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The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

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.

Natasha Mottola
Wed 30 Oct 2013Link

In reply to Danya Hofnor's post on Tue 29 Oct 2013 :

Gideon's Army-a recent film about Public Defenders- had quite a bit of footage in office-like spaces.

Ellin Jimmerson
Sat 9 Nov 2013Link

In reply to Marie Hetherington's post on Sat 12 Oct 2013 :

Hi, Marie!
This is an issue I had to deal with a good bit in my documentary about immigration. Several of the people I interviewed had very compelling stories but told them in minute detail. One man in particular was indigenous and had to use Spanish, his second language which he had not mastered, to tell his story. He had a very circuitous way of telling his story involving a lot of looping around as well as more or less non-Western ways of expressing himself. I agree with Doug and John. The best way forward is to try to get the essence of what your interviewees have to say. Think in terms of interpreting as much as translating word for word. If you can make it sound right in the original language, trimming it to get where you want it, then you can hide all your cuts with visuals. Visuals are the key as well as someone who knows how to fix any sound problems.
Hope this is at least a little helpful. Good luck!

Leslie Ann Epperson
Thu 14 Nov 2013Link

What is a reasonable price to pay for one song on an album from a group that is not well known, but that I really like?

John Burgan
Thu 14 Nov 2013Link

Leslie, as the text at the top of this Topic explains, this is geared towards first-time filmmakers so in the circumstances you're much more likely to get a response if you repost in Sound and Music

Having said that, there is not really any such thing as a "reasonable price" as far as the industry is concerned, even if the group is not well known. It's an expensive minefield, so best to abandon reason.

Alejandro Cova
Fri 13 Dec 2013Link

Hello everyone. I need some insight on how to structure my documentary. Here's the background: The film focuses on Cuba's medical program for international students. There are students from nearly 100 countries around the world studying medicine in Cuba, including students from the U.S. The students that are accepted into the program are awarded a scholarship providing a tuition-free education. Most of the students are minorities from lower-income families who couldn't afford school in the U.S. Students from the program are to return to their country of origin and work in poor, under-served areas. There are a lot of interesting things that I will cover like how Cuba's health outcomes are on par with the U.S. despite the fact that they are a poor country; cooperation between Cuba and U.S. despite political differences and the embargo; plight and challenges of the students who study there(must learn Spanish, live w/o luxuries of home, pass U.S. medical licensure exams) and work in the U.S.; high cost of healthcare in U.S.; affordable care act; what we can learn from Cuba's preventive health model; debate about relations with Cuba and changing attitudes, what graduates of the program doing, etc.

I have film a dozens of interviews in Cuba, from students, to deans, to healthcare workers and professors. But the problem I can't get deep story telling and character development of the students because I can't stay in Cuba for months at a time because of my day job. An I can only get enough time to travel there maybe once a year..I need to do more filming in the U.S. as well, which will be much easier.

I'm wondering "what's the story?" when I can't have stories surrounding the students. I feel that the film will be more information-based as it will inform the audience about things they didn't know about, but lacking character arcs or plot.

What would you do in a situation where filming time is limited and you won't be able to get deep character development? Are there any documentaries that you can suggest that might shed some light on how I could put this together? Will an information-based documentary with not a lot of character narratives be good enough? Any thoughts or ideas are welcome.

Thanks in advanced.

Matt Dubuque
Sat 14 Dec 2013Link

Not to be trite, but shoot as much footage as you possibly can in Cuba. Everything is a story there.

You might also focus on the actual content of the Cuban medical school curriculum. How is it that they spend MUCH less than we do on health care, yet often achieve better outcomes (such as an infant mortality rate that is 20% lower than ours).

How can they achieve better results than us at a fraction of the cost?

Is it possible that the curriculum itself is superior to ours?

Of course it is. Some portions of their medical school curriculum do indeed surpass ours.

Take infant mortality. Why is Cuba's infant mortality rate much lower than the USA?

Because they figured out that miscarriages are tightly correlated with missed prenatal appointments.

When a pregnant woman misses a prenatal appointment, some major stressor is probably occurring. So in Cuba, the day after any prenatal appointment is missed her doctor makes a house call to her at her home the very next day. Is anything wrong? Anything we can do to help? How is everything my love kind of a thing.

THIS is what they teach in medical school. We are less intelligent than that in the USA and that stupidity kills our babies unnecessarily. So we tighten the embargo?

Same with cardiac care. Cuban women now have a longer life expectancy than USA women, but the men are currently about 1.4 years behind.

So four years ago they figured out that the major difference causing Cuban men to die slightly earlier than their USA counterparts was that in Oriente and Camaguey (mostly) and rural areas generally male mortality was too high the first 48 hours after a heart attack.

It was taking Cuban men living in the countryside too long to be treated for myocardial infarction.

So they installed a series of "first responder" satellite health care clinics (about 45 of them) throughout the country close to the most remote regions. These satellite clinics specialize in immediate administration of clot blockers and the like during those critical first hours after a heart attack.

The benefits of TOP DOWN planning. Duh.

Now the gap is closing and it is clear to us that within a few years, Cuban men will also outlive men in the USA. At a tiny fraction of the cost.

So you might try actually exploring what is in the Cuban medical school curriculum and why they are more intelligent than their USA counterparts. There are numerous other examples that demonstrate that in many respects a Cuban medical school education is superior to one in the USA.

And they have the stats to prove it.

Matt Dubuque
Sat 14 Dec 2013Link

Contact me offline if you like about interviewing my friend Emiliano for your film.

A US citizen, he appeared in Michael Moore's film about health care and received health care in Cuba for a serious disease that had been misdiagnosed in the USA.

He's one of the fellows who arrives in a boat there with Michael Moore.

Alejandro Cova
Sat 14 Dec 2013Link

Hi Matt, I feel what you are saying. Thanks for reaching out!

Alejandro Cova
Sat 14 Dec 2013Link

@Matt. I'm not sure how to get your contact info via this site. But I will contact you somehow.

Erica Ginsberg
Sat 14 Dec 2013Link

Alejandro, do you know this film SALUD which pre-dated SICKO?

Covers some of the same themes (and storytelling challenges) as your film. It's been a while since I saw it, but I recall they covered a bit of the story of the foreign medical students in their home countries before they went to Cuba.

Matt Dubuque
Sat 14 Dec 2013Link

Hi Alejandro, you can reach me at onehundredtrees (AT)

Because your time in Cuba is so precious, you might consider a "compare and contrast" approach between Cuba and the USA, comparing aspects of medical school education (cost, barriers to entry) between the two or some variation thereof.

I have some resources on the island.

Alejandro Cova
Mon 16 Dec 2013Link

@Erica, thanks. Yes, I have seen Salud a long time ago. Yes, As I recall, Salud did a lot of filming in other Latin American countries and some countries in Africa. I will find it and take another look.

Summers Henderson
Wed 18 Dec 2013Link

Alejandro, that's a pretty common issue to face: how do you take a set of facts and turn it into a story for a documentary film? And I think there's plenty of people who end up making films that probably should have written a book or an article instead, because that would be a more efficient way to present the facts.

It does sound like you've got a great subject, full of cinematic potential. But I think you're right to be trying to figure out what your story is, because that's really the key. As you obviously know, having characters with story arcs and plot points is a great way to structure a film. I would advise you not to give up on exploring characters, even if you can't be there to shoot over a long period of time. You can get a lot out of following people for a day, observing them in different settings, maybe interviewing them briefly, even getting interviews in different settings. Having people in your film to personify the issues you're documenting will make your film come more alive.

As an example, I worked on a film "Wonder Women" for which the filmmakers did a great job at presenting facts and an argument, mostly through talking head interviews. But they also found characters who could illuminate aspects of the argument, and there were little 5-minute segments on these characters. So you don't get a feature-length story development, but you still get a lot.

Another way to consider the problem of finding a story: you can use history as the story of the film. So in your film, we might have a brief intro to the Cuban medical program today. Then we go back in time to its founding, see archival, find out how it began, see how it developed, etc. Even if you keep going back to the contemporary footage and we see what's happening today, you can still use the history-telling as a structural device. So we keep going back to the history and seeing how the program developed and became what it is today.

That's more or less the structure of "Wonder Women." There's a lot of exploring the contemporary world, but the whole thing is structured around a history (of women and popular culture) of the 20th century. So that you get to the end, and it's a natural place to ask questions about what's going to happen next. Which can work as an ending to your story, even though it's not final.

Another way to have a story is to have some person exploring the facts/issues and the story becomes their story of learning. That's the approach of a film like Sicko, where Michael Moore is the character who pretends to learn about the topic. Of course, Moore is actually constructing a sophisticated and effective argument. But there is a sort of story there, with himself as the character who grows and changes.

Maybe you don't want to insert yourself into the film like a Michael Moore. But you can get somebody else to be on-screen, like one of the students, or a journalist or an academic, or a doctor interested in this subject. And the film follows their story of coming to understand the issue.

Rodrigo Balseca
Fri 27 Dec 2013Link


My name Rodrigo and I've been a professional filmmaker for the last 5 years. I started out as camera operator and then became an commercial editor. I've even DP'd a series of four commercials for Adidas. Although, I've worked professionally in advertising my heart is in documentaries. For the last 13 years I've had personal project I've been working on and off but it's really taken off since last May. Since then I've shot in LA, NY and Argentina. My friends have served as crew working for free and I've been funding the rest out of pocket. I've taken my footage and with my subjects personal archives I've edited a teaser/trailer. I've shown it to some people for feedback (i haven't released it to the public yet) and it has gotten some really great response. Everyone is really excited about it and more and more people want to get involved. As I mentioned, I'm an editor and the company I worked for really wants to be part of my film and they feel it has commercial potential. Everything so far is great. But, always having been a staffer, I don't have any experience in the business side of things. How do i partner up with them? What kind of deal will be the best for me? Ho w do not lose creative control. Should I do it as a non profit? So many questions... Anyway thanks in advance for any help.

Kristin Alexander
Fri 3 Jan 2014Link

In reply to Alejandro Cova's post on Fri 13 Dec 2013 :
Sounds like a good start, despite the challenge of limited access. My first impression is that you are trying to cover a lot of information. Possibly focus on areas that interest you the most, for example when you wrote
"what we can learn from Cuba's preventive health model; debate about relations with Cuba and changing attitudes, what graduates of the program doing, etc.". I find that very interesting. You may be able to develop this further, follow a grad in U.S. (Anyone in Miami?). Use archival footage about embargo. What about coordinating with a filmmaker in Cuba? Maybe someone working in the tv station, although everything is govt run, so that may not be ideal. Who is your audience? If it is U.S., then so much information about Cuba would be good because we really have no idea...

Kristin Alexander
Sat 4 Jan 2014Link

Alejandro, i forgot to mention this journalist/blogger in Cuba who has written about heathcare in Cuba. You may already know her.

Edited Sat 4 Jan 2014 by Kristin Alexander

Stephanie Hubbard
Wed 8 Jan 2014Link

In reply to Alejandro Cova's post on Mon 16 Dec 2013 :
Hey there Alejandro,

I'm a professional documentary story consultant and writer ( I do workshops and consult with people all over the world and have free articles on my blog here:

Here are my suggestions: let's say you've found out about the story of a particular student that you wish you'd been following. (I suspect there are a few that stand out)) You can prompt them to tell their story that's already happened but TELL it in the PRESENT tense in the interview – then collect b roll of them that might illustrate, directly or metaphorically what they are speaking about.

A great example of this is a film called "Unknown White Male" where much of the story had already happened. One of the great things that filmmaker did was have the subject tell the story in the locations where it happened. This way you can compress your CAPTURING of the story – but expand the TIME LINE of the story and weave it throughout your other story/essay elements.

That's my two cents.

Good luck, let me know if you have any more questions.
Stephanie Hubbard

Edited Wed 8 Jan 2014 by Stephanie Hubbard

marco Jackson
Wed 26 Mar 2014Link

Hi everyone,

I'm compiling a proposal to garner funding for completion of my first documentary and am looking for a few bits of advice. I have 15 years of editing experience and zero years of producing experience!! The doc will be screened at independent cinemas and distributed by DVD.

Please could you advise on the best NTSC to PAL conversion solution with the best cost/quality trade-off. There is 13 minutes of screen-time that needs to be converted.

I have used a number of stills which need to be licensed, mostly of UK politicians, all taken from websites. I understand that the price is massively variable but could you suggest an average figure per still I could put in the budget. I don't currently have time to go through the process of chasing down the owner of every photo used. Does anyone know of an archivist in the South West who could help me with this?

Many thanks


Theo Ferguson
Sun 13 Apr 2014Link

Hi guys,
I'm a 3rd year student at the University of Central Lancashire. My intrest is mainly in documentaries and therefore for my final project, i'm talking about how documentaries could possibly manipulate the truth, but also, could this also be a good thing? (For entertainment purposes).

If people could answer this short questionaire, i'd appreciate it so much. The questions are:

1. Describe your Role on the most sucessful Documentary you've been involved with?
2. What techniques did you use which could be seen as manipulating the truth when working on the documentary? i.e. Noddies, editing out parts of interviews to get more direct answers. And why did you use them?
3. When working on the documentary, do you think the subjects acted differently when they were being filmed as appose to off camera? And how did this affect the realness of the documentary?
4. Why do you think manipulation techniques for documentaries are used?
5. Do you think that a documentary would still be as sucessful if there wern't any manipulations? How would it affect it? And why? (An example, in the 2002 documentary Bolwing for Columbine, Film Maker Michael Moore filmed many scenes where the audience believed he was talking to the subject and was being ignored, but the subject had already left.)
6. How do you feel about TV shows such as TOWIE, Gordie Shore, Jersey Shore and other TV shows that are seen to it's audience as being Reality TV? How do you think it affects the documentary genre?

Thanks guys, it would really help me with my final research project.
if you have any questions, feel free to ask

- Theo

Doug Block
Sun 13 Apr 2014Link

In reply to Theo Ferguson's post on Sun 13 Apr 2014 :

Sorry for the short answers, Theo, but don't have the time to go into detail.

1. Director, Producer, DP, Writer
2. Took some interviews I did after the main filming ended and made it appear as if it happened earlier in time.
3. Yes. Not at all.
4. To tell a better, more engaging story.
5. No.
6. Not sure.

Edited Sun 13 Apr 2014 by Doug Block

Theo Ferguson
Sun 13 Apr 2014Link

No problem Doug, every little helps. Thank you. :)

Guys, if you don't feel comfortable posting the answers on here, feel free to email me at
None of these answers will be made public, just put inside a file and used for my research project. :)

Edited Sun 13 Apr 2014 by Theo Ferguson

Ellin Jimmerson
Sun 13 Apr 2014Link

In reply to Theo Ferguson's post on Sun 13 Apr 2014 :

Theo, interesting topic. I have one documentary to my credit.
1. Producer, Writer, Director, Editor
2. Same as Doug. I took some b-roll several years after my interviews with two of my interviewees; I'm not sure I know what noddies are?, if you mean nodding to people as I was interviewing them, yes, I did that; in fact, I began the practice deliberately for this reason: when I just looked at them while they were answering, mostly in order to concentrate, some thought I was upset with them, so I began to tell them ahead of time that I was concentrating but also did not want my voice on camera so could not encourage them vocally; nodding seemed to relax them and let them tell their story with more ease; I also stopped one interviewee several times because he was answering questions like, "what did you feel when all your companions died crossing the river?" with "bad." I'd ask him to try to say more . . . things like that. I was trying to get editable or useable material--my motivation; I cannot imagine not editing out parts of answers to get what I needed--usually the answers to my questions were complicated; I also interviewed indigenous people who had a long, round-about way of answering as well as the habit of referring to themselves, for example, as "he" rather than "I." So I had to take all of this into account when adding subtitles. Occasionally, I did not translate completely accurately in order better to convey the real meaning of what the interview was saying. For example, one Mexican man referred to his fellow workers in the fields as "mojados" which translates as "wetbacks" which among most Americans is considered a slur, although he clearly did not use it as a slur. So I just translated it the word as "workers". Translating more accurately would only have acted as a distraction and you can't put footnotes in, you know?
3. Absolutely, yes. Just putting someone in front of a camera is putting them into an unnatural situation. In my case, I was interviewing a number of illegal immigrants. So there was the anxiety they felt, which mostly was low-level because they trusted me to keep their identities a secret, but in one case was so high I could not use the interview. In addition, in order to protect their identities, I shot their eyes only using a slit in a screen. I had to darken the room and so there they were in a dark room, with a screen in front of them, and bright lights--kind of like being interrogated. I think that in addition to the difficulty of the memories they were sharing with me, there was the setting which made them more emotional than they might have been in a more every day setting. But there is also the issue of interviewees who are experts in their fields. They were so much easier to edit because they had their answers down to a science--some had testified before the US Congress, for example, so their interviews were chock full of sound bytes. How many of us have answers to important questions which have been fine-tuned over the years? Mostly, people don't naturally speak speeches, if you get my meaning. Having said all this, I think all of the above contributed to the realness of the film.
4. I guess I'd have to know more what you mean by manipulation techniques. The only manipulation techniques I've been directly associated with have been less with documentaries and more with print--when the story already has been written in the writer's head and I'm just there to be kept talking until I say what they want to hear and everything else, which is what I really want to say or talk about is edited out. They do that more to satisfy their funders or their editors than anything else, imho.
5. I wasn't aware of the story you told about Michael Moore. You're saying he sat in front of a camera talking to no one but pretended someone was there? My first reaction is that's unethical--but I haven't thought about it. I've often thought, though, about the director of The Thin Blue Line (whose name is slipping my mind) apparently having an interviewee dress in red while he is drawing a comparison between her and the mysterious "Lady in Red" of a 1920s gangland murder. I don't think you get to play tricks on your subjects in a documentary or on the audience. Its no longer a documentary when you do that--its fiction. I'd have to think about "still as successful." The Thin Blue Line and Bowling for Columbine were quite successful.
6. Gosh! You've got great questions. I don't watch much reality TV – in my opinion and from talking with cinematographers who have worked reality TV there is really not much reality there. Its a great question. Don't think I have much to contribute.

Hope I've helped a little bit. Best of luck with your project.

Edited Sun 13 Apr 2014 by Ellin Jimmerson

Theo Ferguson
Sun 13 Apr 2014Link

Great answers there Ellin, and very detailed Thank you so much!

By 'Noddies' I should have explained, I mean for example in an interview, the interview would be filmed single camera, and then a seperate scene shot after the interview of the interviewer acting although he/she is nodding (or surprised/laughing/sad etc..) in response to their answers.

Ellin Jimmerson
Sun 13 Apr 2014Link

In reply to Theo Ferguson's post on Sun 13 Apr 2014 :

I would say, then, that Noddies is a no-no.

Theo Ferguson
Tue 15 Apr 2014Link

Thanks Ellin. Feel free to keep em coming guys :)

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