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.

Doug Block

You shouldn't be monitoring the sound levels, I suppose, but there's no reason you can't be holding the mic. Gives the camera person more freedom and you'll get better sound.

Darla Bruno

Hey Tony – T-shirts? Huh? Why did I get lost on that one?

Wolfgang – Thank you kindly for this super helpful information. Sorry I wasn't more clear to begin with, but I was just posting on sound. This round of footage is essentially part of my research. I just wanted a camera person there with me (since I'm not well-versed or experienced in using a camera yet) while I conduct some interviews, get some b-roll, and aim to put together a trailer when I return, then write a treatment, edit the footage, and begin looking into grants and sponsors. So, maybe this isn't the traditional way, or a little backwards, but it's all learning to me.

I have a mini-production schedule for when I go, a wish-list shot list, and necessary shot list. My days are filled. My aim is to contrast simple village living with the influence of modern life. That will sharpen and take form after this round of footage but that is my beginning angle.

Beyond that, the sound is a concern of mine right now. My DP and I have a similar vision, but our sound man backed out, and while the DP wants to move forward, I'm being particular about sound. I'd CRY if we ended up with bad sound.

I can hold a boom in some situations, but no, it's not ideal for me.

Anyway, I also just noticed that my DP is working in PAL. Yikes. Another issue. So while we have a similar vision, it's the technical aspect of things that are a bit overwhelming at the moment.

I just realized he has a lavalier, so I wonder . . . well, here's what he has . . .

Filming equipment: Sony PD 170 (PAL, grandangular lense, rain/snow cover) + Manfrotto 128RC tripod (I have heavier ones, but this is probably the best choice for the type of work on the field we'd be doing in XXXX) + Sennheiser Wireless Trio 100 G2 Series (full audio kit with a lavalier and a directional microphone).

Megumi Nishikura

Hi, I'm young emerging filmmaker who has a few short documentaries under her belt. I want to make a documentary director's reel and I was wondering if anyone could give me any tips or direct me to some online director's reels.
Thank you and have a happy holidays!

Wolfgang Achtner


Just for your information – and eventually that of other newbies (this is not meant to scold you) – your last post is a perfect example of why one needs to prepare and, in the case of a total beginner, more than anything this means to seek advice BEFORE embarking on a project.

For example, you write: "I also just noticed that my DP is working in PAL. Yikes. Another issue. So while we have a similar vision, it's the technical aspect of things that are a bit overwhelming at the moment." Case in point. Any one who's ever worked overseas would have known that this is an issue that would present itself for a US_based person working outide the US.

Being a non-technical person (as well as the fact that you don't want unnecessary details to get in the way), I will try to limit my exploration of this topic to minimum vital aspects. The US uses an analog TV system called NTSC, France uses SECAM and almost everyone else (excepting Japan) uses PAL. All you need to know is that PAL has a better image compared to NTSC (it has greater resolution because each frame has 625scan lines vs 525).

This "problem" leads to several options. You may want to shoot everything in PAL and only after your final edit, convert your completed project to NTSC. Or, you might shoot PAL this time and NTSC next time around.

Converting video from PAL to NTSC, if at all necessary, is no longer a big deal. Today, if you really needed one, you could buy a cheap converter, otherwise, if you just need to convert a few minutes worth of tape, you can rent or go to a company that provides the service.

The PAL vs NTSC issue was a major concern in the days of analog TV and the early days of digital, but is hardly a big deal, especially with regards to HDTV.

First of all, if you'd been shooting in HDTV, most (or all, I honestly don't remember) videocameras have a switch that allows you to shoot in either NTSC or PAL. I see from your post that you're not shooting in HDTV, otherwise your DP would have told you about the possibility.

Also, the SONY PD170 will give you a 4:3 image and I'm not sure that this is the best way to start off a new project. I'm still shooting my current doc on 4:3 aspect ratio because I'm using a videocamera that I have been using for 7 years now and, especially, because I started shooting it this way 3 years ago. I think you might be best off shooting in native 16:9 (I'm referring to the fact that all modern TV screens have a wider image).

By the way, have you thought of asking your DP to rent a HDTV videocamera? They are easy to find here and that would allow you to overcome the PAL/NTSC issue. Furthermore, have you talked to anyone about whether or not – in consideration of a particular kind of future use – you might want to be shooting this project in HDTV?

In any case, if you decide to edit using Final Cut Pro, you'll be able to edit using both systems, so you'd only need to convert edited segments at the very end.

I'm sure others here who are used to working in the NTSC world can give you all the necessary advice and, luckily – as I wrote – today this is only a minor problem. Again, a good example of X other problems that could be solved, or better yet avoided, by talking to the experts BEFORE you jump.

Unfortunately, the equipment we use to day is so simple that anyone thinks they can use and, as a matter of fact they can, point and shoot. Period. Documentary filmmaking is something completely different.

To make my point clear, in many countries today, almost everyone has a videocamera, so in our minds it has become a simple ubiquitious instrument, almost like a ballpoint pen or a pencil. Everyone could afford a pencil but that didn't automatically make them a Michelangelo or Shakespeare.

Enthusiasm is great but remember that documentary filmmaking is a very complex craft that deserves a little bit of respect. Just because it's cheap – or at least a lot cheaper – than before doesn't mean that it is easy. In fact, in many ways, the possibility to work solo, or in small teams has made projects cheaper and, therefore, in many cases more feasible and it has opened up to the masses a world that was previously reserved to very few people and power centers (this is the more interesting aspect of the so-called "digital revolution") but it has also made things a lot harder than they were before because you need to know learn many skills and perform all of them well.

Also, appropriate research could allow you to find out that it might be better to plan your trip at a time that allows you to shoot a certain popular festivity or activity that takes place at a given time of year, etc., etc.

Regardless of how easy or cheap it seems to fly to Italy to do whatever you want to do, remember you don't want to be wasting your precious time and/or your own hard-earned money unnecessarily, as well as the fact that – even though you might not be aware of it now – you may have a one-off chance to shoot certain events or people (for various reasons) and you need to do it "right" the first time.

Darla Bruno

Thanks, again. This really started out as a question about sound.

My DP has agreed to shoot in 16:9 format. The PAL conversion isn't a concern at this point. My DP is Italian and only works overseas.

Wolfgang, again, thank you for your help. My learning curve really comes around the technical stuff, which is why I hired someone, but since the sound person backed out, I'm left scurrying around to find a solution. Again, my original post.

I can assure you that there is a festival I'm going there for in January; hence, the decision to shoot at that time (otherwise, why freeze my butt off?!) I have interviews set up, a b-roll list, a wish list, an idea for a trailer, a tentative treatment. I'm not sure what gave you the impression otherwise. And I'm not really hung up on any outcome, luckily. This is a true interest and passion and learning the ropes right now is worth every penny I'm spending. (My schooling was in writing and film theory, not shooting/editing/or anything technical), so I'm devouring the information and so glad to be learning and for the people who have given their time generously to help me.

Tony Comstock

January? In that case you'll probably want at least one sweater. Maybe a jacket too.

Wolfgang Achtner


I just had the impression from your posts – maybe just my interpretation – that you seemed worried by overcoming a problem with taping sound when, if anything, that will be the least of your worries.

As I mentioned before, I don't think it's a good idea (nor is it necessary) for you to worry about sound, especially in an interview situation when your responsibility has to be listening carefully to the interview.

Make sure that throughout your trip you keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities and first and foremost: ENJOY YOURSELF!

Thomas Beach

I have spent the last several weeks conducting format research etc. Thanks to all who have offered opinions. I have settled upon shooting 720p with the P2 and have found a good camera rental in my area.

With this issue completed, I have some other questions regarding software that I would appreciate input on.

My doc will be photo-driven, meaning that I will be telling my story primarily with original pictures from archives. Additionally, I will be using on-camera interviews, character V.O.'s as well as narration. My question is this: Can I replicate traditional "camera moves" with still photos via Apple's FCP Studio 2? Specifically, Motion 3? I need to be able to zoom in/out, reframe for CU's etc on existing photos during my editing. I believe everyone here understands what I'm getting at. Can I accomplish these photo manipulations within FCP Studio 2 or must I perform these actions with yet another program such as Photoshop and/or Aperture?

Additionally, I presume the archived photos at my disposal which are only 600x600 dpi are not sufficient for HD broadcast parameters as well as zooming in. What dpi rez rates must I have them scanned at, at minimum in order to avoid pixelation etc. within my project?

Thanks in advance for your help here.

Thomas Beach

In reply to Darla Bruno's post on Fri 21 Dec 2007 :


After reading all of these posts regarding sound, I felt a need to chime in.

Although I am a novice with a camera (that's why I'm hiring someone to shoot for me!), I am a professional production sound recordist with many years of experience. With all due respect to Mr. Wong, it is uninformed opinions like these (a trained monkey could do it) which end up killing more films due to horrible production sound. And in the case of doc work, it is, most likely, unfixable in post. Interestingly enough, I never see such flippant remarks tossed about regarding shooting with a camera. After all, isn't camera op'ing nothing more than pushing buttons and turning dials? Of course not! It requires knowledge and a specific skillset. Believe it or not, so does good production sound. If you own Rabiger's book "Directing The Documentary", take a peek at his comments regarding Sound.

That said, please know that you need to treat both camera AND SOUND with the same level of importance. Fail to do this and you're setting yourself up for failure, technically speaking.

Think of taking a half-day crash course in camera op'ing. Sounds rediculous doesn't it? Same goes for good production sound gathering.

If you can at all afford to do so, hire an experienced sound recordist. He/She will not only have the skills needed, but will also have the professional gear to accomplish the task at hand, knocking out problems such as wireless work, location issues, laving and booming and proper mixing and channel assignment for the greatest options in post. And in anything but the most controlled environment, an experienced sound person will be worth their weight in gold.

Wolfgang Achtner

Just for the record, I agree with the gist of Thomas' post: good sound IS just as important as good video.

That said – maybe on account of many years working in news where a sound person has become a luxury – I am convinced that in a variety of situations, especially such as controlled interviews as Darla seems to be intent on obtaining and some additional B-roll, one can manage without a sound person.

That's why I've insisted Darla should concentrate on her own tasks rather than "mess around" with the sound. It's much better to try to do one thing well – furthermore, paying attention to the interview will be complicated enough on its own for a beginner – than two things poorly.

Also, I find the idea (mentioned above) of hiring a sound person for half a day in order to learn the task a joke. One might as well go so far as to suggest: "Hire a camera person for a day to learn how to do that job as well."

Wolfgang Achtner


Re scanning, here are a couple of links you may find useful.

Re the moves part of your question.

Depending on the size of the original photos, if you have the opportunity, I don't see why you wouldn't want to shoot the photos yourself, at least wide & tight (focusing on different areas of the photo each time, if warranted) because there could be certain cases in which you might choose to use a simple cut instead of a move.

That said – and please note that my experience is limited to the use of only a few photos – I noticed that the most recent version of FCP allowed us to do any kind of move we were interested in and also gave us the possibility of controlling the speed of the move.

Erica Ginsberg

Wolfgang and Thomas, just to clarify: I wasn't suggesting to Darla that hiring a soundman for half a day for training would transform her into a master sound mixer. What I was suggesting was that having someone show her the ropes of the equipment would help her feel more comfortable using it. The ideal situation, of course, would be to hire a professional and let the director focus her complete attention on directing. But, as Darla has indicated, that's not feasible right now, so we were all making suggestions as to how she can make it work the best under non-ideal circumstances. I totally agree that it's best not to skimp on sound. In fact, I think a good story with poorly shot video can survive better than a good story with poorly recorded sound.

Christopher Wong

ditto what erica said. i certainly didn't mean to imply that sound doesn't matter. but in very low-budget (or "no-budget") situations, someone has to do sound, and it honestly doesn't take a genius to learn the basics of holding a boom pole. to actually get superior sound, and to always stay out of the way of the cam op, and to avoid unsightly boom shadows on the subject – yes, these take months/years of experience to achieve. but you can learn the basics of being a boom op much faster than you can the basics of being a cam op (i.e. using manual focus, manual exposure, proper white balancing). this is not an "uninformed opinion" – this is just reality. and when someone, like darla, tells us that she doesn't have the time/resources to go hire a professional soundperson for her shoot, it's really not helpful for us to say "hire an experienced soundperson". if she could, she would. since she can't, let's just enable her to do the best she can.

Wolfgang Achtner


I understand that everyone is trying to be helpful. That's what makes this place so special. Some people here have posted even on Christmas.

It may very well be that with more than 20 years experience as a news professional, some posts struck me as – involuntarily "la de da-ish" – or at least I fear that an unexperienced well-intentioned enthusiast might (mis)interpret them in such manner.

As a professional newsperson, the quality of my work was essential for me to make a living doing my "job." As a documentary filmmaker, I've learned that – for the moment at least – I'd be very lucky to make back the money I've invested in several "difficult" (by difficult I mean films that have been extremely diificult or impossible to distribute in Italy on account of the fact that they dealt with controversial events such as an anti-Berlusconi grassroots opposition movement).

In previous posts, I've also stressed the difficulty of working as a videojounalist referring to the need to perform many tasks (that used to be covered by a team of people) in often unpredictable and ongoing situations out in the field.

For this reason, I'm convinced that – as a general rule – it's extremely important for beginners to obtain proper training before going out in the field and to have "practised" everything in controlled situations at home. Likewise, I'm convinced one should (ideally) gains experience producing a series of 3-5 minute pieces before attempting to work on a long(er) format story.

In the case of sound, I've also been able to notice – as a result of practical exercises in professional training workshops that I've organized – that (with vary rare exceptions) most people need to be taught to "listen" while they record sound. Usually, although our ears capture all sorts of noises (unwanted sounds, like traffic noise)) along with a given sound, for example, a conversation we're trying to listen to out on the street, our brain acts as a filter, getting rid of mst or all of the unwanted noise and allowing us to follow the conversation. A microphone is a mechanical device that records sound in a given way (pattern) and the sound is recorded on tape, disc etc and then played back exactly as it was recorded (with only minuimum possibilities of filtering). I have had reasn to notice that even though they were wearing headphones, beginners failed to hear the background noise while they were recording on the street because they weren't listening to them; only after listening to the tapes in the classroom and being surprised by the amount of unwanted noise they'd recorded would they learn to listen while wearing headphones unstead of letting their brains do the usual filtering.

Likewise, I've learned that everyone needs to be taught to wear headphones at all times while recording because this allows one to verify that indeed we are recording usable sound while recording that crucial interview. I've seen several instances of people who weren't wearing headphones caught up in the thick of things and not notice that a mic cord had become unstuck or that a lav battery had died.

Since most of us, from what I've been reading here seem to be investing our own money in our projects, it seemed appropriate to inject a bit of caution in order to protect the investment in time and money of rookie enthusiasts like Darla and in order to allow them to avoid mistakes that could have been avoided or fixed in the field (thanks to proper planning or training) and that could have devastating results with regards to one's project: unusable recordings, for example.

I also believe that it's useful to teach beginners – along with the skills – a healthy dose of awe and respect for the work of the true professionals who, in extremely difficult conditions – often with so much more than just money at stake – go out and do a wonderful job in order to tell stories that might make a difference and help make the world a better place.

Wolfgang Achtner


re your scanning query, I suggest that you check with PF Bentley. PF is an extraordinary editor, actually a still photographer turned videojournalist.

PF belongs to the inner core group of Dirck Halstead's platypi – a growing group of still-photographers who are trained to become top-notch videojournalists: the group's website is

PF's contact e-mail is: "PF BENTLEY" <>

I remember that on his old website (Hulaboy productions) he used to have a couple of examples of wonderfully edited stories based on stills edited to music.

His website is

Ask him if you can see his videoclips about Bill and Hillary Clinton and Clinton's last week in office 2001. They were masterpieces.

Marianne Shaneen

Thanks very much for the advice, Doug. Yes, that's what I keep hearing: 'there's no such thing as a standard contract'. Happy Holidays!

Thomas Beach

Thank you, Wolfgang, for all of your input and links. I will indeed, check them out. I was under the impression that FCP could replicate camera moves etc. and will soon see for myself, as I intend to purchase Studio 2 in the next few weeks. I was just trying to avoid having to purchase yet another stills software program. As for shooting the stills myself, my access to these pictures is very limited and they are closely guarded by the archiveists. Additionally, they have offered to do the scans which would save me great amounts of time. And as there are thousands of pictures for me to go through and select, and given the 7 hour trip to the archives, anything I can do to speed things up for me while I am there is helpful. And if FCP can do the "moves", I will not be forced to make decisions at the time of photo acquisition. Thanks again for your help.

As for Darla's dilema, I too agree with Wolfgang that one must concentrate on one's specific job. All the more reason NOT to be diddling around with sound. And although it is true that many one-man-band operations work just fine, there is no reasonable person who would disagree that having the right professionals in each department will make a noticable difference in your end product.

Chris, I presume that if Darla did not have the budget to hire a professional cameraman, you would not be suggesting that she do it herself, or would you? I'm sure everyone here would be warning her not to move forward. No offense, but the mere fact that similar advice is not being offered regarding quality sound smacks of ignorance. Just because Darla can't afford to hire a sound person is no reason to advise her to blindly stumble forward. In fact it borders on irresponsibility. As for your assertion that it is a statement of fact that it's easier to learn how to use sound gear than it is a digital camcorder, I beg to differ. Give me an hour on any camera and I too could shoot material. In my mind, this is a fair comparison.

Please note that in my post I only made referrence to "good" production sound. If you feel your project's marketability can survive crappy sound, then by all means, go forward. There are examples of such films. One which comes to mind is, "Rockets Redglare!" (2003), which was an excellent doc with absolutely horrible, but barely passible production sound.

It is impossible for me to begin to explain here, the numerous pitfalls you may encounter with regard to sound issues and why a pro is desireable. So I won't.

It is my opinion that given the expenses involved in Darla's upcoming trip, that it is not adviseable to risk your budget and time on the chance that you will get good sound. Wait until you can hire a sound professional just as you waited until you could afford to hire an experienced cameraman. Anything less than this is a recipe for disappointment.

Joe Moulins

Thomas, if I were to follow your logic I'd never have made my first film. Or my second or third, for that matter.

If Darla couldn't afford a professional cameraman, I'd certainly advise her to pick up a camera and start practicing.

None of this is rocket science.

Darla Bruno

Guess I'll chime in here.

The problem is this--and you can always return to my original post to see . . .

I came here with a dilemma that's very specific. I hired a dp who is mostly working with very little pay. I'm paying him a stipend and travel expenses. I like his work. As a favor, he was going to bring along a friend of his who is a professional sound person. That person is no longer available. I'm shooting in a REMOTE area of Italy and to hire someone right now would put me WAY over budget, and I couldn't shoot my trailer. The reason I'm going in January (and this is a set of complex decisions) is for a festival that only happens once every year and may not next year.

Without a sound person and with the following gear, what would you recommend, given that I'm tapped out on money (everything else is planned and fine):

Sennheiser Wireless Trio 100 G2 series (full audio kit with a lavalier and directional microphone).

I know fairly little about equipment, but I do know enough to know how important sound is. I never once doubted that. That's why I've come here with my dilemma.

At this point it is NOT realistic for me to hire a professional sound person. By holding a boom myself, I in no way have any less respect for the sound profession; it's just that given my circumstances, I have to look at all my options.

And while I will mostly be shooting b-roll and interviews, I may have a scenario with two people talking, with a woman moving around in a kitchen, with a bunch of people eating around a table, with someone slaughtering a pig. These will require boom sounds from what I understand.

If what you're saying, Thomas, is that I shouldn't shoot . . . Okay. That's one opinion. But others here are trying to be creative and resourceful given what I have to work with.

With all due respect -

Doug Block

thomas, call me irresponsible, but i'm with chris and joe (and darla) on this one. i'm not recommending darla monitor the audio – she has a camera person doing that. but pointing a shotgun mike at two people talking in a verite situation is something a beginner really can do (and, yes, actually think at the same time).

i gotta say, wolfgang and thomas, every time someone says you HAVE TO do something one way or the other, it gets my hackles up. there's usually a preferred way of doing it, for sure, but there's rarely a have to, especially in low or no-budget situations. okay, i guess if you're using a mini-dv camera you have to load a mini-dv tape or you're kinda up shit creek. but i think you know what i mean.

Christopher Wong

darla, you're going to be fine... don't be put off by those folks (well-meaning as they are) who tell you that you need perfect conditions or years of experience to start a project. mainly, you need a little humility, diligence to prepare and the willingness to learn – clearly, you've got that.

now stop wasting time in here (like the rest of us idiots), and keep chugging along...

Darla Bruno

Okay, sorry to take up more space here, but I'm still back to my original dilemma. What would be best to bring in addition to what my DP has for sound:
(Sennheiser Wireless Trio 100 G2 series (full audio kit with a lavalier and directional microphone).)

And what would be the cheapest way of going about that?

Thanks, all!

Wolfgang Achtner


Just for the record, I hope it's clear I wasn't knocking you, nor saying "not" to do your shoot.

I think I've made clear where I'm coming from in my earlier posts. In fact, I'm convinced that – if need be – you can certainly give a hand while shooting B-Roll type situations.

Doug, of course, flexibility is the name of the game.

If you check my posts, you'll see that I've written that (in my opinion) it would be best for Darla to concentrate on her specific tasks – i.e. asking questions and listening to the answers – DURING INTERVIEWS!