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.

Erica Ginsberg
Host

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
Fan

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

Wojtek

John Burgan
Host

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
Pro

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
Host

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
Pro

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
Pro

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
Pro

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?

Thanks!

-Rob

Doug Block
Host

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.

John Firak
Pro

Hey Chicago d-worders any one in  looking to collaborate on a film? I'm exploring the origins of human violence? Summer 2017 Is this the right place to post this? 

John Burgan
Host

John, as it says at the top of this page, this Public Topic "is geared towards first-time filmmakers" - so as a Pro Member, you'd best post this in one of the Pro Topics

Erica Ginsberg
Host

Also a helpful hint for newbies: when responding to someone who posted more than 2 weeks ago: they may not be checking in the topic frequently anymore, so a good way to let them know you are responding is to post ad then click the envelope icon and find their name to tag them. This will send them an e-mail to let them know someone has asked after them.

Ainsley Brown
Fan

Hi,

I was wondering if any of you experienced guys out there could take a look at the first few minutes of a documentary I am making about a friend of mine and a underground filmmaker, Philip Goring.

Any advise or feedback would be greatly appreciated.

https://db.tt/cqFCJu9utk

Jill Morley
Pro

In reply to Ainsley Brown 's post on Thu 16 Mar 2017:

 Hi Ainsley. Interesting style. I have a difficult time understanding the narrator. You might try to do it with a wireless. Also, I don't know what the film is about and most of the shots looked staged so it doesn't seem like a doc to me. Experimental stuff is not my area so not quite sure what to tell you, but I did like the opening visuals.

 

Ainsley Brown
Fan

In reply to Jill Morley's post on Sat 18 Mar 2017 (http://d-word.com/topics/98?post=347877):

Hi Jill, thank you so much for getting back to me. I am used to making video art so I guess it is going to be more experimental but I would like it to be viewed as a documentary so your feedback is greatly valued. I think because I know the subject and the back story that I have failed to explain any of this to the viewer!

The first part is Philip Goring and the montage that follows the title plate is footage of a film he has been making since 1987! The audio is a bit rubbish because he is almost a recluse and recorded it himself. Any ideas how to get any of this over to the audience would be much appreciated.

Many thanks, Ainsley

Bill Jackson
Pro

In reply to Ainsley Brown 's post on Thu 16 Mar 2017:

 Hi Ainsley. Agreeing with Jill. I know it is just a small section of the film - Since this is the beginning of the film, it would be great to have an interesting section before all of this, or after just a few moments of this opening, to explain what we are about to see - a little history, just for those that are seeing this with no prior knowledge about the subject.

Julie Hudnall
Pro

Hello!  I'm fleshing out ideas for documentary, I'm looking for any input.  I'm going to rural West Virginia in late April/May 2017 for for family reunion for 10 days.  I grew up in Los Angeles and have never been there, but my father has congestive heart failure and wants to go back to his hometown.  He is from a multi-generational coal mining family in Morgantown WV.  Looking for ideas, personal, cultural interest, interest in  labor issues & local politics . Is there a story there?

Russell Hawkins
Pro

It certainly sounds like a story!  Have you seen Harlen County USA the classic film on the Kentucky coal miners' strike?

On the topic of father/daughter relationships, Bruce and Me is a film by an Australian filmmaker who travels to the U.S. to reunite with her hippy outlaw father.  I'm sure there are other first person films that may be more relevant to your situation.

I would put some thought into how you will manage filming whilst also participating in and enjoying what will obviously be a very special time for you and your father.  In other words, how to keep the filming as casual and unobtrusive as possible.  If you have the opportunity to make a follow up trip by yourself that may take the pressure off having to accomplish everything at once, and give you time to dig deeper into the threads that you uncover.

Julie Hudnall
Pro

In reply to Russell Hawkins's post on Mon 20 Mar 2017:

 Hi! Thank you so much for your comment!  I LOVED Harlen County,  I haven't seen Bruce and Me, I will go watch it though.  I have thought about a follow up trip because someone recommended going to the library there to do some research on the camps and my family.  I don't want to spend the whole time in the library, I want to talk to as many people as I can. 

 

Russell Hawkins
Pro

Shooting a film that you are also in sounds pretty difficult to me, but I know people do it!  For example, how to approach meeting a relative for the first time and needing to engage as a family member while shooting and being in the film?  Moments like that really need to be caught in that moment, there is no second take.  "Don't look at the camera" isn't going to work.  Hugging someone with a camera in your hand is awkward.  Will you appear on camera, or will you wear a lapel mic and record your voice?  I would watch other films and talk to people who make those films to better understand which approaches work.


Doing the library research on a separate trip is a good idea.  Also you could use that opportunity to get some landscape/town footage, establishing shots of people's houses, people doing their regular thing... all of which may be difficult to get whilst you are in the midst of the family stuff. 


If you intend to look at other films it could be worth searching or posting in the "Recommended Docs" thread.

Jill Woodward
Pro

In reply to Russell Hawkins's post on Wed 22 Mar 2017:

 I have seen at least one, if not more films, in which the filmmaker is meeting family for the first time. I am either thinking of Daughter from Danang, or possibly Chac by KimChi Tyler from 2000. There is definitely a scene in my mind exactly like what you describe Russell, where the filmmaker kept filming and also hugged. As a filmmaker watching, I was fascinated to see how she would handle it.

Daniel LaBarbera
Pro

Hi everyone! First time documentarian here. I've been in the video/production field for 10 years but I'm taking my first stab at making a documentary. The project is about the life of an eccentric 26 year old man (Stevie Blatz) who has owned his own entertainment business in PA since he was 16 years old. The business has been losing money the last several years due to Stevie's lack of education (high school dropout) and questionable business decisions. Aside from his business life, his personal life is a mess. He has endured a lifetime of bullying, personal failures, and mental issues. The bullying he goes through is constant and it's beginning to wear on this man. After a very long chat with him, we decided the direction of the documentary should be about Stevie bettering himself as a businessman and finding a girlfriend. He is extremely outgoing, but has had almost zero success with the ladies in his 26 years. 

I'm comfortable with the interview process and we already have 5+ subjects that are willing to be interviewed for his documentary. That's the easy part, in my head at least. What I can't wrap my head around is everything else that will be in the documentary. The footage of Stevie going about his life. He has a large personality and I know following him around for a period of time would create amazing content. 

To understand the personality I am working with, check out this interview he did for the local news station a few years ago: http://www.wfmz.com/news/lehigh-valley/mr-liberty-dances-his-way-through-tax-season-1/18174894

Now for my questions:

1. How can I film Stevie in a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, mall? What's the process? He LOVES to dance. I imagine it being very difficult to obtain permission from any of these establishments. His personality is huge so I know there's opportunity for great content in establishments like the ones I mentioned. Can anyone offer some guidance to this approach? 

2. What's a good approach to capturing the content that is NOT an interview? Stevie living his life. Stevie working on improving his issues. My current plan is to spend approximately 2-3 full days, every week for about a month or two with Stevie. Production would begin early in the morning and commence very late. Thinking 10-14 hours a day. I'm wondering how organic this should be...Do I literally roll the camera and let him make his bed? Do I give him direction? I'd love any advice to point me in a better direction for this. 

3. He's an entertainer (mostly kid parties). If I want to include footage of him performing at an event, can I use any of the audio captured at the party? Almost all of the songs he plays and performs to are not licensed by him. Without obtaining music licensing I imagine including any audio from these events would be difficult. Is that the case? If I am filming him in public and there's pop music playing in the background, do I need the rights to that song? 

4. If he's performing at a kid's party, do I need signed consent from the parents of every child that might appear in my frame? 

 

I have so much more to ask but I'll start with this! If anyone can lend advice, personal experience, words of wisdom; it's very much appreciated. 

 


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