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.

Le Sheng Liu
Pro

Hey I have a lot of respect for Cannes EXCEPT for the fact that they practically disregard the entire genre of documentaries. I take it Michael Moore has some direct connections.

Le Sheng Liu
Pro

Hahahaha yeah, plus it's the French. Oh well c'est la vie!!!

Chris Hinrichs
Fan

Dear D-Worders,
I've really been enjoying digging through this site since I joined a few weeks ago. Thanks to these forums and your profiles, I've gotten to know lots of documentarians and films though your posts and links to your respective websites. I've also been scouring the public areas of the site to gain more insight into the world of documentary filmmaking. Unlike most of you, I am a fan of the genre rather than an aspiring filmmaker. I admire the fact that so many of you are willing to share your experience and knowledge with others in such a supportive, non-condescending way. I'd like to ask a "What would you do if you were me?"-type question that pertains to documentaries. Since it requires some explanation and may be long, I'll leave most of it hidden. Thanks!

Like I said, I am a huge fan of documentaries. There are very few I've seen that I haven't liked. If you check out my profile, you'll find a link to a list of the films I've seen via Netflix. I think my affinity comes largely from being the type of person who's a natural observer. I love the access to information that docs provide. I also like how they allow cinematic access to those who would otherwise be shut out.

In conjunction with my growing love of documentaries (especially cinema verite and direct cinema), I have grown increasingly soured by what "mainstream" cinema has to offer these days. Rather than just bitch about it, I asked myself, "OK, smart guy, if you can do better, prove it." So, I decided to watch as many documentaries as I could get my hands on and do what I do best – observe. From there, I set out to develop a documentary concept of my own, one that I thought might appeal to the masses as well as documentary "geeks" like me. I feel that what I've come up with is worthy of consideration.

Here's the problem: I can't make this film. I know, I know. I'm sure a lot of you thought the same thing before you made your first film. In my case, however, the idea itself precludes any realistic chance of me doing this myself. The whole thing is predicated on the fact that it comes from the mind of someone who's not, nor never wants to be a filmmaker. I just happen to have this one exceptional idea that would necessitate the involvement of a talented documentary filmmaker. It is a radical idea, one that requires an extremely open mind. The only way someone would understand this is by reading my proposal. Until then, you'll just have to take my word for it.

In order to market my idea to interested parties, I have decided to post my entire presentation on a website, unrestricted, in the public realm. I've done this after being frustrated by the "unsolicited material" barrier I've run into many times. I realize this means that some unscrupulous person could steal the idea, but at this point I have no other recourse if I want it to be read. Seeing as this is a place frequented by exactly the kind of people I want to share my work with, I am making it available to you all. It's at: www.andsomeguy.com/start

My presentation is very detailed and thorough, but can be digested in bite-sized chunks for those who don't have tons of free time. So, again, I ask what you all would do if you were me? What are my options? If your answer is "Give up", I'm afraid that's something I'm not yet prepared to do. I have to believe there is someone out there willing to take a chance on an idea like mine, or at least some mechanism by which I can increase my chances of having talented people read it. I just need to find the right person. I'll post this message at the Doculink site as well. Thanks for your time.

Matt Dubuque
Pro

Hi Doug, I just saw 51 Birch Street and congratulations!

What a courageous film. For me, courage is such an admirable and rare quality in film nowadays and I'm delighted I saw it.

I had one of those rare life experiences laughing and crying at the exact same time when you clasped hands with your dad at the end.

That's quite a combo, to laugh and cry at the exact same instant; thanks so much for that!!

I have kind of a dumb technical question. When you were behind the camera participating in interviews, did you have a lavalier mike for yourself and a shotgun mike for the talent?

Matt Dubuque
Pro

Robert Goodman, I just saw Stone Reader and loved it! I know you didn't direct this (you were the producer) but one of my favorite parts of the movie was the recurrence of various footage of butterflies throughout the film. Was this done to mark out different "chapters" of the movie?

This continual insertion of butterflies into the film reminded me of the recurring scene in Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie where the protagonists are repeatedly seen talking and walking in the French countryside....

Again Stone Reader is great film, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. Some great political points too (about ITT and the purchase of the publishing house) very subtly and ably presented.

Thanks so much for helping to bring that to the public. Because I'm a huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I think I'm really going to enjoy the book The Stones of Summer, the subject of the movie.

Mossman's quite the scholar.... evidently 1605 was THE year for Shakespeare!!!

Cheers,

Dale Archibald
Fan

I plan to attend a local sports-related consumer show next month, with
an eye toward getting interviews and other shots. I'll use footage shot
in a public-access TV show, and for other things. Any tips or hints?
The eqpt will be loaned to me by the public access station. I will have
interviewees sign releases.

What sort of open-ended questions should I ask? What sort of shots? I'm
brand-new at this, so any help is appreciated.

Wolfgang Achtner
Pro

Dale,

In order to help you, you need to provide us with more information.

What do you mean by "sports-related" consumer show? Is this a fair, a sort of market with equipment on sale/ What sport(s)? Who do you want to ask questions? People selling equipment, members of the public, buyers?

What is your motivation for filming this event? Why is it important? Is there anything special about the event or the equipment being sold/exhibited here? Is this the first time or is this a yearly event? Is there any special significance for the locals? Will any (sports) celebrity be attending?If so, you need to obatin info about this person(s).

Will someone be demonstrating a sport using some kind of equipment? How big is the arena/sports ground, etc? Why are the organizers putting on this event?

These are things I would try to find out if I had to film this event and in order to figure out what to film and what questions to ask.

Wolfgang Achtner
Pro

Dale,

The following guidelines are the A, B, Cs of news coverage and they apply to documentary storytelling as well.

Whenever you decide to shoot something, you must ask yourself; "What am I shooting?" and "why am I shooting it?

Then your story must always answer the 5 Ws and 1 H: "Who, what, why, when, where and how."

Everything you need to do (what to shoot, who to ask questions, what to ask) depends on the answers to these questions.

Robert Goodman
Pro

Matt – I will pass along your comments to Mark. There are so many layers in the film it is hard to know where to begin. I can only say that I am very proud to have helped bring Stone Reader to audiences.

Dale Archibald
Fan

Hello, Wolfgang

First, let me say this won't be a documentary per se, although I hope to earmark some footage for a project I've dreamed of for years.

This is an annual golf show in Minneapolis. It is a fair, where golf courses, club vendors, and a few related others get together on a snowy Feb. day to help people get the snow off their feet and dream of spring.

I'm mainly interested in doing interviews of folks from the golf courses that will appear, doing the 5W and an H in shorter clips. First end product would be a show for local public access TV, with saved footage for the other project I mentioned. After all, they'll be gathered in one location so it'll save time driving all over searching them out.

There will be demos here, and it's in the Metrodome, the huge playing field for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings.

Thanks for the questions. I've written and photographed for magazines for years, but this will be my first foray into the visual documentary-related forum.

Wolfgang Achtner
Pro

Dale,

regardless of the duration of your story, the mechanics are always the same.

Ideally, each story should have a beginning, middle and an end and answer the 5Ws and 1 H. Given that you intend to do several shorter pieces, you could do one more generic piece and several others, each of which could deal with a particular aspect of the fair that you and/or your audience might be interested in.

It seems like you should be able to put several interesting pieces together.

If you know anything about golf – and I presume that you do – if you answer the questions I outlined (What is this story about and what do I want to show you) it should be rather simple to come up with some interesting questions to ask. You can ask the equipment vendors about gear, the players about form and playing tips, the visitors about ther expectations for the new season, etc., etc.

From what I imagine you'll find there you should be able to put togteher some visually interesting and exciting stories. Try to put some nat sound pieces together.

I can already visualize dozens of stories. Try to imagine YOUR stories visually and that should help you figure out what to shoot.

Doug Block
Host

Chris, quickly read through your proposal. Leaving aside the odds against pulling it off, are you aware of a feature doc that came out a few years ago called My Date With Drew? If not, check into it. It was a small but charming film, came and went and barely made a blip commercially.

In all honesty, hard to imagine any established docmaker being tempted by your proposal. In the end, though, who are any of us to tell someone not to dream?

Doug Block
Host

Thanks for your kind words, Matt. As for the mic, I used a Senheisser ME 63 mounted on the camera. It has the ability to screw on a number of mics with different patterns. I used one with a figure 8 pattern, that captures sound equally in front and behind the camera. So one mic was able to record both of us talking. Came in very handy. Only problem is if I film verite for long stretches without talking myself (and I never know when I might), it picks up a lot of extraneous room noise from behind.

Boyd McCollum
Pro

In reply to Chris Hinrichs's post on Mon 28 Jan 2008 4:16 UTC :

Chris, I'd make a couple of quick suggestions. First would be to reframe your proposal in tone and presentation.

By tone, I'd suggest not looking at all the reasons why it shouldn't work. I noticed on your site that you're an architect. Think about the proposal in the same way you propose something to a client. You don't tell them all the things that will go wrong (being overcharged by contractors, termites, fire, water damage, floods, famine, family arguments, etc...).

By presentation, while it's okay to have a paragraph teaser, I want to know what the story is. If it's not part of the story, don't tell me. Currently the way you build it up I'm expecting the greatest idea I've ever heard and no idea can live up to that. Obstacles that need to be surmounted are not part of the story, unless...

...that is the story. Which would probably make a very interesting documentary – "Guy faces insurmountable odds to make incredible idea a reality. Does he or doesn't he?"

I would also recommend trying to hook up with someone in your area, a friend with a camera or an aspiring filmmaker, and work together on moving the project forward. As Doug mentions, it's unlikely that established docmakers would be tempted, or being tempted, it may not be in the way that you're envisioning.

You also may want to start smaller. Instead of an A-list star, why not a local celebrity in your area. They're much more approachable and the idea would be the same. It might make the idea more attractive to more established filmmakers and celebrities.

Good luck!

Chris Hinrichs
Fan

Doug, Thanks for taking a quick look. If you read the whole thing I specifically address My Date With Drew and how the two are very different films. Perhaps I need to do a better job of articulating just how different it is. Believe me, I know it's an incredibly tough sell. I know the chance of it ever getting made is next to zero. That's what intrigues me the most – the impossibility of it. I hope you find the time at some point to look at more of the material, but I completely understand that it's not for everyone.

By the way, I wanted to compliment you on 51 Birch Street. I saw it a while back and thought it was excellent. I recommend it often.

Chris Hinrichs
Fan

Boyd- Thanks a lot for your thoughts. It's the kind of feedback I'm looking for. I will consider the things you've said. Your comments about the tone are well-taken.

I suppose the best thing is for people who have thoughts to e-mail me directly so I don't hijack this forum. You can e-mail me @ someguy@andsomeguy.com

Christopher Wong
Pro

chris, in an effort to procrastinate from further fundraising activities, i read your entire proposal for your "dream doc".

i can safely say that you're CRAZY! having said that, i think it's a good kind of crazy, and the shared gene that most of us aspiring and established docmakers possess. plenty of people have been told their projects have absolutely no chance – and a fortunate few have actually persevered and finished their projects with great success.

however, i would really challenge you to re-evaluate WHY you are doing this project. at the same time, i would challenge you to think about why you are not doing a DIFFERENT documentary project. To me, this project seems too frivolous and insubstantial for someone like you, who admits to admiring the direct cinema and verite work of masters like Maysles, Kopple, James, etc... i'm no psychoanalyst, but you seem like you might have a more "worthy" doc in you to produce. by "worthy", i don't mean that it has to be intensely depressing or socially conscious – it can have humor and spontaneity and whatever else fits your personality – but it has to have something at its core that inspires you.

The "impossibility" of making something is not reason enough to try. You need to combine "impossible" with "irresistible" to really have a film worth making. if you write a proposal that convinces everyone why you "can't NOT make this film", then you actually might have a chance. right now, i read your proposal, and just see a guy who says "why not make this film"? there's a big difference.

i don't want to discourage you, just refocus you... btw, if i didn't think you had it in you to actually make a doc film, i wouldn't have wasted my time writing this reply. good luck!

Matt Dubuque
Pro

In reply to Doug Block's post on Mon 28 Jan 2008 :

Thanks Doug-

I'm intruiged by those Sennheisers. I like the modular concept very much, the interchangeability. It did an excellent job of picking up your voice from behind!

When you didn't speak for long periods and extraneous noise made it on to the sound track, did you squelch it in post?

What do you think of my proposed setup of a Sennheiser shotgun mike (i.e. unidirectional) with a lavalier corded mike on myself, since I will be tethered to the camcorder anyway?

I was thinking this might solve the problem of excess noise coming from the back end.

Your thoughts? Thanks for your help!

Chris Hinrichs
Fan

A response to Christopher Wong:

Chris, in an effort to procrastinate from further fundraising activities, i read your entire proposal for your "dream doc".

*Thanks, Christopher! I'm glad you decided to procrastinate with my nutty idea. I know there's a lot to swallow there, so you have my sincere gratitude. I'm going to respond point-by-point to your response (starred):

i can safely say that you're CRAZY! having said that, i think it's a good kind of crazy, and the shared gene that most of us aspiring and established docmakers possess. plenty of people have been told their projects have absolutely no chance – and a fortunate few have actually persevered and finished their projects with great success.

*That's been my approach to this whole thing all along. I've gone into it from the start knowing that it is absurd and that it would be ridiculous to have any realistic expectation of being taken seriously. I figured if there was some way to convince people I deserved to be taken seriously, I might have a shot. That's why I loaded the presentation with supporting material that would perhaps make me look a little less insane.

however, i would really challenge you to re-evaluate WHY you are doing this project. at the same time, i would challenge you to think about why you are not doing a DIFFERENT documentary project. To me, this project seems too frivolous and insubstantial for someone like you, who admits to admiring the direct cinema and verite work of masters like Maysles, Kopple, James, etc... i'm no psychoanalyst, but you seem like you might have a more "worthy" doc in you to produce. by "worthy", i don't mean that it has to be intensely depressing or socially conscious – it can have humor and spontaneity and whatever else fits your personality – but it has to have something at its core that inspires you.

*Thank you for the compliment. Trust me, I have wrestled with the "Why?" question for a long time. Simply put, I want to do this BECAUSE I think it would be a good movie. I tried to explain the reasons WHY I think it'd be good, but if that's still unclear, I have more work to do. Others have suggested that I do a different movie (many have suggested a movie like My Date With Drew where I film my struggle to make this movie. To me, that film has already been made and doesn't interest me). As I said, I don't want a career as a documentary filmmaker. In the same way I appreciate fine art, I have no desire to have a career in painting. I'm far more interested in the final result than the process of filmmaking – the technical stuff, the financing, etc. There are people out there who love that stuff and I would want them to collaborate.

*I have to disagree with the notion that this is "frivolous". When you think about it, most art has an element of frivolity. None of it is essential to our physical survival. Don't get me wrong. A world without art would be a bleak place I wouldn't want to live in, but it's not like air or water. Now, there's no doubt the content is not making an obvious social statement. However, I think issues of fame and celebrity are prevalent and entirely relevant to modern society. We have created such an artificial divide between "them" and "us" that I think it's definitely worth 90 minutes of film to see what happens when that division is temporarily removed. I AM inspired by this and if I failed to express that, allow me to right now.

*I think one could make a great doc along the same lines in which 3 multi-millionaires go and spend two days with someone on welfare. I hope someone makes that film one day. I'm not sure how many people would see it, but I would. With my idea, I think the inclusion of female celebrity heightens the chance that LOTS of people would see it. I also trust myself to be a good counterpart to them as well as a good steward of whatever success I garnered if the film were ever made.

The "impossibility" of making something is not reason enough to try. You need to combine "impossible" with "irresistible" to really have a film worth making. if you write a proposal that convinces everyone why you "can't NOT make this film", then you actually might have a chance. right now, i read your proposal, and just see a guy who says "why not make this film"? there's a big difference.

*Well, I suppose my "pitch" differs depending on who I'm talking to. If it's a "money" person like a potential investor or Exec. Producer, I'd say, "You can't NOT make this movie because it's bound to make you a lot of money and give you a great return on your investment." To the actresses, I'd say, "You can't NOT make this movie because it's a chance to challenge yourself and see what comes from putting yourself in a more vulnerable position than any other role you've had. Plus, you could make a lot of money and be a lot of fun without taking up much of your time." To a director, I'd say, "You can't NOT make this film because it's a chance to push the boundaries of filmmaking and really explore uncharted waters. It's an opportunity to show how brave you are, without committing a ton of your time. Plus, you could make a lot of money." I know I repeated the money thing and I don't want to sound hung up on it. I'm just trying to be realistic (ha!) and recognize that these are people who make movies as a career and want to be compensated.

i don't want to discourage you, just refocus you... btw, if i didn't think you had it in you to actually make a doc film, i wouldn't have wasted my time writing this reply. good luck!

*Thanks again, Christopher! Your points make a lot of sense and were very constructive. I hope I don't come off as argumentative or defensive. It's just that I've given every aspect of this a great deal of thought. Whenever someone new reads it, I look at it as a chance to re-evaluate and make sure there is a reason I'm doing what I am. If you have more thoughts, please send them to my e-mail: someguy@andsomeguy.com

Dean Hamer
Pro

Re- looking for an editor,collaborating at a distance, transcription.
Boyd, thanks for your suggestions.
Everybody else- thanks for the tips.
Question: everybody seems to agree that it's a good idea to have interviews transcribed. Have people had luck going on Craigs list? I know there are professional services but they seem to run $150+ per hour of tape, and we have a lot of tape. Since the transcripts are just a searchable tool not a finished product, I am wondering if this is one case where cheap = good??? Thanks!

Doug Block
Host

Matt, your setup sounds fine. Probably better than mine, actually. I just like to put the camera down from time to time.

Christopher Wong
Pro

dean, no reason to have to pay $150/hr for transcription work. i've found quite a few for $115/hr and under. in fact, there are some who charge per hour (only $20-25) and since they usually don't take more than 4 hours to transcribe each tape, it's the most affordable for me to be billed per hour of labor.

it also depends on what kind of footage you have. if it's all interviews, then pretty much anybody who can type fast (and who has the capability to insert TC simultaneously) can do it. if it's verite footage, and you actually want descriptions of how people are moving, what kind of shots are being employed, and every single comment noted, then i do think it matters who your transcriptionist is. but most people either don't have that kind of footage, or don't need it transcribed.

if you need some references to transcriptionists, i'd be happy to email them separately to you. you can then contact them yourself, and have them send you samples that you can review to see if they're a good fit.

Matt Dubuque
Pro

Thanks Doug!

Dean-

You might try going to Craigs list and doing a search for experienced legal secretaries between jobs/assignments.

They are highly literate (having worked in law offices) and are used to doing lots of transcription from recordings that I know are lower quality than yours.

For example, the average legal secretary salary in the SF Bay Area is 75,000/yr. which works out to $37.50/hr., assuming you work 2000 hours a year.

This should save you big bucks and provide very high quality.

Hope that helps!

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