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.

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! ;-)