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.

Jill Morley

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

In reply to Jill Morley's post on Sat 18 Mar 2017 (

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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. 


John Stanton

Not sure if this is the correct place to post this. I have been shooting a documentary about the rise of the foodie culture. We have not raised a penny of budget yet, but I was able to convince my team to chip in two shoot days on the cuff, just to get the ball rolling. One of the chefs we interviewed, who I think might be a major character in the film, offered to hold a special event -- basically one night at his very high end restaurant, with the night's proceeds going to the film. This is not any sort of investigative piece, just a small doc celebrating this part of local culture. I can see the obvious problems -- mostly the worry that he might want t influence the storytelling -- but just wanted to throw it out t you guys to see what else can go wrong.