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.
My name is Michael Lieberman. I posted here a year or two ago when I
was in production of my documentary film "The Drift." At the time, I
posted fundraising and budget concerns/thoughts, which were quite
I thoroughly enjoyed the Fair Use discussion, issues of which I am
currently dealing with and worried about. In "The Drift", many times I
interviewed the subject, an Iraq War veteran, as he was in transit (in
a car) or near his computer playing music. I never wanted to use the
music, but the interviews literally hold the film together. The Center
for Social Media PDF file was very helpful, but then I read
contradictory reports about other films where directors had to secure
rights for cell phone ring tones in the background. Where does the
truth lie about this? The total budget for this film was about as much
as it costs for a teenager's used car. What to do?
Another separate thought: In one scene, the Iraq vet made a video for
a class of his, using music from "The Simpsons" soundtrack and a
speech from Oppenheimer. Would using this, where the intent by the
subject of my film used it to further his ideas, count as me capturing
copyrighted media contact in the process of filming something else,
i.e. the reactions to his project?
I must add that this community is invaluable. Without it, I'd really
have nowhere to go for concerns I've had as a documentary filmmaker.
First of all I got a question. Any one familiar and or have worked
with Current TV?
We are an upcomming documentary production company/collective called
Transnational Productions based in Europe (at the moment London, and
South Germany). Our main goal is to make films concerning diaspora
and culture, eventhough we are developing new ideas as we go along on
a daily basis.
We also will like to approach filmmakers interested in contacting us
for possible working together etc... as we are open to
suggestions/share cooperation and already have a few contacts world
wide, which by the way it is the main reason why we appreciate this
For example, one of our friends currently went to Thailand and Burma
to shoot a documentary and we provide her with contact information to
rent some equipment she needed for her to shoot there. We also need
some support in logistics as we can offer filmmakers our logistic
We are developing different kinds of contacts from production to
commissioning editors. We will like to develop a contact list as we
go along so we can exchange our experience/expertise equally.
We are also in the process of contacting European networks
Commissioning Editors, a difficult task but non the less exciting and
For more information and or comments, please feel free to contact us.
P.S. By the way, I hope this is the right place to write this email.
welcome to join our professional community: www.d-
word.com/community/join. Michael, you seem far enough along with your
experience to be eligible, too. You're far more likely to get answers
to your questions there.
Hey guys, kinda new here. Lol I'll just post the email question to save the flavor of the question:
I'm a high school student in the Philippines making a documentary on
the value of teenage love and the value of chastity. I would like to
ask for some basic advice on making a documentary. I'd be glad to
credit you for the advice in the end. =)
There's five people to interview, and I have couple of 1 CCD cameras.
The documentary can't exceed 12 minutes. Do you think it's a good idea
to make the documentary an entire interview? What about reenactments?
Do you have other ideas on how to make the documentary more
Thanks for your time reading this,
P.S. Sorry for the informality of the letter, I happen to be very candid!
The answer to your question is, as always, "it depends". If you have five people who give wonderfully poignant interviews with strong sound bites, they yes, you can probably go ahead and make the entire project nothing more than talking heads (e.g. Errol Morris' FOG OF WAR). However, if you have a character actually going through the struggle of remaining chaste, it might be more compelling to film him/her in the moment. I generally frown upon reenactments b/c they are so rarely done well (especially by first-time filmmakers) and they usually look terribly fake. Animation is something that's becoming a lot more prevalent and an interesting way of presenting an event that's already happened. Try looking at a bunch of different documentaries -- then pick and choose from certain styles you like that would best fit your film. Ultimately, the film has to be a reflection of what is most significant and striking to you.
I think a documentary needs more than talking heads. Errol Morris is also the king of re-enactments and even his talking heads are filmed with a very distinctive style (interrotron).
Teenagers talking about chastity? I want to see more than their heads. I want to see what they're talking about, if at least in an abstract way. Maybe, create their points of view in school or on the streets, looking at people, thinking about them. Maybe don't even show the interviewees. There's a reason it's a film and not a radio show, so let's see some compelling visuals..
Vincent, if you can get your hands on an American documentary called THE EDUCATION OF SHELBY KNOX, it demonstrates one approach to a similar topic (it's actually broader than just the chastity issue, but that is one issue covered in the film).
I also like Christopher's suggestion of possibly using animation.
Animated re-enactments of chaste teens? hmm... :-)
lol. exactly. if they are chaste, what would they be animatedly re-enacting?!
i'm with peter. unless someone has a very gripping personal story, and even then, just to hear them tell it is often not enough.
i also think that 5 characters for 12 minutes is too many.
Hey thanks guys for the information. I'll definitely use them in my documentary. =)
I'll be interviewing all five people in their dormitories. They're all in college. Do you think that's a good idea? They all definitely aren't chaste! Lol The thought of just having an interview with just some reenactments worry me.
The Documentary Film competition aims to get an in-depth view of
what the youth think, feel and say, especially with regard to human
sexuality. This will help the congress organizers, as well as parents
and educators, see where the youth are coming from. This will also
aid them in having a good picture of the dreams, ideals, and
struggles the youth are facing in our current society.
Actually I just copied and pasted the last paragraph. What do you think is the ideal number of people to be interviewed? There's a Japanese guy, a girl from Hongkong, a lesbian, a gay person, and two "normal" people. I'm choosing the Japanese guy, the two homosexuals, and one "normal" person. This would probably represent everyone fairly well. What do you guys think about this?
Thanks again for all your help! =)
Sorry for this quick line, but you have to take care when choosing your interviewees Vincent to how good they are as interviewees, how talkative, how focused and precise in what they say, how capable are they of capturing the viewers interests, etc...
I am curious now to know what makes the Japanese guy and the Hong Kong Girl different than the normal people? Do you mean your fellow country people?? If so, that explains...
Besides, other than enactments or animation, you might just film footage of those guys and girls lives. I mean their sexuality is part of their life (and lifestyle) after all, or isn't it?
Ok.. gotta run now. Good luck with the project!
I've done some work that involves interviewing people about their sexuality. Here's my advice, for whatever it's worth.
Mostly people never have the chance to express themselves candidly, to a stranger, about their sexuality and sexual experience. If you create the right environment, it can be an incredibly validating, probabably unpresidented experience for your subjects.
Let people tell the story they want to tell, even if it seems to be pretty fair afield from your objectives, or what you think your objectives are for the film. Be patient, listen, as best you can try to understand why your subject has choosen to reveal themselves to your in such an intimate way. No one agrees to be recorded talking about such a personal subject unless they feel like they have something important to share, something that outweighs the risks. Even if they can't articulate it, your subjects will have an agenda. Figure out what it is, help them express themselves.
If your lucky, you find points of tangency or even overlap with your agenda. The interview becomes a dialog (even if only one side ever makes it to the screen) When you find that, the sparks will fly! The footage you get will be good as gold!
Good luck! It sounds like an exciting project!
Great advice, Tony. And not just for the topic of sexuality but for all documentary interviewing.
To clarify: i didn't mean that 5 was too many to interview, you can interview as many as you want to or can afford to. i was saying that for a 12 minute finished film, i think 5 is too many to follow. unless all 5 are super strong - but in the end you'll see that some are just stronger than other on the screen. plus, it's only once you have all those interviews will you see what the recurring themes are or how to play one off another.
i would also, like niam, suggest that you film them going about their daily routine, the people they meet, dates they have, classes they take, social settings, parties, clubs, extra-curricular activities etc. this will later be a gold mine for you to use over whatever they are saying in the interview.
p.s. do any of them know or have relationships with the others?
I think the number of subjects or characters you can present in a give amount of time is going to vary tremendously from project to project, and is going to depend a lot on your own skills and objectives as a filmmaker. One of my best films was a scant 9 minutes long, and featured seven subjects, selected from perhaps 30 interviews. My latest film is 54 minutes long and has only two subjects, interviewed simultaniously.
Again I can't help but think of the idea of tangency and overlap, only this time between what you think the finished film is supposed to be and the film the universe want you to make. You can't cede control to fate, but neither can you can ignore the life a project will take on of its own accord – nor would you want to!
Ultimately, a film's "will to be" is you best ally. As much as you should strive to be in a dialog with your subjects, you should hope to find yourself in a dialog with your film. When/if that happens, the film will tell you the right way to arrange your elements at least as much as you will decide.
When do we get to see it? :-)
Also, if I'm sounding like some zen budha jedi wannabe master asshole, my apologies. That's not my intention at all.
My professional training is in commercial photography, especially larger-format products and interiors. It's an approach that allows for an exacting control of every detail of the frame that I don't think even the biggest budget features can achieve, let alone the little indie docs I produce. I am entirely self-taught, and anything I (think I) know is merely a recitation of my experience, and nothing more.
And even though I've been doing this for more than a decade now, every single outing reminds me (often in the most brutal fashion) how little control I have over the process of making a film, that the best I can do is try to set a few things in motion, and then be watchful for the happy accidents that (hopefully!) result.
But no way do I mean to imply that careful planning and rigorous craftsmanship are of lessor value. If anything you'll need to bring the very best you can muster to this project, especially considering the subject matter. There will be people will look for any excuse to dismiss your work as exploitive, pandering, sensationalist. A finely, passionately crafted film will be your best defense against these attacks.
Sorry for the late reply, a lot of school responsibilities need to be take care of first.
Thanks guys for all the tips and advice, you'll definitely see the end result! (if you want to) =)
I am in the middle of editing my first feature-length documentary about the destruction of the oldest drive-in theater in the state of Illinois ("Hi-Lite's Last Gleaming" is the documentary's name). A lot of the story is told through the headlines of the local paper, so I am fascinated by the various techniques that are used to make headlines "come alive". Specifically, ones where the headline is shown and then a sentence is highlighted and scrolls in front of the image. Can anyone help me with what program is best used to get that effect? I have the entire Adobe Production suite, so I assume that I can format this is in Photohsop and then import it into Premiere Pro, but I'd love to know how others have achieved this effect (or other ways to dramatize newspaper shots).
After Effects! You can do all of the things you're wanting to do with it.
If you're up for a challenge, you can play around with the stereoscopic effect made famous in "The Kid Stays in the Picture" -- also very doable with some time, After Effects and Photoshop. And while you figure it out, you might even stumble on something cool and new that no one's seen before...
And there's even a tutorial: http://blogs.adobe.com/bobddv/2006/09/sonofben_kurns.html
no need to sign your name at the bottom of a post, don. we see your name above each post automatically.
I'm heading to the Ukraine in two weeks to shoot a doc on my dad who is visiting the monastary he was hidden in as a child during WWII. I've been working in the film industry for 16 years as a steadicam op/direcotor so mechanics wise I'm feeling good, but having never made a doc, I'm a bit freaked out about easy mistakes I can avoid as a first timer. Any siggestions would be great. Also, can someone point me to a short/simple release form I can bring?
Follow your instinct....
There are lots of release forms around that are good. This one is provided by Channel Four's website.
You know, Dave, if anyone talks into the camera they are giving their agreement to be in the film. When interviewed, they can say (and spell) their names on cam and say I agree to be used in this film. And if you do not hide the camera, so that anyone can walk away from it, you can use a shot of them.
I just find forms too unwieldy for direct cinema; better make a general announcement to the entire monastery that you will be shooting and anyone who doesn't want to be on tape should stay out of range!
Also, when I was an assistant editor, we all agreed that the best directors had started out as editors. When you are shooting, always keep an edited scene running in your mind; think about what cutaways will be good for what a person is saying; when you are shooting action, figure out how you are going to get CUs of the same action, and move fast. the alternate angles might not happen til another day, so you have to keep them in your mind. It's so mesmerizing to get caught up in the continuity of what is happening, but you have to really think fast about how much of any given activity will end up in the final product.
Almost anything can be 'fixed in post', as long as you have the right cutaways!
(Last year I cut an amateur shooter's film about a relief kitchen in NO, and there were NO (zero) shots of people actually using the facilities…huh? We shot this after lunch, I was told…And you didn't go back the next day??? (Still photos actually saved the day, in this case)
I agree that it makes sense that talking to the camera is like consent, but I doubt any lawyers or (more importantly) broadcasters will agree.
You may have a difficult time getting E&O insurance with signed consent forms.
I think you mean without signed consent forms, Joe. And it's true, a broadcaster won't show your film unless you have E&O insurance, and the insurance company will want to know you have appropriate releases from everyone. The broadcaster's lawyers will also check sometimes, but usually for the key releases of anyone they see as a red flag or potential lawsuit situation.
As always, I learned this the hard way, when I had to cut a character from a film after she soured on the film and I hadn't had her sign a release.
I now carry releases in my camera bag...and almost always forget to use them.
What a great website! It's great to ready through the post and know we're all in the same quicksand so to speak. I am working on a doc now where I need some guidance in setting up contracts to include the main participant of our doc to recieve a portion of any funds that would be paid. Any ideas?
Question about Sundance. If a film is accepted to Sundance do they give the director a certain amount of "passes", etc for those wanting to tag along? For instance, if I get in and want to bring my mom, dad, brother, girlfriend, best friend, etc. etc. how are these sorts of things accommodated? I've never been so I'm not even sure if "passes" are needed. Any feedback on this? Thanks!
Mike, sounds a bit complicated to me. Can you not agree on a figure instead?
Until we get the film completed or start shopping what we have, I have no way to know what figure to offer. It would be a agreement with our talent for them to share in the procededs if a sale where to happen. My quesiton is how do I set that up in a contract?
Dave-go with your instincts and remember that you will remake every idiotic mistake in the book on your own show and that ultimately it won't matter. Nothing worse than clients and nothing worse than being the client.
David, I last had a film at Sundance in 1999 so my memory is hazy but I think they gave us a total of 10 tickets to our own screenings and we could choose which ones to use them for. You also had the opportunity to buy extra tickets before they went on sale to the public. Might be a different policy now.
Hi, I have been searching for a free confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement and keep getting referred to sites that charge--does anyone have a form suggestion? Thanks!
Hello! Does anybody have any suggestions on how to break into documentary? I'd love to be a part of one. Thanks!
No need to double post, Megan. Have you ever tried to make a small doc yourself? It's pretty easy to get hold of a DV camera these days.
Megan, John doesn't quite go far enough. Yes, grab a camera. Find a compelling subject. Follow him or her (or it) for, oh, 3, 4, 5 years while something interesting happens. Tap out all your money, friends money, relatives money, while you edit for another, oh, 2 or 3 years. Get into Sundance. Win a major prize.
It's pretty simple, actually.
I think the largest problem here is that you're in Los Angeles. You can't go an hour or two without someone looking for an intern for their documentary on any of the east coast (or, hell, San Francisco) craigslist tv/flim/video posts. Los Angeles... well, not so much. So, unlike show business, you don't really break into documentary. You can find a company that produces documentary programming and try to work with them for free and try to get a sense of what they're doing. Or more probably, you can hone the various skills that make up a good documentarian - storytelling, attention to detail, fundraising, stupid tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds, good editorial skills, and how to use a camera under less than ideal circumstances - all of which are skills which can be picked up either (as John notes) by grabbing a camera and exploring your own ideas... or, quite frankly, in the service of any aspect of production in whatever your area might give as an opportunity (and LA has its fair share, to be sure). And if you happen to spy someone posting on craigslist or mandy.com looking for an intern for their documentary, you'll be able to apply to that with some amount of skill that you've been working on developing. It's not a great answer, but perseverance is probably the biggest chunk of the recipe. But that's kind of true for anything worth doing...
Megan, I'm writing this 11 hours after your post, so we have some history and I feel I can be frank with you.
I remember being in your position, wanting to "break into" documentary. I beat my head against the wall for years. Finally, I gave up and made my own damn documentary. Suddenly, doors began to open. I went from being a wannabe to being a filmmaker.
When I sold that first film to a broadcaster I suddenly became an "insider", and began hearing from people looking for the secret. I was always being invited to go for a coffee, and listening to stories about how "I've wanted to do this all my life". Many of these people were/are former colleagues from my time working in public radio. They offer to work for free, swear up and down that they're committed, that they want to make the world a better place, that documentary film is the only pure film, blah, blah, blah, blah......
Out of the 50 or 60 people I've had this conversation with over the years, I can think of one who actually followed up, fought her way into a position and is now working in the field.
My advice to people starting out now is to beg, borrow, or steal a video camera and make a short documentary. Really short. Do everything yourself if you like, or convince friends to help shoot, edit, write or direct it.
Then, instead of asking "How can I live my dream of making documentary films" you can say "I've just finished my first film. It's short. Would you mind taking a look?"
I could go on and on...but you get the drift.
I wish you the best of luck, Megan. Really.
E&O insurance? What is it, how much does it cost, and should I get it?
you only need E&O ("Errors & Omissions") insurance once you've finished your film. It's a guarantee to broadcasters, distributors, film festivals that you have all the necessary permissions and releases -- the E&O insurance comes in handy should anyone decide to sue you.
Actually it's insurance that you should buy during production - cheaper that way and when questions come up you can ask your insurer how it might be treated by the insurer. And it does what it says helps protect you from law suits claiming that you made harmful errors or omissions of facts that libel, cause damage to someone's property or reputation, etc.
Whether or not you need it depends often on the type of film you are making. The more controversial the subject the more impetus there is to purchase it early.
If you have a broadcaster you'll need E&O, at least in Canada.
I am just about to complete my first documentary film. I have been working on it for 3.5 years. I am looking for a few more stock images to complete my B-roll segments. Images such as german soccer fans, pictures of Kristalnacht, pics of Germany 1930s-1940s. I have been searching on the Library of Congress site and it has been quite difficult. I would love any advice someone might have about a great place to find public domain stock photos. Thank you so much in advance. Katinka
Newbie here. I just introduced myself in Introductions, but started asking some questions there that are probably better asked here.
I'm doing my first doc film in Italy next year. I have no budget or schedule. To be honest, I'm just kind of jumping in. Got some advice from some doc. film friends and will be buying a camera in a couple months, also doing research and interviews right now.
A few questions. Since this is an international film (will be shot in Italy) . . .
1) How should I handle the language barrier. I speak conversational Italian, but this might involve dialect, and I certainly won't rely on my own language skills to do the interpreting. I'm imagining lots of subtitles and voice overs. Though some of the people I interview will probably be able to speak English, the subjects of the film pretty much won't.
I was advised by two doc film friends to do my own camera work. Yikes! When I first imagined this, I thought I'd hire someone with some experience. Me? I have none.
So, question #2) Do you agree that I should do my own camera work? Do you recommend shooting some practice scenes first? Shadowing another filmmaker? Any other ideas? Is it fairly easy to learn about lighting and audio (I'll be in tiny dark Italian homes made of stone built into hillsides and I want good detail).
3) At this point, If I plan to start filming summer 2008, is there a schedule I can follow? I'm literally following About.com's "10 steps to making a doc. film" (!) Good grief.
4) Is it true that your story comes out of the footage? I don't know my angle/story yet, but I've got plenty of material I know will be good.
(1) Sounds like don't really have any other option than to do it in Italian. So why worry about it?
(2) I don't agree. You can't just learn all this within a few months. Work with an experienced camera person (many are willing to work for little or deferred pay if the project is attractive). You should really focus on your story and your characters.
(3) There is no recipe, every project is different. Make sure to read our archived topics, for example the one called Shooting The Documentary
(4) There's always a story in your footage, and it's never the story you had planned to capture.