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.

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!

Wolfgang Achtner


will be out of pocket from Jan 10 thru 16, in US to complete shooting of a doc on young Italian composer/songwrite/singer who lives in NYC and has just published 2nd album.

Don't know when you'll be over here, but if you get into a bind or need to ask for advice or help while you're here, just gimme a buzz on my cell phone and I'll do what I can to assist you.

Good luck on yr shoot.

Riley Morton

hope you are still checking here.
if so, yes, from version 1, Final Cut Pro has been able to do replicated 'camera moves' on any still image (or video image for that matter) – you can crop, scale up/down, move up/down and left right over time. it just takes 10 minutes learning about keyframing.
that said, its all digital, so it doesn't look like a imperfect human is shooting it organically, but rather that a computer is controlling the above factors digitally, which of course it is.
scan the files as big as you can, but at least 1000 pixels wide if you want to zoom on a 720p timeline, and it will look great.
IF you are going for that organic, imperfect look for your stills, shoot them yourself with a camera, or look into motion control.

Darla Bruno

All right – now I'm going to just switch out of sound obsession for a while.

When I have interview subjects sign release forms, I should use the one I have that meets US standards, right? Not the one my DP has for Italy. I'll just have the US one translated?

Kurt Engfehr

Darla- release forms are relevant to where you are based. if you plan on finishing your film in NJ, then a US form is fine, you don't need any Italian changes because the legal stuff will all be in the US. HOWEVER, jumping back to your sound issues(!), when traveling to foreign countries, you cannot take a wireless mic from the US. hopefully, your DP has sound gear that is adjusted to Italian broadcast specs.

as far as gear and especailly in regards to shotgun mics, i'd say, depending on how much you want to spend, get a Sennheiser ME-66 for $250 or a Sennheiser MK-416 for $1,200. the 66 is really good for the money, the 416 is really, really great, but costs.

as to how to use them, sometime i am the interviewer as well as the soundperson. for these situations, i use a hand unit which is basically a pistol grip with foam for the hand and a shock mount on the top for the mic. i can then, very easily deal with interviewing AND doing good sound. obviously, this doesn't work if one is running around a lot, but even then, if you stay close by the subject, it works fine.

i would try to avoid, at least in the beginning stages of your doc making, doing both boom and interviewing. that's hard. i've done it and it's tough. but if you have to, don't do mixing while you're at it, just do the boom and the questioning.

most DP's are adept at riding levels so unless you have more than 2 people or a big crowd scene to film, you, as the sound person, shouldn't need to deal with mixing the sound before it gets to the camera.

Darla Bruno

Thanks, Kurt! I'm actually even going to be going without a boom now! I'm all minimalist. My DP has a Sennheiser Wireless Trio 100 G2 Series (full audio kit with a lavalier and a directional microphone). If anything, I may just get a stand for it, but, well, that's that.

Now I'm onto my NTSC/PAL issue. If you know anything about that, feel free to e-mail me! I'm looking into it now. He's got a PD-170p, so it only shoots in PAL.

Kurt Engfehr

what's the question about the NTSC/PAL issue? you can edit PAL here in the US, but it's costly and complicated. since your DP is using a 170, i'd seriously think about converting the tapes to NTSC and editing with those.

Darla Bruno

All right, sorry to make this the "Darla show" – but here it is:

We'll probably get about 1/3-1/4 of the film shot on PAL--my footage, b-roll, interviews, and trailer. My DP's in Milan, and I'm in the States, so after shooting, we'll return to our respective countries. I'd like to do the editing with his help. So, he mentioned giving me DVDs with time codes.

I'm pretty sure I can edit on Final Cut Pro with PAL, right? If so, is it better just not to convert to NTSC? We can eventually move PAL to DVD (is that MP4)? So just two conversions (PAL – DVD) rather than three (PAL – NTSC – DVD).

Does that work? It's my understanding that converting to NTSC can be pricey (they charge per hour of footage, not per tape) and there can be glitches (with sound, so forth).

At any rate, some people have recommending skipping the whole issue and just renting/borrowing an NTSC camera, but at this point, I'm REALLY not into doing that. I hired my dp, and his equipment. I like his camera, and I'd like to just move forward with what we agreed on.

I'd love to hear any thoughts on the easiest way to do this. Ultimately, we'll put the trailer on . . . probably Quicktime and DVD (not really sure how all this works) and edit the footage to hold on to for when I have money to go back and shoot the rest of the film. And at that point, I can work in NTSC if this becomes nightmarish.

Eli Brown

Hey Kurt, this is a little off topic, but why can't you take a wireless mic from the U.S. to Europe?

Kurt Engfehr

it's because different frequencies are used by different countries for different purposes, not that it won't work, but that it's illegal and sometimes just not practical. an example: say you want to use a US wireless in the UK, well, that would be a bad thing because in the UK, they use the same frequencies that we use for wireless microphones for their military and defense communications. you will be found out and they will not like it. i know a big-time pro-field audio guy that's got some of those wacky wirelesses that can get every frequency and he's got a book that lists every country and what frequencies are used for what activity. i'm not on his level. i usually just rent a wireless from a local place. saves me time and headache. also, when it breaks i have someone who can get me a new one.

Marianne Shaneen

Happy New Year everyone!
My question is about exclusivity agreements. I've looked around and cannot find a sample contract/agreement- it's important for one of the interviewees in my documentary to sign an exclusivity agreement, specifically that he won't appear in anyone else's documentary until mine is finished. Does anyone have any sample contract along these lines or any suggestions as to how to word such an agreement?
Many thanks in advance :)

Wolfgang Achtner


re the PAL/NTSC issue, don't worry about it now. You've already committed to your DP's gear, etc.

As I explained in my previous posts, there are many – all of them simple – ways to deal with this issue, LATER. Not least of all, the fact that a converter is extremely cheap nowadays.

That said, making a DVD has nothing to do with whether ot not your video was shot in NTSC or PAL. Just to give you an idea, the DVD player on any computer can play DVDs in PAL and/or NTSC.

What you decide to do will depend on other factors bu there is really no need to worry about it now.

Darla Bruno


I have one I can e-mail you –


Marianne Shaneen

Oh thanks, Darla, that would be awesome.
I'm at ms612ms at hotmail
thank you!