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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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Eli Brown
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

Hey Megan,

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...


Joe Moulins
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

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.


Brian Boyko
Mon 1 Oct 2007Link

E&O insurance? What is it, how much does it cost, and should I get it?


Christopher Wong
Mon 1 Oct 2007Link

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.


Robert Goodman
Tue 2 Oct 2007Link

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.


Joe Moulins
Tue 2 Oct 2007Link

If you have a broadcaster you'll need E&O, at least in Canada.


Katinka Kraft
Tue 2 Oct 2007Link

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


Ben Kempas
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Katinka,
Try the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, Germany.

Edited Wed 3 Oct 2007 by Ben Kempas

Darla Bruno
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Hi,

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.

Thanks!


Ben Kempas
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

(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.


Reed Thompson
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Hi Darla. I don't think the 10 Steps from about.com will cut it. I would suggest purchasing the book, "Directing the Documentary" by Michael Rabiger. I've had my copy since 1994 and still have not found a better book for newbie doc makers. In fact, if you do a search for the book here on d-word you will find that many others would recommend it as well.


Doug Block
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Darla, always best to ask one question at a time. Some will inevitably get lost in the flow of discussion. If so, bring them back later.

I'll only address two questions, since the other two are more complicated:

1) Yes, sub-titles and voice-overs seem like they'll be necessary, which may limit sales in English language countries. But what can you do, other than make the most compelling film you can and overcome those kinds of obstacles?

4) Yes. Doesn't mean you don't do a lot of research and planning, though. I generally like to start with interviews to get a feel for the subject matter and who's good on camera. But there are no rules.

Edited Wed 3 Oct 2007 by Doug Block

Darla Bruno
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Hey everyone,

Sorry to break some rules here already! One question at a time then, but thanks to those who answered. I'm just a sponge at this point.

So I will get that book, Reed. Absolutely.

My most important question remains, then.

Do I do the camera work myself or do I work with someone? My inclination is to work with someone. Remember, I have no previous experience. I'm only a film theory student (from long ago) and currently a book writer/editor. No technical experience.


Erica Ginsberg
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Darla, ditto on the book recommendation. There's supposed to be a new edition out soon, but even an older edition will work for you (the main changes will probably be the examples Rabiger uses)

Would not recommend you do your own camerawork the first time out. As Ben said, you may be able to find a professional who would work for lower than normal prices if they are intrigued by the idea or at least by the prospect of getting to spend some time in the Italian countryside. You will have enough else to worry about than dealing with the camera too.

And you should probably get an interpreter as well, especially if you are dealing with a dialect. If (reading between the lines) part of your goal is to showcase a local culture, you don't want to force those folks to talk in broken English or even in whatever the equivalent is of the "Queen's Italian". You want them to feel totally comfortable in what is most comfortable to them.


Doug Block
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

No real rules here, Darla (other than be courteous). Just suggestions.


Darla Bruno
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Great advice, Erica. Thank you! I'm feeling really relieved at the thought of not doing the camera work myself. The money I'd spend on buying one and time it would take for me to learn it could be better spent on hiring someone.

And, Doug, thanks for letting me know! :)


Christopher Wong
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Probably the only reasons for a "total newbie" to operate the camera herself would be if: 1) you can't find anyone to do it for you; 2) your access to the subject requires that you work alone; or 3) the very structure of your film depends upon your POV as cameraperson. Other than that, you are not going to be successful, especially in the tougher lighting situations you are talking about. That being said, even if you do have a camera operator on board, you should still get used to whatever camera you do buy -- do shoot practice scenes, and try to shadow an experienced filmmaker first.

Assuming that you are "doing" and "practicing", I heartily agree with others' suggestion to read Michael Rabiger's book. Definitely the best.

While much of the story can be found later on in the edit, you have to have SOME idea of why you are shooting this doc. (I'm sure you do, but you probably don't want to reveal all the details now.) It often helps to write out a short treatment or synopsis of what you envision for the film -- the process of writing sometimes fleshes out the WHY of your film.

Finally, watch a doc every day, and see which styles you appreciate and which ones fit more of the mood and tone you envision for your project. You might decide on the "direct cinema" style of the Maysles Brothers, or the "man behind camera" style of Ross McElwee, or (god forbid) the "pan 'n scan" style of Ken Burns...


Doug Block
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Yeah, God forbid your doc should be popular with the masses ;-)


Adrianne Anderson
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Hello, I've been working in the documentary field for two and a half years now, mainly editing and learning from others. At this point, I need to learn how to become a producer, starting with knowing the right way to fund my projects. Currently, I'm working on a single project (and the production 'company' has no plans to commit long-term as everyone is balancing other jobs). We're trying to decide whether to funnel the money we fundraise into a fiscal sponsor organization, or start our own LLC. My impression is that to get started, a fiscal sponsorhip makes more sense. There's no money required up front, and you have legal and accounting support in place already. Whereas it seems an LLC requires lots of Fed/State paperwork, filing fees, lawyers, and a licensing fee of $800 for the privilege of doing business in California! That is too much for us newbies to commit out of pocket right now.
My biggest concern is the after-math of fiscal sponsorship. What if you want to distribute your film, or try selling it at one of the big markets? What happens to any profits your film acquires? Are they sent back to the fiscal sponsor, and you can take them out for future productions? Or can you create a nonprofit after and then channel the funds out then? Or can you even sell the film, as many sponsors require the film remain 'noncommercial'? (Though I realize the term is ambiguous as many nonprofits sell their films to distributors).
Anyway by now it's clear I have lots of questions and would hugely appreciate any suggestions you have!! I have left messages with local fiscal sponsors, but am waiting for a returned call. Thought I would explore other resources as well, especially other filmmakers!


Christopher Wong
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

adrianne,
as far as i know, fiscal sponsors are only involved to serve as a "pass-through" for donations and grants. you want to have a fiscal sponsor so that individuals can get tax-deductible receipts, and so that foundations have a non-profit organization to write a check to -- foundations almost never give money straight to individuals. the fiscal sponsor simply takes the money, subtracts about 5% for their own administrative costs, and passes the other 95% to you.

unless you have some other written arrangement that involves profit-sharing and distribution, there should be absolutely no restriction on what you can do with the film. good places to look into for fiscal sponsorship are: Women Make Movies, IDA, and Public Media Inc. These orgs are all specifically set up with a filmmaker in mind.

eventually, you can indeed set up an LLC too. yes, the startup costs are expensive but you can't open a business bank account without having some sort of corporation. and keeping track of business expenses mixed in with your own personal expenses gets real old real fast. good luck!


Robert Goodman
Thu 4 Oct 2007Link

I wish there was a right way to how to fund docs. There isn't. As to becoming a producer - just be organized and ask lots of questions. Most producers - fiction or nonfiction - are learning as they go because the landscape changes from week to week.


Katinka Kraft
Thu 4 Oct 2007Link

Thank you Ben for that tip! Anyone have any ideas about how to get images from 2000-2006 Worldcup. I am particularly looking for images of german soccer fans. How do media sources usually respond about offering images? What is the best way to approach them?
Thanks so much.
Katinka


Rhonda Moskowitz
Thu 4 Oct 2007Link Tag

You don't need to form an LLC to open a business bank account. You just need a DBA (Doing Business As) certificate from your local city or town hall, which costs about $35. Just give that to the bank. The account will have your name dba _____(name of company). Checks can be made out to the name of your company. Some banks offer free business accounts where you have a personal checking acount. (Oh, and if the name of your company has your last name in it, you don't even need to shell out the $35 for a dba certificate.) I've been looking into this recently.

Edited Fri 5 Oct 2007 by Rhonda Moskowitz

Darla Bruno
Sat 6 Oct 2007Link

Okay, I'm back. I read "shooting the doc", ordered the textbooks everyone recommends, watched some docs and have more coming, and tomorrow I'm going to shadow some doc filmmakers.

Basically, I have an idea, a location, interview subjects, and my research. What do I need now?

A budget? (And what if I have none?) A camera person? A classified ad?

I'll try to keep my questions simple here.

Edited Sat 6 Oct 2007 by Darla Bruno

John Burgan
Sat 6 Oct 2007Link

Practice? It's a good idea to make some small projects just for yourself to gain experience before you leap into a major doc.


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