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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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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.


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