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.

Rhonda Moskowitz

Maybe York University in Toronto has ideas? They have a good film program.

Edwin Gailits

Thanks Rhonda – I'm somewhat familiar with the film schools in Canada, including York, Ryerson, Sheridan, Humber and post grad at the CDN Film Centre, as well as Concordia in Montreal, and Simon Fraser in Vancouver. But I'm not aware of any summer programs for high school aged students at these schools.

I'm looking for any first or second hand info/opinions on the NYC schools I mentioned.


Azad Jafarian

I come from fiction film and I have never written or even seen a treatment for a documentary. Now I'm about to embark on my first documentary project and I have no idea what to do when I can't just make up characters and stories!

Can anyone share their treatments with me so that I get an idea what they're supposed to be like? Or any descriptions/links of how a documentary screenplay might look like would be great as well.

Thank you in advance...

Doug Block

We just make it up as we go along, Azad. And I'm (mostly) not kidding.

Most filmmakers approach docs with (usually, but not necessarily) a strong idea of a story or situation or issue that they want to explore, and varying levels of research, which might include hanging out with the subjects for a period of time. But if there's something called a documentary screenplay I've never heard of it.

Which is the whole point. You can't possibly script documentaries, and you wouldn't want to. You put this inquiring energy out there and the universe conspires to give you great footage (or not).

Erica Ginsberg

Azad, there are documentary screenplays for the kind of documentaries you might see on Discovery Channel or National Geographic – a science or history program, for example, where they basically know what they want to say and show and create the visuals around the script. But I think what Doug is referring to are more what we would call "creative documentaries." Certainly documentaries which rely heavily on observational or verite footage cannot be scripted in advance. But some filmmakers do find it helpful to put a film in script form once they have the footage as a means of organizing the information as they edit. Others work without a script and use other systems to organize the film.

While there is no rule in documentary of how to create this script that would correspond to Hollywood's rules of how to create a fiction screenplay, there are some rules of thumbs you might want to go by. I find it more helpful to use the 2 column approach with video on the left and audio on the right (possibly with a third column to denote tape info and timecode in/outs if you are actually editing to the script), though I have seen documentary scripts which look like fiction scripts too.

But to answer your original question which I think is really "How can I write down an idea of what my film will be when I don't know who my characters are yet or what will transpire?" that is really more what a treatment will achieve. Again, there is no right way of doing a treatment (though different funders may have specific elements they want in the treatment) and it will definitely change as you discover your characters and story. For now, it may suffice to write down what it is you want to say with your film, set the stage of where it is taking place, the kinds of characters and/or events you will be seeking out, and why you are the one to tell this story.

Darla Bruno

11th hour here . . . sorry to return to this subject, but I'm getting a bad feeling again about the NTSC/PAL issue. Maybe I should just put the money out now-up front-to rent an NTSC. We're supposed to shoot on a PD170p. I could get one in NTSC. But I'll have to rent it in Italy, prob. b/c I'll be gone a month (only shooting 2 weeks). I can probably rent one – have my dp rent one – from Milan or Rome even. . . right?

A little bit freaking out about it.

Eli Brown

People have been shooting PAL and cutting in NTSCland for the years before 24p became en vogue, largely because of PAL's 25fps which looks far more cinematic. PAL has some other things going for it technically, too. But take a read through this article:
and hopefully it might assuage some fears. Without knowing how you're intending on posting the footage (or viewing it), it's hard to know if this is going to be an enormous hassle for you or not. Also, if you're mixing and matching that could be time consuming (and may not look that great). Probably best that if you start in PAL, that you stay in PAL, that way you're only converting upon your final edit and not for all of the raw footage.


Darla Bruno

Thanks, Eli. Essentially I want a trailer online and DVD. My DP is in Milan, and I'll be finding an editor here. I don't have software, so I hope it won't be a problem to find someone to edit PAL. Just want to compare the cost overall. i.e. rent a NTSC camera now or just go with what we have and essentially it'll be the same in the end (cost wise).

Thanks for all the resources here -

Wolfgang Achtner


As I wrote you previously, this is no longer a big deal. If you read my previous post and you will notice that Eli is telling you as much.

If in doubt – especially if all your shooting will be in Italy – shoot in PAL.

Try to find NTSC gear but I doubt that it will be easy for you to find NTSC gear to rent cheaply (especially something like a PD170) for the simple reason that nobody would have any reason to use it; your best chance would be with an ex-network crew in Rome but, more likely than not, they'd only have expensive top-of-the-line Beat equipment.

There is one very simple solution: rent an HD camera. Many models have a PAL/NTSC switch. You could certainly find an appropriate HD videocamera to rent here in Italy. I had already pointed this out to you in my previous post but you'd insisted that you wanted to use your DP's camera.

As regards editing, with Final Cut Pro, for example, all this would entail is clicking a PAL setting vs clicking an NTSC setting. All you'd need to do is convert the final product at the end.