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.

Chris Hinrichs

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:

Dean Hamer

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

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

Christopher Wong

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

Thanks Doug!


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!

Matt Dubuque

Hi, I'm very interested in United States documentaries/political movies from the 1930s, most especially US depression era cinema with political content. I need them to be US only; my studies of Soviet montage and Riefenstahl is a separate and intense study.

I just saw Our Daily Bread (1935) which had some excellent cinematic qualities and the climax with the irrigation ditch being completed is truly fantastic cinematography with some real live action surprises.

Any other recommendations?


Boyd McCollum

I just transcribe 2 hours of interview footage using an app called MovCaptioner. It was 20 bucks or so. Here's the link:

The great feature is that it has a loop function so it plays over and over again sections until you get them right. One idea is to put all your footage (copies) and a copy of the application on a drive and let the person you get to transcribe your stuff use it. Then have them give the drive back to you.

Not sure how others work, but I transcribe much of my material, since a lot of it is in Chinese and I need to translate it at the same time. I find it's helpful to note pauses, repeat words, cross talk, etc. as it helps in the paper edit. I'll even mark specific sections that I know are definitely going into the film.

One thing to remember, even with a transcript, you still need to sit and watch everything – how a thing is said is as important as what is said.

Christopher – when you have your stuff transcribed, to you get a verbatim transcript?

Christopher Wong

boyd, when you say "verbatim" transcript, what exactly do you mean? do you mean one that includes notations for all the pauses, stuttering, and other odd noises that occur during the subject's interview or conversation? do you also mean one that describes each shot as it changes?

for my project and my budget, i only have interviews and the most important conversations transcribed. my transcribers generally include notations for long pauses, "uhs", and stammering in their transcripts. i do not have them include shot types or any background conversation that happens simultaneous to the subject's voice(s). incidentally, i also send hard drives to my transcriptionists – it's slightly more expensive in the short run, but it really pays off in the end in convenience and in the number of clips i can include in one mailing.

btw, that app MovCaptioner sounds great. i really like that play over function that you described...

Jo-Anne Velin

Dean, I've done this before for translations/interpretations and break it down a little differently than for an elaborate shot list that requires lots of visual cues. But if you need mainly spoken and audio cue text, with some key visual cues, you're welcome to email and perhaps we can work something out. Please use if so. What are your deadlines? I am not operational 01 – 17 Feb, and a colleague needs help (I will start on his as soon as it arrives – not expecting it to take too long).

Jo-Anne Velin

Dean It's too late for me to go into the previous message and make a change: if working directly from tapes, I can't help you. I would need DVD(s) with burned in time code (or could improvise from the player's time code – not ideal but not a big deal if this is the first cut from the raw tapes: you'd find your place easily enough).