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.

Azad Jafarian

Thank you Doug and Erica,

Sorry for the delay in checking back here. I appreciate your thoughts on this. You're right Erica, that is exactly what I wanted to know. I really don't know what funders expect. I guess this is something that comes with experience dealing with the pre-production aspects of the documentary film process.

Darla Bruno

Yes, Wolfgang, I got last-minute jitters. But I love my DP. He's perfect for this film, and so I don't want to throw him a new, unfamiliar camera. It's not been an easy decision for someone who doesn't know the tech stuff, but I'm learning with the help of all of you.

I'm anticipating what will happen when I get back. I can try to use a PAL camera as a deck. Clearly editing in FCP isn't an issue. I'm just trying to anticipate what's workable and the cost.

The Edit Center in New York (should I work there with someone or be referred to an editor through them) said I should have my tapes digitized and on a hard drive? I guess that's my understanding, so I'm trying to see, now, what my DP can leave me with that will make it easier for me to come back here and edit with someone in the States . . .

Christopher Wong

depending on how much footage you shoot in italy, you shouldn't need more than a 1-2 day rental of a deck. a dsr-11 should do the trick for you, and usually only costs around $50-75 a day to rent – if you rent over a weekend, you usually only have to pay for one day's worth. i imagine that renting a PAL camera would be significantly more expensive.

there are good editors everywhere, but probably only a few who are the best fit for your project. so don't just work with whomever the Edit Center has. put ads on craigslist,, NYU film school, etc. and look at people's reels and experience to get a better feel for their work. definitely do an interview to judge if your personality will mesh with theirs. you don't want an overbearing personality who doesn't listen to your input...

Wolfgang Achtner


Allow me to suggest you might want to pass by Barnes & Nobles and buy a text book or two, in order to familiarize yourself with all you'll need to do when you get back.

You should consider one or both of these: Barry Hampe, Making Documentary Films & Videos (my favorite) or Rabiger, Directing the Documentary. I'd also suggest one of these: Rice & McKernaan, Editing Digital Video or Button, Nonlinear Editing.

Second, if you do a quick Google Search you should be able to find a glossary of digital terms. Here I've done it for you.

I'm going to make a note that you should read now or before you start anything when you get back. This regards editing, but I'm writing it here because you have a tendency to do things first and then ask for advice: WRONG WAY!!!!

After shooting, to "capture" your video, i.e. to pass your video from tapes onto a hard disk drive, you can use any PAL miniDV camera or a SONY DSR deck (PAL/NTSC switchable).

Regardless of whether you'll be editing in PAL or NTSC, you'll need to purchase a hard disk drive (this is where you store all your video and it can be attached or removed to any computer laptop or table top, as well as to the computer that you'll be using to edit. This allows your editor to work on other projects and allows you to have "portability." Since external hard drives are so cheap, I'd suggest buying a 250 GB or 500 GB hard disk drive. Lacie is a good brand and these drives have always worked well for me. You could also look for a hard drive that has a ventilator. In any case, a top quality 500GB disk drive will cost you less than US$200,00. This is enough storage to store the edited version and all the media (the video and audio files that you have captured) of at least two documentaries.

One last suggestion: I always capture ALL the media in low resolution at first for the various edits (you will get slightly lower quality video and audio this way, but you'll save a lot of space on the hard disk) and re-capture the media (with Media Manager) at Standard or High Definition (whatever the maximum resolution level or your shooting material is, in your case, SD) only AFTER I've completed the final cut (and adjusted audio and video levels, added subtitles, graphics, etc.). This won't mean anything to you now, but your editor will understand.

Please note that the "logging phase" is associated witht the capture phase, in fact I (and many others) log and capture together, whereas others prefer to capture first and then log. "Logging" is the procedure whereby you list and describe every single shot on a tape. You want to make sure you use stars (for example) to mark your best video and you'll want to take care that you also note your best nat sound.
You will group similar shots in "bins." You can learn the basics of editing – i.e. the part YOU need to know, on a good text book and working with your editor.

Please note that this – LOGGING – is the most important phase – and the one that will determine the edit and the final outcome of your documentary. You must have the patience to log every shot correctly. This procedure allows you to see what (video, shots) you have available and to memorize your video (don't ask me how it happens because I don't know, but the logging process allows me to memorize, effortlessly, every single shot in 60 or more hours of video).

The logging process is something that you and your editor must do TOGETHER, so you both get to know all the video that is available. This allows you to map out your story and write an outline and will also allow you, during the edi,t to build sequences (because you know all the video that you have and where it is located).

It's easier than it sounds – and fun, at least for me – but make sure that you do some studying BEFORE you start any work when you return home otherwise you'll never be in control of what you're doing.

Also, Christopher has made a very good point. An editor is NOT to be considered like another piece of hardware. A good editor makes the difference, aside from the fact that he/she can save you non-withstanding mistakes you may have made. You should try to find someone who has edited one or more stories, similar to yours in a way that you like. Especially in your case where you know zip, a more-experienced editor will save your behind, teach you as you go along and make magic (if the material you've shot allows her/him to do so). I'm certain that you'll be able to get many suggestions regarding experienced editors from the members of D-word and/or asking for help from members of the IDA (International Documentary Association).

If anything, this is where you need to spend some extra money. A good editor is worth every cent and in your case they will also be acting as your producer, teacher, babysitter and fairy godmother. A top notch editor can make a great doc (if your material permits it) or at least save your butt and carve out something passable if you have the minimum required elements. Don't try to save the odd few bucks here because you'd be screwing yourself!

Wolfgang Achtner

For the log and capture process, Erica Ginsburg has a DSR11 deck; maybe you can rent hers!

Erica Ginsberg

Wow, Wolfgang posted just before me. I do have a DSR-11, but it's in use right now at my editor's as I plod along on my edit, so not available for rental unfortunately. Plus, it would be much easier for you to find one to rent in New York which is closer to you.

I was going to add that the DSR-11 deck which Chris recommends renting (and which is preferable to using the valuable heads of your camera for logging/capturing) can be used for PAL DV footage, but you will need to make sure your editor has a PAL monitor. As others have said much better than I ever could, you are probably better off picking either PAL or NTSC for shooting (or, if you have to do some of each, get the tapes converted to your preferred editing format before logging so they are all consistent). I produced a project which had both NTSC and PAL footage. We ended up editing and outputting in NTSC, but got the tapes converted BEFORE we started editing.

Darla Bruno


So you converted how? With your own software or professionally? How did the conversion turn out?


Erica Ginsberg

Well we were in a very similar situation to you moneywise, so we could not afford to get them converted at a dub house, which would obviously be the preferred method. This was also in the days when we were just starting to transition from Beta-SP to DV, so the PAL tapes were all Beta PALs and had to be converted to DV NTSC. Our soundguy (who was also a co-producer) knew lots of kooky characters in the industry from his freelance sound work, so he called up a friend who had accumulated dozens and dozens of different decks in his basement and he did the conversion for us at a fairly reasonable rate and a fairly slow turnaround. But the quality was good enough for what we needed.

Wolfgang Achtner


Contrary to Erica's suggestion (Erica, please forgive me!) I advise you NOT to convert your material BEFORE the edit.

You might have, for example, to convert 20 sixty minute shooting tapes whereas, AFTER the edit, only 52 minutes TOTAL ( if your doc is a one-hour-long format) or even less than that if part of it was shot in NTSC.

Also, if you're only shooting in Italy, it'll all be PAL. If you'll be doing some shooting in US, shoot in PAL (if you can) or shoot NTSC. It won't make any difference as you do a rough cut; convert at the end and splice it all together.

If you check B&H you'll notice that – in a worst case scenario – converters are cheap today.

If you do a search on the B&H website using the words "PAL NTSC standards converter" you'll find several models listed including the AV Toolbox CDM-660 Standards Converter that costs only $179.95. There are several other models that cost between $359 and $539.

I don't see why the cheaper one couldn't do the job. In any case, I imagine – as a worst case scenario – that it would be cheaper to buy than convert all the tapes.

I'd advise you – for the moment – not to keep worrying about what comes next. Concentrate on your upcoming shoot in Italy and enjoy yourself.

If you MUST worry about something, worry about finding an excellent editor! :-)