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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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Rhonda Moskowitz
Wed 2 Jan 2008Link

Maybe York University in Toronto has ideas? They have a good film program.


Marianne Shaneen
Thu 3 Jan 2008Link

Hi Darla, thanks anyway :)


Edwin Gailits
Thu 3 Jan 2008Link

Thanks Rhonda – I'm somewhat familiar with the film schools in Canada, including York, Ryerson, Sheridan, Humber and post grad at the CDN Film Centre, as well as Concordia in Montreal, and Simon Fraser in Vancouver. But I'm not aware of any summer programs for high school aged students at these schools.

I'm looking for any first or second hand info/opinions on the NYC schools I mentioned.

Thanks.


Azad Jafarian
Fri 4 Jan 2008Link

I come from fiction film and I have never written or even seen a treatment for a documentary. Now I'm about to embark on my first documentary project and I have no idea what to do when I can't just make up characters and stories!

Can anyone share their treatments with me so that I get an idea what they're supposed to be like? Or any descriptions/links of how a documentary screenplay might look like would be great as well.

Thank you in advance...


Doug Block
Fri 4 Jan 2008Link

We just make it up as we go along, Azad. And I'm (mostly) not kidding.

Most filmmakers approach docs with (usually, but not necessarily) a strong idea of a story or situation or issue that they want to explore, and varying levels of research, which might include hanging out with the subjects for a period of time. But if there's something called a documentary screenplay I've never heard of it.

Which is the whole point. You can't possibly script documentaries, and you wouldn't want to. You put this inquiring energy out there and the universe conspires to give you great footage (or not).


Erica Ginsberg
Fri 4 Jan 2008Link

Azad, there are documentary screenplays for the kind of documentaries you might see on Discovery Channel or National Geographic – a science or history program, for example, where they basically know what they want to say and show and create the visuals around the script. But I think what Doug is referring to are more what we would call "creative documentaries." Certainly documentaries which rely heavily on observational or verite footage cannot be scripted in advance. But some filmmakers do find it helpful to put a film in script form once they have the footage as a means of organizing the information as they edit. Others work without a script and use other systems to organize the film.

While there is no rule in documentary of how to create this script that would correspond to Hollywood's rules of how to create a fiction screenplay, there are some rules of thumbs you might want to go by. I find it more helpful to use the 2 column approach with video on the left and audio on the right (possibly with a third column to denote tape info and timecode in/outs if you are actually editing to the script), though I have seen documentary scripts which look like fiction scripts too.

But to answer your original question which I think is really "How can I write down an idea of what my film will be when I don't know who my characters are yet or what will transpire?" that is really more what a treatment will achieve. Again, there is no right way of doing a treatment (though different funders may have specific elements they want in the treatment) and it will definitely change as you discover your characters and story. For now, it may suffice to write down what it is you want to say with your film, set the stage of where it is taking place, the kinds of characters and/or events you will be seeking out, and why you are the one to tell this story.


Darla Bruno
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

11th hour here . . . sorry to return to this subject, but I'm getting a bad feeling again about the NTSC/PAL issue. Maybe I should just put the money out now-up front-to rent an NTSC. We're supposed to shoot on a PD170p. I could get one in NTSC. But I'll have to rent it in Italy, prob. b/c I'll be gone a month (only shooting 2 weeks). I can probably rent one – have my dp rent one – from Milan or Rome even. . . right?

A little bit freaking out about it.

Edited Mon 7 Jan 2008 by Darla Bruno

Eli Brown
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

People have been shooting PAL and cutting in NTSCland for the years before 24p became en vogue, largely because of PAL's 25fps which looks far more cinematic. PAL has some other things going for it technically, too. But take a read through this article:
http://www.kenstone.net/fcp_homepage/pal_ntsc_conversion.html
and hopefully it might assuage some fears. Without knowing how you're intending on posting the footage (or viewing it), it's hard to know if this is going to be an enormous hassle for you or not. Also, if you're mixing and matching that could be time consuming (and may not look that great). Probably best that if you start in PAL, that you stay in PAL, that way you're only converting upon your final edit and not for all of the raw footage.

Also:
http://forums.creativecow.net/thread/8/968020
http://www.2-popforums.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=161


Darla Bruno
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Thanks, Eli. Essentially I want a trailer online and DVD. My DP is in Milan, and I'll be finding an editor here. I don't have software, so I hope it won't be a problem to find someone to edit PAL. Just want to compare the cost overall. i.e. rent a NTSC camera now or just go with what we have and essentially it'll be the same in the end (cost wise).

Thanks for all the resources here -


Wolfgang Achtner
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Darla,

As I wrote you previously, this is no longer a big deal. If you read my previous post and you will notice that Eli is telling you as much.

If in doubt – especially if all your shooting will be in Italy – shoot in PAL.

Try to find NTSC gear but I doubt that it will be easy for you to find NTSC gear to rent cheaply (especially something like a PD170) for the simple reason that nobody would have any reason to use it; your best chance would be with an ex-network crew in Rome but, more likely than not, they'd only have expensive top-of-the-line Beat equipment.

There is one very simple solution: rent an HD camera. Many models have a PAL/NTSC switch. You could certainly find an appropriate HD videocamera to rent here in Italy. I had already pointed this out to you in my previous post but you'd insisted that you wanted to use your DP's camera.

As regards editing, with Final Cut Pro, for example, all this would entail is clicking a PAL setting vs clicking an NTSC setting. All you'd need to do is convert the final product at the end.


Azad Jafarian
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Thank you Doug and Erica,

Sorry for the delay in checking back here. I appreciate your thoughts on this. You're right Erica, that is exactly what I wanted to know. I really don't know what funders expect. I guess this is something that comes with experience dealing with the pre-production aspects of the documentary film process.


Darla Bruno
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Yes, Wolfgang, I got last-minute jitters. But I love my DP. He's perfect for this film, and so I don't want to throw him a new, unfamiliar camera. It's not been an easy decision for someone who doesn't know the tech stuff, but I'm learning with the help of all of you.

I'm anticipating what will happen when I get back. I can try to use a PAL camera as a deck. Clearly editing in FCP isn't an issue. I'm just trying to anticipate what's workable and the cost.

The Edit Center in New York (should I work there with someone or be referred to an editor through them) said I should have my tapes digitized and on a hard drive? I guess that's my understanding, so I'm trying to see, now, what my DP can leave me with that will make it easier for me to come back here and edit with someone in the States . . .


Christopher Wong
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

depending on how much footage you shoot in italy, you shouldn't need more than a 1-2 day rental of a deck. a dsr-11 should do the trick for you, and usually only costs around $50-75 a day to rent – if you rent over a weekend, you usually only have to pay for one day's worth. i imagine that renting a PAL camera would be significantly more expensive.

there are good editors everywhere, but probably only a few who are the best fit for your project. so don't just work with whomever the Edit Center has. put ads on craigslist, mandy.com, NYU film school, etc. and look at people's reels and experience to get a better feel for their work. definitely do an interview to judge if your personality will mesh with theirs. you don't want an overbearing personality who doesn't listen to your input...


Wolfgang Achtner
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Darla,

Allow me to suggest you might want to pass by Barnes & Nobles and buy a text book or two, in order to familiarize yourself with all you'll need to do when you get back.

You should consider one or both of these: Barry Hampe, Making Documentary Films & Videos (my favorite) or Rabiger, Directing the Documentary. I'd also suggest one of these: Rice & McKernaan, Editing Digital Video or Button, Nonlinear Editing.

Second, if you do a quick Google Search you should be able to find a glossary of digital terms. Here I've done it for you.

http://videoexpert.home.att.net/artic1/glosbold.htm

http://www.videoforums.co.uk/guide-glossary-77.htm

http://www.altera.com/end-markets/broadcast/glossary/bro-glossary.html

http://www.high-techproductions.com/glossary.htm

http://www.acvl.org/acvl_manual/video_terms.html

http://www.kodak.com/US/en/motion/support/glossary/glossary.jhtml?id=0.1.4.15.20&lc=en

I'm going to make a note that you should read now or before you start anything when you get back. This regards editing, but I'm writing it here because you have a tendency to do things first and then ask for advice: WRONG WAY!!!!

After shooting, to "capture" your video, i.e. to pass your video from tapes onto a hard disk drive, you can use any PAL miniDV camera or a SONY DSR deck (PAL/NTSC switchable).

Regardless of whether you'll be editing in PAL or NTSC, you'll need to purchase a hard disk drive (this is where you store all your video and it can be attached or removed to any computer laptop or table top, as well as to the computer that you'll be using to edit. This allows your editor to work on other projects and allows you to have "portability." Since external hard drives are so cheap, I'd suggest buying a 250 GB or 500 GB hard disk drive. Lacie is a good brand and these drives have always worked well for me. You could also look for a hard drive that has a ventilator. In any case, a top quality 500GB disk drive will cost you less than US$200,00. This is enough storage to store the edited version and all the media (the video and audio files that you have captured) of at least two documentaries.

One last suggestion: I always capture ALL the media in low resolution at first for the various edits (you will get slightly lower quality video and audio this way, but you'll save a lot of space on the hard disk) and re-capture the media (with Media Manager) at Standard or High Definition (whatever the maximum resolution level or your shooting material is, in your case, SD) only AFTER I've completed the final cut (and adjusted audio and video levels, added subtitles, graphics, etc.). This won't mean anything to you now, but your editor will understand.

Please note that the "logging phase" is associated witht the capture phase, in fact I (and many others) log and capture together, whereas others prefer to capture first and then log. "Logging" is the procedure whereby you list and describe every single shot on a tape. You want to make sure you use stars (for example) to mark your best video and you'll want to take care that you also note your best nat sound.
You will group similar shots in "bins." You can learn the basics of editing – i.e. the part YOU need to know, on a good text book and working with your editor.

Please note that this – LOGGING – is the most important phase – and the one that will determine the edit and the final outcome of your documentary. You must have the patience to log every shot correctly. This procedure allows you to see what (video, shots) you have available and to memorize your video (don't ask me how it happens because I don't know, but the logging process allows me to memorize, effortlessly, every single shot in 60 or more hours of video).

The logging process is something that you and your editor must do TOGETHER, so you both get to know all the video that is available. This allows you to map out your story and write an outline and will also allow you, during the edi,t to build sequences (because you know all the video that you have and where it is located).

It's easier than it sounds – and fun, at least for me – but make sure that you do some studying BEFORE you start any work when you return home otherwise you'll never be in control of what you're doing.

Also, Christopher has made a very good point. An editor is NOT to be considered like another piece of hardware. A good editor makes the difference, aside from the fact that he/she can save you non-withstanding mistakes you may have made. You should try to find someone who has edited one or more stories, similar to yours in a way that you like. Especially in your case where you know zip, a more-experienced editor will save your behind, teach you as you go along and make magic (if the material you've shot allows her/him to do so). I'm certain that you'll be able to get many suggestions regarding experienced editors from the members of D-word and/or asking for help from members of the IDA (International Documentary Association).

If anything, this is where you need to spend some extra money. A good editor is worth every cent and in your case they will also be acting as your producer, teacher, babysitter and fairy godmother. A top notch editor can make a great doc (if your material permits it) or at least save your butt and carve out something passable if you have the minimum required elements. Don't try to save the odd few bucks here because you'd be screwing yourself!


Darla Bruno
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Excellent, you guys. Thank you SO much!


Wolfgang Achtner
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

For the log and capture process, Erica Ginsburg has a DSR11 deck; maybe you can rent hers!


Erica Ginsberg
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Wow, Wolfgang posted just before me. I do have a DSR-11, but it's in use right now at my editor's as I plod along on my edit, so not available for rental unfortunately. Plus, it would be much easier for you to find one to rent in New York which is closer to you.

I was going to add that the DSR-11 deck which Chris recommends renting (and which is preferable to using the valuable heads of your camera for logging/capturing) can be used for PAL DV footage, but you will need to make sure your editor has a PAL monitor. As others have said much better than I ever could, you are probably better off picking either PAL or NTSC for shooting (or, if you have to do some of each, get the tapes converted to your preferred editing format before logging so they are all consistent). I produced a project which had both NTSC and PAL footage. We ended up editing and outputting in NTSC, but got the tapes converted BEFORE we started editing.

Edited Mon 7 Jan 2008 by Erica Ginsberg

Darla Bruno
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Erica,

So you converted how? With your own software or professionally? How did the conversion turn out?

Darla


Erica Ginsberg
Mon 7 Jan 2008Link

Well we were in a very similar situation to you moneywise, so we could not afford to get them converted at a dub house, which would obviously be the preferred method. This was also in the days when we were just starting to transition from Beta-SP to DV, so the PAL tapes were all Beta PALs and had to be converted to DV NTSC. Our soundguy (who was also a co-producer) knew lots of kooky characters in the industry from his freelance sound work, so he called up a friend who had accumulated dozens and dozens of different decks in his basement and he did the conversion for us at a fairly reasonable rate and a fairly slow turnaround. But the quality was good enough for what we needed.


Wolfgang Achtner
Tue 8 Jan 2008Link

Darla,

Contrary to Erica's suggestion (Erica, please forgive me!) I advise you NOT to convert your material BEFORE the edit.

You might have, for example, to convert 20 sixty minute shooting tapes whereas, AFTER the edit, only 52 minutes TOTAL ( if your doc is a one-hour-long format) or even less than that if part of it was shot in NTSC.

Also, if you're only shooting in Italy, it'll all be PAL. If you'll be doing some shooting in US, shoot in PAL (if you can) or shoot NTSC. It won't make any difference as you do a rough cut; convert at the end and splice it all together.

If you check B&H you'll notice that – in a worst case scenario – converters are cheap today.

If you do a search on the B&H website www.bhphotovideo.com using the words "PAL NTSC standards converter" you'll find several models listed including the AV Toolbox CDM-660 Standards Converter that costs only $179.95. There are several other models that cost between $359 and $539.

I don't see why the cheaper one couldn't do the job. In any case, I imagine – as a worst case scenario – that it would be cheaper to buy than convert all the tapes.

I'd advise you – for the moment – not to keep worrying about what comes next. Concentrate on your upcoming shoot in Italy and enjoy yourself.

If you MUST worry about something, worry about finding an excellent editor! :-)


Wolfgang Achtner
Tue 8 Jan 2008Link

Darla,

By thye way, if you edit using a MAC laptop or desktop monitor, you can use PAL.

A regular TV monitor needs to be PAL or NTSC or both, but the advantage of using digital video on a computer screen is that PAL or NTSC makes o difference. This is why you can play DVDs originating form video sot in either NTSC or PAL on any computer monitor.

I have edited severa docs on a MAC laptop with a 17 inch screen, so – if you're trying to save money – I don't see why you couldn't do the same.


Wolfgang Achtner
Tue 8 Jan 2008Link

Darla,

Excuse the garble in the previous post, I punched post too hastily, about to go to bed (it's 2 AM here).

Corrected version: By the way, if you edit using a MAC laptop or desktop monitor, you can use PAL without any problem.

A regular TV monitor needs to be PAL or NTSC or both, but the advantage of using digital video on a computer screen is that PAL or NTSC makes no difference. This is why you can play DVDs originating from video shot in either NTSC or PAL on any computer monitor.

I have edited several docs on a MAC laptop with a 17 inch screen, so – if you're trying to save money – I don't see why you couldn't do the same.


Darla Bruno
Tue 8 Jan 2008Link

Thanks, Wolfgang. My DP actually has a convertor, a MAC, FCP. Though, I'm not choosing him for editing, but I know he can help convert if need be.

I'm no longer worried. I think it's people who give me advice like "find another DP" or get an NTSC camera, that get me all worked up. My DP is the one for this film and his equipment is what it is. The whole thing will be shot in Italy and mostly likely with him and his camera (unless something happens to him between trips – the next one won't happen for a while).

Beyond that, I'm going to enjoy for now. I'm about to meet the best cook in all of (the village that I'm shooting in). So I really can't go wrong as far as I'm concerned :)


Wolfgang Achtner
Tue 8 Jan 2008Link

Good. Since you're shooting everyting in Italy and in PAL, convert at the end, if need be.

Since your DP has a converter I'm certain that you'll be able to find a simple and cheap way to deal with this when you've completed your final cut (by the way, that's where FINAL CUT PRO got the name).

By the way, this talk of the best cook is making me hungry! I feel if your story isn't taking place too far away from Rome you ought to invite me over for lunch!


Darla Bruno
Tue 8 Jan 2008Link

Yes, it'll be good . . . it's in Abruzzo -


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