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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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John Burgan
Mon 4 May 2009Link

There's a short answer to this: get yourself a lawyer. You can be sure that clearing the legal side of satirical/critical films like "Supersize Me" takes quite a bit of time and money.

Jason Osder
Mon 4 May 2009Link

It's also my understanding that McDonalds made a strategic PR decision not to take legal action against Super Size Me, judging that by giving the film additional publicity through a lawsuit they would do more harm than good for their business.

Shyla Palm
Mon 4 May 2009Link

Looking to start the research process on a documentary should I dive first into the library or is there a tried and true method to scouring through massive amounts of information. If anyone has any tips to share I'm all ears.

Marj Safinia
Mon 4 May 2009Link

Shyla, diving in in the only method I know of. Of course you might find Google more fruitful than the library to get a grounding in the topic.

Susan Falzone
Mon 4 May 2009Link

Hi, I am new to The D-word community. A teacher recommended I join. I am a Photojournalism student and am working with nursing homes for my student project. I am trying to find a model release that is basic, but covers the consent of caregivers. If anyone has any recommendations I would greatly appreciate it!


Dustan Lewis McBain
Thu 7 May 2009Link

so ive finished up my doc, and i need a score for it, its a doc on social workers dealing with children in grade school, any musical advise?

Dustan Lewis McBain
Sun 10 May 2009Link

tell me what you guys think of my first draft,

(make sure to press the HQ button!)

Sahand Sahebdivani
Sun 10 May 2009Link

Hi Dustan, your draft makes it very clear for me what the programme is about and what it aims to achieve.

I have three issues (all audio).

1) The music you chose for the draft gives it a bit of a "infomercial" kind of feel. I was not charmed by it, but wouldn't know immediately what other music to recommend.

2) the part where the voice of the main character overlaps with another scene of him talking confuses me as it seems that he's out of sync with the audio. It was great seeing him (not talking but doing the excersize with the string) and hearing his voice, but the shot immediately after it makes for a weird effect.

3) Do you think you can get rid of the audio overdrive (or whatever it's called), there's a few ugly bumps in sound.

Dustan Lewis McBain
Sun 10 May 2009Link

Hey Sahand,

you right, however choosing music has been one of the hardest things for me. Its hard to choose something that fits perfectly? not too cheesy but not to controlling over the video. Ill fix it up and bring it back up to this site, cheers,

Diane Johnson
Wed 13 May 2009Link

Can someone explain what the Fernanda Rossi – aka The Documentary Doctor ad on d-word is all about? and is it free?

Doug Block
Wed 13 May 2009Link

It's an announcement not an ad, Diane. Fernanda is our guest expert for a special 5-Day topic on the subject of story structure for documentaries. It will start on Monday and be open to the general public (aka Enthusiasts), as well as to all D-Word members, and will be archived after the week is over. And, yes, it's free.

Edited Wed 13 May 2009 by Doug Block

Diane Johnson
Wed 13 May 2009Link

that sounds fantastic

Yixi Villar
Wed 20 May 2009Link

Hi hi hi.. i was wondering if anyone has any feedback on FRACTURED ATLAS fiscal sponsorship program?

Jennifer MacDonald
Thu 21 May 2009Link

Hi! I'm trying to break into the business working on documentary films. I currently work as a TV reporter so I have background in shooting, writing, interviewing , editing, ect but want to change career paths. How do I get a paid position working on films? I've gone through craigslist but haven't had much luck. Any tips?

Edited Thu 21 May 2009 by Jennifer MacDonald

Doug Block
Thu 21 May 2009Link

What is it you want to do in documentaries, Jennifer? Produce? Direct? Most folks just start out by making a film themselves. Another option is to try and find Associate Producing or editing gigs. It's actually pretty hard to answer that question.

Kaoru Wang
Thu 21 May 2009Link

I'm having issues putting together a budget. I'm shooting with miniDV and editing with FCP and all the sample budgets I found have have a lot of things on the budget pertaining to film and renting avid equipment and such. Plus I don't understand some of the categories such as beta tapes, video 1' stock, video dubs ect...Help!

Jennifer MacDonald
Thu 21 May 2009Link

Yeah.. I was thinking about making one while keeping my day job. I would want to do the writting, researching and setting up interviews and shots. I think that would be more the producer side? I think I understand that there isn't just a company that churns out films.. it's more a labor of love with money making jobs on the side?

Georgi James
Sun 24 May 2009Link

I've enjoyed this week so much. Thanks.

I would like to use a 70s theme song for my film. Do you know how I go about getting permission to use the song.


David Mcilvride
Sun 24 May 2009Link

There's quite a few companies (and freelance individuals) who specifically work on music clearances .. they're the best resource for clearing music.

Andy Schocken
Sun 24 May 2009Link

In reply to Jennifer MacDonald's post on Thu 21 May 2009 :

I think the best way to go about making a living with documentaries is to target one specific role, and hone your craft. You'll rarely make much money directing or producing docs, but you can do fine earning a day-rate as an editor/sound recordist/cinematographer... So I would focus on that, and make your own films on the side. Eventually, that part of your work will start taking precedence.

John Burgan
Sun 24 May 2009Link Tag

In reply to Georgi James's post on Sun 24 May 2009 :

Be prepared how expensive this can be, especially for well-known hits. Check out this BBC guide to clearing music rights

Steven Dhoedt
Tue 26 May 2009Link

I would like to know a bit more about release forms for documentaries, for locations and for people.

To what extend are they really necessary?
I have tons of interviews with people who all agreed in advance (generally by email or over the phone) to participate in my film. They have a clear understanding of what the film is about. The fact that they do a one hour interview with me already proves that they are willing to participate, right? Some of them have signed release forms, other ones haven't (yet), simply because we didnt have any at hand at the time. should i contact all these people again and get them sign this paper?

Also, what about people who are in the shot (e.g. street shots, shots on know, b-roll footage that establishes a location etc. surely it would be impossible to go up to every single one of them in the shot and get them sign a paper?

For you documentary makers out there, what's your views on release forms? I often find it rather threatening to the subject I am interviewing, to do an interview and then shove a paper under their nose with lots of legal terms. I think it can frighten a lot of people, even if you tell them it's just a pro forma document.

And what about logo's and advertisements that are in the frame, even in the background? does all these have to be cleared as well? Is this only needed for the US, or do European and Asian distributors and broadcasters also demand this?

looking forward to hear your views on this

Tom Dziedzic
Tue 26 May 2009Link

Stephan, I try to get written releases from everyone I interview and who may be in the film. Or if it's a quick spontaneous interview or scene, I get a verbal agreement while the camera is rolling before or after the interview.

I can't recommend this book enough, it has helped me tremendously: Clearance & Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television by Michael C. Donaldson. It's an essential reference book to have around.

Peter Brauer
Tue 26 May 2009Link

If you want your movie to end up on television or in theaters, you generally need to have a release from basically everyone in the film. You can use a very simply worded release that people will understand. So yes, I think you should get releases from everyone in the film. That is unless you don't intend on buying E and O insurance to show it publicly.

As for the b-roll question, you don't need releases for crowd shots. However if one person is singled out on screen for any significant amount of time you need a release.

As for logo's in the background of the frame, so long as you didn't put them there, you are good. Incidentally shot logos are generally covered by fair use, which means you don't need clearance. However if you intentionally put a logo in frame, that is another story.

Tsvetina Kamenova
Fri 29 May 2009Link


Hello all,

I am in the process of drafting various funding applications for a feature-length documentary currently in production and firstly I want to thank you for the amazing wealth of information you have all helped to create on the d-word. I have a few questions, however, that I have not been able to answer by looking at past posts.

1. Is it a good idea to reference other films in the proposal as a way to describe intended style, structure etc?

2. I know that some funders say they like pictures in the proposal, but is it ever not a good idea to put pictures? If you do have pictures, how do you usually use them?

3. Does anyone have experience with the Sundance Documentary Fund application? I am looking through their guidelines and they specify that they want a summary and then a synopsis. Do you know if by synopsis they are really looking for a treatment? (Is it ok to contact them and ask?)

I would really appreciate any input you might have.

Thanks a lot.

Doug Block
Fri 29 May 2009Link

Hi, Tsvetina.

1. Yes

2. Use photos if they're very strong and support and enhance what you're saying in the text. I'd wrap the text around them, but you can also put it at the top of your synopsis or treatment.

3. By all means you should call them. They're very nice and helpful and speaking to them will give you an opportunity to get your film on their radar (especially if you've found a good way to describe it in a sentence or two). Wait until you have a couple of questions, though.

Christopher Wong
Fri 29 May 2009Link

call Kristin Feeley or Win-Sie Tow. both of them (women) are extremely nice, and will answer any question you have about the application.

i was lucky enough to get a grant from them back in 2007, but when i applied, there was only a request for a "Statement of Objective" and a "Narrative Summary". there was no mention of a synopsis, which i basically folded into the Narrative Summary.

Tsvetina Kamenova
Fri 29 May 2009Link

Hi Doug and Christopher,

Thanks a lot for your responses. It helps to know that I am on the right track generally with the film references and the pictures. I was a bit confused before since, although in interviews representatives of the funds would say they like pictures for example, I never saw any in the "Example" proposals on the websites nor do any of them reference other films.

And Chris, thanks for letting me know who to speak to.

Good luck to both of you with your projects and I hope I can be helpful in return in the future.

Many greetings from Beijing,


Doug Block
Sat 30 May 2009Link

From Beijing, huh? Well, maybe you can become Skype buddies with the Sundance folks ;-)

Nicole Bracy
Fri 5 Jun 2009Link

Next week, I will be in Washington, D.C. at a national conference where we have the exclusive rights to videotape the entire conference. Big names will be presenting, Ted Kennedy will be accepting a Legacy Award. In addition to taping the conference, we are hoping to get exclusive interviews. The problem is we're working with a broad release. We were informed by our lawyer that the language was so broad that no one of that stature would sign the release. Could you point me in the right direction as far as language used in such a release?

Gregory Rossi
Mon 8 Jun 2009Link

I'm moving onto a new phase for CONNECT USA, my Connect Four doc. I'll be interviewing media analysts, think tankers, talking heads and news types to discuss/investigate the notion of the USA being a nation politically divided. I can find contact information for many people but some celebrities are more elusive like Janeane Garofalo. Are there any suggestions for getting a hold of someone like her?

we live in the same neighborhood but I just can't roam these streets forever...

Andrew David Watson
Wed 10 Jun 2009Link

Tsvetina do you live in Beijing? I may end up in Beijing the first week of September and may have some questions.

Marshall Burgtorf
Thu 11 Jun 2009Link

I've got a copyright question. I've found a a couple videos on youtube that I am wanting to use in my project on violence in youth sports. One of the videos was posted on a California newspaper youtube page. I contacted them to get permission to use it. Unfortunately they no longer know who the original owner of the video is. It is a video of parents going crazy at a football game.

The other videos are of the same subject matter but went viral years ago and it seems impossible to track down the original owner of the content.

I've read through The Code for Best Practices in Fair Use and it would appear that I can use it. I want to make sure everything we do is legal and I also want to give credit where credit is due.

Any ideas from the most knowledgeable keepers of all things documentary?

Jill Kelly
Thu 11 Jun 2009Link

hello, i have a question about which way to direct my focus within my indie film making career.This would all be under the assumption that the films are of good quality,well shot,directed and edited.

what would be the pro's and cons of two directions?
one being funding the doc's ourselves completely, then once completed pitching them to television broadcasters.
Two being to search for funding,and/or produce in cooperation with a broadcaster.
I have the general ability to go either way, neither is really very easy alas my inquiry, Thanks

Marshall Burgtorf
Sat 13 Jun 2009Link

In reply to Marshall Burrgtorf's post on Thu 11 Jun 2009 :

I guess I should posted this in the archives topic. Sorry gang, I haven't been around for awhile. I got it straightened out though.

Doug Block
Sat 13 Jun 2009Link

No worries, Marshall, you'll get the hang of it. The important thing is you're posting again.

Monica Williams
Sun 14 Jun 2009Link

I have a question about independent educational distribution. I have a copies ready to go of a 1 &1/2 hour film of an interview I did with Susan Neiman on her book Evil in Modern Thought. I'm very happy with it and it is in demand with a certain group of professors and philosophy students.

I'm building a website for it, but I'm clueless about the appropriate & practical steps to independently distribute something like this to universities and conferences. I have an endorsement from a professor who used the film at Loyola and I have been receiving requests for the film. I don't see the need to look for a distributor, but I may be wrong.

I have an idea about a price structure. For educational purposes, $1000 and individual copies at $30. Are there legal papers that someone paying the higher price to show in front of an audience will have to sign? Should I sell the personal copies for the much lower price, through my website? Does this lower my chances of receiving the proper payment from professors looking to use my film?

Any advice is so appreciated – Thanks

Elan Frank
Mon 15 Jun 2009Link

My name is Elan Frank; I am a documentary film maker residing in LA.
I am now in the process of developing a documentary film on the co-existence between Jews and Muslims in Morocco and got to the sage of presenting investors with a business plan and production package, including a proposed budget.
I was wondering if anyone could refer me to samples of such packages/forms, what is essential to have in them, and a one-page budget sample form that is satisfactory to investors (I have my budget format, but it is in excel and very details, not something you provide investors. I am looking for a designed one page with the essentials.
Thanks you. I am glad to be part of this documentary family here in D-word!

Monica Williams
Tue 16 Jun 2009Link

In reply to Monica Williams's post on Sun 14 Jun 2009 :

I just needed to do more homework – never mind my question – I realize there are no clear answers though I wish there were.

Robert Shore
Wed 17 Jun 2009Link

Hi all- I haven't posted in a while. I've got a new series that I am writing up for the August deadline for the National Endowment for the humanities. Does anyone have any advice, specific or general, about NEH-specific grant-writing? Thanks, Rob.

Dustan Lewis McBain
Thu 18 Jun 2009Link

Hey guys, quick questions, im shooting a high school reunion with 300 people, and im using a panasonic dvx 100b. Firstly, what mic should i use? and secondly, what preferences should i shoot under? Maybe i could shoot with a slow shutter speed? idn any ideas?

Sudeshna Chowdhury
Sat 27 Jun 2009Link

Hi this is Sudeshna here. I want to be a filmmaker and really keen on making documentaries. RIght now am working for a news channel. could you plaese tell me how do I start. Yes, I was told that I should start making videos and post it on websites. Could you please let me know how do i begin and which are the potential websites i should send my work to?

John Burgan
Sat 27 Jun 2009Link

It depends very much on you, Sudeshna: what interests you? What's going on in your area? What stories do you want to tell? The website part is easy (you can use Youtube or Vimeo), but it's the work that counts. Are there any films which have inspired you?

Edited Sat 27 Jun 2009 by John Burgan

Sudeshna Chowdhury
Mon 29 Jun 2009Link

Hello John
Yes films that mostly deal with social and religious issues interest me. I have watched a couple of documentaries by Satyajit Ray whicb have insppired me a lot. Also this film called La Americana have motivated me to further explore subjects. I have also watched a copule of documentaries on Maoists in India. Well these are teh kind of stories that I intend to tell. Am making short videos( which i shoot with my handy cam and right now cany afford one due to financial constraints)but what i am looking at is to become part of an organisation that will give me good exposure. These of course are my views but i don't know how it actually works. Your seggestions please??

David W Grant
Tue 30 Jun 2009Link

ABOUT VIDEO ESSAYS that use docu-drama – Where do 'documentaries of the future' exist? A film that posits a possible future? Such a film obviously could be declared 'fiction'. Is there a genre of this type?

Craig Schneider
Wed 1 Jul 2009Link

Hi all,
Does anyone have any advice/experience shooting Sweet 16 videos? I'm shooting one this Friday documentary style, so i won't be directing so much as just capturing the moments (and there's plenty of dance numbers and such to capture), but it's my first paid job as a documentary videographer and my first Sweet 16, and I know the family, so I want to do this right. I have experience shooting formal events with my cousin's wedding and a friend's wedding. However, I'm shooting this on my own, with a Panasonic DVX100a, and my journalistic instincts. Would you recommend a lav mic on the birthday girl if she would have it? I wasn't going to bother just to simplify. If i do direct at all, is there anything fun you'd recommend shooting with her and her "court" or her court alone? I can let the photographer take the lead on this stuff of course during the photo shoot, but I think it may also be good to have her close friends and family say/do something. Would you recommend I use a separate mic during the party for that? I have a RES50B. This is really a big deal for her and her family, and they trust me to do an amazing job. I know what they have planned for the day and night, and i plan to capture some behind the scenes, getting ready moments, and the excitement and fun. I also posted in the legal section to ask about a contract template just to protect myself (I've only done pro bono before). Other than charge my batteries and get close with the camera and shotgun mic, work my angles, am I forgetting anything? I also do mostly handheld so i'm thinking that a monopod vs. a tripod would be better. Lastly, if anyone can recommend a place in NYC to pick up a spare and relatively inexpensive DVX100a battery, let me know. It's going to be a long day.

Doug Block
Thu 2 Jul 2009Link

Craig, as someone who's shot well over a hundred weddings, I say don't fret too much. Unless you're a hopeless incompetent (which you're not), they're gonna love what you shoot, I guarantee it. Normal people aren't used to seeing themselves captured verite-style and it's always a hoot for them.

Technically speaking, I'd simply use a good directional mic on the camera (like a Sennheiser 416), get in fairly close as much as you can, and definitely shoot handheld. Screw the tripod. And I'd set up as little as possible, just be a total fly on the wall. But that's me.

Have fun and lotsa luck.

Craig Schneider
Thu 2 Jul 2009Link

A few other related questions to my previous Sweet 16 post that i forgot to ask: I normally shoot my documentary footage in 24P on the DVX100a in squeeze mode. Do you see any issues with using that format for the Sweet 16 video? Do videographers at the formal events normally just wear a black button down shirt and slacks? When i was i shot weddings, i was actually in the wedding party so i wore a suit. And I am renting one of those light panels for the top of my camera for low light situations, but i haven't tested one out. Advice? Thanks again.

Craig Schneider
Thu 2 Jul 2009Link

Thanks, Doug. I was hoping you would post. Now I'll stop my fretting. Thanks for the sage advice.

Craig Schneider
Fri 3 Jul 2009Link

Doug, I didn't get very far in "legal" on my contract template request. Can I ask how you handle getting stuff in writing? All I have now is a verbal agreement on the price. I feel like it would be good business practice to protect myself, on this job or when i don't know the family. Have a great July 4th weekend.

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