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.
two producers in NYC currently...how come? if need be, i'll go
consulting editor on my last two films (and edited "love and diane",
among many other credits). she was amazing, particularly on "home
page", where she gave very specific last minute notes that were
critical. i'll email you her phone number.
added bonus, when you're back you can get a free cup of hot java and
consult (like, alternative career advice) with yours truly ;-)
contact info on mona davis. i can get the wheels rolling there. what
do people like that charge normally? like a ballpark figure...
and you'll probably need no more than a half-day consult, which is
but i am about to embark on my first doc. Heading to europe for 1 week
to research for subjects and to get footage for a marketing trailer so I
can go raise funds. 2 questions: 1) HD or DV? my doc colleagues say HD,
while my pocketbook says DV. 2)I have a dp i like and has tons of doc
experience both directing and shooting and who has an HD package, but he
is asking $2000 for a weeks kit rental (deferring his time costs), plus
I will need to fly and put him up for the week. For that kind of money
should I invest in my own camera, and either shoot myself or hire a
local? Need to decide asap and head is spinning. Thank you.
moving in an HD direction and I sometimes regret not starting my
latest project on HD. But I've come to realize, through hard-won
experience, that it's damn difficult to make any money, to even make
back expenses, doing a doc and that the best way to lose the
smallest amount of money is to keep expenses as low as possible.
Business 101, but I had to learn the hard way. When I'm weighing an
expense, I ask myself how many DVDs I'm going to have to sell to pay
for that budget item. Helps keep me focused.
I just did what you're doing: go overseas to research a doc and
shoot material for a trailer. I hired someone local, based on a D-
Worder's recommendation, and it went well. I've taken my own DP on
long-distance shoots before, but that was when I had a much rosier
and naive view of doc finances. If you have footage already in the
can that matches the style you want to use, bring it and show it to
the local DP so he or she knows what you want. Others may advocate
bringing your own DP, and if you are Bill Gates's heir, I'd agree.
But if you're not, how many DVDs will you have to sell to pay for
the DP's package, airfare, lodging and per diem? Lots.
you are better off hiring someone to shoot for you. As for HD - what HD?
HDV - if so, don't bother. DVCPROHD? - perhaps you should buy a HVX200
for $10,0000 and pay someone on a deferred basis to shoot for you.
HDCAM/HDCAM SR? - This might be a great deal to gather very high
quality footage for a reel to raise money.
DV - the story had better be so damn good the market won't care 3-8
years from now that you shot it on a dead 4:3 tape format in a world
gone 4K high def in 16:9.
trust my shooting skills just yet. I am waiting to hear back from a
production manager oversees to see what is available on the local
front. But I am just torn between comfortably knowing that my DP is
onboard with what I are trying to accomplish and that I know the
footage will be good, especially for a marketing piece, and spending
too much to the point where I set a high priced precedent before I
even get any funding. The DP has a full HVX package, but not sure how
HVX can handle a full day of shooting as I think the drive and cards
he has can only accommodate up to 3 1/2 hours of shooting. You really
think HDV isnt worth it? As an aside, I was offered a free DVX 100b
for the week, but again, there is that DV vs HD question. Steven, Out
of curiosity, how much did you end up spending for your recent trip/
aren't in front of me. The rest was airfare, lodging, meals, the
regular travel expenses. I agree with Robert that if you can do HD,
do HD. Have you priced out the difference?
Any rental house in NY or LA would rent it to you for 900 for a week.
just the camera, but a two-man crew with audio and lights package
and a vehicle. Still wish I could have done better, but I didn't
know the language or have any contacts besides the crew recommended
by a D-Worder.
trip of what I deem to be at least 1 or 2 more in depth ones. And
being my first time as a director, I will try to coordinate a local dp
with an HD package to be on standby out there, and save myself the
cash for when I know exactly what I need. Rather than having a pricey
dp the whole week that I will be anxious about getting my money's
worth from. In the meantime I was thinking about purchasing the new
Canon HV20 HDV (for about 1K) to bring with me as a 'back-up' for
research, which I hope will relieve that 'wish I had my camera'
feeling on the days that I am dp-less, realizing it wont be the best
for the major interviews as it is only 1 CMOS, but could be great for
some research and filler shots that I wont require matching. Does
that sound like a good plan in your professional opinions?
& experience making docs. I've got 9 years experience as a journalist
(am in London now) and while I'm a total beginner as far as docs go,
I'd rather just get thrown in at the deep end rather than take a
course (is a course going to tell me that I'd love or hate this kind
of work? I think not.) Any thoughts would be most welcome. Thanks!
Might help to read a good book in the basics of documentary
storytelling, so you begin thinking about telling stories in images
and sounds instead of just words. Directing the Documentary by
Michael Rabinger is considered one of the best:
Would do you some good to read the conferences here, too.
I'm making a documentary film about an accordian festival and i've
contacted the co-ordinator about permission to film....do i need to
get permission from every individual who will be in attendance at
the festival or is there some sort of blanket permission form for
everything that i can get the organizer to sign?
it's basically just entirely DIY/Indie doc so what else should i be
aware of when making it? tips and tricks would help!
Thanks in advance!
(with the organiser's permission) stating that the festival is being
filmed for a documentary, not forgetting your company name & contact
details. Wording should include something like "Entrants consent to
being filmed and recorded by (****company name) for possible inclusion
in the documentary film (**** title)".
If in any doubt, consult a lawyer (especially if you're in the US)
The film did play at my local festival, the Ashland Independent Film Festival, and was received very well. The reviewers that have seen the film have given it A to B grades. Other filmmakers that have seen the film all seem to like it. It's not a perfect film by any means, but I know that it is a good film.
I've seen so many terrible films, narrative and documentaries, at the same festivals that I'm entering, that I just can't believe that my film isn't considered at or above the same level. I think we're getting rejected because the film is so personal, while also not having anyone even slightly famous involved. (I feel like if Gus Van Sant stuck name on there, it'd be accepted into any festival in half a second.)
So I guess I'm asking for advice how to get into these festivals? Is there a trick I'm missing? Should I just give up and start trying to distribute it on DVD myself? (The entry fees are quickly adding up.)
Anything will help... I spent three years of my life putting this
film together and the fact that nobody wants to show it is killing
would like to see more. For some reason my laptop loads the first part
then seems to stop. Its not just yours it happens all the time.
Pisses me off.
Are you selling the doc?
not a worthwhile film. Festivals are not the be all, end all of a
film's life. They have numerous reasons for accepting or not
accepting films -- length issues, other films on similar topics
playing the circuit at the same time as yours, not thinking the topic
is sexy enough, or simply not getting the film. Rather than waste
lots of dollars continuing to apply, target your festival strategy at
festivals that have shown films in the same vein as yours. Heartland
Film Festival comes to mind since their focus is on films about
positive life values.
Whether or not you get into festivals, it appears you have started to
build an audience for your film through your MySpace page and other
outreach. So think about other ways to generate screenings -
microcinemas, academic conferences, public libraries, birthing
classes at hospitals, etc. It's a lot of work to do on your own, so
you may want to re-read the D-Word Conference on Outreach with Robert
West from a few years back, but it seems like there is a definite
audience for your film out there. It just may not be a festival
I'm not officially selling the film yet. But if you're interested I
could send you a screener copy. If you want to send me $5 for DVD
cover, disc and shipping, I'd love to send you a copy. I'd just ask
for your opinions on the film in return. Email me at:
firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested. (That goes for anybody else
Thanks for the encouraging words. My first short film was accepted
into over 50% of the festivals I entered and won a few awards, so I
guess I was just expecting the same this time around. I'll look
into Heartland Festival and start doing more research on the
festivals I do enter. Being a film about pregnancy and parenthood,
I'm definitely planning on looking further into those avenues. I
actually had a nurse from the pregnancy ward at our local hospital
tell me they'd love to get a copy for their new parents to watch.
So I'm hoping to get it seen that way.
I was just having a bad day yesterday, so I needed to vent a
little. I plan to read more about alternate ways of distribution,
but I'd love to get more advice if anybody has any.
really unusual to have a doc financed beforehand. I'd ask why, if he
has full funding, you're not getting a full salary and he's asking you
to defer part. I'd be curious how much he's asking you to defer (as a
percentage of what he's paying, that is).
is any specific protocol about which credits are opening credits and
which are end credits andin what order for a non-union project.
Different films I've referenced seem to do different things.
comes last and most important to least important in between.
Where does one turn if he/she is an idea person and wants to team up
with film makers to share the idea and develop it?
looking to put together a few sample news stories for a reel?
Through research on the internet, it looks like many documentarians
start a non-profit company for their film. Why is that? I assume it is
for getting grants, yes?
And what happens when they are done with the film and want to sell it?
Are they limited in any way under a 501(c)3?
It just means that anything above the cost of expenses has to be put
back into the non-profit. While the non-profit model can work for
some filmmakers, it is not a necessity. You do need non-profit
status for most grants, but you can do this through a fiscal sponsor.
And I am guessing that Mr. Goodman's comment relates to the fact that
very few doc films turn a profit anyway.
time for a 501c3 and the costs are major.
seem a bit juvenille. I am creating a documentary for National
History Day, a nation-wide contests where students in grades 6-12
research a specific topic that relates to the annual theme and present
it. I'm not the best with technology, so here is my question for you:
What editing software should I use? I have both a PC and a mac at my
house, so I can use all different types of software. Do you think that
final cut express will be sufficient for this project? That's what I
was planning on using, since final cut pro is a completely out of my
sufficient. In the case of most software, you can also probably get
an educational discount. You may also want to ask some of the
students - I'd be willing to bet some of them have some sort of low-
cost editing software on their home computers and are already pretty
adept at using it. The key thing you want is something that you can
edit nonlinear and can output to whatever media you to have to
present for the contest (I'm guessing a DVD).
Suppose I were extremely lucky and got a television deal overseas or even through PBS. What happens to that money? Do I pay a percentage of "earnings" to my non-profit sponsor? Or, the more likely scenario... I sell the DVD's myself through my website and so forth. What happens to that money? What are my obligations? Does the fiscal sponsorship "end" once the project is finished? Thanks for any help, guys!
come in to your project through them - ie. grants they apply for in
your name (such as NYSCA in New York State) or contributions that are
filtered through them for tax purposes. a fiscal sponsor gets not one
bloody cent of any other monies you raise apart from them or any
revenue you generate, unless you have a specific (much more atypical)
deal where they are helping you to raise money and take a percentage
of revenue in return. and, yes, your obligation to them ends when the
project is finished.
the classifieds topic, not the mentoring room.
modest percentage (4.5%) and has been great to work with (though I've
raised exactly $0.00 thus far). They certainly didn't ask for further
money, I was just wondering before I talk to some potential donors. I
know this is pie-in-the-sky thinking, but it's something I'd like to
know anyway. Let's say I find an individual donor who believes in my
project and decides to DONATE $25,000 (that's not even the
pie-in-the-sky part.) Then, all the stars align, something big
happens in the news regarding my subject and, voila, i've got a hot
property on my hands and make six-figures in revenue from DVD sales
(profoundly, profoundly unlikely, I know.) Now, won't that donor
think "damn, I donated to this guy who's now making real money from my
Basically, I am just getting a feel for how to answer potential
answers from individual funders should they arise (not grant lenders,
individuals). I have a potential meeting with a business person and I
worry his questions could be of that ilk. It seems odd to ask someone
for a donation and then rattle on about my big distribution plans that
I hope generate some kind of revenue.
(Perhaps I should focus my energy on more likely scenarios than what
to do if I strike it rich making police brutality films, huh...)
Sorry to be overly long-winded.
contribution to help out a cause, and gets a tax break in the process.
an investor expects, or at least hopes for, a healthy return on their
leaving a confusing impression. In short, I have a friend who will be
introducing me to a potential donor (not investor but donor) and my
friend (who has a background in for-profit video production and no
background in documentaries, non-profits, or philanthropy) was
bringing up all of these issues such as "how can this be a non-profit
endeavor if you'll be selling the DVD's 'for profit' once the film is
completed?" When you take a step back, that's a legitimate question.
Few other endeavors function this way (to my knowledge anyway). Most
endeavors are either non-profit or they aren't, end of story.
Thanks again, Doug. I promise I'm not as dense as things may seem...
I should simply quit while i'm ahead, here. I got an unequivocal
answer to my original question, after all, and I'm doing my best to
non-profit fiscal sponsor for certain kinds of fundraising. you can
easily mix private investment, grants, presales and donations, it's
done all the time.
entertainment lawyer. you can contact volunteer lawyers for the arts
if you don't have the dough.
I'm new here and I got the most basic question of all i guess. I am
working on a short documentary. It's about Francois Macandal, a
runaway slave in the 1700's who organized the first major revolt
against the slave owning class in Haiti. The project is not going to
cost more than $5000 dollars(if my budget hits the spot). So that
basic question is where do I look for frunding for such project,
whom can I approach? (I was warned that for rookie filmmakers like
myself with no experience, applying for grants is out).
Thanks to all.
your case if you could get a more experienced filmmaker on board as a
co-producer or at least as an advisor. $5,000 does seem a bit low
for a budget though.
In terms of looking for funding, start by looking at other films with
similar topics to see where they got their funding. Then start to
research those funders. You don't say where you are based. If you
are in the United States, you might find these suggestions helpful:
Got another question. I followed Erica's advice and made me a little
list of producers who has made films like the one I'm looking to
make. Now my question is how do I approach these producers? Because
there was a time when I used to send e-mails to producers who never
heard of me from a scratch on the wall and they never answered.
website, if you have one. if they don't reply within a few days, then
a phone call is fine. another possibility is a card. no one gets
mail these days, so it might well stand out.
guesses what the middle b stands for.
name D-Block, Doug.
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) =)