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.

John Burgan

The film that springs to mind is Nicolas Philibert's "Etre & Avoir" about a school in rural France. Check out the director's comments about working with children in the interview section of this website

Theresa Tall

Hi there! I'm new so hope I'm doing this all right!

My story is that I've got a great general interest educational documentary series idea. It's going to include many episodes (each following basically one subject) that will be shot over a long period of time (the series will be shot over a long period of time, each episode will take about 2 weeks to shoot). The problem is I really don't have any idea as to how to get started. I have studio film experience, but only on the marketing side. Basically, I have many questions which I hope you all have the answers to and I'm hoping you'll share your expertise with me  Hopefully one day I'll be at the level where I can share my expertise with everyone else!

What do I need to do to get started? If for the first couple of episodes I will be just following around one person, do I need to hire just one camera person (digital) and a boom operator on a payment differed basis?
Basically, initially I just have to follow a person (who will be the subject) throughout their week. I will choose someone who has limited locations and interacts with not so many people, just so start simply. Should I just worry about getting footage first? In which case, who do I need to hire? A cameraperson (do digital cameras come with great sound, or do I need to hire a boom operator too?). Then do I need to hire an editor? What should I offer them in a standard deferred payment agreement? Again, I want to be fair. A percentage, an hourly fee?

I know I could take some camera classes, but I want them to be professional quality, not shaky.

How will this footage they get be stored? It's going to be digital, so I can just store it on a virtual server, or ask them to hold on to it? Or is the footage just stored on a digital tape, so I don't need to store it anywhere? Yes, I really don't know about this!

Do I need to figure out the formatting/runtime in advance before shooting? For example, let's say I plan on distributing the episodes on my own website, but I would like to have the opportunity for this series to air on public television or something –do I have to keep that sort of formatting/editing in mind in advance before I start shooting to be sure it'll be okay to air on public television, or will all the original footage just be recut to fit the format of the particular method of distribution? Is this not something I need to think about at all at this point?

Advertising money
Then once I have this video edited, should I put it online to show to potential advertisers?

How do I go about getting advertisers, and when should go about getting advertisers?
Should I make one finely crafted episode to show to potential advertisers? Or should I pitch the idea to advertisers before I even start shooting, that way I can pay the small crew I hire right away rather than do a deferred payment agreement?

Do I need to decide the business model/method of distribution before I start filming and editing? My original idea was to just have my own website with tons of my own videos that people could choose to rent or download. I think the best model out there might be free for the user or ad supported. I'm also willing to have people pay like $2 to rent it. If they can download it online, is there any way to make each episode non duplicable so that it won’t be spread around? How does itunes stop it from being duplicated?

Releases/Legal Questions
What sort of releases do I need if I am following the subjects on certain locations, such as their workplace or school?

Non-Profit versus For-Profit: or is there some sort of hybrid?
If I do decide for this series to be fully free for the user and to be fully advertiser based, how much money can I expect to make? How much could I expect to change an advertiser? How do they decide how much they'll pay you – based on click through rate?

If I elected to go the non profit route, I'm pretty sure this would be eligible for grants, but would that limit me to only air in certain venues? If I went the on profit route, could I show my work for free on my own site, but still expect to get paid a lot per episode, with residuals, etc? Is there such a thing as a hybrid non-profit for profit where I could accept advertiser funding and also make a strong revenuer for myself? How would I pay myself, if I went for profit, as writer/producer (I believe the laws are that it has to be a reasonable income)?

Are the business models something I need to figure out first or can figure out later – should I just worry about getting the footage now and working on how it will be distributed later?

As you can see, I’m a bit paralyzed by all these questions before I’ve even begun. Can someone tell me what I can do to get started now? Should I just worry about getting the content on tape first and then figure out the rest later? If someone could just tell me the steps, I’d be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL.

I'm open to any suggestions, advice, book recommendations, anything.

Thanks so much, Theresa

Lenville O'Donnell

Phew, Theresa, it would take a very long time to provide the answers to all your questions in one fell swoop. For starters, you might start here and buy a few books on documentary filmmaking and read them. The other thing it sounds like you might need to help guide you through the maze for the first time is to partner up with or hire or otherwise engage a producing partner with some experience in the industry. But I'd definitely recommend doing some reading first. Maybe taking some classes would be helpful. Good luck!

Christopher Wong

if you're going to read a book, most of us in this community like Michael Rabiger's "Directing the Documentary". you should be able to get a used copy online somewhere.

if you're going to take a class, take an editing class. to learn to shoot, you actually have to learn first what shots you need in the editing room. it sounds backwards, but sometimes the best shooters are often the best editors too.

if you know the school you are going to be shooting in, start getting releases now. you have to get them from one parent of every student who shows up in the film. and it takes a LONG time... getting releases is also a good time to start building trust with your future subjects. don't just get them to sign a form. get them to "buy-in" to your idea first; then get the form signed.

lastly, forget the whole business end of the doc right now. there will be time to think of it later, but you need to concentrate on the film itself. "it's the story, stupid" (quote from a wise filmmaker)

as someone who is currently engaged in a 3-year odyssey to finish an educational documentary, i wish you perseverance and lotsa good luck!

Patrick Kwiatkowski

I am currently working on a short piece on a school, and I can say from my experience that the obstacles are many, from preproduction thru post. One way to eliminate some of them early on, which is explained in detail by Michael Rabiger's book, is thorough preproduction. Especially when documenting an institution, first sell your idea to the head authority. The first thing I did was write a letter to the principal. Email is does not catch their attention quite like a letter, and as far as phoning your pitch, no one wants a pitch to from someone they've never had contact with before. Write a letter, BRIEFLY explain yourself as a film/videomaker, and simply request an audience with them.

Although the principal took more than three weeks to respond, she thought my letter was very professional and innocent enough to at least hear me out. From there I was able to convince the principal, and with her on my side convince the staff, and with the staff on my side convince the parents, and with the parents on my side, ultimately, convince the children to participate. Definitely, pick up Rabiger's book! Its been a great help to me, especially when it comes to tackling preproduction!

Earl Franklin

Hi all, I am Earl. I have a project I am ready to begin to produce, a documentary project that has been dropped in my lap. The story is about how a city, police and community (businesses and residents) will come together (or not) and combat prostitution. The City Police, City Hall, and Community. The community has petitioned the city, the city charged the police, and the police are reacting. What we want to show (besides the prostitutes) is how these three will solve this problem. Suppression, Prevention, and Intervention.

I have met with the police. I have DIRECT access to all parties, willing participants, it was "dropped in my lap" by the police. They are the ones that want to document the story. The city manager has asked them to be creative in showing the problem with the cities prostitution because the community has rallied. The police want to create the documentary.

Like I said it has been dropped in my lap. Where do I start? What do I need, who do I need? I need to shoot this in June and July. for viewing in Fall. I need to crew build. Needs to be broadcast quality.

All thoughts are welcomed and needed!

What process would best help in me trying to obtain an experienced producer. Since I have never shot a documentary, everyone is pretty much saying that would be my first step. (1) Find/Hire/Partner with an experienced producer. Would everyone agree? How is that done? Do I need to start a production company?

Mentor me!

Christopher Wong

earl, others with more experience that me should answer, but as one who is basically "one step" ahead of you in the documentary process, this is what i would suggest to start:

1) watch as many docs as you can that have multiple groups and perspectives represented. usually, these groups are warring against one another, but not always. but since your story is one where you will constantly have to get the other side (e.g. police, prostitutes, city hall), you want to figure out early on how you want the action to unfold. so, examples like Barbara Kopple's "American Dream" (workers, union, company) will help you see how one person did it. or, if you want to see what a doc is like when the filmmaker gets involved, any of Michael Moore's docs (especially "Bowling for Columbine" or "F911") will do. but i would doubt that the people who are commissioning the doc want that style. also, figure out if you want to make an "issue" doc where there are a lot of talking heads and interview segments, or if you want to make a "verite" doc where the story evolves as you go, and the characters actions drive the narrative.

2) In addition to the D-Word, look for a producer by first contacting film organizations. Most producers won't take your pitch seriously (especially if you haven't done a doc before); but if you first "sell" your story to a film organization that the producer is familiar with, and the org refers you, then the producer will listen with more interest. Different organizations would be: IDA (based in L.A.), National Black Programming Consortium (contact Leslie Fields), KCET or any local PBS station that might even be able to give you seed money or resources to do pre-production on a story very important to the L.A. community.

anyways, that's a start... hope this helps.

Don Dobrez Jr.

Hello All (again)

Its been many months since I was last here and I am in the final stages of editing my film about the destruction of the oldest drive-in theater in the state of Illinois. In my closing "argument" of the piece, I want to talk about the homogenizing of the suburban landscape, and want to include a very quick montage of images of typical storefronts, like Starbucks, McDonald's, etc.

So, my question is, what can I use and not use? Can I use shots that show part of the name but not all of it? Can I drive down a street with my camera taping? Or is it fair use to show a full-on shot if it's only on for a second or two? Or if I show the building but not the sign? All told, the entire sequence of shots would last no more than 15 seconds total (if that matters).

Thanks for the help!

Theresa Tall

thanks for responding to my last post everyone – good advice in there and I've ordered direcrintg the documentary.

now i have another question – whats a really good digital camcorder i could get – what do the pros use? my documentary is probably going to be distributed online, but i want it to be good enough to show on a big screen or on tv – so something professional grade! anu suggestions? i have no idea! thanks, teetall

Christopher Wong

theresa, assuming you have very little experience with docs and camerawork, i think the best camera for you would be the Panasonic DVX100 (A or B model, either is fine). right now, you can get these cameras very cheaply (especially if you buy used) b/c most professionals are upgrading to HD or HDV cameras. this is really the perfect tool for you because it's simple enough to learn on, and professional enough to grow with. and there have been more than a few well-respected docmakers (even on this site!) who have shown on the big screen with footage from that camera.

Mark Barroso

A great place to buy used gear is

Earl: you need to talk to a tv news cameraman about the legal land mines that you may step on if you're out taping with the cops. It doesn't matter if they say it's okay to shoot. Suspects have rights, too. Is California a one-party consent state when it comes to recording audio? Laws about surveilance video vary state, too. You could shoot for months and find out you can't use any of it because you broke the law.

Bill Blass

In reply to Boyd McCollum's post on Tue 29 Jan 2008 :

I use MovCaptioner also. For the money ($25) you won't find a better app for doing transcripts and movie captions. BTW, their URL has changed to I talked to the developer last week and he said he's working on getting it to create Spruce STL files so that you can import captions into DVD Studio Pro or other programs that use STL. It currently does 2 types of transcripts (paragraph form and line-by-line with timecode), but it will also do embedded QT captions, Flash captions, SRT and SUB (used by Google video and others), SAMI for Windows Media, and QT SMIL. Also, the developer says that all upgrades to new versions will be free to purchasers! Good luck with your project.

Sam Rabeeh

In reply to Boyd McCollum's post on Sat 5 Apr 2008 :

Thanks to everyone for their answers surrounding copyright.

I'm starting my first documentary next week on Egyptian Identity. I plan to start in places familiar to me in Egypt and where I currently have contacts on social development initiatives, clinics etc.

I've found alot of the model release, location etc. forms but curious if I will need Arabic versions? I"m sure they can be translated but perhaps the few in Egypt or been there can shed some light on that.

I'm nervous as hell, with little details floating about, equipment list etc. etc.

I'm leaving on the 22 of April so if you have some advice, slap it to me.

Thanks in advance.

Mark Barroso

The not so dirty secret in the legal world is called exposure, like in, "how likely are you to be sued by subject x?" I doubt someone from Egypt is going to travel to canasa and sue you. In fact, they can't. If it were me, I would just get permission on camera. If you whip out a form, someone is going to want to get paid for their signature.

Sam Rabeeh

And I thought it was NC lingo for Canada.

Is an on-camera approval (or recorded voice for audio only interview) the equivalent of a release?

Jo-Anne Velin

in news it is. I don't know about audio only, but definitely in video. You might have to have it on each cassette if you are recording to tape.

Monica Williams

Does anyone know where I can find a DVCPro HD codec that will allow me to view/edit footage shot on a Panasonic HVX200 (720 @ 24 native) on a Windows computer?

I want to be able to use either Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas Pro.


Mark Barroso

You need to be realistic about where this film is to going to be seen and conform to the laws of that country. It's folly to ask someone in the States or Germany about releases. If you want a lock-tight, international release because you're making the next $100 million dollar grossing documentary, then yes, get the most airtight release. Otherwise, you're just going to waste time and intimidate interview subjects.

In the US, news people do not need releases. Filmmakers do. On-camera releases are second best to written ones, and generally accepted for non-controversial interviews9"Boy, that show was great!")

Monica Williams

Thank you Robert :-)

Is there a way to find out what networks or distributors pay for documentaries that are similar to mine? Do I need to contact the producers of those films directly or is there an easier way?

Robert Goodman

you can search the trade papers – hollywood reporter and variety – but take the numbers with a grain of a salt. Most docs are sold for very little money.

Sean Riddle

I'm in the education field overseeing students making their films. Occasionally I have students interested in Documentaries and they often have questions about legally using images, people, etc... is there a website or anything that kind of lists when you do and don't need to get release forms on people in your documentary? Or, for example the legality of using images from Scientology, that were shown in public, but using them for your film without approval from Scientology? Or taking images from websites such as YouTube and putting them in your film?