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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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Malgosia Askanas
Tue 18 Dec 2007Link

Many thanks for the response to my previous question. Now I have another. Could anyone advise me how I could get hold of a copy Jonathan Lewis' documentary "Reputations: Pope Pius XII – the Pope, the Jews and the Nazis", which was made for BBC2 and shown in 1995? I tried contacting BBC about it through their website, but received no response. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Perhaps there is some way to contact Jonathan Lewis directly?


Marianne Shaneen
Tue 18 Dec 2007Link

Hi Doug- I spoke to both attorneys you recommended, they were both really wonderful and both raved about you : ) (really).
One more expensive w/no retainer, one less expensive requiring a retainer, and both seemingly equally great (knowlegable, helpful, cool).
Many thanks again!!


Doug Block
Tue 18 Dec 2007Link

you're welcome, marianne. sorry i gave you a tough choice ;-)

Edited Tue 18 Dec 2007 by Doug Block

Evan Thomas
Wed 19 Dec 2007Link

Hi Malgosia,

I'm assuming it's not available to buy.

It could be expensive to get a copy from the BBC as it's liklely it's sat on a big shelf somewhere and could cost £££ to get a copy from the master tape. Maybe you would have more joy with contacting Jonathan Lewis?? Might be a long shot though...

It's a bit naughty but it might be on a torrent somewhere on the web? Especially since it features Nazis there always seems to be plenty of Nazi related documentaries available for download.


Darla Bruno
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Hi,

Wondering if someone can advise me on sound. I'm going to be working with a dp in January on a shoot in a hilltown in Italy for my first doc. Our sound guy can't do it, and my budget already has me eating beans and rice. So we're going without a boom operator. My dp assures me we'll be fine, but all anyone has ever warned me about (and I'm a TOTAL newbie) is how important sound is.

My dp has done other docs, and I trust his opinion; we have wireless mikes and he's got an awesome camera with a good mike, but again--everyone has always said, don't rely on the camera mike. Most of our work in Jan is going to be interviews and b-roll, but are we screwing ourselves without a boom operator?


Wolfgang Achtner
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Darla,

Have read your previous postings, was under the impression you'd be shooting next summer. You could be fine without a soundman, I have completed several documentaries without one, it really depends on what you're doing.

For interviews and some B-roll you should be fine without one.

I live in Orte, outside Rome and I've worked here zillions of years. if you care to call for a chat, feel free to do so. Remember we're 6 hours ahead of you over here.

E-mail me and I'll send you my phone nr.


Nick Higgins
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

I concur with Wolfgang that as long as your DP sets up the audio well for the interviews you should be fine.

Doing the one man band thing only really gets tricky when you have multiple people talking at one time eg. a dinner scene with lots of people or a hike in the hills with lots of people etc etc, any of these "verite scenes" with multiple people is when an audio tech with boom/multiple lavs is worth their weight in gold.

The camera mic will be fine for b-roll but for an interview thats more than a few feet away it wont be much good. If you take it off the camera and mount it on a stand close to the subject being interviewed it could be a good addition to the lav mic too.

When you go the one man band route its best to acknowledge that it can be done but if and when something goes wrong it definitely takes one person doing multiple jobs much longer to identify problems and correct them than when you have a dedicated sound person doing nothing else.

I shot one man band in a verite scene last week, a demonstration by workers who met at a parking lot and marched a half mile to their factory. It was sub zero temperatures and all was going well right up til the march got underway. The second they set foot on the road the lav went down. I had to march along and try and fix it on the fly. It didnt happen and we had to go with camera mic only until they arrived on site and we managed to rectify. Thats the downside of one man band cause if we'd have had an audio tech he probably could have fixed the problem while I shot on. With only me I had to choose between fixing it or shooting and after a few fumbly minutes I had to give up.

Edited Fri 21 Dec 2007 by Nick Higgins

Darla Bruno
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Wolfgang, you can find me at editor@darlabruno.com. I am in constant communication with people in Italy, so will respect time difference. My latest thought is that I should find some equipment and do my own sound if a situation requires a boom mic. (I've never even handled one, though-and no offense to an sound people-but desperate times . . . )

So, while I did say this will mostly be interviews and b-roll, I image there might be, say, a farm shot, a pig slaughter, a woman cooking in her kitchen. These are scenarios I imagine that will need additional mic-ing.


Darla Bruno
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Thanks, Nick! Just so you're clear. I'll be there with the dp. I'm not operating the camera . . . and I'll have my hands free. So I'm just wondering if there's a way I can help if I have a boom mic.


Doug Block
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

I was gonna suggest you do your own booming when necessary, Darla. On camera mic can work in many situations but unless you're trying to be really inconspicuous, booming is better.


Darla Bruno
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Okay. I shadowed some filmmakers once, and I get the point of how to hold the mic toward what's being filmed, but all those dials and channels – no idea. Is this really something I can do if I borrow a boom mic? (I'm feeling heartened.)


Erica Ginsberg
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Darla, can you pay a soundman a half day of pay before you go to train you in how to use the dials and channels? For what you want to do, it really is not as daunting as it may look. And, once you're there, perhaps do a test run interview to start so you can get comfortable with the boom before going into the keepers.


Darla Bruno
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Thanks, Erica! I think largely I'd like to use wireless mics for our interviews, yet, when I think about those I want to interview for this shoot, many will be women who I want to be in the kitchen cooking or preparing something or a cafe owner being behind the bar of the cafe (there might be clanging of dishes) – so in these instances, could we get away with wireless, or is it best to use boom? Anyway, I think you're right. I'm going to see if I can get a quick-and-dirty lesson and find the equipment. I've still got some time.


Christopher Wong
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

darla, you should be fine doing boom. a reasonably intelligent monkey could do it – i should know because i've boomed many of my shoots. what is not so easy is the sound mixing. again, it's not rocket science, but if you are a boom novice, then you probably don't want to be taking one hand off of the boom to adjust levels.

the main thing is to be sure of what you are shooting. if you absolutely know that you will only be shooting broll and interviews, you can forget about the boom pole. but if there's even a chance that there will be improptu conversations between two or more people, bring along the boom pole, and record sound directly into the camera. If you and your DP don't want to be tethered together by a sound cable, you can also look into getting a wireless boom setup. this is kind of the best of both worlds (for you) where you don't have to adjust levels (the DP can do that), and you have freedom to roam around.


Darla Bruno
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Great, Christopher. This sounds really promising. So I can handle the boom mic and I really don't need to worry about sound mixing? If I have a boom mic with cables, I'm tied to my DP; if I have a wireless, I'm free to roam. (But then how does DP adjust levels in either case?)

I do imagine there'll be situations where I will definitely need it. Thanks for the great advice!


Christopher Wong
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

here's where my ignorance with sound will be very clear... and i really hope someone like rafael jumps in quickly with advice. but i do know that it's fairly easy to rig one of your wireless mic systems so that your wireless receiver is plugged straight into the camera where the DP can then adjust levels. (small word of warning: some DPs are not accustomed to adjust sound levels while they are shooting...) on the other end, you'll connect the wireless transmitter directly to the boom mic, but you'll need to make sure you have the right kind of cable that can go between. i recommend you ask your sound guy for advice.

good luck!


Marianne Shaneen
Fri 21 Dec 2007Link

Hi again, film folk,
I'm making my first feature doc and I'm in post-production, talking with potential producers about raising finishing funds and helping put together a post team and complete the film. I'm wondering if anyone can give basic suggestions for how such deals are typically structured? Does the producer get a salary, a deferred fixed payment, a percentage, points, part ownership? Perhaps all of these things are done but as the doc is in the editing stage I'm not sure what's appropriate or standard. If anyone could share their experience/knowledge on this, I'd really appreciate it!
Thanks!!!!


Doug Block
Sat 22 Dec 2007Link

There is no standard, Marianne. At least in the U.S. A typical scenario, and one I've used when I've come on a film part-way through as a co-producer, is to get a fairly low guaranteed fee (deferred) vs. a percentage of funds raised. And I mean all funds raised from that point on, not just funds the producer raises. And, perhaps, a profit share. Obviously, if the producer raises more money than the guaranteed fee, they get the higher. I should add this also includes revenue that comes in from sales until the film gets into profit (should it be so lucky).

I'd also be very clear about credit. They get producer credit if they stay on through the distribution of the film. If they leave after post but before the distribution, they might get a co-producer or executive producer credit.

But it's all negotiable...

Edited Sat 22 Dec 2007 by Doug Block

Tony Comstock
Sun 23 Dec 2007Link

I understand the budget for this project is stretch thin, none the less you might want to consider diverting at least a portion to a t-shirt or two, espeically if you're going to be doing boom work.


Wolfgang Achtner
Sun 23 Dec 2007Link

Darla,

Allow me to give you some advice that will be different than what you may have heard and want to hear.

As I wrote you previously, and Nick has confirmed, you should have NO need for a soundman. Just make sure that your cameraperson/DP is always wearing headphones so they are constantly able to keep track of the quality of the sound being recorded.

That said, I don't understnad how – if your crew will be just yourself and the DP – how you think that you could be recording sound, especially during interviews. Who''l be asking the questions?

Even when you're out and about shooting B-roll, you should be watching what your DP is shooting and watching everything that's going on around you. I'm convinced that it would be a big mistake for you – if you're an absolute beginner, as you've described yourself – to worry about recording sound. There are many other far more useful things that you could be doing instead.

First of all, during interviews, concentrate on the process: make sure that you are listening carefully to your subjects, make sure that you're getting the answers you need, that you've asked all the right questions, etc.

When the DP is shooting B-roll, you should be keeping a checklist on shots, thinking if you've got everything you need, about what else you need, how the different elements (visuals, interviews, etc.) will work together, thinking about how to shoot a particular scene so it will fit in with your story etc.

Some key points here.

1) Preparation work and research can be the make-it-or-break-it factor for any documentary. Have you researched your subject well enough? Do you know what to look for, where to find it? That said, learn to be alert and open-minded because many times, in the field, a story can take an unexpected turn and you need to be ready to see it happen and follow the story down a different lane than the one you'd expected.

2) Do you have a story concept, do you know why you are shooting this documentary and what you want to show us? If you do, you certainly haven't told us! Do you know how to visualize that concept? Have you decided what visual elements you will need? Have you prepared a hypothetical shot list based on your concept? Remember the golden rule: "Show me don't tell me."

3) Treatment. Have you written a treatment? Barry Hampe in his MUST READ "Making Documentary films and videos" writes that a treatment "sets forth the idea of the documentary comprehensively enough to be understood , but with enough flexibility to allow for chance, change, and the occasional flash of creativity. A treatment is often referred to as an outline for a documentary. But it's much more than that. It's really an explanation of the documentary. It describes the content of the documentary and the style in which it will be shot. What it is about. What will be included. How it will be shot. And what il will look like. It includes all the elements – the people, places, thinsg and events – whihc must be a part of the documentary. And it tells how the documentary will be organized to communicate with the audience."

3) Communication. In addition everything else, communication between you and your DP is a crucial factor. Unless you have told her/him everything about the story, what you want to tell and how you intend to tell the story, s/he is shooting with a partial blindfold.

4) Ask for advice. Find someone who has already directed/produced several documentaries that you can trust and be open about what you want to do. Tell them what you would like to do and seek advice.


Doug Block
Sun 23 Dec 2007Link

You shouldn't be monitoring the sound levels, I suppose, but there's no reason you can't be holding the mic. Gives the camera person more freedom and you'll get better sound.


Darla Bruno
Sun 23 Dec 2007Link

Hey Tony – T-shirts? Huh? Why did I get lost on that one?

Wolfgang – Thank you kindly for this super helpful information. Sorry I wasn't more clear to begin with, but I was just posting on sound. This round of footage is essentially part of my research. I just wanted a camera person there with me (since I'm not well-versed or experienced in using a camera yet) while I conduct some interviews, get some b-roll, and aim to put together a trailer when I return, then write a treatment, edit the footage, and begin looking into grants and sponsors. So, maybe this isn't the traditional way, or a little backwards, but it's all learning to me.

I have a mini-production schedule for when I go, a wish-list shot list, and necessary shot list. My days are filled. My aim is to contrast simple village living with the influence of modern life. That will sharpen and take form after this round of footage but that is my beginning angle.

Beyond that, the sound is a concern of mine right now. My DP and I have a similar vision, but our sound man backed out, and while the DP wants to move forward, I'm being particular about sound. I'd CRY if we ended up with bad sound.

I can hold a boom in some situations, but no, it's not ideal for me.

Anyway, I also just noticed that my DP is working in PAL. Yikes. Another issue. So while we have a similar vision, it's the technical aspect of things that are a bit overwhelming at the moment.

I just realized he has a lavalier, so I wonder . . . well, here's what he has . . .

Filming equipment: Sony PD 170 (PAL, grandangular lense, rain/snow cover) + Manfrotto 128RC tripod (I have heavier ones, but this is probably the best choice for the type of work on the field we'd be doing in XXXX) + Sennheiser Wireless Trio 100 G2 Series (full audio kit with a lavalier and a directional microphone).

Edited Sun 23 Dec 2007 by Darla Bruno

Megumi Nishikura
Mon 24 Dec 2007Link

Hi, I'm young emerging filmmaker who has a few short documentaries under her belt. I want to make a documentary director's reel and I was wondering if anyone could give me any tips or direct me to some online director's reels.
Thank you and have a happy holidays!


Wolfgang Achtner
Mon 24 Dec 2007Link

Darla,

Just for your information – and eventually that of other newbies (this is not meant to scold you) – your last post is a perfect example of why one needs to prepare and, in the case of a total beginner, more than anything this means to seek advice BEFORE embarking on a project.

For example, you write: "I also just noticed that my DP is working in PAL. Yikes. Another issue. So while we have a similar vision, it's the technical aspect of things that are a bit overwhelming at the moment." Case in point. Any one who's ever worked overseas would have known that this is an issue that would present itself for a US_based person working outide the US.

Being a non-technical person (as well as the fact that you don't want unnecessary details to get in the way), I will try to limit my exploration of this topic to minimum vital aspects. The US uses an analog TV system called NTSC, France uses SECAM and almost everyone else (excepting Japan) uses PAL. All you need to know is that PAL has a better image compared to NTSC (it has greater resolution because each frame has 625scan lines vs 525).

This "problem" leads to several options. You may want to shoot everything in PAL and only after your final edit, convert your completed project to NTSC. Or, you might shoot PAL this time and NTSC next time around.

Converting video from PAL to NTSC, if at all necessary, is no longer a big deal. Today, if you really needed one, you could buy a cheap converter, otherwise, if you just need to convert a few minutes worth of tape, you can rent or go to a company that provides the service.

The PAL vs NTSC issue was a major concern in the days of analog TV and the early days of digital, but is hardly a big deal, especially with regards to HDTV.

First of all, if you'd been shooting in HDTV, most (or all, I honestly don't remember) videocameras have a switch that allows you to shoot in either NTSC or PAL. I see from your post that you're not shooting in HDTV, otherwise your DP would have told you about the possibility.

Also, the SONY PD170 will give you a 4:3 image and I'm not sure that this is the best way to start off a new project. I'm still shooting my current doc on 4:3 aspect ratio because I'm using a videocamera that I have been using for 7 years now and, especially, because I started shooting it this way 3 years ago. I think you might be best off shooting in native 16:9 (I'm referring to the fact that all modern TV screens have a wider image).

By the way, have you thought of asking your DP to rent a HDTV videocamera? They are easy to find here and that would allow you to overcome the PAL/NTSC issue. Furthermore, have you talked to anyone about whether or not – in consideration of a particular kind of future use – you might want to be shooting this project in HDTV?

In any case, if you decide to edit using Final Cut Pro, you'll be able to edit using both systems, so you'd only need to convert edited segments at the very end.

I'm sure others here who are used to working in the NTSC world can give you all the necessary advice and, luckily – as I wrote – today this is only a minor problem. Again, a good example of X other problems that could be solved, or better yet avoided, by talking to the experts BEFORE you jump.

Unfortunately, the equipment we use to day is so simple that anyone thinks they can use and, as a matter of fact they can, point and shoot. Period. Documentary filmmaking is something completely different.

To make my point clear, in many countries today, almost everyone has a videocamera, so in our minds it has become a simple ubiquitious instrument, almost like a ballpoint pen or a pencil. Everyone could afford a pencil but that didn't automatically make them a Michelangelo or Shakespeare.

Enthusiasm is great but remember that documentary filmmaking is a very complex craft that deserves a little bit of respect. Just because it's cheap – or at least a lot cheaper – than before doesn't mean that it is easy. In fact, in many ways, the possibility to work solo, or in small teams has made projects cheaper and, therefore, in many cases more feasible and it has opened up to the masses a world that was previously reserved to very few people and power centers (this is the more interesting aspect of the so-called "digital revolution") but it has also made things a lot harder than they were before because you need to know learn many skills and perform all of them well.

Also, appropriate research could allow you to find out that it might be better to plan your trip at a time that allows you to shoot a certain popular festivity or activity that takes place at a given time of year, etc., etc.

Regardless of how easy or cheap it seems to fly to Italy to do whatever you want to do, remember you don't want to be wasting your precious time and/or your own hard-earned money unnecessarily, as well as the fact that – even though you might not be aware of it now – you may have a one-off chance to shoot certain events or people (for various reasons) and you need to do it "right" the first time.


Athanasios Palos-Papantonopoulos
Mon 24 Dec 2007Link

In reply to Darla Bruno's post on Fri 21 Dec 2007 20:03 EET :

Darla,
Get the necessary training to use effectively the lavalier wireless mic you've got.
Thanos


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