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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.

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Monica Williams
Wed 25 Jun 2008Link

Is anyone familiar with the use of European and American art (17th-20th century) in documentary film? If so, I am looking for any information that will be useful as I make preparations for a trip to Europe to gather images. I have talked with The Bridgeman Art Library (a provider of high-res images for a price) but I'm wondering if there are cheaper ways to get rights to use images from museums. Is something older than 200 years, passed its copyright? Do I still need permission to use these older images? Is it fairly easy to obtain permission or a minefield? Any information regarding this area of documentary will be highly valued.

John Burgan
Wed 25 Jun 2008Link Tag

I think you should be OK for old paintings, but you probably would need a license from the photographer/museum to use the photograph although the work of art itself is in the public domain.

If you have a few hours free, you might wish to browse through this link:
Edited Wed 25 Jun 2008 by John Burgan

Jo-Anne Velin
Fri 27 Jun 2008Link

Monica, if you are shooting a painting hanging in a European museum, just contact their press person and explain the not for profit nature of, etc., if this is the case. Over here they might treat you like a regular journalist and allow you free or almost free use within your film, if the images are presented a certain way (I am guessing criteria will change from place to place). As you know, you'll need to get releases and whatnot, no matter what.

Stills: some museums have been digitising some of their collections, but not all.

If you want to share where you are going in Europe, great.

If to Berlin, and if to shoot specific pictures or objects, you're welcome to email me and I can phone around for you here to get a starter answer and contacts' names for you. (You'll also need to send me your film's story and provide any other amunition to help open doors).

Terri Hartley
Sat 28 Jun 2008Link

I've read through lots of the posts before making my own and I am curious. There have been a few people who shoot loads of footage and then seem to review it to find their story later. Stupid question, and I dont mean to sound like an ass, but dont you go in with a (if not the) story already in mind? I was half (and not the creative half) of a karaoke doc some years ago. I was the person getting releases signed, lining up the next interview, working the crowd, manning the equipment, and operating the camera. The vision of what that story would be was not mine, not my project. I shot what I was told to shoot.

Now I am shooting in Thailand where the story is whatever I find and want to tell. How common is it that the doc is shot in such a way that you just get as much footage in general as you can and decipher the story later? I like to have a plan but I would say that is working against me here.

Wolfgang Achtner
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link


It can happen that you may start to shoot a story without a precise idea of where it's going. You haven't really explained what you're doing so it's hard to know how to help.

First of all, it may sound obvious but, as a general rule, it's not a good idea to try to tell more than one story at a time.

Secondly, don't expect that if you shoot a lot when you return home you'll automatically have a story. You might end up with a lot of (pretty) wallpaper and nothing else.

This much I can say: since the best stories are usually character driven, I would suggest that – while you are on location – you ought to try to find one or two subjects who will be the protagonists of your story.

Try to tell the the small story as a way of telling the bigger story; what I mean here is that by telling the in-depth the story of your subjects, you should be able to tell the bigger story or how whatever it is relates to them, influences their lives, etc.

If you want more – and more helpful – suggestions, you need to go into greater detail as to what you're doing, why you're doing it and what you expect to say. The answers to these questions might help you restrict your field of action and help you come up with a specific story idea. In any case, if you find one or two strong (and interesting) characters, you'll most likely be able to find out whatever story it is that you ought to be concentrating on.

Terri Hartley
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

Thank you very much for your reply. Your comments are very helpful.

To give you more detail, there is a guy from the states who basically chucked everything he had stateside (penthouse apt, Lexus, very cushiony job in advertising) and now lives very much hand to mouth, operating a legit charity overseas. I am trying to get the story of what drives a person to make a decision like that. Turns out he is a super SUPER quirky individual, not in a nutcase way, but in a very funny way. I've interviewed his family stateside already and they also are very personable on camera. The other volunteers, also very camera friendly. My problem has been this guy. The MAIN GUY! HE goes all deer-in-the-headlights as soon as the camera comes out of the bag.

So far, I have shot around him but its do or die time for me. It is like he is pure long as the camera is not rolling. But he clams up and is like a sack of potatoes if he thinks I am recording. I am wondering how much of a story I might salvage if things continue this way. Would it be possible to build a story around an "absent" character if enough input is given by those in his immediate orbit? The main struggle this guy faces is how he can get more traffic to his website, which is his only source of funding for charity projects, and all the stuff he goes through in that struggle (such as a live webcast of a record breaking karaoke event coming up). Thank goodness I am not having to pitch this idea because my words dont do it justice really. But he is everything you would dream of in a central figure for character....all except for that teensy issue about being a garden stone when I'm rolling.

I do have a secondary storyline of sorts...not storyline so much as a profile of two young students he found in the streets and was able to get in to a school again after not being able to go for two years. That was supposed to be my "touching" serious segment against the main comedic line the rest of the doc dances with. I've been following their progress from the streets to the classroom and how they are adjusting.

So there is a tiny bit of it. Any other comments to help me deal with this obstacle would be greatly appreciated. I very much like the comment about telling the smaller story as a way of telling the bigger story. Gives me something to consider there.

Robert Goodman
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

My suggestion is to follow the guy around long enough that you and the camera disappear. Don't interview him shoot him going through the course of his day. At first he will freak out but after a week or two you'll become background wallpaper. Get his cooperation and promise him that you'll protect him despite his fear of the camera.

Doug Block
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

Terri, Wolfgang has great advice and I agree with Robert's suggestion, too. I would add that instead of thinking of an interview as something sit-down and formal, that you pop the occasional question to your subject as you're filmming the b-roll. Often doing something physical relaxes a subject, and it often makes for more interesting and intimate interviews.

Paul Kloeden
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

Just remember the sound. Mike him up in the morning with a lapel mic and then just film around him. You'll be surprised at what he says when the camera (but not the mic) is pointing in a different direction. Think of sound and vision as potentially separate elements.

And don't forget to make sure that any red recording light on the camera is turned off.

Terri Hartley
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

All comments are appreciated. I have tried following him, even sneaking the camera out while on the back of his motorbike as he was pulled over and talking to me over his shoulder. He turned his head and mid-sentence said "OH! That's on?!" and shut up. If I wasnt so aggravated, I would find that funny.

I will give all suggestions a shot (no pun intended). Thanks!

Tony Comstock
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

Try sleeping with him. I hear it sometimes works.

Terri Hartley
Sun 29 Jun 2008Link

Edit: I will try all but Tony's suggestions. There is, fortunately or unfortunately, a limit to what I will do for my craft. ;)

Mark Barroso
Mon 30 Jun 2008Link

He's worried your camera/doc will reveal something he's hiding or running away from. Whether a pimple on his nose or a past as an ax murderer, something's going on in there. If you don't want to dig around and find out, ask him straight out what's the frickin' problem here, dude?

Edited Mon 30 Jun 2008 by Mark Barroso

Doug Block
Mon 30 Jun 2008Link

On camera, of course ;-)

Mark Barroso
Mon 30 Jun 2008Link

Of course.

Terri Hartley
Mon 30 Jun 2008Link

HA! I'll keep working on it. I have his tentative agreement not to fight this thing and hopefully, his personality won't take a vacation in the interim.

Theresa Tall
Tue 1 Jul 2008Link

I was told you can't buy an ibook, you have to buy a macbook pro becasue the ibook doesnt support final cut pro. that's what apple told me...i'd double check that though. good luck!

Theresa Tall
Tue 1 Jul 2008Link

Hey there –- still haven't combed through many of these posts, confused about order. I'm hoping someone can help. The series I want to create is a three part series – one of the parts involves just shooting one subject talking for about 20 muinutes in a setting like a park or an office. I dont have a camera, lighting kit, lavalier or anything. Since this part of the production is fairly straightforward (hardly any subject movement, same location, only one subject being shot) I was going to put out an ad to get some grad film student with gear or access to gear to shoot it with me present to work with the subject. I can buya new computer so the person I hire can store the footage (I will be working with multipple subjects/different shoots, so the footage will add up), is it reasonable for them to get an assciate producer credit if i am not paying them? i am not paying them becasue i dont have money but of course I'd liek to make this worth their while as well.
also, I just took an intensive guerrilla fillmmaking class (taight me some basics) where they said in Febriary 2008 the new US standard for all TVS is HD, all the networks have to switch over (so he says). So if I plan to air this on internet with the thought in the back of my mind that one day this may be aired on network or cable television and also screened on a big screen, should I put in the ad that the people who aplpy for this job MUST have a HD camera, and also do all HD cameras do a good job of being able to have great picture quiality on the web AND on tv/big screen? I know, newbie questions. please help, thanks!

Monica Williams
Wed 2 Jul 2008Link

Thank you to John and Jo-Anne :-)

Jo-Anne, I would really appreciate your offer of help as I want to come to Berlin and I'm not sure exactly where to go. I can send my one page treatment to you. I'm not sure how to email you, but you can email me through my website, Thanks again and talk to you soon.

Mike West
Sat 5 Jul 2008Link

Hey guys,

I'm about to embark on my first documentary, and I'd like to know what gear you guys use.... I was thinking of using an HVX, lavs and just practical available lighting as its more of an urban themed documentary.

Am I missing anything?

Andrew David Watson
Sun 6 Jul 2008Link

A good shotgun mic might help catch some of the action. The HVX isnt the best low light camera so depending on the shoot maybe consider some type of lighting. Tripod? Extra batteries? Camera Bag? Those can be important as well. With that said, dont worry to much about gear and focus on the story.

Mark Barroso
Sun 6 Jul 2008Link

Books, DVD's, websites for techy info, unless you're doing art for family and friends. Volunteer to shoot weddings, ballgames, rodeos to learn to work under pressure.

And yes, you're missing a lovely intern.

Timothy S. McCarty
Mon 7 Jul 2008Link

I agree with ADW! Don't wory about technical stuff, they're just tools to tell your story. Mike, especially for your first doc, really focus on your story and what the slant is. Target audience? Who will you interview to give your doc credibility? Who is your "expert" on your subject? Think about the kinds of answers you want and then develop really open-ended questions to get those answers (and more!) in the on-camera interview...

Focus heavily on all aspects of pre-production; locations, setting up interviews, scheduling b-roll shoots when, where etc... By doing all of this pre-production, you begin to establish your technical requirements, i.e. that the HVX isn't the best low light camera, 30p or 24p? That I'm gonna needs lights, a boom mic if I've got multiple folks talking during interviews, or, I need a lav mic, or a wireless mic system etc...

As I tell my high school and college video students, there's no such thing as too much planning! Good luck!

Mark Barroso
Mon 7 Jul 2008Link

Yes. It's called the 6 P's: Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

That includes learning the technical stuff. I disagree with you, Tim. Real filmmakers don't use the Auto-everything setting, just as real photographers don't use point and shoot cameras. To use your analogy, anyone can buy tools, but a true craftsman learns how to use them from a master – in person or from books/DVDs. It can save you a lot of time and frustration.

Practice, practice, practice.

Sara Peak Convery
Mon 7 Jul 2008Link Tag

I would like advice about mounting a camera inside a moving car, for view through the front window. I was able to rig my tripod in the passenger seat, which worked fine as long as the road I was driving on was smooth--not usually the case with rural highways, certainly not with gravel roads. Wondering if anyone has a good suggestion for 'shock absorbers' for the camera. I have tried this with a PD100 and VX2000. I tried handheld but found there was more overall camera movement than I wanted though less 'jittery-ness'.

Edited Tue 8 Jul 2008 by Sara Peak Convery

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