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.

Darla Bruno

Thanks, y'all. In fact, the dp is a he (I think I mentioned that a few times). And I just wrote to him today to ask . . . I said he can take his time, and I'd pay him slowly . . . (so thanks for the mortgage metaphor, Mikal). And I'm just keeping my fingers crossed – though, he lives in Milan, and accepts only euros; in this case, if it doesn't work out, I won't be too upset, b/c the exchange rate right now is why I can't go back and shoot in the first place (until I have more funding).

So, I'm not actually planning to go back until August 2009 (Rob thought it was this summer). . . and I do have time on my side here. If the dp accepts, I'll be good to go. If he doesn't, I'll ask the photographer (who was also with us and had a good grasp on the regionality in the language). Short of those two, I love the idea of Craigslist.

So that's what I'll do.

The teaser idea was cute, Rob.

Thanks, everyone!

Darla Bruno

Hey Corey,

I tried to find your e-mail address. . . would you mind contacting me off list at I need some advice on the CL post.


Tara Hurley

Just to let you know, I loved working with the students. I have to admit that before this project I was not at all familiar with Korean culture. You might be more familiar with Italian culture, and probably are, but there was much more to know than just the language. My students did more than just translations for me. One student even did footnotes for me on the translations that were worth probably more that what I would pay an actual translator. I would learn things in the footnotes that I could bring up in future interviews. Even if you do not get a student, you should ask if it is possible to get some kind of footnotes on the translations. My footnotes had historical and cultural information.

Evan Thomas

Hi all,

Anyone know where i can find some info on the perils and pitfalls of selling my own DVD over the internet? Website or a book perhaps?


Tony Comstock

In reply to Evan Thomas's post on Fri 16 May 2008 :

There are no "perils and pitfalls". Make a run of a 1000 units (shouldn't cost you much more than 1000 pounds, probably less). Put up a Zencart-based website. (Zencart has a huge, enthusiastic and free support community.)

Oh wait, there is one "peril and pitfall". Even if you happen to sell five or ten thousand copies, a lot of people will not take what you've accomplished seriously. They'll always have a reason why the movie you made/sold is different from the movie they want to make/can't sell; why it was easier for you than it is for them. You may find this annoying. It may even hurt your feelings. ;=)

Good luck!

Peter Brauer

Tony, you are such a maverick. What ever you do, don't let the nay sayers wear you done. I can't imagine sex sells, cause I have never paid for a sexy video in my life. What you are doing is an inspiration to us all. Or me at least.

Sam Rabeeh

Hello everyone, I've been in Egypt now for several weeks and been filming, recording and photographing Egyptians in their daily lives in my home village. I'm discovering I have to work hard at listening and not jumping the gun in my interviews, everyone is afraid of my still camera not to mention my video camera. I've interviewed Muslim and christian farmers, professionals working together for generations and feel inspired that i've discovered more about Egyptian Identity. Yet I can't help but feel lost in the process. As though I don't know what I'm looking for or what it is I'm trying to achieve.

I started by wanting to discover more about our Identity and break several myths about Egypt and Egyptians in general. But with only 7 hours of tape, and several hours of recorded audio I feel as though it's not enough, or as though I haven't accomplished anything yet. To put it simply it's frustrating as I think it will take much more time to really discover more of the issues, not to mention more deeply. I know I need to be patient but does anyone have any advice or contacts in Egypt (documentary) that I might talk or hash out my fears? wishes? I guess a large question in my mind right now is, how long of a story do I want to tell? I don't want to glance over the issues. I'll be heading to the Banff T.V. festival in June and have meetings with documentary producers there and plan on listening to hear what their demands, wishes are. But if anyone can help me out with the "position" i'm in it would be greatly appreciated.

Rob Appleby

God, am I really the right person to offer advice? Probably not, but here goes.

I would recommend writing a "white paper" laying out as briefly as possible the issues you're interested in. Then try to imagine what characters you need to explore those issues. Like, an issue might be that farmers are out of touch with international commodity price fluctuations (!), if you're dealing with cash crops. Well, then you might have a farmer who is actively trying to get information about that on-line and is adjusting his crop accordingly, or one who has a bumper crop of something that has suffered a severe price drop – or is about to have a great year because of a rise in prices. If you have a character or two around each issue – and better yet if they overlap – then you can illustrate the issues by following their fortunes.

That sounds very mechanical; but the more you get interested in the individuals you have identified in this way, the more you will find them, and be able to make them, engaging even independently of your issues. And then your audience will care more about how the issues affect them.

That's how I would go about it, anyway. But issue based films are not really what gets my juices flowing, which is why I suggest getting deep into your characters.

Erica Ginsberg

Sam, I don't think your position in which you find yourself is specific to Egypt. We've all at times felt lost like we are not sure what we are looking for or seeking to achieve.

I would say there are four elements you need to succeed: purpose, identity, patience, and community.

Maybe it would help to tell us a bit more what is the story you are hoping to tell. You mention something about breaking myths about Egyptians. What are these myths you hope to break? Who do you see as your audience? Cairo-based Egyptians? Others in the Middle East? Europeans? Americans? What preconceptions is your target audience coming to the film with that you hope to dispel?

Are you yourself living in Egypt and simply returning to a village from the big city? Or are you an emigree coming back to the home country? Whether you are a character in the story or not, your own identity – real or imagined by your subjects – can color the production process in terms of the level of trust and access you can get with your subjects.

You say you have been there for several weeks and shot seven hours of footage. But if you are really trying to get to the heart of the place and the trust of your characters, you may need more time. Do your best not to be overly constrained by production schedules, money, or time. Continue to work hard at listening – and not just when the camera is rolling. Perhaps what you have already shot is simply research or practice. Maybe the real story will emerge as you spend more time. And this does not necessarily mean you have to live in this village for a year. It may be a process where you make repeat visits over a period of time to see how things develop with your characters or the life of the village.

Yes, it is tremendously helpful to have others with whom to share your experiences, gain new knowledge, and simply have a place to vent the joys and frustrations which accompany any creative endeavor. D-Word can certainly help you in terms of some virtual community. And I have no doubts that there is a community in Egypt which can help fill that need in a more face to face manner. You can search the D-Word database for other filmmakers by country to see if there are some fellow Egyptians to e-mail directly (since not everyone checks into this forum frequently). And others here may have some more specific advice.

In any case, best of luck. It sounds like an amazing project.

Mikal Jakubal

Great advice from Erica!

For what it's worth, feature length docs routinely require 20-100 hours of source material. Not to suggest you be careless with rolling tape, because that will only be burden later, but if you're still in the research stage with only seven hours shot and no clear direction, it's no huge deal yet. You just don't want to come home with 40 hours of tape and no clear story focus or structure.

You might consider approaching subjects with only a mic (good quality!) and do all your initial interviews audio-only. That way, you can assess what someone has to say, how "listenable" they are, the level of rapport you might be able to develop and whether or not you will want to have them in the film. Audio-only is much less intimidating than a camera for most people and you can always use that as voice-over later if someone says something brilliant and you decide you want to keep that person as a character.

Good luck!

Sam Rabeeh

Thank you so much everyone,
I've known I would hit this wall but you are all providing small steps to overcome it.

Purpose: Egyptian Identity – Are Egyptians Arabs? Myth Breaking – Who are Egyptians really? The camel riding arab in the Sahara? Are Christians a minority under duress and assault in Egypt? I imagine some of the additional myths are that Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacology did not begin here in Egypt, these are some of the vague ideas so far.

Identity: I left Egypt when I was very young and grew up in Canada. I've been back several times. The village is my home town, I was born in my grandfathers house, it's special to me in a way I can't describe. How many of us can say we sleep in the same bed we were born in? My family is originally Fellahin, farmers. I can't count how many times people have dismissed Egyptians as terrorists, thugs, thieves............When you see my family and friends, young and old, working in the hot sun, all day, cutting wheat, prepping the ground later for rice, I can't help but be overwhelmed that the greatest things in the world come from the ground, especially the people.

Patience: I realized the other day that there are many opportunities to record audio only and open the door with many people, and I did not capitalize on it due to illness, lack of sleep, or some other sad reason. Perhaps my frustration also comes from the fact I am realizing that I will have to work on this for a longer period. And to film in Churches has led me to require the proper paperwork which I will need to prepare, for the next trip.

Community: I found two contacts and one has old information but I will endeavor to dig deeper into the database to see what comes up. I'm closer to the internet for the next four to five days so I have that will assist. But just as quick feedback, D-Word rocks.

Jennifer Davis-Lewis

I agree w/Erica. WE've all been there. Keep shooting. I know that I had more than 70 hours of footage. It seems like a lot and believe me it is when you start transcribing. But it 's worth it. Know as well that you may start out with one purpose and then when going through your footage something else comes through the back door if you know what I mean and you might see your doc going in a slightly different direction. Don't panic. This is normal. Making a doc is like writing a book. You have many different versions/drafts. Characters are important. Their stories will bring what you want to convey across in a more accessible way for your audience. There's my 2 cents.
peace and good luck

Darla Bruno

Logistics . . .

So my dp has the files, and I only have DVDs with no time codes (we did this for back-up at the last minute).

If I go to hire a translator (someone here kindly explained to me) I'll need DVDs with time codes. I asked my DP to do this (he's in Milan) and then my potential translator can watch the footage and put their translations with time codes. But my DP is kind of whining about the time it will take to do this (we have 16 hours of footage).

Is there another way?

Erica Ginsberg

Sam, I wonder if you should be a character in your film. It's not appropriate for every film and can often be seen as an overly easy way to tie a loose storyline together, but, in this case, you are a bit of the bridge between cultures and stereotypes, so that might also be interesting to explore. Or at least have on tape, which you can later decide to keep or scrap. (I say this, having produced a film with an emigree director going back to his homeland where he didn't make the conscious decision to include himself as a character until he returned and could not afford to go back, so it was a lot of patchworking to bring him in as a character after-the-fact).

Wolfgang Achtner


"Someone" was me (or, at least, I was one of those who answered you).

If you search all the old posts that I wrote several months ago, you'll find that I'd pasted examples of how I do transcriptions.

ONCE AGAIN, you're asking the same questions. I don't mind helping you – to the contrary, I'm quite happy to help you (and I'm sure that this is true for everyone else) – but since it takes time and concentration to answer a question I don't think it's appropriate for you to have the generous people who participate on this board waste their time by asking the SAME questions, several times. As a matter of courtesy, you ought to check old postings first, as I pointed out to you just a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, you'll need DVD's (or VHS videocassettes or whatever) with time codes.

First of all, someone, the translator (in this case) needs to transcribe the entire content of each cassette containing interviews.

When writing down the transcription, the translator needs to indicate time code corresponding to the BEGINNING AND TO THE END OF EACH AND EVERY PARAGRAPH.

Then, passage number two, the translator writes out the translation maintaining the same time codes at the beginning and at the end of each paragraph.

The reason you MUST do this is that – when you'll have written your story outline or the script – you'll be able to find any soundbite you are interested in, within a few seconds time. If you don't have time code, it could take you a long time to find the 'bite.

Immagine that you might build your documentary (as I have in some cases) without any voiceover narration. In a situation like this, your script will rely totally on the soundbites of your character(s).

When you start editing and you build the story, it'll be easy to find and assemble – in the correct order – all the relevant soundbites along the timeline. If, at any time, you should decide to substitute a given segment with another, it'll only take you a few seconds to identify and grab it.

What is your dp whing about?

A) Having to do the translation?

B) Having to indicate time codes?

It may take a while – especially if one person has to do it all – to translate and transcribe 16 hours of interviews and it will take a lot of hard work and concentration. That's why people who have to do this – unless you're doing it yourself (not in this case) – want to be payed well. But, if he's accepted to take on the job, you must have already covered this issue.

It may take him several weeks time to complete the translation, but ince you're not in a rush, who cares. Of course, he might prefer to be out shooting, that's why you have to pay him!

If he's referring to B), it only takes a few extra seconds time to write down the time codes.

Tony Comstock

I'm putting up a topless avitar to see if it makes Wolfgang any more eager to help me!

Wolfgang Achtner


I don't get your sense of humor. And it's not the first time.

I'm more than "eager" to help Darla or anyone else; in fact, I answered her question.

I just pointed out that Darla has a habit of asking the same things more than once. I wrote: "As a matter of courtesy, you ought to check old postings first, as I pointed out to you just a couple of weeks ago "

What's your problem with that?

Tony Comstock

Wolfie, I'm just hurt that you've (more or less) dimissed me as being unwilling to make real sacrifices to pursue my cinematic vision; drawing unfavorable comparisons between me and John Cassavettes. I thought maybe if I took off my shirt, you'd give me a second chance! ;-)

Wolfgang Achtner


I hate to disappoint ya. I didn't draw any comparisons between you and anyone, in fact I never mentioned you.

I wrote that I didn't pay for interviews and my experience has taught me that (with rare exceptions) it's possible to convince people to talk without paying them. It just takes a lot of patience and time and perseverance or whatever skills to convince them.

In any case, you don't have any hopes at all. You're not my type.

Doug Block

Wolfgang, I acknowledge your generosity. But if you're tired of answering the same questions over and over again, why not just try not answering?

And Darla, honestly, your domination of this topic is getting tiring. It's not all about you. Pick your spots and please don't repeat yourself, okay?

Rob Appleby

Darla – is there any way you can import the dvd footage to quicktime? There is software which enables you to punch in the timecode while you're transcribing (Inqscribe, for instance) while running a quicktime movie. Don't quite know how it all works, but you can also set a timecode offset, so if you know the start timecode of your original footage, you can sync it with the transcription quite painlessly.

But another option to consider, is to simply create a new audio track in fcp (or avid, whatever) and then translate with a voiceover to that track.

I have used both methods and they both have their advantages. Good luck.

As for asking a question again and again, I think it is slightly churlish to make a big deal out of it. If we (I say "we", but I am as much in need of help as anyone) are prepared to help someone with a technical issue, then we should just help. These are all complicated issues and there are many solutions, so it isn't always evident which is the best way to go about things the first time round.

In this case, I think transcribing from a DVD or cassette without using widely available specialised software would be a real waste of time and energy. But that's just me, no doubt Wolfgang doesn't agree.

Christopher Wong

darla, go ahead and keep posting in here whenever you need help. if someone feels like they've already answered your question, they don't need to respond again. or, if you prefer, you are always welcome to send an email to any of us who have offered helpful advice before. it's not easy starting out on your first project – especially one with an international bent – so we definitely want to encourage you on your way.