The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

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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.

Marianne Shaneen

Thanks, Darla.
I looked at the link you sent and could not find an exclusivity agreement (I've been using release forms but what I'm looking for is something that outlines an interviewee's exclusive involvement and guarantee that s/he won't appear in other docs)- is that what you were sending?
You can try mshaneen at earthlink dot net
Thanks so much, very kind of you!

Darla Bruno

Hi again Marianne, sorry I misunderstood. I only have release forms.

Edwin Gailits

I was recently asked by a friend for advice regarding film schools for their 16 year old son who wants find a school to study filmmaking.

The friend thought it was best to send their son to a summer program in New York City, either the New York Film Academy, or SOCAPA, as a good intensive introduction to filmmaking to see if this is really what they want to pursue.

I don't have any knowledge of these schools but thought some of those who contribute to this excellent forum may be able to offer advice or info.

Thanks in advance.

Rhonda Moskowitz

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

Edwin Gailits

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.


Azad Jafarian

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

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

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.