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.

Lillian  Baulding


I'd like to purchase a consumer camcorder in order to shoot some pieces for my blog. I currently have a Flip cam (r.i.p.), but would love to get something that has a better zoom and an external microphone jack. Can anyone recommend good one? I've heard Aiptek's are good, but which model?

Thanks very much,
Lillian Baulding

Reid B. Kimball

Hi Lillian,

Are you looking for a camera that can do High Definition (HD) resolutions, 720x480, or higher? Do you want a camera that gives you a lot of control over sound and picture settings?

Tim Keane

A distributor interested in a project I've worked on insists I need to get a Title Report. There in one place that will generate it for about $375. Any ideas for a less expensive alternative?

Thanks in advance,

Michael Rossato-Bennett


I am not a beginner but I can not figure where else to post this- I need some doc pals! I am doing an Alzheimer's Doc and need some feedback on my first assembles. Anyone in NYC? East Village? I am buying lunch!

for a quick look at the project go to-


John Burgan

This is a Public Topic open to everyone, but if you had wanted to restrict this to Pro members it could have also gone in the Works in Progress topic, Michael.

Doug Block

And since you already posted it in the Editing topic, just a gentle reminder that we don't encourage double posting, Michael.

Yixi Villar

Hi everyone I need your help. We are working on a doc "Life In The Balance" check out the link below for more details
We have just been fined by the gov over $10,000 and counting for not having works comp for our "freelance" 1099 employees. We have insurance for the production and they told us we didn't need that because our employees were not only employeed by us. has anyone else gone through something similar. It seems like everyone is just giving us the runaround and we want to get this resolved ASAP. If anyone could be of help it would be greatly appreciated. Also the gov said that to be considered a private contractor they have to meet all the criteria check out the link below
but clearly some of our people work on other films but don't have "their own business" and we even have a student. Does anyone know how to navigate guidance would be much appreciated.
Have a happy day!!
Yixi Villar

Marth Christensen

Hi Yixi,
With a fine already assessed (by the state "gov"ernor, I assume), it is time to contact an attorney. Contact your local county bar association, for starters, if you do not know someone. You have more to worry about than just state workers comp, e.g., FICA, Unemployment insurance, and state and federal withholding...
Do some research on private contractor vs. employee. Check IRS Pub 1779 and other references. Someone in your organization needs to fully understand the distinction, especially if you intend to operate at the edges.
What sort of entity have you formed to produce the doc? I see that you have fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas.

Robert Goodman

there is an agreement in place with the IRS for the film and video industry. You should read this link
so you understand who is and isn't an independent contractor.

The simplest way to have avoided all the issues is to use a payroll service that will be the employer of record. Now I would throw yourself on the mercy of a good accountant and perhaps Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts if they can hook you up with a good tax attorney.

These threatening letters from the IRS or State department of Revenue agencies are often designed to throw the fear of god into you. In all probability, the situation is much less dire. Consult a good accountant.

Marth Christensen

Interesting, although the agreement is aimed at production of commercials or corporate videos, with a specific disclaimer as not applicable for feature films. Do you know if IRS has applied this to independent filmmakers? I would think that the logic would pretty much apply.

Robert Goodman

The reason it does not immediately apply to feature films is that Hollywood feature films are done under union contracts. Taft-Hartly applies which means that anyone working under a union contract is automatically an employee. The same logic used under this agreement we negotiated should apply to indie filmmakers. It's not much different other than less dollars involved.

Reid B. Kimball

Hi all,

I've had a few requests from interview subjects that my contract model release form allow them to review the final cut of the film before it is released so they can provide feedback.

I don't mind doing this, with the understanding that I am only allowing them to see it and that any feedback they have may or may not be implemented.

Does it sound OK for me to accept these requests from interview subjects? I want to make them feel comfortable and I think this is one way. Or is there a reason I should not honor this request?

Thanks, you've all been a big help for me so far.

Matt Gardner

Hello, filmmakers

I have become burnt out on commericals and wish to go into the documentary world. However, I have a wife and kids. Is there jobs out there for documentary filmmakers? A place where I can go and work on passion projects and get paid a salary?

Robert Goodman

the silence has been deafening. The answer to your question Matt is a resounding unlikely to no. My answer would be no. Some others might say there's a 1 in a 1000 shot at finding the dream job. Think you'll have to do both to survive.

Linda Wasson

In reply to Matt Gardner's post on Mon 20 Jun 2011 :

Matt, your question is far too broad and all-encompassing – and you don't even mention what aspect you wish to work on – do you mean to produce and direct? edit? shoot? write? r&d?

obviously there are paid jobs in documentary filmmaking or else they wouldn't exist. what you expect, what you can contribute, all makes a difference.

do some r&d on your on, including geographics of where you live/want to work. check out academic programs for furthering your skills.

if you are serious, it's up to you to follow your dream and make your path, no one can really answer that for you.

good luck!

Linda Wasson

In reply to Reid B. Kimball's post on Mon 20 Jun 2011 :

screening a rough cut is proper and normal – but no reason to put it in the release – if someone is that concerned, offer to withdraw the request for their participation. this is your film and you retain editorial control, that should be made clear.

then smile as sweetly as you can and assure them they will look great :)

Reid B. Kimball

:) Thanks Linda. Ended up working out fine and the person withdrew the request.

Would anyone mind if I post a link to a video I'm working on? I'd love to get feedback from the members here. It's 3min 37sec long. It's not a trailer, not really sure what to call it, but it contains content and themes from my doc.

Dièry Prudent

I'm urgently Seeking a Camera/Sound Tech for a doc shoot in Brighton, England August 2, 2011

I'm asking the D-Word community for help locating a skilled videographer with a decent light/camera/sound kit in that area. I'm in search of a pro who'd be willing to shoot this interview on a deferred payment basis. Shooting/sound credit assured. Does anyone know of a jazz-loving professional camera/sound/lights artist who would be up to the task?

The job consists of framing, lighting and sound-recording an hour-long interview on location at the manager's home. The whole job, from setup to strike, can be completed within 2 hours.

If so, they may call me directly anytime at +1 917.975.5940

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best wishes to all,

Dièry Prudent, producer
"Moody's Mood for Love: the Story of a Song"
+1 917 975 5940

Stephanie Caruso

I'm about to meet with a potential subject for my new documentary. Is it necessary that I have him sign a non disclosure agreement? And if so, any suggestions to where I can find an example online?

Anna Fischer

Hi, I am currently subtitling my film, Lucky Express, and I need advice about how to subtitle? Two questions:
1- I have put the translated subtitles as they are sometimes the sentence is finished on the next image. Do I use an elipsis because the sentence is not finished?

He went to the store and bought ...
(and then next image) ... some milk and some bread.

Do I use the elipsis or not? Am very confused!

Question 2:
I have to subtitle my lead character because even though he is speaking English, it is really bad and basic English. So when I correct him, how much can I correct? The tenses? The words?
As long as I stick to the meaning of what he is saying, is it alright to put words into his mouth?
Right now, I have tried to use the exact words he is using even though the English is wrong. My theory is that all people will be able to understand the basic idea of what he is saying, even though the English is wrong.
When I corrected his English too much, later when I was reading the subtitles, I noticed that it was harder for the brain to fully understand the meaning, because what he was saying in English and what I was reading were similar but different.
Does this make sense? Its so hard to explain!
Anyway, is there a basic Rule Book for handling subtitles correctly which I can refer to?
Many thanks,

Ramona Diaz

Ann – for starters see hidden section. These are not rules, just guidelines.

1.1 Basic Text Display Subtitle legibility studies result in the following requirements:

i) Teletext characters should be displayed in double height and mixed (upper and lower) case.

ii) Words within a subtitle should be separated by a single space.

iii)Text should normally be presented in a black box. (See 2.3 Speaker Identification and 2.6 Sound Effects for other background colours).

iv) To aid readability, text can be justified left, centre or right depending on speaker position. (See 1.4 Formatting and 1.5 Line Breaks for examples of justified text).

v) The standard punctuation of printed English should be used. Punctuation gives valuable clues to syntactic structure and must be carefully displayed in order to be effective. One means of enhancing the effectiveness of punctuation is by the use of a single space before exclamation marks and question marks, after commas, colons, semi-colons and mid-subtitle full-stops, on both sides of dashes (but not mid-word hyphens), before opening brackets and inverted commas and after closing brackets and inverted commas.

1.2 Colour

The teletext specification currently used in the UK is limited to the availability of seven different text colours, including white; and eight different background (boxing) colours, including black and white. For normal subtitling purposes, black background should be used. Some early teletext decoders do not display coloured background and instead default to black. Therefore, if coloured background is used, a text colour should be chosen which will remain legible on a black background.

The majority of text/background colour combinations are not satisfactory for subtitling, being insufficiently legible. The most legible text colours on a black background are white, yellow, cyan and green. Use of magenta, red and blue should be avoided.

Of the combinations with coloured background, the most legible are blue on white, white on blue, red on white, white on red, cyan on blue and blue on cyan. Of these, white on red, white on blue and cyan on blue are preferable, because certain older decoders will reduce these combinations to highly legible white on black, or cyan on black.

The principal ways of using colour in television subtitling are discussed in Sections 2.3 Speaker Identification and 2.6 Sound Effects.

1.3 Control Characters

The use of double-height boxed coloured text generally requires six control characters in the teletext line, or eight control characters if coloured background is used. Thus, the maximum space available for subtitle text is only 32 or 34 characters per line.

1.4 Formatting

A maximum subtitle length of two lines is recommended. Three lines may be used if the subtitler is confident that no important picture information will be obscured. (See Section 1.6).

Ideally, each subtitle should also comprise a single complete sentence. Depending on the speed of speech, there are exceptions to this general recommendation, as follows:

a) Real-time subtitling (see Section 4).

b) Short sentences may be combined into a single subtitle if the available reading time is limited (see Section 2.5). Additional reading time is gained in this way because the viewer's gaze needs to be directed to the subtitle area only once, rather than two or three times if two or three short sentences are displayed on consecutive subtitles.

c) Very long sentences which are too long to fit into a single two-line subtitle. There are two procedures for dealing with such cases:

Example (i)

It may be possible to break a long sentence into two or more separate sentences and to display them as consecutive subtitles eg �We have standing orders, and we have procedures which have been handed down to us over the centuries.� becomes:

We have standing orders
and procedures.

They have been handed down to us
over the centuries.

This is especially appropriate for �compound� sentences, ie sentences consisting of more than one main clause, joined by coordinating conjunctions �and�, �but�, �or�;

This procedure is also possible with some �complex� sentences, ie sentences consisting of a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses joined by subordinating conjunctions such as �since�, �when�, �because�, etc or by relative pronouns such as �who�, �that�: �All we wanted was a quiet chat just you and me together, but you seemed to have other ideas.� becomes:

All we wanted was a quiet chat
just you and me together.

But you seemed to have
other ideas.

It is sometimes also possible to break single main clauses effectively into more than one subtitle; eg �I saw a tall, thin, bearded man with the stolen shopping basket disappearing into the crowd.� becomes:

I saw a tall, thin, bearded man
with the stolen shopping basket.

He disappeared into the crowd

Example (ii) If such sentence breaking procedures are inappropriate, it might be necessary to allow a single long sentence to extend over more than one subtitle. In this case, sentences should be segmented at natural linguistic breaks such that each subtitle forms an integrated linguistic unit. Thus, segmentation at clause boundaries is to be preferred. For example:

When I jumped on the bus...

..I saw the man who had taken
the basket from the old lady.

Segmentation at major phrase boundaries can also be accepted as follows:

On two minor occasions
immediately following the war,...

..small numbers of people
were seen crossing the border.

There is considerable evidence from the psycho-linguistic literature that normal reading is organised into word groups corresponding to syntactic clauses and phrases, and that linguistically coherent segmentation of text can significantly improve readability.

Random segmentation such as

On two minor occasions
immediately following the war,...

..numbers of people, etc.

must certainly be avoided.

In the examples given above, sequences of dots (three at the end of a to-be-continued subtitle, and two at the beginning of a continuation) are used to mark the fact that a segmentation is taking place. Many viewers have found this technique helpful.

1.5 Line Breaks

Similar linguistic considerations should guide the subtitler in deciding how to format a single multi-line subtitle. Subtitle lines should end at natural linguistic breaks, ideally at clause or phrase boundaries. However, since the dictates of space within a subtitle are more severe than between subtitles, line breaks may also take place after a verb. For example:

We are aiming to get
a better television service.

Line endings that break up a closely integrated phrase should be avoided where possible. For example:

We are aiming to get a
better television service.


He said it would increase
the number of shareholders.

He said it would increase the
number of shareholders.

Line breaks within a word are especially disruptive to the reading process and should be avoided. Ideal formatting should therefore compromise between linguistic and geometric considerations but with priority given to linguistic considerations.

Line breaks must be carefully considered when using left, right and centre justification for speaker position. Justified subtitles should balance linguistic considerations with eye movement:

Example (i)

Left, right and centre justification can be useful to identify speaker position, especially in cases where there are more than three speakers on screen. In such cases, line breaks should be inserted at linguistically coherent points, taking eye-movement into careful consideration. For example:

We all hope
you are feeling much better.

This is left justified. The eye has least distance to travel from hope to you.

We all hope you are
feeling much better.

This is centre justified. The eye now has least distance to travel from are to feeling.

We all hope you are feeling
much better.

This is right justified. The eye has least distance to travel from feeling to much.

Example (ii)

Problems occur with justification when a short sentence or phrase is followed by a longer one. In this case, there is a risk that the bottom line of the subtitle is read first.

He didn�t tell me you would be here.

He didn�t tell me you would be here.

This could result in only half of the subtitle being read. Allowances would therefore have to be made by breaking the line at a linguistically non-coherent point:

He didn�t tell me you would be here.

Oh. He didn�t tell me
you would be here.

Oh. He didn�t tell me you would be

When the subtitler is forced to make a choice between formatting a subtitle into one long line or breaking it into two short lines, the decision should be made on the basis of the background picture. In general, �long and thin� subtitles are less disruptive of picture content than are �short and fat� subtitles, but this is not always the case.

Furthermore, in dialogue sequences it is often helpful to use horizontal displacement in order to distinguish between different speakers (see Section 2.3). �Short and fat� subtitles permit greater latitude for this technique.

1.6 Positioning Subtitles on the Screen

The normally accepted position for subtitles is towards the bottom of the screen, but in obeying this convention it is most important to avoid obscuring 'on-screen' captions, any part of a speaker's mouth or any other important activity. Certain special programme types carry a lot of information in the lower part of the screen (eg snooker, where most of the activity tends to centre around the black ball) and in such cases top-screen positioning will be a more acceptable standard.

Subtitles should be displayed horizontally in the direction of the appropriate speaker, or source of sound effect (See 2.3 and 2.6).

When consecutive subtitles have boxes of similar size and shape and the second directly over-writes the first, it is useful to position them slightly differently on the screen. This makes it easier for the viewer to perceive that the subtitle has changed.

1.7 Timing and Synchronisation

It is crucial that subtitles are displayed for a sufficient length of time for viewers to read them. The subtitle presentation rate for pre-recorded programmes should not normally exceed 140 words per minute. In exceptional circumstances, for example in the case of add-ons, the higher rate of 180 words per minute is permitted.

Presentation rates will depend upon the programme content. For example, real-time subtitling documentaries where the speaker is not on screen, or chat shows which have a higher text complexity than drama.

A fundamental function of television subtitling is to reduce frustration caused to hearing-impaired viewers by being faced with silent moving mouths. Therefore, all obvious speech should have some form of subtitle accompaniment.

Eye movement research shows that hearing-impaired viewers make use of visual cues from the faces of television speakers in order to direct their gaze to the subtitle area. If no subtitle is present, the resulting �false alarm� causes considerable frustration. Further research into eye movement has shown the following pattern developed by hard of hearing viewers:

i) Change of subtitle detected
ii) Read subtitle
iii) Scan picture until another subtitle change is detected

Therefore, subtitle appearance should coincide with speech onset. Subtitle disappearance should coincide roughly with the end of the corresponding speech segment, since subtitles remaining too long on the screen are likely to be re-read by the viewer, ie another kind of �false alarm�.

The same rules of synchronisation should apply with off-camera speakers and even with off-screen narrators, since viewers with a certain amount of residual hearing make use of auditory cues to direct their attention to the subtitle area.

1.8 Leading and Lagging

The target point for synchronisation should be at naturally occurring pauses in speech-sentence boundaries, or changes of scene. However, there are bound to be cases where this is either impractical or inapplicable. Recent research indicates the following:

i) Monologue Material For hard-of-hearing people viewing programmes which consist mainly of monologue, research has shown that perfect synchronisation is not an absolute necessity and delays of up to six seconds do not affect information retention. The same is true of leading subtitles (providing that the first subtitle of a long speech is in synchrony). It should still be recognised, however, that some viewers use subtitles to support heard speech and will require synchronisation. Therefore, the technique should not be over used.

ii) ii) Dramatic Scenes

iii) For drama and programmes with continuous changes of shot, subtitles which lag behind dialogue or commentary by more than two seconds should be avoided.

1.9 Shot Changes

Besides the general recommendation for subtitle/speech synchronisation, there are certain other aspects of the television picture which influence subtitle timing. Subtitles that are allowed to over-run shot changes can cause considerable perceptual confusion and should be avoided. Eye-movement research shows that camera-cuts in the middle of a subtitle presentation cause the viewer to return to the beginning of a partially read subtitle and to start re-reading. In practice, it is recognised that the frequency and speed of shot changes in many programmes present serious problems for the subtitler. A subtitle should, therefore, be �anchored� over a shot change by at least one second to allow the reader time to adjust to the new picture. Shot changes normally reflect the beginning or end of speech. The subtitler should, therefore, attempt to insert a subtitle on a shot change when this is in synchrony with the speaker.

General rules for dealing with camera-cuts are as follows:

i) Avoid inserting a subtitle less than one second before a camera-cut and removing a subtitle less than one second after a camera-cut.

ii) Attempt to insert a subtitle in exact synchrony with a camera-cut.

iii) A decision to segment a single sentence into more than one subtitle, to be placed around a camera-cut, should depend on whether the sentence can be segmented naturally and on whether the resulting subtitles can be allowed sufficient display time.

Camera fades and pans do not produce the same perceptual effect as camera-cuts, and accordingly need not influence the subtitler in the same way.

Major scene changes can cause the same problems as shot changes within a scene. A particular difficulty arises when a speaker's last line in a scene, especially a vital punch line, is followed instantaneously by a scene change. In this case, the subtitle should be removed before the scene change to avoid visual confusion.

Some film techniques introduce the soundtrack for the next scene before the scene change has occurred. If possible, the subtitler should wait for the scene change before displaying the subtitle. If this is not possible, the subtitle should be clearly labelled to explain the technique.

JOHN: And what have we here?

Anna Fischer

Thanks that was helpful!
Now I still have to get some help on how to translate accurately?
Stick to bad English or translate and correct the English but confuse the reader?
What to do?