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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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John Burgan
Mon 6 May 2002Link
"A documentary is a film without women. If there is a woman, it's a
semi-documentary." said Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures: quoted
by Fred Zinneman in his autobiography.

I don't necessarily concur with this opinion, but there you go.

Doug Block
Mon 6 May 2002Link
How's this...? "A work, such as a film or television program,
presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a
factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news
films or interviews accompanied by narration."

Actually, got this at www.dictionary.com. And it's about 20 years
out of date!

Today, it's more like... a story with a sweeping dramatic arc,
featuring fascinating characters in a highly unusal situation of great
conflict, where the filmmakers had complete access at all times.

Sound like fiction films? Well, check out the HBO schedule sometime.

Jesse Turner
Tue 7 May 2002Link
Thanks these are all fantastic. I look foreward to any others you
may have. Many thanks again, you guys are great.

Ben Kempas
Tue 7 May 2002Link
Documentaries are made out of curiosity and manage to keep the
viewers' curiosity alive.

Documentaries are made out of responsibility and manage to make the
viewers aware of their responsibility.

How's that?

Paul Robinson
Fri 10 May 2002Link
I have a pretty simple question. I am in the middle of shooting a
documentary on a local heavyweight bower and have had several
inquires already about it. My question is regarding license fees and
broadcasting rights, how much ? One partcular inquiry came from a tv
station in Indonesia ! I would like to have some idea of the price
range before I blunder in and blow the whole deal! Any information
would be greatly appreciated

Doug Block
Sun 12 May 2002Link
Don't know for sure, Paul, but I doubt it's much. You should read
the Jan Rofekamp conference we just held, and especially the link to
his report on the state of the international marketplace.

Rachelle Cournoyer
Mon 13 May 2002Link
Look in the international TV trade magaziness, MIP TV issue. They
give dollar values for television sales in various countries that are
fairly reliable in giving a ballpark.

Craig Highberger
Wed 22 May 2002Link
I am working on a biographical documentary of a person who was a now
little-known performer (now deceased). I have many photos from the
subjects personal collection, performance stills and studio shots
(for PR). Several dozen I want to use are unattributed... and most
are decades old and none of the surviving friends or relatives have
any idea of who the photogs were. I remember seeing a documentary
several years ago that had something in the end credits along the
lines of acknowledging these unattributed photos... anyone have any
thoughts on this?

Doug Block
Wed 22 May 2002Link
Welcome, Craig. How can you acknowledge an unattributed work? Or,
to put it a different way, what's the point?

Craig Highberger
Wed 22 May 2002Link
HA! You are correct Doug... but what I saw was something atune
to: "The producers have made every effort to attribute
photographs used in this film from the private collections... yada
yada..." which is to ward off lawsuits. In my case this is the
situation... I have made every effort but still want to use these
unattributed photos. Just wondered if anyone else has been in
this position. It is maddening. Thank goodness, just today I got
in touch with a retired big name photog who has many shots that
I need in his files... but I would love to hear from anyone who has
used unattributed photos as cutaways. Thanks!

Erica Ginsberg
Thu 23 May 2002Link
I think I saw this done recently in Alan Berliner's "The Sweetest
Sound" (http://www.pbs.org/pov/sweetestsound/). He used a lot of
archival family film shots at the beginning (the kind of strange
stuff you find at garage sales) and then ended the film with
something along the lines of "If you know any of the folks in these
films, contact me."

As for your question, I think that if the photos are from the
performer's personal collection, he (or his family) owns the rights.
When you say "studio shots," I assume you mean like a Sears studio
rather than Warner Bros. If the latter, you might need rights from
the movie studio.

Craig Highberger
Thu 23 May 2002Link
Thanks, Erica, that is just what I was thinking of - thanks for the
link too! Craig

Olympia Stone
Thu 30 May 2002Link
Hi, my name is Olympia Stone and I have worked in the tv
production world for a long time and am making my first
documentary. I am just beginning the film festival application
process. Does anyone know anything about how to write a good
synopsis of your documentary for these applications? Is there a
book I can buy? Any advice, tips, information would be greatly
appreciated--thanks!!!

Craig Highberger
Thu 30 May 2002Link
Olympia, I am in the same situtation and found wonderful examples on the PBS POV documentary website:

There are lots of examples of the materials prepared for PR including synopsis, fact sheets, etc.

Good luck! Craig


Doug Block
Thu 30 May 2002Link
The IFP website has a sample application for attending the IFP
Market's No Borders section. Go to: www.ifp.org. You could also go
to IFP's office in NYC and look at back copies of their market
catalogues. AIVF's office in NY has an extensive library which could
also help.

There's also the Sundance website, where they have the past few
year's catalogues archived. For your purposes, that might be best of
all. I think it's www.sundance.org.

Good luck, Olympia!

Olympia Stone
Thu 30 May 2002Link
Perfect and just what I was looking for --thanks so much!!!

Virginia Williams
Fri 31 May 2002Link
I've got a question about digital transfers. I want to do a 'clone'
of a large format dv tape going to a mini-dv. I don't want a composite
transfer bc I don't want to lose a generation. Does anyone know where
to get this done? Thank

Doug Block
Sun 2 Jun 2002Link
It's a large world out there, Virginia. Where do you live?

Erin Nesbit
Wed 12 Jun 2002Link
This is probably going to be an incredibly basic question for most of
you, but maybe you can woo me with your expertise?
I'm interested in any info on setting up a Final Cut Pro system that
I'm not likely to get from the Apple people, or any opinions from
people who've used the system in different forms. Specifically, what
types of decks, drives, other accessories are best or preferable? It
might be helpful to know that the project for which I'm inquiring is
being shot on PAL/16x9/DVCAM.
Thank you all!

David Herman
Wed 12 Jun 2002Link
http://www.kenstone.net/fcp_homepage/fcp_homepage_index.html#tutorial
for everything auhoritative you NEED to know about fcp
cheers

Steven Austin
Tue 30 Jul 2002Link
I'm not so saavy about this forum yet, please forgive me if this was
posted elsewhere. (it contains a new question)

I'm a filmmaker (12 years in the industry) and I'm about to embark
on my first documentary feature.

My topic is rather unique, so I can't reveal it online. Due to the
timely nature of my piece and my relative inexperience in the field,
I'd like to ask some seasoned pros a few key questions regarding:

1. co-productions, ie. finding the right partner(s) to help finance
and/or distribute my feature doc.
2. acquiring film clips and still photos, fair usage laws and public
domain.
3. the discovery of copyrights for films already made, plus
discovery of underlying literary rights of such films.

Any help would be appreciated! I can be reached at
philnoir@earthlink.net

Thank you.

Doug Block
Tue 30 Jul 2002Link
It would help if you could ask more specific questions, Steven. And
maybe one at a time?

Donna Barker
Mon 12 Aug 2002Link
I'm researching a possible film topic and have spent hours trying to
find comprehensive doc film libraries so I can check out what other
films have been made on this topic. I don't feel like I'm hitting
gold yet. Any sites you would recommend? Thanks.

Doug Block
Mon 12 Aug 2002Link
Donna, have you tried doing a Google search? First, by your subject
+ "documentary film". Then under "documentary film, distributor".
Then you might contact the more prolific doc distributors (ie.
Filmmakers Library, California Newsreel, First Run Features) and
collectives for self-distributed docs like New Day Films.

Donna Barker
Mon 12 Aug 2002Link
Thank you Doug, both for your honest welcome to the list (although I
notice by your bio that you are a thriving working doc
filmmaker...afraid of the competition, perhaps!? ;> ) and for the
quick reply to my querry.

My approach was exactly as you described, using Google. I'll check
out the distributors. Aside from the Canadian National Film Board
that approach hadn't occurred to me. Gotta dust off my research
skills I guess. And maybe there just haven't been many films made on
the topic I'm working on.

Doug Block
Tue 13 Aug 2002Link
I always try to scare away the newbies, Donna ;-) Way too many of
them out there. Those damn cheapie dv camcorders are to blame!

But clearly there's no scaring you off, so God bless.... And, yep,
ya gotta do your homework.

By the way, I wouldn't be scared off even if there have been other
films done on the subject. There's always room for diff. approaches
and p.o.v.'s.

And yours will be better, of course.

Donna Barker
Tue 13 Aug 2002Link
So, Doug, maybe we could carry on this therapeutic exchange off-
list. How much do you charge to provide witty words of encouragement
to newbies in need?

James LaVeck
Mon 19 Aug 2002Link
Hello all,

I have a 43 minute English language doc for which I am looking to create a
Spanish language version. I have a good translation, which will be read by
the subject of the doc, who is a native speaker. My question is this: can
anyone recommend some good NYC firms that would be good to work with
on creating the new soundtrack, from recording the Spanish dialogue,
matching to picture, etc. I am looking for people with lots of experience in
this specialty area.

TIA

James LaVeck

Rebecca Romani
Thu 5 Sep 2002Link
Olympia~ hope your festival circuit is going well. I had the same
problem as well as asking myself is this realy as interesting as I
would like to think it is (answer:well, that depends...)Anyway, I
looked at past program descriptions of festivals I was interested in
to dtermine what kind of work they show, but more importantly how do
the programming people describe the material. That was really helpful.

Byrd Mcdonald
Thu 19 Sep 2002Link
Hey D-Word, thanks for your continued existence.

I have visited these forums sporadically over the last year, but rarely posted.
I'm posting now because I'm having a major melt down and I want other
opinions or some perspective.

i'm in the painful final stages of completing a documentary I've worked on for 3
years about people in the haunted attraction industry. The film profiles
various men and women who have been building and directing "haunted
houses" for years. It's a portrait of a strange, unusual industry, but more
importantly a portrait of the creators, and what makes them do what they do,
and what makes patrons pay money to be scared.

In researching haunted houses, I of course read about "hell houses" and even
went to one in Denver for a week, where I shot some of the best footage I
have. (For those not familiar, hell houses are church ran haunted houses that
intend to scare morality into patrons through skits involving abortion, drugs,
homosexuality). However, the hell houses always stuck out as not belonging
in my movie, which is very much a valentine to Halloween and people who
draw some creative energy from this time of year.

Then, George Radcliff's HELL HOUSE emerged and begain getting raves at
different festivals.

My issue is that i fear people are going to compare my film to HELL HOUSE in
some way. HELL HOUSE is a wonderful movie (I've seen it), but very different
from my film. however, they are both about haunted houses, just opposite
ends of the spectrum.

I know this happens every day, that people get "scooped" before their film is
done. But, I am looking for advice on how to position my movie so that it
doesnt' get compared to HELL HOUSE and doesn't get perceived as a small
subject which another movie has already covered.

Doug Block
Thu 19 Sep 2002Link
I think there was one year where three different docs about women
boxers came out. All were very good and quite successful.

Moral is, I think you position your film as if Hell House never
existed. There's always room for different p.o.v.'s about the same
(or similar) subjects.

Byrd Mcdonald
Thu 19 Sep 2002Link
Thanks Doug.

I'm in the trenches of finishing the film, and sometimes it's hard to put
everything in perspective.

Back to the trenches, Sundance deadline on the horizon.

Byrd

Robert Goodman
Thu 19 Sep 2002Link
Wish you the best of luck with Sundance.

Byrd Mcdonald
Fri 20 Sep 2002Link
Thanks Robert.

I know the chances are slim. You gotta keep hoping.

I'm done rendering. See ya later.

Byrd

John Greer
Wed 25 Sep 2002Link
All, Anybody !!,

This issue is driving me crazy because everyone I ask has a diferent
answer. So here goes nothing...... Do I, or Do I not need a signed
release from all living persons that is in a shot segment. For
example:

I shoot footage of an event. The footage shows groups of people doing
various things. Some shots show individuals taking part in
activities. Some shots are wide shots showing multiple activities
going on. In all but the widest shots people are recognizable. The
footage will be used as part of a doc.

Question: Do I need a signed release from every recognizable person
in every shot used? Some say I do, but can't tell me why. Some tell
me no unless the person has a speaking role.

In films or docs where street sceans are shot from a moving vehicle
showing hundreds of people walking, talking, working, and playing. Do
they go back and get signed releases from all those people !!!???? I
don't see how that is possible. Thanks for any help at all in this
matter.

John

Doug Block
Wed 25 Sep 2002Link
I'm not an entertainment lawyer (okay, disclaimer out of the way)
but... personal releases are less about fear of lawsuits and more
about the need to get Errors and Omissions insurance, which any
broadcaster or distributor would want before taking on your film.

If someone sues, it's more likely they'll come after the one with the
bucks, not the poor indie docu filmmaker.

Sure, it's safer to get as many releases as you can, particularly if
they say something on camera. Or, if it's a sensitive or
controversial situation. But, generally speaking, the main concern of
the lawyers scrutinizing your film is do you have the releases of the
featured people in your various scenes.

In crowd scenes, I don't worry too much. Am I 100% guaranteed to
pass the E&O test? No. But, I calculate the slight gamble against
the knowledge that it's impossible for me to get everyone's release.

As a fallback, in post-production, you can always fuzz out the face
of those people in crowds you didn't get releases for.

Erica Ginsberg
Wed 25 Sep 2002Link
I would echo what Doug says. I've asked two different lawyers and
gotten two different answers. The one I like better is to get
releases (1) for those with "speaking parts" and (2) for others if
the environment is one that could be controversial or embarassing to
the subjects (a strip club, an infertility clinic, a communist party
meeting, etc.). Of course, a park may not seem controversial, but if
you catch a man and a woman holding hands and they just happen to be
having an illicit affair, well how are you to know? But it's not
something to worry about too much. As Doug said, when it comes to
documentary filmmakers, it's not like we have so many assets to drain.

When filming a speech or a performance, you can also put signs at the
entrance or have the speaker announce your presence and what you are
doing this for so those in attendance have at least been given fair
warning. I know this could be an issue on an upcoming shoot I have
where I'll be filming a church service where there may be many
illegal immigrants in the pews. I am planning to ask the priest (who
speaks the language of the congregation) to announce the filming one
week in advance so those who do not want to be filmed can opt to go
to a service at a different time.

John Greer
Fri 27 Sep 2002Link
Dough & Erica,

Thanks for the response. This is one of those areas that seems
to be a catch 22. There seems to be no 100% right or wrong
answer. If there are large groups of people in the footage, there
is just no way humanly possible to get to all of the people unless
the whole thing is staged. Well............... I guess the only option is
to get as many releases as possible and pray about the rest !
What else can you do. Thanks.

Peace

Stephen Goldberg
Tue 8 Oct 2002Link
Doug and Erica:
Im a lawyer and and a filmmaker. Im also shooting in a controversial
environment.The release in a situation like the "illegal immigrant"
context has no legal effect. You cant be sued by someone doing
something illegal for filming them while doing it. Its simply to
get cooperation and access when filming. Also people doing anything
in public have no "expectation of privacy" thus releases are legally
unnecessary. Still for my peace of mind I try to get a release from
anyone I shoot in an enclosed space.

Veena Almad
Tue 8 Oct 2002Link
hi people,
this is veena almad drom india. i am a student of mass media and i
am crazy abt movies....direction do let em know if anything on
direction and screeplays....
and i wish to know some filmmakers plz help to know anyone from
it....as i have an internship coming up...next summer..so i have
choise but to do it...for film making...
bye
thanks
luv
veena

Doug Block
Tue 8 Oct 2002Link
Veena, we're crazy about movies here, too! If you have a specific
question, feel free to ask.

Erica Ginsberg
Tue 8 Oct 2002Link
Stephen, would a church be considered a public space or an enclosed
space?

Veena Almad
Tue 8 Oct 2002Link
hi people,
i wanted to know how does a movie start i.e. feature
film ....i.e. 1st the screeplay writer approaches or the company
(prod. houses)... and whom to approach for working in movies...
thanks crazy film people....
luv
veena

Ben Kempas
Wed 9 Oct 2002Link
The thing is that with documentaries, you rarely have a screenplay
writer.

There is just no general rule for all this.
So what's your ideal vision of what you want to do?
What kind of project are you thinking about?

Doug Block
Wed 9 Oct 2002Link
Veena, the Distribution panel covers the gamut of all indie film, but
The D-Word focuses on docs. So we probably can't give you much help
in how to get a screenplay produced.

I think there are a bunch of listserves and discussion boards for
screenwriters, though. You can try a Google search, or maybe someone
else knows..?

Veena Almad
Wed 9 Oct 2002Link
thanks people....
for caring abt me and writing....
veena

John Greer
Wed 9 Oct 2002Link
Erica,

Good Question. Is it the fact that the person is enclose in a
building that makes this situation "private", or is it because of the
fact that a "religous" ( my spelling sucks) or personal act is
taking place and that makes it "private"? I recently shot over 6
hours of footage of native american and african cerimonial
activities. It was outside but it was spiritually based. I wonder if
that could be considered "private"? hummmmmmm? Another
legal grey area.

Peace,

John

Michael Oko
Thu 10 Oct 2002Link
Hi~ I am in the process of trying to finish my first independent-- ie
self-funded-- doc. Two questions for the "pros" (this is my first
posting, hope its the right forum):

1. What are the latest thoughts on Final Cut 3 with a new G4. Is
a dual processor G4 867 going to do the trick, or do I need
additional speed (1 gig or 1.25). What are other common pitfalls
in purchasing and configuring a new final cut setup? And of
course, any tips on where to shop to save some dough? Or is
my best bet to go to Tech Serve and load up on what they
advise?

2. A question on length. At this point, I am doing the project on
spec and hope to enter festivals, and mostly to use as a selling
card for myself. Of course if someone wants to buy it, great! My
gut says that 1/2 hour is a good length. Do I need to worry about
timing it out for commercial breaks in the event that a network
would be interested in airing it? Is there a standard reference for
this? Also, should I try to expand it to 1 hour-- is that a more
"saleable" length? Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Mike Green
Thu 10 Oct 2002Link
hmmm, there are people alot more pro than I and perhaps they'll jump
in but...

1. G4867 is plenty fast enough. make sure you load up on RAM.. it's
hard to get too much... go to www.kenstone.net and read all about how
to set up your system... it's a fabulous concise set of guides. It
will answer all your fcp3.0 and other questions about systems. As
for saving dough... buy from someone legit who'll talk to you if you
think you'll need support. I bought my system from promax.com and
they provide good telephone support because I had no experience with
macs... but you pay more for your system (a few hundred dollars
more).. but they assemble and burn it it before shipping. Or try
bhphotovideo.com. If you're mac savvy, shop around.

2. my 2cents: do a 30 minute project; there are more slots in
festivals for shorts; the pbs length is 26:45 I believe. you can
check pbs.org producing for pbs link; and it's faster to do than
creating a 60 min program that works. It's not usually possible to
stretch a 30 minute program to 60 mins... it's sometimes possible to
cut shorter versions of a longer program. 60 minute programs are
commercial norm but unless you break the mold your first 60 minute
project will not likely find its way onto pbs or cable.

with your 30 minute project, plan ahead, think about what you want to
do and how you want to represent that with video images. try not
to 'overshoot'. Then think about your edit and outline things before
you start logging tape into your mac. But most of all, enjoy it and
learn from it. That's what your first project should be about.

Blake Barratt
Fri 11 Oct 2002Link
hi veena
good links for screen writers:
www.unmovies.com
www.dvinfo.net
good luck!!
blake

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