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.

Daniel McGuire

In reply to Nigel Noriega's post on Wed 5 Oct 2016:

 I think your film looks excellent. I'm impressed by the editing, shooting, and your narration. Have you found a producer yet? I'm not the person, but I know people in the Boston area (associated with MIT and Harvard) who specialize in science films.

David C Jones

Greetings! I have a question about logging: I'm currently shooting/directing a film in which much of the footage consists of long takes following my main 'character' around. I'm use to logging interviews in the usual way, and b-roll footage describing the shot with the location, framing (WS/CU, etc.) and what's in it. But not sure the best way to log long, capture-what's-happening-type takes. Any advice would be great!

John Burgan

Framing is obviously redundant, so keywords relating to the content that you will remember - character, location, "what's happening" or what's being discussed (Jim-School-looks for dog).

Doug Block

If there are any parts of the take (including framing) that are particularly memorable, I'd surely note them. Otherwise, for me it's a general "track w X down hallway, enters office" kind of thing.

Btw, David, you're a Pro member, so your question is better asked in the Editing topic.  This topic is for Fans not yet qualified for Pro status.

Bernard Bull

I'm excited to get started on my first documentary that will give people a new perspective on the modern letter grade system in education, its limitations, and alternatives to it. I'm looking forward to offering a deeply thoughtful, provocative, and wonderfully human side to this story; and my hope is that schools and communities will use it as a discussion starter.

With that said, I'm completely new to documentary filmmaking. However, I want to be as hands on as possible as this is a means of storytelling that is an important part of many future projects for me (I already have tentative outlines for the next three). I'm a writer, author, and University professor whose work focuses upon the future of education, educational innovation, and critical issues in education. I've been humbled to give keynotes and invited presentations around the world, well over 150 in the last decade, which has also allowed me to build a solid network in the field. I published three books in 2016 and am on track to publish three a year for at least the next few years. I also have decent and ongoing following through my blog at, which I hope gives me a bit of a head start when it comes to a future distribution strategy. In addition to that, many of the themes that I explore are well-suited for the screen, and I believe that the documentary is an excellent venue for telling these important stories in education. I'm also a designer and storyteller at heart (probably more than a traditional academic) and I love the challenge and opportunity to use the documentary as a way to delve into a new form of research, inquiry, and storytelling. To tell the truth, even if people told me that this is a terrible idea and tried to discourage me from it, I would still move ahead. I've an incredibly driven person when it comes to critical issues in education and I am absolutely convinced that the documentary is a near-essential means of expanding the conversation in important ways. This is just too important to me, the well-being of future learners, and the well-being of societies near and far.

I'm sure to have many challenges with this first project, but I started out by reading a half dozen books that seems to be common required reading in film schools. I've also watched and tried to learn from a growing list of about 70 educational documentaries over the years. Actually, I started by doing intensive research on the topic of letter grades for almost four years, running a successful MOOC on the subject, and writing a book on the topic that I hope to release in the next six months. I also enjoyed the Werner Herzog's MasterClass and several other online classes that address various aspects of filmmaking.

I'm deepening my knowledge and comfort with some of the technical elements of lighting, sound, and video; but I am definitely a novice on all fronts. I've acquired some basic equipment to experiment. I have a general outline / storyline for the documentary, although I am excited about how interviews will reshape some of that. I also have an impressive lineup (with more to come) of well-known and provocative interviews for the next five months.

I am taking a sabbatical from January through May of 2017 where I will serve as the Jonathan D. Harber Fellow in Education and Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University. I will be teaching one class on education as social entrepreneurship, writing two new books, doing research for this documentary, and capturing footage for the documentary. I am not at Wesleyan until the end of the month, but I know that it has an incredible film program, and I hoped to possibly connect with some students who might be interested in helping with the audio and video for my interviews. I would love to a complete first documentary in hand by the end of August. 

So, I'm not leading with a question, but I would love some initial thoughts and tips as I venture into this new and exciting project. 

Doug Block

Welcome, Bernard, and thanks for all the background.  You seem to have done all the preparation you possibly can and at this point I'd simply say it's time to leap in.  If you think you've found a compelling character to follow, you might start there.  I often like to start with a few interviews.  I'm assuming you have the resources to afford to start shooting.  That's a whole other story, of course.  

Best of luck. Tips are all well and good but making documentaries is always a trial by fire endeavor :)

Cody Meirick

In reply to Bernard Bull's post on Thu 29 Dec 2016:

 I agree with Doug. You'll learn a lot in the first few interviews and learn even more after that. I'm glad to see the research side seems to be your strong point, same here. The topic seems great. I don't know that it has been done before and I'm sure it is interesting enough to fill a documentary. The documentary I've been working on for years is about censorship in schools... luckily I haven't had to worry about consenting or filming kids much, but if you do, I know that can be a tricky area, so good luck. Engaging subjects would be nice, but hearing how much you've been involved, you may immediately have some in mind. I'm sure you have, but looking at comparable docs out there is always important... "Waiting for Superman" is one of the main ones that come to mind, but perhaps you want to purposely take a different direction in how you go about the subject, don't know.

Although outlining is great, I guess I would just make sure you film a lot more than needed and expect it to shift a lot... in many ways the story is told in the edit room... and be prepared to let it shift based on your instincts. Some interviewees could be completely bland and unusable while others could take you into exciting directions. Let interviews go off on tangents... finding a human side to the subject means finding the little worlds that people live in. Why is a letter grade important? It is kind of absurd that it is, IT'S JUST A LETTER, but it actually affects people's lives. 

My 6-year-old is in Catholic school and is subject to a crazy lettering system (besides the fact that he is even getting letter grades at this point)... 90% is like a B- or something. It's been a learning experience for us, but he is sensitive and gets upset about it. So I completely empathize. I work at Erikson Institute in Chicago (look it up) and if you're interested in getting experts to talk about early learning specifically when it comes to letter grades, hit me up... I know a lot of experts in the field.

Paige Landau


My name is Paige Landau and I am an aspiring documentary filmmaker who just moved to Salt Lake City. I am looking for an internship or job that would allow me hands on experience in this field as I want to learn all of the inner workings that go into creating a documentary film. Although I don’t have filmmaking experience, I learn quickly and am hardworking and honest. I have great interpersonal communication and organizational skills, I am very observant, detail-oriented, have high energy and great stamina. Based on these qualities, I feel I could best contribute to a production team as a Runner, Producer’s Assistant, Second Assistant Camera, Third Assistant Director or Grip. In all honesty, I simply want to be part of a production team that’s bringing prominent images of truth to the screen and if given the opportunity know I would be an asset to any team. If you have any fitting job or internship openings I could apply for or know of any you could pass my information along to, I would greatly appreciate it. If you would like some more information about me, please let me know and I would be happy to answer any questions.

With gratitude and kind regards,


Doug Block

In reply to Paige Landau's post on Mon 9 Jan 2017:

Welcome to The D-Word, Paige.  Some of the jobs you say you're seeking - runner, second ass't camera, third ass't director and grip - are all jobs for fiction filmmaking, not documentaries, which utilize very small crews.  We have nothing against folks who actually go over to the dark side to work in fictitious films, mind you.  

Paige Landau

In reply to Doug Block's post on Wed 11 Jan 2017:

 Hi Doug and Vivian,

Thank you so much for writing back! I currently have my Associate's Degree and will be applying to 4-year universities in March to earn my Bachelor's in film. Before I go head-long into the rest of that educational venture, I'd like to get my feet wet in filmmaking through an internship and/or job in the field. The advice I've been given is to be as specific as possible in the type of position I am seeking. Through doing research I found the jobs I mentioned but wasn't able to find documentary specific entry level positions.

Who is on a documentary crew?

Erica Ginsberg

Depends on the documentary. It could be as little as one person or as big as any Hollywood film. The majority of independent producers work in fairly small teams though - likely a crew of 2-5 in the field and/or back at the office. I think, rather than starting from where you want to be, it might be better to flip that on its head and think about the skillsets you already have which would be beneficial to a documentary filmmaker or production company. At the front end, that could mean help with research or setting up interviews or helping to implement a crowdfunding campaign or developing a grant strategy or setting up a website or social media. In production, it could mean helping at a shoot (if you don't have prior filmmaking experience, this may mean grunt work tasks like helping to carry or watch over equipment bags, getting releases signed, or managing media cards, but it would give you valuable observational experience seeing production in progress. In post, there could be a need for help with organizing footage, researching and applying to film festivals. 

So much of our world is word-of-mouth. I would imagine SLC has a small but tight-knit production community and that most of the doc folks make their bread and butter from other work (fiction films, commercials, nonprofit videos, etc.) - if you are not already connected, check Meetup or Facebook for gatherings and start networking.

Wojciech Bobilewicz

Hello, Everyone, this is Wojtek from Warsaw, Poland.

I am planning to organise an expedition to Cameroon which will be an exploration and research undertaking. I would like to capture the expedition on camera but rather than creating yet another more or less boring (or, perhaps, more or less interesting) video footage that one shows to one's family and friends, I would like to make a "professional" recording that could be shown on some TV or Internet channels.

It is not my intention to create award-winning documentaries tackling serious social, political or humanitarian issues, neither do I aspire to ever shoot such films, especially given that my passions and interests lie elsewhere (i.e. I am interested in different areas of knowledge and emotions, mainly in travel, reserach, and discovery). What I do intend to create is an account of my trip, my relations, conversations and interactions with the locals when interviewing them in relation to my research (and also outside of such interviews), and a trip diary, and, of course - if the object of my quest and research is found indeed - of that object itself. However, I would like it to be as engaging to the potential audience as possible, so even though the subject matter may be less "serious" (but who knows?), and more of the adventure/entertainment type, I would still like it to be as "professional" as possible.

In that connection I have a few questions, and I am sure many more will come in time.

1) As I am a complete beginner, entirely unfamiliar with the topic, and as the expedition - if it does take off - is going to take place in about a year's time, would it be better to film myself, or to hire a filming crew? In both cases, what costs (and I do not just mean the money) would I need to take into account?

2) If, in a situation described above, it is indeed better to hire a film crew, how does one even begin going about it? Where to look for such people, who to contact, what do I need to consider (I am based in Poland, but I believe that certain processes and procedures are universal)?

3) In any case, where and how to look for financing such a project (I mean the filming and subsequent editing etc. rather than the expedition itself, although if I do apply for some grants, sposorships or donations, I may as well include in my submission the amount needed to pay the crew (or to hire the equipment))? How to start doing this? Are there any programs? Is there any listing?

4) I have heard from a number of sources that what is very important when producing a documentary is a carefully outlined plan, or script, before even beginning shooting. However, the environment I am intending to go to changes dynamically and the nature of the expedition is such that we may go to God knows what location, meet all sorts of people, and we won't know our interpreters, guides or porters until we actually arrive; we do not even know where exactly we will arrive (where the "base camp" will be) because that depends largely on information we will only collect at best a few weeks in advance, at worst on the spot. With such changing circumstances, with such dynamic and unpredictable scenario and unfurling of events, how is it possible to even sketch or draft any sensible script? I would very much like to find out your views upon this matter (I've heard from one traveller, who has also made some documentary which was aired on Polish TV, that he didn't bother too much with a script, and instead kept shooting, and shooting, and shooting, and then created the film by carefully editing a selection of thousands of shoots, can this be a solution?).

As I said, I may have some more questions possibly, but the above four are of the most immediate concern to me.

Would you be able to help me? Any assistance, advice, information, resources, contacts etc. will be greatly appreciated. Meanwhile, let me wish you every success and all the best in 2017.

Kindest regards


John Burgan

Welcome to The D-Word, Wojtek. You've asked many important questions about how to get started, and my advice is very simple: learn to walk before you run! Certainly before undertaking any big expedition to foreign shores, start by making a short film in your own backyard, in the district you live in Warsaw. Although you could try the diary format, a documentary portrait of someone else might be good experience. The equipment doesn't have to be fantastic quality as this is meant to be a learning exercise, but do your best to get good sound.

If you're not feeling confident about the technical side, you could always seek collaboration with a film school student - not only Lodz but Katowice and Warsaw have highly rated film programmes. They often have a notice board where you could post a request. Another option - do a short practical filmmaking course. I'm sure there must be several in Warsaw.

I hesitate to recommend books at this stage as learning by doing is by far the best way to get started, but you might find Andy Glynne's "Documentaries: ... and How to Make Them" helpful. It's a simple, uncomplicated introduction, not sure if it's still in print but you can surely find secondhand copies on the internet.

At any rate the actual experience of making several short films (and learning from your mistakes) will be invaluable and start to answer some of the questions you pose above. One step at a time...good luck, and report back.

Margo Precht Speciale

Hello Mentors! Any advice on how to create an effective sizzle reel for a feature length documentary? The purpose of the sizzle reel is to sell the idea to potential funders and create excitement about the project. What are the essential elements and what would you say are the do's and don't's?

John Burgan

Margo, please don't make multiple posts in different Topics - it's one of the very few rules at The D-Word. This is fine in Works in Progress.

Nigel Noriega

In reply to Daniel McGuire's post on Mon 12 Dec 2016:

 Hi Daniel. I have not found a producer. Or at least I'm not sure if I'm hooking them. Quick question. If I'm sending around a documentary script, is there a format (such as traditional film script, multi-column chart with time stamps, etc) affect who reads it further?  What format do folks at D-word like to see if reviewing a documentary script?

Jill Morley

In reply to Margo Precht Speciale's post on Mon 13 Feb 2017:

 Hi Margo, first ask yourself what the film is about.  Be specific.  Then, do an assembly of selects: the most compelling moments of the film. Find music that will drive it. Then, of course, is the art of making the audience want to know more after you have combined 2 and 1/2 or three minutes that gets people excited about the story you want to tell with the music. FUnny that it sounds so easy! Many will attest that it is like visual crack poetry - make them want more!


Rob Caprilozzi

Hi everyone. I am making great progress on my first documentary, but I am at the point now where I want to speak with a lawyer to talk about using certain material in the film.  Licensing is a huge part of my documentary, so I want to show for example, a photo of the band "KISS," "The Beatles" - and TV shows like "Happy Days," and  "The A-Team," etc.  The documentary will tell the audience that there were costumes made for the "A-Team" and I want to show a picture of the cast of the show then show the costumes made.

I have many questions like this that I want to talk to a lawyer about. I don't want to get in any trouble for using something I am not allowed to.

Also, I saw some videos on the creative commons site I would like to use. It says public domain on them, but I want to be sure.

There are also newspaper ads from Woolworths and Kresge's that I want to use as well.

I am not sure which lawyer to actually contact to talk about this - copyright - Licensing or Entertainment. Can someone help me shed light on this?



Doug Block

Rob, as a Pro member you should be asking this in the Legal topic. This topic is for Fans without access to most of our topics. And a note of caution. As a new member it's best not to come on asking too many questions at once. That said, welcome aboard.