling really relieved at the thought of not doing the camera work myself. The money I'd spend on buying one and time it would take for me to learn it could be better spent on hiring someone.

And, Doug, thanks for letting me know! :)

Christopher Wong

Probably the only reasons for a "total newbie" to operate the camera herself would be if: 1) you can't find anyone to do it for you; 2) your access to the subject requires that you work alone; or 3) the very structure of your film depends upon your POV as cameraperson. Other than that, you are not going to be successful, especially in the tougher lighting situations you are talking about. That being said, even if you do have a camera operator on board, you should still get used to whatever camera you do buy -- do shoot practice scenes, and try to shadow an experienced filmmaker first.

Assuming that you are "doing" and "practicing", I heartily agree with others' suggestion to read Michael Rabiger's book. Definitely the best.

While much of the story can be found later on in the edit, you have to have SOME idea of why you are shooting this doc. (I'm sure you do, but you probably don't want to reveal all the details now.) It often helps to write out a short treatment or synopsis of what you envision for the film -- the process of writing sometimes fleshes out the WHY of your film.

Finally, watch a doc every day, and see which styles you appreciate and which ones fit more of the mood and tone you envision for your project. You might decide on the "direct cinema" style of the Maysles Brothers, or the "man behind camera" style of Ross McElwee, or (god forbid) the "pan 'n scan" style of Ken Burns...