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.

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.