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.

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?