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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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Doug Block
Sat 22 Sep 2007Link

no need to sign your name at the bottom of a post, don. we see your name above each post automatically.


Dave Chameides
Tue 25 Sep 2007Link

I'm heading to the Ukraine in two weeks to shoot a doc on my dad who is visiting the monastary he was hidden in as a child during WWII. I've been working in the film industry for 16 years as a steadicam op/direcotor so mechanics wise I'm feeling good, but having never made a doc, I'm a bit freaked out about easy mistakes I can avoid as a first timer. Any siggestions would be great. Also, can someone point me to a short/simple release form I can bring?

Thanks

dave


Peter Gerard
Tue 25 Sep 2007Link Tag

Follow your instinct....

There are lots of release forms around that are good. This one is provided by Channel Four's website.


Gretta Wing Miller
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

You know, Dave, if anyone talks into the camera they are giving their agreement to be in the film. When interviewed, they can say (and spell) their names on cam and say I agree to be used in this film. And if you do not hide the camera, so that anyone can walk away from it, you can use a shot of them.
I just find forms too unwieldy for direct cinema; better make a general announcement to the entire monastery that you will be shooting and anyone who doesn't want to be on tape should stay out of range!


Gretta Wing Miller
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

Also, when I was an assistant editor, we all agreed that the best directors had started out as editors. When you are shooting, always keep an edited scene running in your mind; think about what cutaways will be good for what a person is saying; when you are shooting action, figure out how you are going to get CUs of the same action, and move fast. the alternate angles might not happen til another day, so you have to keep them in your mind. It's so mesmerizing to get caught up in the continuity of what is happening, but you have to really think fast about how much of any given activity will end up in the final product.
Almost anything can be 'fixed in post', as long as you have the right cutaways!
(Last year I cut an amateur shooter's film about a relief kitchen in NO, and there were NO (zero) shots of people actually using the facilities…huh? We shot this after lunch, I was told…And you didn't go back the next day??? (Still photos actually saved the day, in this case)


Peter Gerard
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

I agree that it makes sense that talking to the camera is like consent, but I doubt any lawyers or (more importantly) broadcasters will agree.


Joe Moulins
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

You may have a difficult time getting E&O insurance with signed consent forms.


Doug Block
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

I think you mean without signed consent forms, Joe. And it's true, a broadcaster won't show your film unless you have E&O insurance, and the insurance company will want to know you have appropriate releases from everyone. The broadcaster's lawyers will also check sometimes, but usually for the key releases of anyone they see as a red flag or potential lawsuit situation.


Joe Moulins
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

Yes, without.

As always, I learned this the hard way, when I had to cut a character from a film after she soured on the film and I hadn't had her sign a release.

I now carry releases in my camera bag...and almost always forget to use them.


Mike Luehring
Wed 26 Sep 2007Link

What a great website! It's great to ready through the post and know we're all in the same quicksand so to speak. I am working on a doc now where I need some guidance in setting up contracts to include the main participant of our doc to recieve a portion of any funds that would be paid. Any ideas?


David Maynard
Thu 27 Sep 2007Link

Question about Sundance. If a film is accepted to Sundance do they give the director a certain amount of "passes", etc for those wanting to tag along? For instance, if I get in and want to bring my mom, dad, brother, girlfriend, best friend, etc. etc. how are these sorts of things accommodated? I've never been so I'm not even sure if "passes" are needed. Any feedback on this? Thanks!


Peter Gerard
Thu 27 Sep 2007Link

Mike, sounds a bit complicated to me. Can you not agree on a figure instead?

Edited Thu 27 Sep 2007 by Peter Gerard

Mike Luehring
Thu 27 Sep 2007Link

Until we get the film completed or start shopping what we have, I have no way to know what figure to offer. It would be a agreement with our talent for them to share in the procededs if a sale where to happen. My quesiton is how do I set that up in a contract?


Robert Goodman
Thu 27 Sep 2007Link

Dave-go with your instincts and remember that you will remake every idiotic mistake in the book on your own show and that ultimately it won't matter. Nothing worse than clients and nothing worse than being the client.


Doug Block
Thu 27 Sep 2007Link

David, I last had a film at Sundance in 1999 so my memory is hazy but I think they gave us a total of 10 tickets to our own screenings and we could choose which ones to use them for. You also had the opportunity to buy extra tickets before they went on sale to the public. Might be a different policy now.


Erin Hart
Fri 28 Sep 2007Link

Hi, I have been searching for a free confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement and keep getting referred to sites that charge--does anyone have a form suggestion? Thanks!


Megan Conkey
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

Hello! Does anybody have any suggestions on how to break into documentary? I'd love to be a part of one. Thanks!


John Burgan
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

No need to double post, Megan. Have you ever tried to make a small doc yourself? It's pretty easy to get hold of a DV camera these days.


Doug Block
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

Megan, John doesn't quite go far enough. Yes, grab a camera. Find a compelling subject. Follow him or her (or it) for, oh, 3, 4, 5 years while something interesting happens. Tap out all your money, friends money, relatives money, while you edit for another, oh, 2 or 3 years. Get into Sundance. Win a major prize.

It's pretty simple, actually.

Edited Sat 29 Sep 2007 by Doug Block

Eli Brown
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

Hey Megan,

I think the largest problem here is that you're in Los Angeles. You can't go an hour or two without someone looking for an intern for their documentary on any of the east coast (or, hell, San Francisco) craigslist tv/flim/video posts. Los Angeles... well, not so much. So, unlike show business, you don't really break into documentary. You can find a company that produces documentary programming and try to work with them for free and try to get a sense of what they're doing. Or more probably, you can hone the various skills that make up a good documentarian - storytelling, attention to detail, fundraising, stupid tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds, good editorial skills, and how to use a camera under less than ideal circumstances - all of which are skills which can be picked up either (as John notes) by grabbing a camera and exploring your own ideas... or, quite frankly, in the service of any aspect of production in whatever your area might give as an opportunity (and LA has its fair share, to be sure). And if you happen to spy someone posting on craigslist or mandy.com looking for an intern for their documentary, you'll be able to apply to that with some amount of skill that you've been working on developing. It's not a great answer, but perseverance is probably the biggest chunk of the recipe. But that's kind of true for anything worth doing...


Joe Moulins
Sat 29 Sep 2007Link

Megan, I'm writing this 11 hours after your post, so we have some history and I feel I can be frank with you.

I remember being in your position, wanting to "break into" documentary. I beat my head against the wall for years. Finally, I gave up and made my own damn documentary. Suddenly, doors began to open. I went from being a wannabe to being a filmmaker.

When I sold that first film to a broadcaster I suddenly became an "insider", and began hearing from people looking for the secret. I was always being invited to go for a coffee, and listening to stories about how "I've wanted to do this all my life". Many of these people were/are former colleagues from my time working in public radio. They offer to work for free, swear up and down that they're committed, that they want to make the world a better place, that documentary film is the only pure film, blah, blah, blah, blah......

Out of the 50 or 60 people I've had this conversation with over the years, I can think of one who actually followed up, fought her way into a position and is now working in the field.

My advice to people starting out now is to beg, borrow, or steal a video camera and make a short documentary. Really short. Do everything yourself if you like, or convince friends to help shoot, edit, write or direct it.

Then, instead of asking "How can I live my dream of making documentary films" you can say "I've just finished my first film. It's short. Would you mind taking a look?"

I could go on and on...but you get the drift.

I wish you the best of luck, Megan. Really.


Brian Boyko
Tue 2 Oct 2007Link

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


Christopher Wong
Tue 2 Oct 2007Link

you only need E&O ("Errors & Omissions") insurance once you've finished your film. It's a guarantee to broadcasters, distributors, film festivals that you have all the necessary permissions and releases -- the E&O insurance comes in handy should anyone decide to sue you.


Robert Goodman
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Actually it's insurance that you should buy during production - cheaper that way and when questions come up you can ask your insurer how it might be treated by the insurer. And it does what it says helps protect you from law suits claiming that you made harmful errors or omissions of facts that libel, cause damage to someone's property or reputation, etc.

Whether or not you need it depends often on the type of film you are making. The more controversial the subject the more impetus there is to purchase it early.


Joe Moulins
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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


Katinka Kraft
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

I am just about to complete my first documentary film. I have been working on it for 3.5 years. I am looking for a few more stock images to complete my B-roll segments. Images such as german soccer fans, pictures of Kristalnacht, pics of Germany 1930s-1940s. I have been searching on the Library of Congress site and it has been quite difficult. I would love any advice someone might have about a great place to find public domain stock photos. Thank you so much in advance. Katinka


Ben Kempas
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Katinka,
Try the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, Germany.

Edited Wed 3 Oct 2007 by Ben Kempas

Darla Bruno
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Hi,

Newbie here. I just introduced myself in Introductions, but started asking some questions there that are probably better asked here.

I'm doing my first doc film in Italy next year. I have no budget or schedule. To be honest, I'm just kind of jumping in. Got some advice from some doc. film friends and will be buying a camera in a couple months, also doing research and interviews right now.

A few questions. Since this is an international film (will be shot in Italy) . . .

1) How should I handle the language barrier. I speak conversational Italian, but this might involve dialect, and I certainly won't rely on my own language skills to do the interpreting. I'm imagining lots of subtitles and voice overs. Though some of the people I interview will probably be able to speak English, the subjects of the film pretty much won't.

I was advised by two doc film friends to do my own camera work. Yikes! When I first imagined this, I thought I'd hire someone with some experience. Me? I have none.

So, question #2) Do you agree that I should do my own camera work? Do you recommend shooting some practice scenes first? Shadowing another filmmaker? Any other ideas? Is it fairly easy to learn about lighting and audio (I'll be in tiny dark Italian homes made of stone built into hillsides and I want good detail).

3) At this point, If I plan to start filming summer 2008, is there a schedule I can follow? I'm literally following About.com's "10 steps to making a doc. film" (!) Good grief.

4) Is it true that your story comes out of the footage? I don't know my angle/story yet, but I've got plenty of material I know will be good.

Thanks!


Ben Kempas
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

(1) Sounds like don't really have any other option than to do it in Italian. So why worry about it?

(2) I don't agree. You can't just learn all this within a few months. Work with an experienced camera person (many are willing to work for little or deferred pay if the project is attractive). You should really focus on your story and your characters.

(3) There is no recipe, every project is different. Make sure to read our archived topics, for example the one called Shooting The Documentary

(4) There's always a story in your footage, and it's never the story you had planned to capture.


Reed Thompson
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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


Doug Block
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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

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

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

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

Edited Wed 3 Oct 2007 by Doug Block

Darla Bruno
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

Hey everyone,

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

So I will get that book, Reed. Absolutely.

My most important question remains, then.

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


Erica Ginsberg
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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

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

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


Doug Block
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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


Darla Bruno
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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

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


Christopher Wong
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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

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

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

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


Doug Block
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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


Adrianne Anderson
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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


Christopher Wong
Wed 3 Oct 2007Link

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

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

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


Robert Goodman
Thu 4 Oct 2007Link

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


Katinka Kraft
Thu 4 Oct 2007Link

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


Rhonda Moskowitz
Thu 4 Oct 2007Link Tag

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

Edited Fri 5 Oct 2007 by Rhonda Moskowitz

Darla Bruno
Sat 6 Oct 2007Link

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

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

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

I'll try to keep my questions simple here.

Edited Sat 6 Oct 2007 by Darla Bruno

John Burgan
Sat 6 Oct 2007Link

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


Poppy Shmith
Sun 7 Oct 2007Link

Hi There,

I'd be grateful if someone could steer me in the right direction in deciding which camera to buy. I'm almost done studying doco, and really want to buy my own camera. We've been using the PD150 & 170 and a chunkier DVC Pro. I'm really comfortable using the PD, but uncertain about the lack of native 16:9. I know it's an enormous question, but which cameras would you recommend? Is it intergal to shoot 16:9? many thanks -
Poppy


Eli Brown
Sun 7 Oct 2007Link

As someone who actually bought a camera recently (an HVX200, for the record), it's a really difficult decision to make - especially if you're just starting out and (presumably) don't have a lot of capital to begin with. You may want to find local rental houses and see if you can look over their selection to see the pros and cons of the cameras that they offer. My knee jerk reaction to the 150 & 170 is that they're a bit dated technologically speaking these days. Sony's HDV offerings have usurped them in a lot of respects and gives a bit wider possibilities in terms of producing for future distribution. Canon, JVC, and others have some interesting models, and Sony has some HDV cameras that are much cheaper than a 150 or 170 and might be able to do what you need (or might not; hard to say without knowing more about your intent). Having used a 150 (6 years ago, now), I'd be a little hesitant about buying a unit that hasn't had any real upgrades in nearly half a decade. But that's the technologist in me talking.

From the strict "producer" point of view, I'd also note that "owning" a camera is actually not necessarily a great investment, largely since the minute you buy it, it loses value (and continues to do so) and also establishes a fair amount of risk (This changes if your project is one of those 200 days of shooting/personal travelogue type of projects, at which point, owning a camera is a far better deal). If you know that you're going to be getting the return on the investment (or don't mind thinking of it as a luxury expense), then that seems reasonable. Alternately, though, I might encourage you to think about renting for the first few projects - both to get a sense of what cameras/formats will work well with what you end up producing, as well as to limit your initial expenses in regards to starting out. Also, working without a camera can truly hone one's ability to know what to shoot (when you do finally rent the camera, for instance). Sometimes limitation is a great creativity booster. Hope some of that is helpful...


Christopher Wong
Mon 8 Oct 2007Link

poppy, if you want to stay in the SD realm, i really recommend the Panasonic DVX100A/B camera. shooting in 24p, the look from this camera so far exceeds that of the PD150/170 units. all of the functions are really well thought out and it's a camera that is tried and true in the doc world, especially among us D-worders. in addition, you should be able to find DVX100's at some really good prices now - probably around $2000-$2500 now. The B version is slightly better, but the A version is definitely good enough and will be significantly cheaper.

Edited Mon 8 Oct 2007 by Christopher Wong

Brian Boyko
Mon 8 Oct 2007Link

One quick question: for shooting a documentary, should I be going with 24p or 60i? 24p looks more film-like... but 60i looks "realer" - and considering that I'm making a documentary...

Complicating this fact is that I'm hoping to release in theatres, NTSC, and PAL regions.

Edited Mon 8 Oct 2007 by Brian Boyko

Christopher Wong
Mon 8 Oct 2007Link

brian,
by "realer", i think you really mean "amateurish". there are certainly times when 60i is preferable, but unless you are shooting something like "Cops" or "Jackass", where you want the feel of the piece to reflect the fact that you are not using pro camera ops, then I would shoot 24p. it's just as "real" and a whole lot more beautiful. there are numerous docs that have been shot well in 60i too, but they would have been just as good if not better in 24p. lastly, if you decide to go with 24p and you want to go to theatres eventually, shoot in 24pAdvanced mode (not "Standard" mode).


Steven Krasnopolsky
Mon 8 Oct 2007Link

One of my school assignments is to interview three different documentary filmmakers. If you would like to volunteer your help will be greatly appreciated. The interview should run by phone or in person. No e-mails or IM. You should allow me about 30-45 minutes of your time.
Thank you.


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