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

Haven't been on there in a long time. Do they charge a subscription fee? That might be one of the reasons I don't go there. MediaMatch does too but I get the $5/month student membership.

Brian Boyko

This is an ethics question.

I'm finding that I've got great interviews but as my subject is really explaining an electoral system (I.e., the "Inconvenient Truth" model) rather than documenting a series of events (I.E., the "Super Size Me" model) I wanted to ask you about the ethics of truth and such.

What I'd like to do create a "frame" around the footage that I've gathered that is essentially a parody of "An Inconvenient Truth" I'd basically rent-out or borrow a classroom with projector on the weekend, and invite my improv comedian friends to be "feeding" me questions. I would make it obvious that the audience is portrayed by actors – first with a disclaimer up front which states: "While the subject is truthful, the audience portrayed in the film are paid actors."

Then during the shooting, I was actually thinking that the first question would be along the lines of: "Yeah, Brian, you said that if we came here and pretended to be an audience that is actually interested in this stuff that you'd give us 20 bucks." (Interruption from the back) "And cake! Where's the cake?!"

Is it ethical to make a documentary with obviously staged scenes to increase the entertainment value and, supposedly, to get more people interested in it, without crossing the line into "mockumentary?"

Fredric Lean

SOUND HELP for documentary shooting on Canon HV20.

Has anyone had shot a doc on canon HV20 or knows well the camera?

I went to a store in NY specialized in video. I told them i needed a broadcast quality sound for the consumer HV20 Canon. it's for a doc , reality TV like.
The shooting style will be handheld mostly. On person crew (so no boom) and only one person (the subject) can be wired up but I still need to pick up the sound of people the subject will be talking too. So i will also need a shotgun mic i presume.
There''ll be indoor and outdoor (public places) shoot.
Here's the package the seller at the store, came up with:

Sennheiser EW 100 wireless lavaller $500 +tax
Beachtek XLR $179
Rode NTG 2 shotgun $269
Headphones $160.

Total = over $1000

1) is this a good package for sound quality?

2) is there anyway to get the same type of quality sound (assuming it is a good one with this package) but a bit on a lower price?

any other suggestions?

Wolfgang Achtner


My 02.c worth. What you describes seems very much a mockumentary to me.

I don't think it has to do anything with ethics, rather it's a question of what kind of a story you want to tell and whatever way you believe is best to tell that particular story.

A documentary can very well be interesting and entertaining without using gimmicks. It very much depends on the story and how you want to tell it.

Christopher Wong

brian, a mockumentary is really just a fiction film posing as a documentary. i think what you seem to be worried about is your doc descend into something so silly that the main point about something serious (i.e. the electoral system) is lost.

while i'm not completely convinced that your scene (as described) will work effectively, there's nothing ethically wrong with it, especially since you seem to be taking great pains to tell the audience "This is a setup!" but if you compare your scene to some of the animated scenes in, let's say, "Bowling for Columbine", it's essentially the same thing. the only difference is you've got animated characters standing in for paid actors – the humor, the pre-written lines, and the method are the same.

Brian Boyko

In reply to Fredric Lean's post on Sun 2 Mar 2008 :

Fredric, I'm also shooting on the HV20, and my next purchase is for a beachtek adapter and some new XLR mics – but I've found I've got good audio from this combo:

Audio Technica ATR55 Shotgun Mic ($50)
Shock Mount ($20-40)
A bracket to move the microphone away from the camera. ($10)

I don't use wireless mics.

There are two problems with this setup. One, handling noise – even handling the wire connected to the camera – transmits easily. But I've actually found it to get really, really good sound.

Get that setup if you can afford it – don't try to cheap out on the sound, and that actually sounds like the best option.

You may also want to spend $200 on a Samson Zoom H2 to get a second source of audio if you're doing sit-down interviews.

A deadcat/fluffydog will be useful for cutting out wind noise.

With my setup, here's the audio I got.

Outside, w/Crowd Noise:
Outside, w & w/out crowd noise:
Outside, w/out crowd noise:

Brian Boyko

Another quick question: Anyone use Keynote to graph key ideas in a documentary? How did it turn out?

Asar Imhotep

Peace everyone

I was wondering if anyone had any good advice on temporary insurance for documentaries. I am working on a budget for my film in which I want to hit Ghana, Tanzania, France and Britain. With me possibly going overseas, I don't want to take equipment and things over there and not be insured. Does anyone have any experience with this? Who would you recommend as a provider and who should I AVOID?

Thanks in advance

Alex Fumero

Hi Everyone,

I'm a first time documentarian producing a film about the first generation immigrant exiles to move to Miami from Cuba. They are old and I need to get their stories on video before they die. I'm going to try to hire an experienced director, but if not, I'm going to do it myself.

1) Are their any documentaries I can look to for inspiration that are like this one? I know there is a name for this type of film where you profile a certain community or group of people and interview them, but don't know the name.

2) In terms of sound, I'd like to get the wireless lapel mics. Is that a bad idea? I feel like it would make shooting that much easier.

Please help. Thanks, Alex.

James Perez

Alex, for your first comment, that is basically researching a subculture. It's like a sub group of a larger culture. Profiling and researching a group within a group, in which people have something in common, can be very helpful. There is a documentary called "Wetback" that targets foreign immigrants that is very well done. Check it out.

Wolfgang Achtner


Your project sounds very interesting.

A few quick tips regarding how to go about it (regarding whether or not you should shoot it yourself; you might want to have a pro start shooting it and later, when you've learned how to shoot, you could continue by yourself).

Identify the characters, the people, men and women that you want to shoot;
Research all the information you can find about the community that interest you: this means research archives of local newspapers, and identify and read some books dealing with these issues.

A book that comes to my mind is: Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (Paperback)
by Mirta Ojito

If I remember correctly, she's working on a documentary based on her book.

You may find some useful information here:

2) Visit and research the neighborhood. I would assume that there is a "Little Havana" in Miami. Visit the neighborhood, reserach everyhting about it, discover who some of the most important members of the community are, when any particular religious or other festivities take place, etc.

3) Shoot all of the above.

4) identify 4 or 5 interesting characters. get to know them, interview them, shoot them at work and with their families, get photos, visit with them for several months/one year.

5) Decide what kind of doc you want to build with the material you are gathering.

6) Build your doc around the personal stories of these 4 or 5 people, interweaving blocks about the community. The fact that the situation in Cuba is moving and that this is an election year will give you great topics and great video to interweave withe stories of your 4 or 5 protagonists.

Re your second question, wireless lavalier mics are very good to interview people. I would suggest you might be interested in the Sennheiser Evolution G2 100 series; it has a good price/value ratio.

Maria Bailey

Hi Everyone

I am a student at Ravensbourne College and I am currently in my last of study for a BA degree in Broadcast Post Production. I am writing an essay entitled Can Documentaries be Completely Impartial? I am required to have primary research for my essay and I was hoping that some of you would be able to answer these questions for me.

What motivates a filmmaker to make a documentary and is there always a
political angle to it?

Can the editing in a film or television programme change reality? If so in what way?

Can the way something is shot change the reality of a situation? If so how?

I would also be interested in any views or opinions that you have on
Michael Moore's film Roger & Me and Rupert Murdoch's OutFoxed.

I hope that you can spare the time to help this hard working student LOL. I look forward to your replies.

Sahand Sahebdivani

Hi Maria,

IMHO there's a few things you have to consider. First there's the issue that documentaries are a form of art. One way that art, at least for me, defines itself is that it's unique because of the artist. If 2 very good crafts(wo)men paint a wall the result will be (more or less) the same, if two artists paint on the same canvas the result will be significantly different even if they try to paint the same picture.

Now compare documentaries to journalism. Even when journalists do their best to be impartial the results aren't always, there's always personal, religious, cultural biases, there's the stress of deadlines, there's the wishes of the editors or sponsors, there's the conscious or subconsious choices you make to cut things out of the story, highlight other things, for the sake of clarity but which end up "coloring" a story.

Now, even though it's a gross oversimplification to say journalism is purely a "craft" and documentary making purely an "art", one can assume that the personal "coloring" is even a bigger issue in documentary.

So I personaly think that, no, documentaries or journalistic pieces are never fully (or at all) unbiased. This is not an issue for me. I very much like to hear the personal in the story. For instance, when I read a piece of N. Chomsky, I don't think, now I will know the truth and the whole truth about this subject, I will rather think, now I know N. Chomsky's take on this subject. (Though sometimes I forget and have to remind myself, and so does the general audience, but this is another topic altogether)

Now, another issue to consider is the following, documentary makers are not always trying to cover a story, sometimes they are trying to change the world, the society, people's believes. I have not seen OutFoxced, but Micheal Moore, for me, is very much an activist filmmaker. I might agree with his messages, but I don't assume he will give me a biased account of what even he perceives as the truth. To make the power of his story stronger will he use material that supports his story and leave out material that gives a different opinion.

Again, I don't think this is bad. A film like SuperSize Me, in which the filmmaker eats at McDonalds for a month and becomes a repulsive monster might be infantile to some, but can be quite entertaining and potentially life-changing for others.

"Can the editing in a film or television programme change reality? If so in what way?

Can the way something is shot change the reality of a situation? If so how?"

Both editing and shooting can change the reality in 1.000.000 ways. In my native Iran there's regular anti US protests, but always shot in a way to hide the fact that these are actualy small groups protesting. A huge anti US protest is good for both Iranian media as well as foreign media.

Now imagine you are filming a neighbourhood, everything decision, from material you shoot on, framing, music, editing, etc. etc. changes the story. Imagine a grainy home video type of image going over the graffiti, while the soundtrack is gangsterrap. Now imagine filming on oldfashioned 16 mm, made even warmer in post production, with beautiful music (think wonder years). Same neighbourhood, but two totally different emotional reactions to the footage.

Anyway, one could go on, but I hope this helps.

Alison Clifford

Hi, I´m looking at how to put together a marketing package for a documentary about film piracy in Mexico. I´ve never done any marketing and I´m not sure where to start. I know I want to send it out to TV stations both in the States and in Mexico, as well as PR´s for magazines and Newspapers as well as radio stations. I could really use some help in getting myself pointed in the right direction.

Evan Thomas

Has anyone used public domain footage from in their productions? There's some useful archive for my film on there but should i get its public domain status verified before i go ahead and use it?

Boyd McCollum

It's good practice to verify any footage you use, regardless of source. Lots of people think they own copyright to certain things when they actually don't.

With you need to really read the different licensing they use – not all of it is public domain. Some requires attribution, some can be used in a noncommercial way, etc. I've seen media that had no copyright/licensing information provided. So just residing on the site doesn't mean public domain.

Get whatever information provided and if there isn't any, do some more research on it. This can be useful when getting E&O insurance. Also, it's good practice to have an entertainment/copyright attorney look over you stuff. (and do find a lawyer that specializes in this, as not all lawyers have equal knowledge. A good friend of mine is a top notch real estate attorney, and he won't touch copyright – "it's not what I do, so I can't provide solid legal opinions". )

Grady Matthews

I would like to ask a question about Sundance. Do they only select the 16 documentaries for competition or do they also select many others that do not make the competition (but are still part of the festival)? I believe this is the case from my research online. If so, do the non competing docs get decent recognition from press, industry people, make sales, etc, etc? Thanks for the great site.

Thank you,
Grady Matthews

Doug Block

Grady, they select the 16 main competition docs, the world docs, and a few docs find their way into the American Spectrum section. The world docs have their own awards and American Spectrum docs are eligible for the doc audience award.

Shauna Kartt Jaeger

Hello D-Word Visitors and Members,

I'm a producer/production manager new to the NYC area and am looking to find a dependable crew with documentary or lifestyle TV experience for my roster. I do have a few contacts, but it would be nice to have more incase people are unavailable.

Can anyone make recommendations for any of the following?

-DOP – HD/DV CAM w/ light kit ideally. Some studio experience is a plus.
-Sound – doc experience. Studio is a plus.
-Production Coordinator
-Editor (Avid and Final Cut)
-Location manager

It would also be helpful if anyone can recommend vendors for post production, post audio, an insurance broker, props and gear rental shops.

I've been working in documentary production for 9 years and am leaving my contacts behind to be with my love in NYC, so any recommendations will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks soooooo much!

Ben Kempas

I feel like I've read this three times now... :-)

Brian Boyko

I've made my first short documentary. It clocks in at 26:40, cutting everything down to the bare essentials. I've got a big stack of DVDs next to me, and I've got the entire thing up online at Vimeo for those who want to watch it:

So, um... now what? Promotion? Film festivals? Anyone got any ideas?

Doug Block

Shauna, no need to double post at The D-Word. Just find the most pertinent topic. In this case, the Classifieds would have been best.

Ben Kempas

Yeah, I tend to be a little more subtle than Doug... :-)

Doug Block

Also, Shauna, since we're mentoring (and you take mentoring so well), no need to use the "in reply" button when you're replying to the post right above you.

Ana Da Silva


Question on submitting an idea. I got in touch with a production company and they're willing to read my informal project idea/proposal. I feel strongly about the project and 1. would like it to come to life and 2. would like to be involved with it. I'd like to express this to the producers but can see how from their point of view that might be asking too much (especially for a newbie).

The producers are merely willing to look at the informal proposal, which to me is really great news anyway, but as with any idea there's a chance they might like it and might want to work with it. I read that there's no such thing as a copyrighted idea so should the producers like what they read, can they just use it anyway?

What's you advice on submitting ideas when you don't have the means to produce the project yourself?

Thank you!

Ryan Ferguson

get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement before you share your idea with them. Definitely not iron clad, but my guess is it would be enough for them to not steal your idea outright.

Christopher Wong

ana, it's not a problem that you don't have the means to produce the project yourself. just make sure that you have an angle into the project that clearly shows why YOU should be involved with it. whether that means you have exclusive access to the main character of the film (e.g. your father is the ringleader of a terrorist group) or whether you have certain skills they need (e.g. you know the hidden tribe's language), you somehow need to prove that you are indispensable to the project. but simply having an idea is not enough. (unless, of course, this is a pitch for another reality show, in which case, you can disregard all my comments...)

Ana Da Silva

Thanks all! I really appreciate your suggestions. It's definitely not a reality show and I think a lot of people would benefit from it.


Ana Da Silva

Film school question.

I'm considering starting over and take film more seriously (currently I'm a communications professional in New York). It's a bit scary, especially after having attended grad school to find out it hasn't made much difference career-wise. I'm mainly interested in schools in Europe.

If you went back, why did you do it (for yourself or as a job requirement)? Any input?



Robert Goodman

Film School is pointless (especially if you already have a terminal degree) unless you want to pursue a specific craft or don't have a terminal degree and plan on teaching Film. If you want to pursue a specific craft you'd be better off working with someone whose work you admire. Really the only fast track in this business.

Christopher Wong

Agreed. Like many others, I was brought up to believe that if you want to accomplish anything in life, you first have to go to a school and get a degree in that subject. True for medicine; false for film.

This goes double for documentary filmmaking. If you're persistent enough, you can get experienced doc filmmakers to be mentors and advisors for you, without paying the exorbitant film school tuition. Start watching doc films (one every day if you can), read some books (Rabiger's book on documentary), and begin shooting a subject easily accessible to you (e.g. your family).

David Malver

Film school undergrad work was a worthwhile experience for me, Ana. However, a good film tech school is often an affordable alternative if your main goal is to be trained in on equipment.

Ana Da Silva

Thank you! That's what I hear from a lot of folks. Networking seems to be the way to go with everything.

A question for foreigners trying out for film in the US (or in other countries): what's your experience been like and do you have any suggestions.

I really do appreciate all your time!

Brian Boyko

I had a quick question. I’ve got my short doc (26min) in the can and DVD-pressed, and it’s gotten 4200 plays on Vimeo so far (with 120,000 references – whatever that means.)

Since I did the thing myself, and have a day job, and nothing to lose, I was wondering if it would be a good idea to team up with a local indie production company that would be going to a film market anyway, and have them offer sampler DVDs, with the idea that they pick up a share of the profit if that sells. I figure it would be cheaper than going myself. What do you think?

Christopher Wong

brian, congrats on getting your doc out into the public. while i don't have specific advice for you, i think you'll get even better feedback in the Members section of D-Word. having already finished a 26-minute doc yourself, you definitely qualify. so apply for full membership.

Brian Boyko

Chris: Just got rejected from applying as a full member.

John Burgan

Brian – we've decided that although you have some relevant experience already, you haven't yet acquired enough to join the Community as a professional doc filmmaker.

The good news is that as you seem to be heading in the right direction, we've tagged you for a follow-up later this year. Perhaps you will have made some progress with distributing "Makers" – are you planning to submit it to any festivals?

At any rate, we hope you'll stick around and let us know how things develop.

Brian Boyko

I've submitted Makers to Austin Film Festival, and the DVD is in the mail to Withoutabox. Because it's a documentary short, and I have already gotten a bigger audience through the Internet than I ever could via film festivals, I'm not sure whether I should bother submitting to more than Austin FF and SXSW (which are both local to me.)

Of course, this is the kind of advice I was looking for with the original question... ;)

Christopher Wong

sorry about that, Brian. i shouldn't have assumed that you hadn't already tried to apply for membership. but i think you'll definitely be a full member in the not too distant future. in the meantime, let's all concentrate on answering your original question about teaming up with a local indie production company at a film market:

Brian Boyko's post on Thu 20 Mar 2008

Brian Regienczuk

Not sure if this "mentoring room" could help with my question...
I am interested in advice on how to find right person (film maker) and fund a small documentary style effort and what might be interesting goals / benefits that makes it a win/win for company and film producer.

Some nice to have goals for company might be:
+ capture people's reactions around new product innovation at large/major event in Eastern Europe (new product concepts around several themes, dramatic event experience in major city, new products being launched, other interesting products being demonstrated/show for sales in both business to business and business to consumer arena)
+ capture value design is adding to business
+ possible interviews with CEO/CMOs from top companies
+ many other areas that could be mutually interesting if discussed... but trying to understand if this might be interesting to a qualified independent film maker or high potential starting out

There could be two cuts... both would likely be very people-focused. But, one could capture essence of business value and the other could be all around creative/design side of things.

John Burgan

Brian – welcome to D-Word. It's rather difficult to respond to your post as it's quite abstract. Obviously you don't want to let out any trade secrets, but could you explain more concretely what it's all about?

Brian Regienczuk

Say you have a big event every year like MacWorld (AppleWorld) or an auto show (but put on by only one company, not a tradeshow)... you show off your latest products, you launch 2 or 3 new things, and you show a vision of where your company is going (concept cars, or other physical immersive manifestations). You have to entice the media and your top customers to attend and you want to broadcast and create discussion around all 3 parts of this event experience...

I am exploring how a highly experiential event with similar attributes could leverage film/documentary storytelling in interesting, meaningful ways – meaningful to the company, its stakeholders, and the film maker...

Hope that helps explain things a bit more...

Lenville O'Donnell

Very interesting idea, Brian. I should think there would be several filmmakers in here who would be interested in discussing this in more detail. It is a rather large undertaking, and producing a film could be done many different ways depending on more specifics on corporate goals and the event itself. If I understand you accurately, the Mentoring Room might not really be the place for this. I'd suggest posting also in the Public Classifieds... if you haven't already... you might get more responses in there.

Matt Dubuque


I would highly recommend you attend film school if you really want an in depth knowledge of the deep traditions you are working in and attempting to build upon and if you can afford it.

However, if you just want to get as much cash as quickly as possible, that may be necessary.

But consider the case of James Longley. He is thankful that he attended two years of film school in Russia, studying Soviet montage. And his films are truly masterful in their editing. Check out his mastery of Soviet montage in Iraq in Fragments. I daresay you haven't seen editing of that caliber frequently.

Longley has only made three films. However, all three have been nominated for Oscars, and deservedly so. I'm sure he would tell you that film school was not irrelevant in that score.

And ask yourself, if you have only made three films and been nominated for three Oscars, what are your career prospects?

So if you are interested in more than fast money, I would recommend you actively consider it.

Just my view. There's 100 years of film history by people more profound than myself that deserve more than cursory and casual attention.

I just don't see what's wrong with a detailed study of Vertov, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Kurosawa and Kubrick. Study, deep study and reflection, on their own terms, free of hypercommercialized and contaminating influences that command us to: "G go make money now".

The hypercommercialization of cinema (and culture generally) has its drawbacks. They should always be contemplated when making big decisions such as this.

In reply to Ana Da Silva's post on Mon 17 Mar 2008 :

Ana Da Silva

In reply to Matt Dubuque's post on Tue 25 Mar 2008 :

Thanks for your opinion Matt. Making big money is not why I want to go into film. I really do love it as an art and am disappointed with the mainstream industry. The catch-22 is that not being money-driven, I'm money-less so I've started studying and researching on my own in the meantime :)

Lucia Small

New to New York. My hard drive has fizzled.
I had taken my G-5 to the genius bar three weeks anticipation of trying to prevent something going wrong, and it did today.
I've been on the phone with my Boston computer guru for an hour. We need to take it to the next level...have someone who can help me...
Any great computer gurus for doc folk in Manhattan that do house calls?
Thanks! (I know this isn't real mentoring, but....)

Stefani L. Weiss

I'm working on my first documentary (and my first film since film school 25 years ago!). I'm having trouble determining some of the line items to prepare a budget. I have so many questions it's hard to know where to start! I'll try a few for now and any help would be greatly appreciated!

One of my main questions would be how to determine crew costs. I will be contracting out all production and I will need to travel overseas to two different locations. Should I submit my treatment to production companies to give me quotes on their costs to do the filming? (a friend did a documentary and his production company quoted him on all his overseas costs, but he didn't have to do a budget up front, he funded everything himself. I'm not in that position!)I'm not sure that I can accurately determine any type of shooting schedule because I have not done a site visit. I should probably do a site visit before, but I don't have funding yet. I feel like I'm in a catch-22 every way I turn! In order to pitch for funding, I need the budget, in order to determine the budget, I need money! I also don't know how to factor in licensing costs on footage or photos I may have to purchase. My subject is an Olympic athlete and I have already contacted the Olympic Television Archives Bureau, but they want to know what footage I would need and how it would be used before being able to give me an approximation on cost. Until I know who will be funding the project, I can't tell them how it will be used! (They want to know if it will be cable, international, etc...what I INTEND and what may actually become reality may be different!)

Also, what is a realistic salary for writer/producer/director? I will need to factor that in to the budget as well so I at least have a salary to work with.

One more item for now would be if anyone has a recommendation on budget software/film software, etc. I've read about many different programs and mixed reviews on whether or not they are needed. I thought maybe it would be helpful to use a software program so I wouldn't leave out any important line items! One program that caught my eye online is called Gorilla...any comments on that one?

Thanks in advance for any help. I hope to one day be able to apply for membership here!

Tara Hurley

Hello everyone. I am very close to finishing my film. I just had a small viewing, and general point of view was that I needed to shorten it and add some more p.o.v. of the women. (It is so hard to cut when you love the footage!!!) Anyway, I have begun to cut, and I found an area that I will add. I have a section that I want to add about what the women want to do with their lives when they get out of the business. One of the women keep saying how she wants to own a Dunkin Donuts. I know DnD never pays for product placement, and I am sure they wouldn't pay for it in my film, and I am not asking for that, I just am wondering if they could sue me for leaving them and their products in my film.
For information about my film check out the trailer at
or check the website
Thanks in advance.

Christopher Wong

tara, how do you know that Dunking Donuts never pays for product placement? did you ask them? (not that i don't believe you...) i actually have quite a few Dunkin Donuts references in my film (none of them at all negative) and was considering approaching them for a long time, but just never got around to it.

in terms of them suing you just because you keep a reference to them in the film, you shouldn't have to worry about that. Fair Use covers you completely as long as the mention or appearance of Dunkin Donuts occurred incidental to your filming (and not intentionally so). and unless one of the women in your film is using one of their products in a rather blatant, lascivious way, i can't imagine Dunkin Donuts caring.

Tara Hurley

I do know that they don't pay for product placement because I worked at a place once that tried asked, and they said they didn't. It is also on their website. And, the product appears in my film 2 times, one time she refers to her husband when she first met him walking in with a DnD ice coffee in his hand, and the second time she talks about how she is saving money trying to get enough to open up a DnD location.

Doug Block

If they sue you it could be invaluable publicity for your doc. The bigger problem might be getting E&O (Errors & Ommissions) insurance should you want a broadcast. But I think Chris is right, can't imagine it being a huge isssue. You should join up as a full D-Word member , Tara, and ask again in the Legal topic.

Sam Rabeeh

Hi everyone,

I have several treatments and not sure how to proceed.

My main concern is copyright as I want to develop the ideas further. This isn't documentary related but I hope some of you will come to bat with some opinions.

Can I copyright a treatment? Do I need to develop the ideas further into a script and submit it to the Canadian Copyright office at that point?

I want to share the treatments so I can promote their development. How do I protect myself?

I have so many other questions but I'll leave it at,


John Burgan

Yes, you can copyright a treatment, it doesn't need to be a full script.

Be aware, however, that you can't copyright an idea.
Robert Goodman

There is no point in copyrighting treatments. If you are writing a fiction film script and are a novice, you need a killer script sample. That means a full well-realized script. If you find people who like that they'll pay you to write treatments or to develop a two paragraph pitch into a treatment.

Ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. Execution is all.

Sam Rabeeh

I should further elaborate. I wish to make these films myself. As you say Robert, execution is all. Some of the ideas I'm exploring for documentaries have crossed over into dramatic as I'm curious about using the tense "is happening" rather than "has happened".

I have no illusions about the daunting tasks that lie ahead but I know with diligence and and a stepped approach I will realize these in some way. My experience over the past 25 years has shown this in everything I do so this is no time to change my thinking.

How did other filmakers discuss/collaborate their ideas and treatments in the past? I'll use the example of Lucas who only had a treatment for "The Star Wars". I stress I'm not Lucas but to bring a project to realization using a treatment only is possible. I'm not a script writer I want to make documentaries and films that hopefully communicate the ideas i envision.

John, when you say the idea can't be copyrighted, can we use an example? Is Indiana Jones, handsome archeologist professor saves the world from nazis by finding the lost ark, the idea?

So I can make a handsome, professor archeologist just as long as names, places and ark are not the same?

I apologize for the broken writing but I'm wee tired.


Boyd McCollum

Don't forget Lucas had THX1138 and American Graffiti under his belt, so Star Wars wasn't the first thing he did. He was also one of a group of directors (including Spielberg and Coppola) that were given relative carte blanche on their projects at that time.

Yes you can make your version of Raiders if you want. Happens all the time in the low-budget world of B- and C-movies (even A-list movies). All variations on a theme.

As for collaborating and discussing – lots of these folks have friends that also make films or write, etc. I have several good friends that are also filmmakers that I've known for over 20 years. We'll chat endlessly on any number of projects we have going at various stages, from writing to post-production.

Occasionally I'll stop in a bookstore and read some books on how other writers or directors got their start. Many great books with interviews out there. Just a quick search at Amazon on "directors first films" turned up this or this .

Robert's right. Write an excellent script and it'll take you places. Keep in mind what Robert McKee says in his book STORY about Hollywood:

"With rare exceptions, unrecognized genius is a myth. First-rate screenplays are at least optioned if not made. For writers that can tell a quality story, it's a seller's market – always has been, always will be."

Sam Rabeeh

Oh I haven't forgotten about THX or the situation. For example in Canada I hear a treatment is more likely. I have to re-iterate my target is not hollywood. I'm not sure why we thought that. But anyway, I bought a copy of Syd Fields books which helped out alot in answering this question.

My original question was related to how to protect a script in order to collaborate in any sized project. From a 30 seconds spot to a feature film. I have used NDA's before but I know there had to be something with more teeth.

Don't get me wrong though, it's not as though I haven't thought about writing a great script and having hollywood make it, or myself, who hasn't? :-)

Boyd McCollum

We probably thought Hollywood since you used Lucas and Raiders as examples.

Copyright on a treatment can work, the value is in how detailed the treatment is. Are you talking about a treatment that's only one page long and just basically expresses your idea? Or are you talking about a 10-15 page treatment that details how the story unfolds scene by scene? The latter can work and it'd be good to copyright.

Not sure how Canadian law is for copyright, but here in the states, copyright attaches as soon as you put it on paper. You can also send it to the Library of Congress. Here's the procedure from the US Copyright office.

Probably the best protection is to deal with professionals with proven track records. Is there a well-known producer/filmmaker in your area that you can try and contact? S/he may be able to give you some suggestions for moving forward in your area and people to work with.

Overall, I wouldn't worry too much that someone will steal your idea – except maybe in commercials since they are basically ideas anyway – Ideas are actually pretty easy to come up with, it's being able to flesh them out that's hard.

Patrick Kwiatkowski

I am currently producing/directing a short nonfiction piece for a senior thesis course in Film/Video production. The piece is a short video portrait of an elementary school with a rare teaching approach. The piece aims to mesh elements of documentary and experimental filmmaking. Now, I have produced a short doc on the passing of Gerald R. Ford, and I have directed a promotional video for United Way: Student Service Learning... both projects I networked and dealt with adults.

Has anyone any advice on working with children? I have permissions and everything on the producing end in order (which took me more than 4 months!), but we are gearing up and almost ready to introduce the camera to the children. I have done all the prep I can think of, but was just wondering if anyone had any experience with filming children, and any last minute advice before I jump off the deep end with this project!

John Burgan

The film that springs to mind is Nicolas Philibert's "Etre & Avoir" about a school in rural France. Check out the director's comments about working with children in the interview section of this website

Theresa Tall

Hi there! I'm new so hope I'm doing this all right!

My story is that I've got a great general interest educational documentary series idea. It's going to include many episodes (each following basically one subject) that will be shot over a long period of time (the series will be shot over a long period of time, each episode will take about 2 weeks to shoot). The problem is I really don't have any idea as to how to get started. I have studio film experience, but only on the marketing side. Basically, I have many questions which I hope you all have the answers to and I'm hoping you'll share your expertise with me  Hopefully one day I'll be at the level where I can share my expertise with everyone else!

What do I need to do to get started? If for the first couple of episodes I will be just following around one person, do I need to hire just one camera person (digital) and a boom operator on a payment differed basis?
Basically, initially I just have to follow a person (who will be the subject) throughout their week. I will choose someone who has limited locations and interacts with not so many people, just so start simply. Should I just worry about getting footage first? In which case, who do I need to hire? A cameraperson (do digital cameras come with great sound, or do I need to hire a boom operator too?). Then do I need to hire an editor? What should I offer them in a standard deferred payment agreement? Again, I want to be fair. A percentage, an hourly fee?

I know I could take some camera classes, but I want them to be professional quality, not shaky.

How will this footage they get be stored? It's going to be digital, so I can just store it on a virtual server, or ask them to hold on to it? Or is the footage just stored on a digital tape, so I don't need to store it anywhere? Yes, I really don't know about this!

Do I need to figure out the formatting/runtime in advance before shooting? For example, let's say I plan on distributing the episodes on my own website, but I would like to have the opportunity for this series to air on public television or something –do I have to keep that sort of formatting/editing in mind in advance before I start shooting to be sure it'll be okay to air on public television, or will all the original footage just be recut to fit the format of the particular method of distribution? Is this not something I need to think about at all at this point?

Advertising money
Then once I have this video edited, should I put it online to show to potential advertisers?

How do I go about getting advertisers, and when should go about getting advertisers?
Should I make one finely crafted episode to show to potential advertisers? Or should I pitch the idea to advertisers before I even start shooting, that way I can pay the small crew I hire right away rather than do a deferred payment agreement?

Do I need to decide the business model/method of distribution before I start filming and editing? My original idea was to just have my own website with tons of my own videos that people could choose to rent or download. I think the best model out there might be free for the user or ad supported. I'm also willing to have people pay like $2 to rent it. If they can download it online, is there any way to make each episode non duplicable so that it won’t be spread around? How does itunes stop it from being duplicated?

Releases/Legal Questions
What sort of releases do I need if I am following the subjects on certain locations, such as their workplace or school?

Non-Profit versus For-Profit: or is there some sort of hybrid?
If I do decide for this series to be fully free for the user and to be fully advertiser based, how much money can I expect to make? How much could I expect to change an advertiser? How do they decide how much they'll pay you – based on click through rate?

If I elected to go the non profit route, I'm pretty sure this would be eligible for grants, but would that limit me to only air in certain venues? If I went the on profit route, could I show my work for free on my own site, but still expect to get paid a lot per episode, with residuals, etc? Is there such a thing as a hybrid non-profit for profit where I could accept advertiser funding and also make a strong revenuer for myself? How would I pay myself, if I went for profit, as writer/producer (I believe the laws are that it has to be a reasonable income)?

Are the business models something I need to figure out first or can figure out later – should I just worry about getting the footage now and working on how it will be distributed later?

As you can see, I’m a bit paralyzed by all these questions before I’ve even begun. Can someone tell me what I can do to get started now? Should I just worry about getting the content on tape first and then figure out the rest later? If someone could just tell me the steps, I’d be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL.

I'm open to any suggestions, advice, book recommendations, anything.

Thanks so much, Theresa

Lenville O'Donnell

Phew, Theresa, it would take a very long time to provide the answers to all your questions in one fell swoop. For starters, you might start here and buy a few books on documentary filmmaking and read them. The other thing it sounds like you might need to help guide you through the maze for the first time is to partner up with or hire or otherwise engage a producing partner with some experience in the industry. But I'd definitely recommend doing some reading first. Maybe taking some classes would be helpful. Good luck!

Christopher Wong

if you're going to read a book, most of us in this community like Michael Rabiger's "Directing the Documentary". you should be able to get a used copy online somewhere.

if you're going to take a class, take an editing class. to learn to shoot, you actually have to learn first what shots you need in the editing room. it sounds backwards, but sometimes the best shooters are often the best editors too.

if you know the school you are going to be shooting in, start getting releases now. you have to get them from one parent of every student who shows up in the film. and it takes a LONG time... getting releases is also a good time to start building trust with your future subjects. don't just get them to sign a form. get them to "buy-in" to your idea first; then get the form signed.

lastly, forget the whole business end of the doc right now. there will be time to think of it later, but you need to concentrate on the film itself. "it's the story, stupid" (quote from a wise filmmaker)

as someone who is currently engaged in a 3-year odyssey to finish an educational documentary, i wish you perseverance and lotsa good luck!

Patrick Kwiatkowski

I am currently working on a short piece on a school, and I can say from my experience that the obstacles are many, from preproduction thru post. One way to eliminate some of them early on, which is explained in detail by Michael Rabiger's book, is thorough preproduction. Especially when documenting an institution, first sell your idea to the head authority. The first thing I did was write a letter to the principal. Email is does not catch their attention quite like a letter, and as far as phoning your pitch, no one wants a pitch to from someone they've never had contact with before. Write a letter, BRIEFLY explain yourself as a film/videomaker, and simply request an audience with them.

Although the principal took more than three weeks to respond, she thought my letter was very professional and innocent enough to at least hear me out. From there I was able to convince the principal, and with her on my side convince the staff, and with the staff on my side convince the parents, and with the parents on my side, ultimately, convince the children to participate. Definitely, pick up Rabiger's book! Its been a great help to me, especially when it comes to tackling preproduction!

Earl Franklin

Hi all, I am Earl. I have a project I am ready to begin to produce, a documentary project that has been dropped in my lap. The story is about how a city, police and community (businesses and residents) will come together (or not) and combat prostitution. The City Police, City Hall, and Community. The community has petitioned the city, the city charged the police, and the police are reacting. What we want to show (besides the prostitutes) is how these three will solve this problem. Suppression, Prevention, and Intervention.

I have met with the police. I have DIRECT access to all parties, willing participants, it was "dropped in my lap" by the police. They are the ones that want to document the story. The city manager has asked them to be creative in showing the problem with the cities prostitution because the community has rallied. The police want to create the documentary.

Like I said it has been dropped in my lap. Where do I start? What do I need, who do I need? I need to shoot this in June and July. for viewing in Fall. I need to crew build. Needs to be broadcast quality.

All thoughts are welcomed and needed!

What process would best help in me trying to obtain an experienced producer. Since I have never shot a documentary, everyone is pretty much saying that would be my first step. (1) Find/Hire/Partner with an experienced producer. Would everyone agree? How is that done? Do I need to start a production company?

Mentor me!

Christopher Wong

earl, others with more experience that me should answer, but as one who is basically "one step" ahead of you in the documentary process, this is what i would suggest to start:

1) watch as many docs as you can that have multiple groups and perspectives represented. usually, these groups are warring against one another, but not always. but since your story is one where you will constantly have to get the other side (e.g. police, prostitutes, city hall), you want to figure out early on how you want the action to unfold. so, examples like Barbara Kopple's "American Dream" (workers, union, company) will help you see how one person did it. or, if you want to see what a doc is like when the filmmaker gets involved, any of Michael Moore's docs (especially "Bowling for Columbine" or "F911") will do. but i would doubt that the people who are commissioning the doc want that style. also, figure out if you want to make an "issue" doc where there are a lot of talking heads and interview segments, or if you want to make a "verite" doc where the story evolves as you go, and the characters actions drive the narrative.

2) In addition to the D-Word, look for a producer by first contacting film organizations. Most producers won't take your pitch seriously (especially if you haven't done a doc before); but if you first "sell" your story to a film organization that the producer is familiar with, and the org refers you, then the producer will listen with more interest. Different organizations would be: IDA (based in L.A.), National Black Programming Consortium (contact Leslie Fields), KCET or any local PBS station that might even be able to give you seed money or resources to do pre-production on a story very important to the L.A. community.

anyways, that's a start... hope this helps.

Don Dobrez Jr.

Hello All (again)

Its been many months since I was last here and I am in the final stages of editing my film about the destruction of the oldest drive-in theater in the state of Illinois. In my closing "argument" of the piece, I want to talk about the homogenizing of the suburban landscape, and want to include a very quick montage of images of typical storefronts, like Starbucks, McDonald's, etc.

So, my question is, what can I use and not use? Can I use shots that show part of the name but not all of it? Can I drive down a street with my camera taping? Or is it fair use to show a full-on shot if it's only on for a second or two? Or if I show the building but not the sign? All told, the entire sequence of shots would last no more than 15 seconds total (if that matters).

Thanks for the help!

Theresa Tall

thanks for responding to my last post everyone – good advice in there and I've ordered direcrintg the documentary.

now i have another question – whats a really good digital camcorder i could get – what do the pros use? my documentary is probably going to be distributed online, but i want it to be good enough to show on a big screen or on tv – so something professional grade! anu suggestions? i have no idea! thanks, teetall