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.

Josh Rose

Does a documentary live and die by its subject?

Rick Dillwood

Anybody out there recording their own voiceover? Got any microphone recommendations?

I'm a film student and my current set-up (basic though it may be) is a Shure SM57 straight into GarageBand. And I know it isn't ideal, but it's what I've got.

But sometimes a person might be in a position to upgrade. I'm just looking for a good vocal mic. Something in the $200-$400 range.

And if this isn't where a person should post these kinds of questions, I promise to slap my own wrist--just say the word.

Bill Jackson

In that price range, a Heil PR-40 will give you a nice, fat, clean sound. Much more pleasant than the 57. And, unlike condensors, will be less likely to pick up extraneous sounds, like nearby traffic, since I'm assuming you are recording at your home.

Bill Jackson

But, if you need a USB microphone, check out the Shure PG42SUB.

W. James Meagher

Quick (not really) question about union dancers in documentaries . . .

I have an extremely small budget to shoot a little documentary about a Canadian ballet company traveling to Israel for the first time since 1975 and Jordan for the first time ever. The logistics of taking an entire ballet company from Winnipeg to the Middle East is quite something . . . as is the financial gamble of such tours for the company.

I have permission from the company to document the tour. The ballet company itself is in no way funding the doc.

Here's where it gets sticky. The dancers at the company are all very eager to participate, but they are all members of The Canadian Actor's Equity Association. Whenever it comes to the dancers being on film the Equity Association's contract defers to ACTRA.

My interest is to document this tour from the point of view of those who are running the show and the dancers who are performing. After a brief conversation with my local ACTRA office this morning I can tell that this isn't going to be easy.

I don't need or intend on having a lot of footage of the dancers actually performing in the ballets they are touring. I am more interested in what goes on behind the scenes . . . For example, while we are there a joint Israeli/Palestinian community centre is being opened and some of the dancers are going to give some free classes to the children there. The dancers would like me to cover this. I would like to cover this. I think ACTRA and Equity is going to want me to pay for this.

I don't have the money to put a company of 28 dancers on ACTRA rates for 3 weeks . . . nor do I feel I would be making a documentary if I did.

Has anyone here ever navigated these sorts of waters before? If so, any advice would be hugely appreciated. Or I might just end up making a documentary about Bob the Production Manager who is in charge of all the lighting and sets and carnets and customs and all of that fun stuff.


John Burgan

This is crazy, James. Firstly it's commonly-held assumption that a "documentary film" is synonymous with Hollywood and that the filmmaker is making a pile of money off the people who appear in it. Reality check: the vast majority of documentaries do not make a profit, barely break even if they are lucky. Secondly, unless someone is being asked to perform specially for the film, or an expert is being asked to do some particular research, it is not normal practice to pay those who appear in documentaries. There may be a very small, nominal fee paid to interviewees, but this is mostly symbolic and connected to a release form.

The way you explain your project makes it clear (a) that the dancers are going on tour at the behest of the company, not at your command (b) they are more than willing for you to document them. This is a good start. It seems that the problem lies with the local union office who are almost certainly in the grip of the Hollywood illusion cited above.

Firstly, with the performers agreement, you probably need to go over the heads of the local office and negotiate directly with ACTRA's head office. A brief google (= documentary!) on their website revealed the following clause (below) of a draft agreement with the NFB which seems the right direction for you to explore, especially as the alternative would seem to be abandoning your film entirely. Explain that you're not making a "for profit" concert film but focusing on the work with the children etc.

A2307 Waiver of Minimum fee for Documentary A Performer may voluntarily consent to waive his minimum fee for the inclusion of a performance, interview, or appearance in a Documentary Program, the subject of which is "the making of" the Production in which the Performer has been engaged.

Finally, I should point out that I am NOT A LAWYER and that you should make sure you have rock solid legal advice before proceeding with your film.

Fingers crossed that it all works out – keep us posted.