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.

Brian Boyko

In reply to Fredric Lean's post on Sun 2 Mar 2008 :

Fredric, I'm also shooting on the HV20, and my next purchase is for a beachtek adapter and some new XLR mics – but I've found I've got good audio from this combo:

Audio Technica ATR55 Shotgun Mic ($50)
Shock Mount ($20-40)
A bracket to move the microphone away from the camera. ($10)

I don't use wireless mics.

There are two problems with this setup. One, handling noise – even handling the wire connected to the camera – transmits easily. But I've actually found it to get really, really good sound.

Get that setup if you can afford it – don't try to cheap out on the sound, and that actually sounds like the best option.

You may also want to spend $200 on a Samson Zoom H2 to get a second source of audio if you're doing sit-down interviews.

A deadcat/fluffydog will be useful for cutting out wind noise.

With my setup, here's the audio I got.

Outside, w/Crowd Noise:
Outside, w & w/out crowd noise:
Outside, w/out crowd noise:

Brian Boyko

Another quick question: Anyone use Keynote to graph key ideas in a documentary? How did it turn out?

Asar Imhotep

Peace everyone

I was wondering if anyone had any good advice on temporary insurance for documentaries. I am working on a budget for my film in which I want to hit Ghana, Tanzania, France and Britain. With me possibly going overseas, I don't want to take equipment and things over there and not be insured. Does anyone have any experience with this? Who would you recommend as a provider and who should I AVOID?

Thanks in advance

Alex Fumero

Hi Everyone,

I'm a first time documentarian producing a film about the first generation immigrant exiles to move to Miami from Cuba. They are old and I need to get their stories on video before they die. I'm going to try to hire an experienced director, but if not, I'm going to do it myself.

1) Are their any documentaries I can look to for inspiration that are like this one? I know there is a name for this type of film where you profile a certain community or group of people and interview them, but don't know the name.

2) In terms of sound, I'd like to get the wireless lapel mics. Is that a bad idea? I feel like it would make shooting that much easier.

Please help. Thanks, Alex.

James Perez

Alex, for your first comment, that is basically researching a subculture. It's like a sub group of a larger culture. Profiling and researching a group within a group, in which people have something in common, can be very helpful. There is a documentary called "Wetback" that targets foreign immigrants that is very well done. Check it out.

Wolfgang Achtner


Your project sounds very interesting.

A few quick tips regarding how to go about it (regarding whether or not you should shoot it yourself; you might want to have a pro start shooting it and later, when you've learned how to shoot, you could continue by yourself).

Identify the characters, the people, men and women that you want to shoot;
Research all the information you can find about the community that interest you: this means research archives of local newspapers, and identify and read some books dealing with these issues.

A book that comes to my mind is: Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (Paperback)
by Mirta Ojito

If I remember correctly, she's working on a documentary based on her book.

You may find some useful information here:

2) Visit and research the neighborhood. I would assume that there is a "Little Havana" in Miami. Visit the neighborhood, reserach everyhting about it, discover who some of the most important members of the community are, when any particular religious or other festivities take place, etc.

3) Shoot all of the above.

4) identify 4 or 5 interesting characters. get to know them, interview them, shoot them at work and with their families, get photos, visit with them for several months/one year.

5) Decide what kind of doc you want to build with the material you are gathering.

6) Build your doc around the personal stories of these 4 or 5 people, interweaving blocks about the community. The fact that the situation in Cuba is moving and that this is an election year will give you great topics and great video to interweave withe stories of your 4 or 5 protagonists.

Re your second question, wireless lavalier mics are very good to interview people. I would suggest you might be interested in the Sennheiser Evolution G2 100 series; it has a good price/value ratio.

Maria Bailey

Hi Everyone

I am a student at Ravensbourne College and I am currently in my last of study for a BA degree in Broadcast Post Production. I am writing an essay entitled Can Documentaries be Completely Impartial? I am required to have primary research for my essay and I was hoping that some of you would be able to answer these questions for me.

What motivates a filmmaker to make a documentary and is there always a
political angle to it?

Can the editing in a film or television programme change reality? If so in what way?

Can the way something is shot change the reality of a situation? If so how?

I would also be interested in any views or opinions that you have on
Michael Moore's film Roger & Me and Rupert Murdoch's OutFoxed.

I hope that you can spare the time to help this hard working student LOL. I look forward to your replies.

Sahand Sahebdivani

Hi Maria,

IMHO there's a few things you have to consider. First there's the issue that documentaries are a form of art. One way that art, at least for me, defines itself is that it's unique because of the artist. If 2 very good crafts(wo)men paint a wall the result will be (more or less) the same, if two artists paint on the same canvas the result will be significantly different even if they try to paint the same picture.

Now compare documentaries to journalism. Even when journalists do their best to be impartial the results aren't always, there's always personal, religious, cultural biases, there's the stress of deadlines, there's the wishes of the editors or sponsors, there's the conscious or subconsious choices you make to cut things out of the story, highlight other things, for the sake of clarity but which end up "coloring" a story.

Now, even though it's a gross oversimplification to say journalism is purely a "craft" and documentary making purely an "art", one can assume that the personal "coloring" is even a bigger issue in documentary.

So I personaly think that, no, documentaries or journalistic pieces are never fully (or at all) unbiased. This is not an issue for me. I very much like to hear the personal in the story. For instance, when I read a piece of N. Chomsky, I don't think, now I will know the truth and the whole truth about this subject, I will rather think, now I know N. Chomsky's take on this subject. (Though sometimes I forget and have to remind myself, and so does the general audience, but this is another topic altogether)

Now, another issue to consider is the following, documentary makers are not always trying to cover a story, sometimes they are trying to change the world, the society, people's believes. I have not seen OutFoxced, but Micheal Moore, for me, is very much an activist filmmaker. I might agree with his messages, but I don't assume he will give me a biased account of what even he perceives as the truth. To make the power of his story stronger will he use material that supports his story and leave out material that gives a different opinion.

Again, I don't think this is bad. A film like SuperSize Me, in which the filmmaker eats at McDonalds for a month and becomes a repulsive monster might be infantile to some, but can be quite entertaining and potentially life-changing for others.

"Can the editing in a film or television programme change reality? If so in what way?

Can the way something is shot change the reality of a situation? If so how?"

Both editing and shooting can change the reality in 1.000.000 ways. In my native Iran there's regular anti US protests, but always shot in a way to hide the fact that these are actualy small groups protesting. A huge anti US protest is good for both Iranian media as well as foreign media.

Now imagine you are filming a neighbourhood, everything decision, from material you shoot on, framing, music, editing, etc. etc. changes the story. Imagine a grainy home video type of image going over the graffiti, while the soundtrack is gangsterrap. Now imagine filming on oldfashioned 16 mm, made even warmer in post production, with beautiful music (think wonder years). Same neighbourhood, but two totally different emotional reactions to the footage.

Anyway, one could go on, but I hope this helps.

Alison Clifford

Hi, I´m looking at how to put together a marketing package for a documentary about film piracy in Mexico. I´ve never done any marketing and I´m not sure where to start. I know I want to send it out to TV stations both in the States and in Mexico, as well as PR´s for magazines and Newspapers as well as radio stations. I could really use some help in getting myself pointed in the right direction.

Evan Thomas

Has anyone used public domain footage from in their productions? There's some useful archive for my film on there but should i get its public domain status verified before i go ahead and use it?

Boyd McCollum

It's good practice to verify any footage you use, regardless of source. Lots of people think they own copyright to certain things when they actually don't.

With you need to really read the different licensing they use – not all of it is public domain. Some requires attribution, some can be used in a noncommercial way, etc. I've seen media that had no copyright/licensing information provided. So just residing on the site doesn't mean public domain.

Get whatever information provided and if there isn't any, do some more research on it. This can be useful when getting E&O insurance. Also, it's good practice to have an entertainment/copyright attorney look over you stuff. (and do find a lawyer that specializes in this, as not all lawyers have equal knowledge. A good friend of mine is a top notch real estate attorney, and he won't touch copyright – "it's not what I do, so I can't provide solid legal opinions". )

Grady Matthews

I would like to ask a question about Sundance. Do they only select the 16 documentaries for competition or do they also select many others that do not make the competition (but are still part of the festival)? I believe this is the case from my research online. If so, do the non competing docs get decent recognition from press, industry people, make sales, etc, etc? Thanks for the great site.

Thank you,
Grady Matthews

Doug Block

Grady, they select the 16 main competition docs, the world docs, and a few docs find their way into the American Spectrum section. The world docs have their own awards and American Spectrum docs are eligible for the doc audience award.

Shauna Kartt Jaeger

Hello D-Word Visitors and Members,

I'm a producer/production manager new to the NYC area and am looking to find a dependable crew with documentary or lifestyle TV experience for my roster. I do have a few contacts, but it would be nice to have more incase people are unavailable.

Can anyone make recommendations for any of the following?

-DOP – HD/DV CAM w/ light kit ideally. Some studio experience is a plus.
-Sound – doc experience. Studio is a plus.
-Production Coordinator
-Editor (Avid and Final Cut)
-Location manager

It would also be helpful if anyone can recommend vendors for post production, post audio, an insurance broker, props and gear rental shops.

I've been working in documentary production for 9 years and am leaving my contacts behind to be with my love in NYC, so any recommendations will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks soooooo much!

Ben Kempas

I feel like I've read this three times now... :-)

Brian Boyko

I've made my first short documentary. It clocks in at 26:40, cutting everything down to the bare essentials. I've got a big stack of DVDs next to me, and I've got the entire thing up online at Vimeo for those who want to watch it:

So, um... now what? Promotion? Film festivals? Anyone got any ideas?

Doug Block

Shauna, no need to double post at The D-Word. Just find the most pertinent topic. In this case, the Classifieds would have been best.

Ben Kempas

Yeah, I tend to be a little more subtle than Doug... :-)

Doug Block

Also, Shauna, since we're mentoring (and you take mentoring so well), no need to use the "in reply" button when you're replying to the post right above you.

Ana Da Silva


Question on submitting an idea. I got in touch with a production company and they're willing to read my informal project idea/proposal. I feel strongly about the project and 1. would like it to come to life and 2. would like to be involved with it. I'd like to express this to the producers but can see how from their point of view that might be asking too much (especially for a newbie).

The producers are merely willing to look at the informal proposal, which to me is really great news anyway, but as with any idea there's a chance they might like it and might want to work with it. I read that there's no such thing as a copyrighted idea so should the producers like what they read, can they just use it anyway?

What's you advice on submitting ideas when you don't have the means to produce the project yourself?

Thank you!