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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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Paul Hayes
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

Well, I don't want to limit my options to what I can afford now. I'd rather get some price ranges from y'all, and then plan accordingly. No info yet on cameras, but so far people I have talked to have recommended going with Macs equipped with Final Cut Pro.

Edited Fri 2 Nov 2007 by Paul Hayes

Christopher Wong
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

make sure you get a two-monitor setup. makes a big difference when editing...


Niam Itani
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

In this part of the world we prefer PCs but, yes, Macs with Final Cut Pro are the trend where you are :)
You definitely need a two monitor set-up no matter what the system is.


Monica Williams
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

Robert,

Thank you for your response. When I read the book I could see it visually. I had been entertaining the idea of a documentary film that would explore the work of Hannah Arendt and when I read Evil in Modern Thought and saw Neiman's interview with Bill Moyers' I had an aha moment and haven't quit obsessing since, as I was convinced that I could adapt this book as a documentary film (I wonder sometimes at my naivete!) I have succeeded in the writing and my proposal and treatment explain the techniques I want to use. The theme is centered on how 4 catastrophic events in western history have shaped the way we think about and approach the world, and is not a biopic. The Philosophers and their work surrounding the problem of evil will add to the structure, only as their work relates to the events i.e. Voltaire's coming of age novella Candide will be animated as he is naively headed to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (which was the symbol for evil at this time period, as nothing else could kill so many people at once.) There are many engravings and paintings from this era. I have many more visuals but I don't want to take up this space! My connection to this subject is a long story - basically I've been concerned about the problem of evil in philosophy, most of my conscious life - without knowing that this was what I was concerned with until my last couple of years of college. I've since come to realize that most of us are, though we may not frame our concerns in this way and I want to connect an audience to the great philosophers and writers of the modern world as a way of validating our human experience against the overwhelming insanities of history.

Thank you Robert!


Robert Goodman
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

You need to explain how this film plays on screen because to a professional it seems better suited to a dissertation or magazine article. and it's always necessary to explain your connection to the story so people understand why you are willing to spend the next 7 years of your life making this film.

Edited Fri 2 Nov 2007 by Robert Goodman

Peter Brauer
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

A vote for adobe. In terms of editing systems there can be no doubt that final cut has become the standard. But if you are looking to save money PC editing is the way to go in my opinion. A comparably powered PC is normally half as much as its mac counter part. I use the adobe suite. This includes premier, after effects, photoshop, and encore. They all work well together and can create just as good a final product as final cut. In most ways premier and aftereffects are very similar. Premier just has a much more narrow group of users. This can be an issue when bringing in an outside editor. I can run premier perfectly well on a 575 dollar HP desk top I bought at best buy. Just make sure not to use windows vista, as it uses way to much of your computer's ram and slows everything do. Windows XP still works great.

As for cameras, I highly recommend the panasonic dvx100b. it creates beautiful images and is moderately priced. If this is beyond your range a lot of consumer cameras can do. I have seen stuff shot on 400 dollar cameras that looks just fine in a gritty lo-fi type of way. Just make sure to get a 3 CCD camera. Also Audio is really important, so make sure what even you get has the ability to control audio levels, take a mic input, and have a head phone jack. Any camera looks as good as the lighting allows it. Its just that better cameras look better in worse shooting conditions.


Monica Williams
Sat 3 Nov 2007Link

Thank you for the advice Robert. I think I do get ahead of myself when explaining it. It's basically a historical documentary, told through the lens of philosophy and the classical problem of evil. Susan Neiman is my star and I have 8 hours of footage already shot with her. I will be interviewing other literary and political analysts about the historical events that have shaped the world in order to find new perspectives. We will look at four major historical events that have had a lasting impact on modern social and political consciousness. I do have a strong structure - the trials of Adolf Eichmann will be used as we consider Auschwitz, the book Black Rain will narrate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Israeli and Arab writers will be interviewed from the Middle East as the film looks at the war of Good v. Evil that is raging today. As for my connection to the film, I'm convinced that Susan Neiman's book will soon be considered a classic and it has been called "the book for this world political hour." I'm very nervous for the world right now for various reasons and I'm committed to bringing her work to a wider audience. I have tons of other personal reasons.


Neil Garrett
Mon 5 Nov 2007Link

Hi guys, another new member, so hallo to all...
I'm glad my first question is such a doozer. This has been keeping me awake at night. I'm currently producing a doco I hope will eventually be shown on British TV. I came across an author who's book dovetails very neatly with the theme of my film. I contacted him with a view to him contributing to the film, which he was very happy to do. He then contacted me asking if, in return for a credit (such as Associate Producer) in the titles, he could help produce the film. On the one hand, I could really use his help - he is an expert in his field and has contacts in his industry who could also be very useful. On the other, is there an ethical issue having one of your contributors also be a credited producer - could the documentary be open to accusations of simply being a platform for his views? He wants no money for his work and has agreed that creative control and copyright will remain with me.
What do you think?


Friederike Freier
Mon 5 Nov 2007Link

Hi Neil, standards vary by country so please UK-based producers contribute -- but the bottom line is: your author is the author of a book and will act as an advisor who may open doors. The job of an associate producer is something quite different.

Also, you want to retain the freedom to add other advisors later on without even feeling awkward about it. You need to protect your editorial control. Bringing him aboard as a partner is liable to make this more difficult. If you feel like all you need for your film is his book, without a great deal of other research, you could make it a doc based on his book, but it seems to me this is not what you are striving for as it would potentially compromise your editorial control. Whatever you do -- make sure to have a contract that clearly defines his role (whether he ends up getting a fee or not).

In general, you want to be careful with promising credits that are not absolutely bog standard like camera or editor etc. Credits are ususally subject to the approval of the broadcaster. All international contracts I have handled say something along the lines that the distributor tries to ensure credits are shown by their buyers but they can't promise anything. I.e. if your broadcaster thinks your credits are too long or not in line with their credit standards they will demand the right to edit them at their sole discretion.


Doug Block
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Friederike, it might be different in Germany for you but I've been a producer on 3 different ZDF/Arte co-productions and never once been questioned about the credits. Or by any other broadcaster, for that matter. Not saying it never happens. Just not in my experience.

Edited Tue 6 Nov 2007 by Doug Block

Monica Williams
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Does anyone have any books they would recommend on the art of interviewing? I'm producing a narrative historical documentary using the disciplines of literature and philosophy and want to perfect my ability to get the right pieces to my puzzle. Thanks!


Jo-Anne Velin
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Books? The Craft of Interviewing, by John Brady, a classic journalism school selection of approaches.


Doug Block
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

I'll vouch for that one, too. It's terrific.


Friederike Freier
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Doug, arte is more relaxed about credits. Especially La Lucarne. With ARD member stations or ZDF's main programme it is very often an issue. Most of the time the complaint is that credits run for too long.


Erica Ginsberg
Wed 7 Nov 2007Link

Monica, check out Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger. It's not exclusively about interviewing, but he does give some very good tips.


Monica Williams
Wed 7 Nov 2007Link

Thanks for the advice on interviewing! One more question - What is the best way to approach and engage advisors? I know who I would like to ask, I'm just concerned about their workload. What is the relationship like between filmmaker and advisor? What can I ask them to expect? They will most likely be interviewed for the film, but I can't promise anything.


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Dear Monica,

I have three advisors for my film, all professors whose field of inquiry is relevant to my subject matter. Usually, all you have to do is just ask, and if the person is interested, they'll be happy to help. In my experience, a professor who's accumulated a lot of knowledge in the area your asking for advice in will usually be glad to get involved and share their expertise.

In building the relationship with an advisor, I assume that the onus of the work and the contact maintenance is on me. Even in some intense research situations, I usually don't need to speak to my advisors more than once/twice a month. In my case, the best value an advisor can provide is an assessment of how valid my research conclusions are and whether my presentation of various topics in the film is consistent with their historical setting, etc. Out of three advisors I have, I only plan to interview one for the film. Hope this helps. Best of luck with your work!


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Dear All,

I am new to this forum and have a few questions to ask. My current project is a full-feature documentary about Israel. I have done my preliminary research, made an 12-minute long promo for fundraising, assembled a crew (a DP and a sound engineer) and will start filming in two weeks. My main camera is HVX200, and here are the questions I have:

1. What is the best way to archive HD footage? Is it possible to burn it on blue-ray or HD-DVD disks and not keep stored on hard drives? I expect to have a lot of footage to store, and carrying around several terabytes of drive space can be daunting.

2. Even though I have a DP, I hope to do some filming work myself. Could you suggest any books, tutorials or other resources to read about camera work?

3. Could you suggest a minimal lighting package that would be portable enough to be carried by one person, along with the camera?

Look forward to your advice!


John Burgan
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

1) I'll let the HD experts step in here, but I think you'll find that cost-wise hard drives will work out cheaper than burning to disks. Have you actually done a calculation on how much space you will need?

2) Hmmmm. Why not just let your DP get on with their job? Books won't tell you how to shoot, and it doesn't sound like this is meant to be just an exercise.


David Felix Sutcliffe
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

My film is about Adama Bah, one of two 16-year-old Muslim girls from New York who were arrested by the FBI in 2005 after they were accused of being "potential suicide bombers." The FBI made no attempts to reveal what evidence they had on these girls and only released them after the New York Times published a series of articles about the 2 girls that led to intense scrutiny and public pressure. One girl was deported, and the other-the subject of my film-was allowed to stay, albeit, with an ankle bracelet and a gag order.

For the past two years her life has pretty much unravelled-her father was deported, her mother has suffered several nervous breakdowns, children's services is constantly threatening to place Adama's four younger siblings in foster homes. The government is now also trying to deport her. On top of this, Adama has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for the family. Her friends all graduated last spring and left for college this past fall (her best friend is at Smith right now) as Adama works, what she calls, "immigrant jobs-" babysitting, house-cleaning, etcetera.

I'm looking for an executive producer (as well as editors) and wondering if there's any interested parties out there, or someone who might be willing to pass on contact info of a good EP/editor fit. I've been shooting for almost two years and am ready to begin post-production. As far as fundraising, I have a fiscal sponsor and am preparing my grant applications, but would like to have a partner help me secure a reasonable budget. This is my first-time working on a full-length documentary and although I've been tempted to downsize it and produce it as a 30 minute piece, I think the story demands to be given at least an hour, if not feature length. My editor is based in California and hasn't been able to work much with me, and is eagerly waiting for funding to come through so he can come to New York and get to work. In the meantime, I'm looking for a New York based editor to help me with my sample. (So far, the sample seems to get such a wide range of responses that I think it's time to begin a new approach. Maybe I could post it here and see what people think...)

Anyway, I know this is a lot to put out there but I thought it would be best to put it all in one place rather than attempt to think of all the relevant topics where these issues could be posted. I would be supremely grateful for any advice veteran doc bystanders are willing to sling my way.

Thanks.


Christopher Wong
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

david, your doc sounds fascinating, and definitely deserving of more than a 30-minute treatment. it really helped me out on my doc to get an executive producer on board... before you proceed, however, have you answered the question of where you want the piece to be broadcast? On PBS? Theatrical? Non-PBS TV? This will dictate what kind of grants you go after, and thus, what kind of EPs will be best for your project. For instance, my EP is Renee Tajima-Pena who has done extensive work with POV, which is exactly the place I want it to air after festivals, theatrical, etc.


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

In reply to John Burgan's post on Mon 12 Nov 2007 :

Dear John,

Thank you for your response. You are right, it's definitely not meant to be just an exercise :) I will need approximately 2.5 terabytes of storage space.

With respect to the shooting, I agree too - the only problem is that I want the film to have a very specific visual atmosphere and so far my DP and I haven't reached a complete agreement on it. Also, I won't be able to have the DP with me every day and sometimes I go to places in Israel where one just needs to pick a camera and capture a unique moment. I wanted to try and prepare myself for that as best I can.

Thank you for the advice!


David Felix Sutcliffe
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Chris,
I really love the extensive work that PBS has done to create a strong web-partnership with their films, and although it would be great to have a more mainstream tv audience (via HBO, Cinemax, etcetera) I think PBS has such a strong outreach program that the issues I'm addressing in the film will have a real landing pad, and a chance to significantly and substantially affect an audience, rather than briefly triggering a flash of guilt/sympathy/pity in people's frontal lobes, as seems to be the case with mainstream films that make a splash but aren't sustained by any broader effort to create change.
That said, I think I'm aiming for PBS as well after festivals (and, hopefully, theatrical release). How did you make contact with your EP?


Christopher Wong
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

through a great seminar at the WGBH Producers Academy, i made contact with a really helpful person at PBS (Kathy Lo). When I told Kathy that I was looking for an EP, she then introduced me to a bunch of different people who would make sense for my project (e.g. Freida Lee Mock, Renee Tajima-Peña, Steven Okazaki). After she made the intro, then I made contact with them through email. Renee turned out to be the best fit.

what i might suggest for you is to find a PBS film (or 2 or 3) that you really like, do some research to see how it was funded, and then if it's a good fit, go and track down that person. if you need help, i can always give Kathy Lo a call on your behalf.

lastly, are you applying for Sundance's next funding round? they are really good at giving first time filmmakers a shot at the money. if your footage is really compelling, and you get funding from them, that really makes it easier to get an EP on board.

i'm sure the more experienced vets here have better suggestions than i.


David Felix Sutcliffe
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

I am planning on applying to Sundance but I thought that Sundance was rolling. is there a deadline coming up?

As far as your other comments, I have been looking at a few PBS films and eyeing the EP credits, although my experiences in the past with cold-calling people has been a bit frustrating. Perhaps I'll update my list of potential EPs and run them by you to see if Kathy would possibly be willing to be a middle-(wo)man. Thanks for your advice Chris.


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