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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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Leah Cameron
Wed 10 Oct 2007Link

Hi Everyone,

What a great community you have going. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Leah Cameron. I just signed up and I had a big question, so I thought I'd jump right into the forum.

I'm currently directing my first doc and I received two small government grants for the project. We've begun shooting on DVCPro HD. Now I'm looking to secure a broadcaster and get further funding.

Two broadcasters have expressed interest in seeing footage, so I figure it's best to show them a trailer. While I've studied story structure, I'm not as familiar with the elements that make a good trailer. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Oh. I should also mention that the film is a personal point of view documentary. My father is learning to fly airplanes again after 40 years and I'm following him to understand the battle he faced with mental illness and his life-long love affair with flight. For as long as I can remember, he's been obsessed with flying, but he hasn't been able to fly.

A little backstory: He lost his father in a plane crash in the RAF when he was six and his fiance in a plane crash in his late 20s. He got his license in the early 60s to get over his fear, but soon suffered an emotional and mental breakdown because of the grief. He was rehabilitated, but because he was on medication, he was barred from flying.

Until now that is. Now 70 and drug-free, he's passed his medical and he's learning to fly again. For him I think this is a journey about feeling in control again. For me, it's an attempt to try to understand my father and what he went through.

Any help is much appreciated.

Thank you!

Leah


Tanya Coovadia
Wed 10 Oct 2007Link

Contract help, anyone?

Hi, all,

My embryonic production company has been approached to work on the pilot for a series that has attracted the attention of a television channel. Not having anticipated the need for a lawyer (and certainly not having the budget for it), we don't even know where to begin. Are there any sites that might contain information or templates or even some hints as to the types of items that are covered in a contract of this nature?

Thanks in advance.


Christopher Wong
Wed 10 Oct 2007Link

leah, sounds like an amazing project. and i think by your very description of it in your last posting, you already might have the structure for your trailer.

essentially, it could go like this:
1) Start out with some scene about your father preparing to fly again. This could be anything from reading a flight manual to laying out his flying clothes (whatever that might be) on the bed. This could be a strictly observational scene where the audience doesn't really know what's going on, but is intrigued; or you could put a VO underneath with your father talking about what flying means to him.
2) Cut to a still photo (or old 8mm film?) of either his father or his former fiancee. Using old newspaper clippings or something else (VO again), communicate the tragedy of what happened.
3) Cut to interview of Dad explaining medications he used to take (perhaps holding an old medicine bottle) and the details of his emotional breakdown
4) Close with shot of him walking towards an airplane (as if he were about to enter it for his first flight...) Fade to black.

Obviously, I have no idea what footage you have, so some of those suggestions might not be viable. But that kind of structure lays out the man, the history, what's at stake, and the drama -- all within a tidy 2-3 minutes.

If you're looking for theory into what makes a good trailer, hopefully someone else will jump in. (I know nothing about that.) Good luck and count yourself lucky to be shooting your first doc on DVCPro HD!


Doug Block
Thu 11 Oct 2007Link

Leah, you might want to check out D-Word member Fernanda Rossi's book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making Your Documentary Fundraising Trailer


Leah Cameron
Thu 11 Oct 2007Link

Thanks Chris and Doug. It's always useful to get an outside perspective. And I'd like to check out Fernanda's book.

Your advice is really appreciated.

Leah


Leah Cameron
Thu 11 Oct 2007Link

And, Doug, at risk of turning this thread into a 51 Birch Street love-in, I wanted to express how much I liked your film. A friend sent it my way after hearing about my project. I couldn't get it out of my head for weeks. Seriously.


Doug Block
Thu 11 Oct 2007Link

Thanks, Leah. Appreciate that. I gave a talk to a documentary class last night about personal docmaking and it really gave me the chance to think through some of my beliefs about the genre. Maybe we can open up a special topic here about it.

By the way, you certainly would qualify for Member status here, so I recommend that you apply . You also should fill out your user profile more extensively.


Jamila Gaskins
Mon 15 Oct 2007Link

In reply to Megan Conkey's post on Sat 29 Sep 2007 :

Megan, I'm producing a documentary right now about AIDS and Women in America. Write me at jkgaskins@yahoo.com. I'll give you more details.


Doug Block
Mon 15 Oct 2007Link

Leah, I took my thoughts one step further and have started to list "ten rules" about personal docmaking on my blog . (Sorry for the double post, folks, but Enthusiasts can't see the Directing topic.)


Titania Veda
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

Hi everyone,

Am a newbie and loving the D-word already =)
I had a question about finding stories. I am interested in working with refugees and immigrants but these are sensitive topics. And since I just moved to NY, I do not have an inside person who could get me great access to these people. I tried going through the non-profit organizations route but they are very protective and usually do not want to get involved.
Could you give me advice on how you would go about getting the great access that doco filmmakers seem to be able to get? Especially if you are not local?
Any advice would be appreciated.

T.


John Burgan
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

Time and patience are the tools of the doc filmmaker. Journalists don't usually have much of the former, which is why they tend to parachute in, look for their "story" and disappear just as quickly.

Take for instance a doc filmmaker like Kim Longinotto: whether she's shooting in Japan, Iran or Africa, she usually collaborates with a local who knows about the culture & language. James Longley lived for two years in Iraq to make "Iraq in Fragments", he gained the trust of his subjects over the many months he spent with them. You need to find a way to spend time with refugees, maybe you can even offer them something in return - language skills, whatever. If they get to know you as a person rather than someone who just wants something quickly, doors will open.


Titania Veda
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

Thanks for that John. I know what you mean. I love the way Kim makes her films. They are beautiful and intimate and subtle. Sometimes it is hard to know, do you bring your camera with you all the time, from the very first day so your subjects can be accustomed to it or do you hold off until they trust you?


Doug Block
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

So, Ms. Veda, any particular reason why you changed your screen name to T?


Don Levine
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

Ciao all from caput mundi-home of cinecittà. Dr. Don Levine


Doug Block
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

Ciao, Don. We actually have another topic to say hi and introduce ourselves. Feel free to post any doc questions here.


Titania Veda
Thu 18 Oct 2007Link

I'm more a T and no one can pronounce it correctly to save their lives! Plus who can forget a letter of the alphabet =) Btw, Doug, are you doing another talk in NY anytime soon?


John Burgan
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violets grows quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet muck- roses, and with eglantine: there sleeps Titania some time of the night lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight


Doug Block
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

Titanic (that's easier to pronounce), I'm speaking at the New School on Nov 19. Also doing a Q&A after a 51 Birch screening at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival on Nov 4. Or else just come to Sheffield.


Titania Veda
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

Well John, I see you have a poet in you just waiting to burst out =) I'm actually going to be one of the volunteers at Sheffield so I'll see you then Doug!

Quick question though, anyone ever had the dilemma of when to turn the camera on a subject? Some say you should do it from the first day so that they get used to it but other filmmakers disagree and say wait until they are comfortable with you and then bring the camera or just bring the camera but don't turn it on. Is there a right or wrong or just a judgement call?


Doug Block
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

Great that you'll be there, Titania. Look forward to meeting you and let's try to carve out a bit of time to talk when you're off the clock. And now get your butt out of the Mentoring Room because you're a Member and don't need to be here to post questions.


John Burgan
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

I'm a poet? W. Shakespeare don't know it...


Titania Veda
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

where do members post their questions? I had posted a question about whether or not to bring the camera on the very first day of meeting subjects and when to turn it on? Should I post that elsewhere than the mentoring room?


Eli Brown
Fri 19 Oct 2007Link

I'd try creative topics>directing for that one...


Monica Williams
Wed 31 Oct 2007Link

Hello D-Word community,

I'm new to this and very excited to have found such a great resource. Here's my deal. I'm a first time filmmaker, I'm overwhelmed and I am looking for a co-director or co-applicant for some of the grants that I am applying for. I have a letter of support from my local PBS station and I'm considering a co-production with them - but I'm still unsure. I have adapted the book Evil in Modern Thought, by Susan Neiman into a documentary film. I have produced a wonderful interview with her and have a good idea of how the structure will fall together and I have a rough outline for the script. I used all of the money raised to produce the interview and I'm now starting the process of grant-writing, but many of the grants that fund my area of interest, require previous experience. I'm feeling very discouraged with fundraising and so much more is needed to finish making this dream of mine.

My website is www.knowingevil.com. This is an amazingly relevant and beautiful film. I will truly appreciate any advice I can get on finding a co-director or on finding help with fundraising and upping my chances for grants. I have clips to show that are quite good and will be on my website soon.

Thank you

Monica


Robert Goodman
Wed 31 Oct 2007Link

Monica - I would avoid complicating things by doing a co-pro with your local station. I looked at your website and I have some questions for you.

Why is this a film? What is your connection to the subject? How will you visualize a book of philosophy? Is this really a biopic?


Paul Hayes
Wed 31 Oct 2007Link

Hey everyone. I started reading through old posts in this thread, but thought it might be easier to just ask for the info I need. I am lookig to break into documentary filmmaking, and wanted recommendations for moderately priced equipment, in particular a digital video camera, computer and editing equipment. Thanks for any help you can provide. - Paul

Edited Wed 31 Oct 2007 by Paul Hayes

Niam Itani
Thu 1 Nov 2007Link

Paul, the first question would be how much are you willing to spend on the equipment? :)


Paul Hayes
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

Well, I don't want to limit my options to what I can afford now. I'd rather get some price ranges from y'all, and then plan accordingly. No info yet on cameras, but so far people I have talked to have recommended going with Macs equipped with Final Cut Pro.

Edited Fri 2 Nov 2007 by Paul Hayes

Christopher Wong
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

make sure you get a two-monitor setup. makes a big difference when editing...


Niam Itani
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

In this part of the world we prefer PCs but, yes, Macs with Final Cut Pro are the trend where you are :)
You definitely need a two monitor set-up no matter what the system is.


Monica Williams
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

Robert,

Thank you for your response. When I read the book I could see it visually. I had been entertaining the idea of a documentary film that would explore the work of Hannah Arendt and when I read Evil in Modern Thought and saw Neiman's interview with Bill Moyers' I had an aha moment and haven't quit obsessing since, as I was convinced that I could adapt this book as a documentary film (I wonder sometimes at my naivete!) I have succeeded in the writing and my proposal and treatment explain the techniques I want to use. The theme is centered on how 4 catastrophic events in western history have shaped the way we think about and approach the world, and is not a biopic. The Philosophers and their work surrounding the problem of evil will add to the structure, only as their work relates to the events i.e. Voltaire's coming of age novella Candide will be animated as he is naively headed to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (which was the symbol for evil at this time period, as nothing else could kill so many people at once.) There are many engravings and paintings from this era. I have many more visuals but I don't want to take up this space! My connection to this subject is a long story - basically I've been concerned about the problem of evil in philosophy, most of my conscious life - without knowing that this was what I was concerned with until my last couple of years of college. I've since come to realize that most of us are, though we may not frame our concerns in this way and I want to connect an audience to the great philosophers and writers of the modern world as a way of validating our human experience against the overwhelming insanities of history.

Thank you Robert!


Robert Goodman
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

You need to explain how this film plays on screen because to a professional it seems better suited to a dissertation or magazine article. and it's always necessary to explain your connection to the story so people understand why you are willing to spend the next 7 years of your life making this film.

Edited Fri 2 Nov 2007 by Robert Goodman

Peter Brauer
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

A vote for adobe. In terms of editing systems there can be no doubt that final cut has become the standard. But if you are looking to save money PC editing is the way to go in my opinion. A comparably powered PC is normally half as much as its mac counter part. I use the adobe suite. This includes premier, after effects, photoshop, and encore. They all work well together and can create just as good a final product as final cut. In most ways premier and aftereffects are very similar. Premier just has a much more narrow group of users. This can be an issue when bringing in an outside editor. I can run premier perfectly well on a 575 dollar HP desk top I bought at best buy. Just make sure not to use windows vista, as it uses way to much of your computer's ram and slows everything do. Windows XP still works great.

As for cameras, I highly recommend the panasonic dvx100b. it creates beautiful images and is moderately priced. If this is beyond your range a lot of consumer cameras can do. I have seen stuff shot on 400 dollar cameras that looks just fine in a gritty lo-fi type of way. Just make sure to get a 3 CCD camera. Also Audio is really important, so make sure what even you get has the ability to control audio levels, take a mic input, and have a head phone jack. Any camera looks as good as the lighting allows it. Its just that better cameras look better in worse shooting conditions.


Monica Williams
Fri 2 Nov 2007Link

Thank you for the advice Robert. I think I do get ahead of myself when explaining it. It's basically a historical documentary, told through the lens of philosophy and the classical problem of evil. Susan Neiman is my star and I have 8 hours of footage already shot with her. I will be interviewing other literary and political analysts about the historical events that have shaped the world in order to find new perspectives. We will look at four major historical events that have had a lasting impact on modern social and political consciousness. I do have a strong structure - the trials of Adolf Eichmann will be used as we consider Auschwitz, the book Black Rain will narrate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Israeli and Arab writers will be interviewed from the Middle East as the film looks at the war of Good v. Evil that is raging today. As for my connection to the film, I'm convinced that Susan Neiman's book will soon be considered a classic and it has been called "the book for this world political hour." I'm very nervous for the world right now for various reasons and I'm committed to bringing her work to a wider audience. I have tons of other personal reasons.


Neil Garrett
Mon 5 Nov 2007Link

Hi guys, another new member, so hallo to all...
I'm glad my first question is such a doozer. This has been keeping me awake at night. I'm currently producing a doco I hope will eventually be shown on British TV. I came across an author who's book dovetails very neatly with the theme of my film. I contacted him with a view to him contributing to the film, which he was very happy to do. He then contacted me asking if, in return for a credit (such as Associate Producer) in the titles, he could help produce the film. On the one hand, I could really use his help - he is an expert in his field and has contacts in his industry who could also be very useful. On the other, is there an ethical issue having one of your contributors also be a credited producer - could the documentary be open to accusations of simply being a platform for his views? He wants no money for his work and has agreed that creative control and copyright will remain with me.
What do you think?


Friederike Freier
Mon 5 Nov 2007Link

Hi Neil, standards vary by country so please UK-based producers contribute -- but the bottom line is: your author is the author of a book and will act as an advisor who may open doors. The job of an associate producer is something quite different.

Also, you want to retain the freedom to add other advisors later on without even feeling awkward about it. You need to protect your editorial control. Bringing him aboard as a partner is liable to make this more difficult. If you feel like all you need for your film is his book, without a great deal of other research, you could make it a doc based on his book, but it seems to me this is not what you are striving for as it would potentially compromise your editorial control. Whatever you do -- make sure to have a contract that clearly defines his role (whether he ends up getting a fee or not).

In general, you want to be careful with promising credits that are not absolutely bog standard like camera or editor etc. Credits are ususally subject to the approval of the broadcaster. All international contracts I have handled say something along the lines that the distributor tries to ensure credits are shown by their buyers but they can't promise anything. I.e. if your broadcaster thinks your credits are too long or not in line with their credit standards they will demand the right to edit them at their sole discretion.


Doug Block
Mon 5 Nov 2007Link

Friederike, it might be different in Germany for you but I've been a producer on 3 different ZDF/Arte co-productions and never once been questioned about the credits. Or by any other broadcaster, for that matter. Not saying it never happens. Just not in my experience.

Edited Mon 5 Nov 2007 by Doug Block

Monica Williams
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Does anyone have any books they would recommend on the art of interviewing? I'm producing a narrative historical documentary using the disciplines of literature and philosophy and want to perfect my ability to get the right pieces to my puzzle. Thanks!


Jo-Anne Velin
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Books? The Craft of Interviewing, by John Brady, a classic journalism school selection of approaches.


Doug Block
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

I'll vouch for that one, too. It's terrific.


Friederike Freier
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Doug, arte is more relaxed about credits. Especially La Lucarne. With ARD member stations or ZDF's main programme it is very often an issue. Most of the time the complaint is that credits run for too long.


Erica Ginsberg
Tue 6 Nov 2007Link

Monica, check out Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger. It's not exclusively about interviewing, but he does give some very good tips.


Monica Williams
Wed 7 Nov 2007Link

Thanks for the advice on interviewing! One more question - What is the best way to approach and engage advisors? I know who I would like to ask, I'm just concerned about their workload. What is the relationship like between filmmaker and advisor? What can I ask them to expect? They will most likely be interviewed for the film, but I can't promise anything.


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Dear Monica,

I have three advisors for my film, all professors whose field of inquiry is relevant to my subject matter. Usually, all you have to do is just ask, and if the person is interested, they'll be happy to help. In my experience, a professor who's accumulated a lot of knowledge in the area your asking for advice in will usually be glad to get involved and share their expertise.

In building the relationship with an advisor, I assume that the onus of the work and the contact maintenance is on me. Even in some intense research situations, I usually don't need to speak to my advisors more than once/twice a month. In my case, the best value an advisor can provide is an assessment of how valid my research conclusions are and whether my presentation of various topics in the film is consistent with their historical setting, etc. Out of three advisors I have, I only plan to interview one for the film. Hope this helps. Best of luck with your work!


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Dear All,

I am new to this forum and have a few questions to ask. My current project is a full-feature documentary about Israel. I have done my preliminary research, made an 12-minute long promo for fundraising, assembled a crew (a DP and a sound engineer) and will start filming in two weeks. My main camera is HVX200, and here are the questions I have:

1. What is the best way to archive HD footage? Is it possible to burn it on blue-ray or HD-DVD disks and not keep stored on hard drives? I expect to have a lot of footage to store, and carrying around several terabytes of drive space can be daunting.

2. Even though I have a DP, I hope to do some filming work myself. Could you suggest any books, tutorials or other resources to read about camera work?

3. Could you suggest a minimal lighting package that would be portable enough to be carried by one person, along with the camera?

Look forward to your advice!


John Burgan
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

1) I'll let the HD experts step in here, but I think you'll find that cost-wise hard drives will work out cheaper than burning to disks. Have you actually done a calculation on how much space you will need?

2) Hmmmm. Why not just let your DP get on with their job? Books won't tell you how to shoot, and it doesn't sound like this is meant to be just an exercise.


David Felix Sutcliffe
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

My film is about Adama Bah, one of two 16-year-old Muslim girls from New York who were arrested by the FBI in 2005 after they were accused of being "potential suicide bombers." The FBI made no attempts to reveal what evidence they had on these girls and only released them after the New York Times published a series of articles about the 2 girls that led to intense scrutiny and public pressure. One girl was deported, and the other-the subject of my film-was allowed to stay, albeit, with an ankle bracelet and a gag order.

For the past two years her life has pretty much unravelled-her father was deported, her mother has suffered several nervous breakdowns, children's services is constantly threatening to place Adama's four younger siblings in foster homes. The government is now also trying to deport her. On top of this, Adama has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for the family. Her friends all graduated last spring and left for college this past fall (her best friend is at Smith right now) as Adama works, what she calls, "immigrant jobs-" babysitting, house-cleaning, etcetera.

I'm looking for an executive producer (as well as editors) and wondering if there's any interested parties out there, or someone who might be willing to pass on contact info of a good EP/editor fit. I've been shooting for almost two years and am ready to begin post-production. As far as fundraising, I have a fiscal sponsor and am preparing my grant applications, but would like to have a partner help me secure a reasonable budget. This is my first-time working on a full-length documentary and although I've been tempted to downsize it and produce it as a 30 minute piece, I think the story demands to be given at least an hour, if not feature length. My editor is based in California and hasn't been able to work much with me, and is eagerly waiting for funding to come through so he can come to New York and get to work. In the meantime, I'm looking for a New York based editor to help me with my sample. (So far, the sample seems to get such a wide range of responses that I think it's time to begin a new approach. Maybe I could post it here and see what people think...)

Anyway, I know this is a lot to put out there but I thought it would be best to put it all in one place rather than attempt to think of all the relevant topics where these issues could be posted. I would be supremely grateful for any advice veteran doc bystanders are willing to sling my way.

Thanks.


Christopher Wong
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

david, your doc sounds fascinating, and definitely deserving of more than a 30-minute treatment. it really helped me out on my doc to get an executive producer on board... before you proceed, however, have you answered the question of where you want the piece to be broadcast? On PBS? Theatrical? Non-PBS TV? This will dictate what kind of grants you go after, and thus, what kind of EPs will be best for your project. For instance, my EP is Renee Tajima-Pena who has done extensive work with POV, which is exactly the place I want it to air after festivals, theatrical, etc.


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

In reply to John Burgan's post on Mon 12 Nov 2007 :

Dear John,

Thank you for your response. You are right, it's definitely not meant to be just an exercise :) I will need approximately 2.5 terabytes of storage space.

With respect to the shooting, I agree too - the only problem is that I want the film to have a very specific visual atmosphere and so far my DP and I haven't reached a complete agreement on it. Also, I won't be able to have the DP with me every day and sometimes I go to places in Israel where one just needs to pick a camera and capture a unique moment. I wanted to try and prepare myself for that as best I can.

Thank you for the advice!


David Felix Sutcliffe
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Chris,
I really love the extensive work that PBS has done to create a strong web-partnership with their films, and although it would be great to have a more mainstream tv audience (via HBO, Cinemax, etcetera) I think PBS has such a strong outreach program that the issues I'm addressing in the film will have a real landing pad, and a chance to significantly and substantially affect an audience, rather than briefly triggering a flash of guilt/sympathy/pity in people's frontal lobes, as seems to be the case with mainstream films that make a splash but aren't sustained by any broader effort to create change.
That said, I think I'm aiming for PBS as well after festivals (and, hopefully, theatrical release). How did you make contact with your EP?


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