The film that springs to mind is Nicolas Philibert's "Etre & Avoir" about a school in rural France. Check out the director's comments about working with children in the interview section of this website
The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros
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.
Hi there! I'm new so hope I'm doing this all right!
My story is that I've got a great general interest educational documentary series idea. It's going to include many episodes (each following basically one subject) that will be shot over a long period of time (the series will be shot over a long period of time, each episode will take about 2 weeks to shoot). The problem is I really don't have any idea as to how to get started. I have studio film experience, but only on the marketing side. Basically, I have many questions which I hope you all have the answers to and I'm hoping you'll share your expertise with me Hopefully one day I'll be at the level where I can share my expertise with everyone else!
What do I need to do to get started? If for the first couple of episodes I will be just following around one person, do I need to hire just one camera person (digital) and a boom operator on a payment differed basis?
Basically, initially I just have to follow a person (who will be the subject) throughout their week. I will choose someone who has limited locations and interacts with not so many people, just so start simply. Should I just worry about getting footage first? In which case, who do I need to hire? A cameraperson (do digital cameras come with great sound, or do I need to hire a boom operator too?). Then do I need to hire an editor? What should I offer them in a standard deferred payment agreement? Again, I want to be fair. A percentage, an hourly fee?
I know I could take some camera classes, but I want them to be professional quality, not shaky.
How will this footage they get be stored? It's going to be digital, so I can just store it on a virtual server, or ask them to hold on to it? Or is the footage just stored on a digital tape, so I don't need to store it anywhere? Yes, I really don't know about this!
Do I need to figure out the formatting/runtime in advance before shooting? For example, let's say I plan on distributing the episodes on my own website, but I would like to have the opportunity for this series to air on public television or something –do I have to keep that sort of formatting/editing in mind in advance before I start shooting to be sure it'll be okay to air on public television, or will all the original footage just be recut to fit the format of the particular method of distribution? Is this not something I need to think about at all at this point?
Then once I have this video edited, should I put it online to show to potential advertisers?
How do I go about getting advertisers, and when should go about getting advertisers?
Should I make one finely crafted episode to show to potential advertisers? Or should I pitch the idea to advertisers before I even start shooting, that way I can pay the small crew I hire right away rather than do a deferred payment agreement?
Do I need to decide the business model/method of distribution before I start filming and editing? My original idea was to just have my own website with tons of my own videos that people could choose to rent or download. I think the best model out there might be free for the user or ad supported. I'm also willing to have people pay like $2 to rent it. If they can download it online, is there any way to make each episode non duplicable so that it won’t be spread around? How does itunes stop it from being duplicated?
What sort of releases do I need if I am following the subjects on certain locations, such as their workplace or school?
Non-Profit versus For-Profit: or is there some sort of hybrid?
If I do decide for this series to be fully free for the user and to be fully advertiser based, how much money can I expect to make? How much could I expect to change an advertiser? How do they decide how much they'll pay you – based on click through rate?
If I elected to go the non profit route, I'm pretty sure this would be eligible for grants, but would that limit me to only air in certain venues? If I went the on profit route, could I show my work for free on my own site, but still expect to get paid a lot per episode, with residuals, etc? Is there such a thing as a hybrid non-profit for profit where I could accept advertiser funding and also make a strong revenuer for myself? How would I pay myself, if I went for profit, as writer/producer (I believe the laws are that it has to be a reasonable income)?
Are the business models something I need to figure out first or can figure out later – should I just worry about getting the footage now and working on how it will be distributed later?
As you can see, I’m a bit paralyzed by all these questions before I’ve even begun. Can someone tell me what I can do to get started now? Should I just worry about getting the content on tape first and then figure out the rest later? If someone could just tell me the steps, I’d be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL.
I'm open to any suggestions, advice, book recommendations, anything.
Thanks so much, Theresa
Phew, Theresa, it would take a very long time to provide the answers to all your questions in one fell swoop. For starters, you might start here and buy a few books on documentary filmmaking and read them. The other thing it sounds like you might need to help guide you through the maze for the first time is to partner up with or hire or otherwise engage a producing partner with some experience in the industry. But I'd definitely recommend doing some reading first. Maybe taking some classes would be helpful. Good luck!
if you're going to read a book, most of us in this community like Michael Rabiger's "Directing the Documentary". you should be able to get a used copy online somewhere.
if you're going to take a class, take an editing class. to learn to shoot, you actually have to learn first what shots you need in the editing room. it sounds backwards, but sometimes the best shooters are often the best editors too.
if you know the school you are going to be shooting in, start getting releases now. you have to get them from one parent of every student who shows up in the film. and it takes a LONG time... getting releases is also a good time to start building trust with your future subjects. don't just get them to sign a form. get them to "buy-in" to your idea first; then get the form signed.
lastly, forget the whole business end of the doc right now. there will be time to think of it later, but you need to concentrate on the film itself. "it's the story, stupid" (quote from a wise filmmaker)
as someone who is currently engaged in a 3-year odyssey to finish an educational documentary, i wish you perseverance and lotsa good luck!
I am currently working on a short piece on a school, and I can say from my experience that the obstacles are many, from preproduction thru post. One way to eliminate some of them early on, which is explained in detail by Michael Rabiger's book, is thorough preproduction. Especially when documenting an institution, first sell your idea to the head authority. The first thing I did was write a letter to the principal. Email is does not catch their attention quite like a letter, and as far as phoning your pitch, no one wants a pitch to from someone they've never had contact with before. Write a letter, BRIEFLY explain yourself as a film/videomaker, and simply request an audience with them.
Although the principal took more than three weeks to respond, she thought my letter was very professional and innocent enough to at least hear me out. From there I was able to convince the principal, and with her on my side convince the staff, and with the staff on my side convince the parents, and with the parents on my side, ultimately, convince the children to participate. Definitely, pick up Rabiger's book! Its been a great help to me, especially when it comes to tackling preproduction!
Hi all, I am Earl. I have a project I am ready to begin to produce, a documentary project that has been dropped in my lap. The story is about how a city, police and community (businesses and residents) will come together (or not) and combat prostitution. The City Police, City Hall, and Community. The community has petitioned the city, the city charged the police, and the police are reacting. What we want to show (besides the prostitutes) is how these three will solve this problem. Suppression, Prevention, and Intervention.
I have met with the police. I have DIRECT access to all parties, willing participants, it was "dropped in my lap" by the police. They are the ones that want to document the story. The city manager has asked them to be creative in showing the problem with the cities prostitution because the community has rallied. The police want to create the documentary.
Like I said it has been dropped in my lap. Where do I start? What do I need, who do I need? I need to shoot this in June and July. for viewing in Fall. I need to crew build. Needs to be broadcast quality.
All thoughts are welcomed and needed!
What process would best help in me trying to obtain an experienced producer. Since I have never shot a documentary, everyone is pretty much saying that would be my first step. (1) Find/Hire/Partner with an experienced producer. Would everyone agree? How is that done? Do I need to start a production company?
earl, others with more experience that me should answer, but as one who is basically "one step" ahead of you in the documentary process, this is what i would suggest to start:
1) watch as many docs as you can that have multiple groups and perspectives represented. usually, these groups are warring against one another, but not always. but since your story is one where you will constantly have to get the other side (e.g. police, prostitutes, city hall), you want to figure out early on how you want the action to unfold. so, examples like Barbara Kopple's "American Dream" (workers, union, company) will help you see how one person did it. or, if you want to see what a doc is like when the filmmaker gets involved, any of Michael Moore's docs (especially "Bowling for Columbine" or "F911") will do. but i would doubt that the people who are commissioning the doc want that style. also, figure out if you want to make an "issue" doc where there are a lot of talking heads and interview segments, or if you want to make a "verite" doc where the story evolves as you go, and the characters actions drive the narrative.
2) In addition to the D-Word, look for a producer by first contacting film organizations. Most producers won't take your pitch seriously (especially if you haven't done a doc before); but if you first "sell" your story to a film organization that the producer is familiar with, and the org refers you, then the producer will listen with more interest. Different organizations would be: IDA (based in L.A.), National Black Programming Consortium (contact Leslie Fields), KCET or any local PBS station that might even be able to give you seed money or resources to do pre-production on a story very important to the L.A. community.
anyways, that's a start... hope this helps.
Hello All (again)
Its been many months since I was last here and I am in the final stages of editing my film about the destruction of the oldest drive-in theater in the state of Illinois. In my closing "argument" of the piece, I want to talk about the homogenizing of the suburban landscape, and want to include a very quick montage of images of typical storefronts, like Starbucks, McDonald's, etc.
So, my question is, what can I use and not use? Can I use shots that show part of the name but not all of it? Can I drive down a street with my camera taping? Or is it fair use to show a full-on shot if it's only on for a second or two? Or if I show the building but not the sign? All told, the entire sequence of shots would last no more than 15 seconds total (if that matters).
Thanks for the help!
thanks for responding to my last post everyone – good advice in there and I've ordered direcrintg the documentary.
now i have another question – whats a really good digital camcorder i could get – what do the pros use? my documentary is probably going to be distributed online, but i want it to be good enough to show on a big screen or on tv – so something professional grade! anu suggestions? i have no idea! thanks, teetall
theresa, assuming you have very little experience with docs and camerawork, i think the best camera for you would be the Panasonic DVX100 (A or B model, either is fine). right now, you can get these cameras very cheaply (especially if you buy used) b/c most professionals are upgrading to HD or HDV cameras. this is really the perfect tool for you because it's simple enough to learn on, and professional enough to grow with. and there have been more than a few well-respected docmakers (even on this site!) who have shown on the big screen with footage from that camera.
A great place to buy used gear is DVXuser.com.
Earl: you need to talk to a tv news cameraman about the legal land mines that you may step on if you're out taping with the cops. It doesn't matter if they say it's okay to shoot. Suspects have rights, too. Is California a one-party consent state when it comes to recording audio? Laws about surveilance video vary state, too. You could shoot for months and find out you can't use any of it because you broke the law.
Everyone concerned about the do's and don'ts of copyright: here's the law in comic book form from some professors at Duke University: http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/zoomcomic.html
In reply to Boyd McCollum's post on Tue 29 Jan 2008 :
I use MovCaptioner also. For the money ($25) you won't find a better app for doing transcripts and movie captions. BTW, their URL has changed to http://www.synchrimedia.com. I talked to the developer last week and he said he's working on getting it to create Spruce STL files so that you can import captions into DVD Studio Pro or other programs that use STL. It currently does 2 types of transcripts (paragraph form and line-by-line with timecode), but it will also do embedded QT captions, Flash captions, SRT and SUB (used by Google video and others), SAMI for Windows Media, and QT SMIL. Also, the developer says that all upgrades to new versions will be free to purchasers! Good luck with your project.
In reply to Boyd McCollum's post on Sat 5 Apr 2008 :
Thanks to everyone for their answers surrounding copyright.
I'm starting my first documentary next week on Egyptian Identity. I plan to start in places familiar to me in Egypt and where I currently have contacts on social development initiatives, clinics etc.
I've found alot of the model release, location etc. forms but curious if I will need Arabic versions? I"m sure they can be translated but perhaps the few in Egypt or been there can shed some light on that.
I'm nervous as hell, with little details floating about, equipment list etc. etc.
I'm leaving on the 22 of April so if you have some advice, slap it to me.
Thanks in advance.
The not so dirty secret in the legal world is called exposure, like in, "how likely are you to be sued by subject x?" I doubt someone from Egypt is going to travel to canasa and sue you. In fact, they can't. If it were me, I would just get permission on camera. If you whip out a form, someone is going to want to get paid for their signature.
And I thought it was NC lingo for Canada.
Is an on-camera approval (or recorded voice for audio only interview) the equivalent of a release?
in news it is. I don't know about audio only, but definitely in video. You might have to have it on each cassette if you are recording to tape.
Does anyone know where I can find a DVCPro HD codec that will allow me to view/edit footage shot on a Panasonic HVX200 (720 @ 24 native) on a Windows computer?
I want to be able to use either Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas Pro.
You need to be realistic about where this film is to going to be seen and conform to the laws of that country. It's folly to ask someone in the States or Germany about releases. If you want a lock-tight, international release because you're making the next $100 million dollar grossing documentary, then yes, get the most airtight release. Otherwise, you're just going to waste time and intimidate interview subjects.
In the US, news people do not need releases. Filmmakers do. On-camera releases are second best to written ones, and generally accepted for non-controversial interviews9"Boy, that show was great!")
Thank you Robert :-)
Is there a way to find out what networks or distributors pay for documentaries that are similar to mine? Do I need to contact the producers of those films directly or is there an easier way?
you can search the trade papers – hollywood reporter and variety – but take the numbers with a grain of a salt. Most docs are sold for very little money.
I'm in the education field overseeing students making their films. Occasionally I have students interested in Documentaries and they often have questions about legally using images, people, etc... is there a website or anything that kind of lists when you do and don't need to get release forms on people in your documentary? Or, for example the legality of using images from Scientology, that were shown in public, but using them for your film without approval from Scientology? Or taking images from websites such as YouTube and putting them in your film?
Sean, maybe your students will like this comic book written for filmmakers http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/zoomcomic.html.
But the bottom line is, are they likely to sue you? Scientology, yes. Wilma from Walla Walla on you tube, no.
In reply to Mark Barroso's post on Tue 22 Apr 2008 :
thank you Mark for the additional info. I'm trying to gather as much info as I can so I Can set some realistic boundaries.
Mark, that comic book is awesome! Thanks for sharing it.
Very good find Mark, best reference to copyright isseus i ever saw.
Anyway, i'm about to make my first big investment in a camera. My budget is around 2000 bucks. For standard def i was thinking about a sony p170 or a panasonic AG-DVX100B. For High def i was thinking about a sony HDR-FX1 or the Canon XH-A1.
It's going to be used for interviews en concert footage. But it's also gonna be used for school assignments and who knows what i'll like in the future.
Advice would be greatly appreciated. Ow, if you have other suggestions, feel free to state them.
And as exchange i have a good tip for everybode > www.vimeo.com a great place to put yr vids/trailers/whatevers online
Standard definition is dead. I'd look at the Canon HV20 and buy a good microphone. It's never just the camera. You need monitoring, batteries, tripod, case, microphones, isolation headphones, etc.
Ralph, you might want to take a look at the Sony A1E. Poor low light focussing, but very useable otherwise. Should be within your budget.
In reply to Ralph Lindsen's post on Mon 5 May 2008 :
Ralph, camera choice is a pretty personal thing, and depends as much on your own style of working and/or visual style as it does on your budget. Among the cameras you've suggested though, my own recommendations would be the DVX100B and the XH-A1, because both will give you many more creative options than the PD170 or the FX1 (progressive frame rates, gamma selections, fine picture adjustments, etc.). You may or may not use a lot of those functions now, but it's good to have the option in case you find your style evolving or working on a project that needs those effects.
Again though, it ultimately boils down to which camera is best for you, and I suggest playing around with some (if not all) of those cameras a bit, if you can, before you make a decision.
I am with Joe on that one. If it takes you two years to make a doc, it will be unmarketable in standard definition. Everything will have to be HD by then.
In reply to Joe Moulins's post on Tue 6 May 2008 :
I'm not 100% sure I agree with you, Joe. On the surface what you're saying makes sense, but if you look a bit deeper, it's sort of like saying "don't buy a super-8mm camera under any circumstances because 16mm is better." More resolution is not necessarily better--some shooters might be after the look of SD for their own aesthetic reasons, or might find that they can get more manual control for their money in an SD camera than they can get in an SD camera. I'd argue that manual controls and flexibility are a far more important factor than resolution. Flexible HD cameras are becoming more and more affordable, true, but when you factor in the possibilty that people like Ralph might also have to spend $1,000 or more upgrading their computers to be able to handle HD footage, the cost shoots up quite a bit.
I guess what I'm saying is that blanket statements like "don't do such and such" or "do do this and that" are rarely applicable across the board. SD is not "dead," it's just losing popularity as a format. There's a subtle but key distinction to be made here.
Please, no flames. :)
In reply to Peter Brauer's post on Tue 6 May 2008 :
No offense, Peter, but people have been saying exactly this for several years and it has yet to come true. :) Yes, things are moving toward HD, but I'll point out that BD sales have barely increased at all since HD-DVD bit the dust, just to give one example. The world at large is not lapping up HD as fervently as camera people are. They will, of course, but it's not as if someone who buys an SD camera right now is necessarily an utter moron, as you guys seem to be suggesting. :)
This is not about DVDs. This is about theatrical and TV. I know SD can look good. I mean Second Skin is shot on a DVX100a, tons of people ask if it is HD. But for certain markets HD will be mandatory. I think this will especially be the case after the US shifts everything to digital broadcast. I am not saying anyone is a moron. I am saying, I will not buy another SD camera. I am lucky that we already have a good SD camera. When we got our camera several years ago we could make money as a DP with our own camera. Now everyone wants a DP with an HD camera. It just seems to make good business sense to recommend HD over SD any day.
I don't really disagree with you as much as you might imagine; I wouldn't buy an SD camera right now either. However, what's good for the goose is not always what's good for the gander, and no sweeping generalization is going to apply in all cases.
Likewise, it may not be about DVD's to you, but someone else might be planning entirely on self-distribution and not at all worried about the needs or requirements of theatrical distributors, broadcasters, etc. And my point with the BD thing was simply meant to illustrate that HD is not exactly being adopted as widely as we might like to believe. And bear in mind that when U.S. broadcasters make the switch to digital broadcasts in 2009, it doesn't necessarily mean that all television will suddenly be in HD--it just means that analog receivers will no longer work. Who knows what the cable channels will be doing?
Again, your situation doesn't apply across the board, and yet it kind of sounds like you're suggesting that it does.
"I would not buy an SD camera right now" is not the same as "YOU should not buy an SD camera right now." That's all I'm saying.
In reply to John Burgan's post on Tue 6 May 2008 :
It depends on how hungry I am. :-D
Actually I am constantly telling young people seeking my advice to buy a cheapy camera for practice. If you don't have the money to go HD, don't worry about it. Just make a movie. It is the only way to learn. My first video camera was a 3 years out of date DV camera. It looked like crap next to what was good at the time. I still managed to make an award winning instructional video on it. The video quality was low, but the subject spoke for itself in the disability community.
Shoot your concert footage on a K-3. Much better in the high-contrast lighting environment.
Any video camera will work well for interviews if you've got a good DP, good gaffer, and a good make-up artist.
In reply to Jarrod Whaley's post on Tue 6 May 2008 :
I'm not sure what "the look" of SD is exactly.
As the happy owner of a Sony A1, I'd recommend the Canon HV20 and a good microphone. And maybe pick up a cheap SD camcorder to rewind tapes with. :)
Right, because there are no interlaced HD formats at all. ;)
SD does have a look that is distinct from most HD formats. The DV codec comes with its own kinds of artifacts, macro-blocking, etc., and whether most people really "see" them or not, they do at least subconsciously contribute to the way in which the image is perceived.
My point was that a lot of times people shoot on super-8 as a way of suggesting "old home movies," and that filmmakers might begin using mini-DV in a similar way as HD gains more and more ground.
Anyway, no need to belabor this point any further.
This is about finding my story –
I've shot 16 hours of footage (in Italian, of which I'm not fluent) and need to cut a trailer for fundraising.
I think the footage that was shot is very "trailer-friendly," but I do still need to find my story. And while I directed what we shot, I can understand about twenty percent of it (language barrier).
So, what I'd like to do is get the 16 hours of footage translated then watch the footage and find my story (at the same time eliminating hours so that when I go to an editor, I can have less to sort through).
But someone suggested it would be cheaper to sit with an Italian-speaking editor and cut the trailer.
The thing is, an Italian-speaking editor I'm talking with is asking me what my story is – . . . see?
So, is it possible for me to sit with the editor (while she knows what's being said and I don't) and find my story or . . .
Blugh. Okay. I hope what I'm asking is clear: two avenues (and maybe a third I'm not seeing?) a) translate all footage and look through it myself and find my story and "tag" what I want to use for the trailer, than bring it to an editor or b) start with all 16 hours and an Italian-speaking editor.
Which is more realistic? Cost-effective?
Darla – you're the director, so you need to get the footage translated/transcribed. Otherwise it'll end up with the editor or whoever does understand the footage directing it – which isn't what you want. Get it transcribed with time code and then go to the edit. I can't see any other way to do it.
Okay, Rob. So then I need a tranlsator who can also transcribe.
Know anyone? :)
If you look back I'd already answered this and many other questions before – or just after – Christmas, if I remember correctly. The answers remain valid.
As I wrote you then, you would have been much better off having someone transcribe the tapes in Italy. Anyone could have done that for you over there. Then you could have chosen to have the transcripts translated in Italy or over here.
Check the old posts.
Thanks, Wolfgang – some things have changed, though. One being that I'm not in Italy any longer, so I can't really look at "should haves" at this point.
Well, another option would be to go over all the footage with the editor, which I'm sure you're going to do anyway, and log it with notes on what is valuable in terms of dialogue. Make quick notes while you're in capture, for instance. Lots of your material will probably get thrown out because of image problems anyway, most likely. So then you can get the pick of the material transcribed/translated. But you'll probably regret not having it all when you come to think about voiceover possibilities – when the track from substandard or problematic picture might still be very valuable. The best route is just to bite the bullet and get it all done.
Do I know anyone – well, contact me offline if you want to discuss it.