28 March 2008

Documentary Cookbook Manifesto

Below is the final part of the UC Berkeley Documentary Cookbook. This is the heart of the manifesto, dealing with the nuts and bolts of making a movie for less than one hundred thousand dollars. Part of the challenge in making this documentary about Stanley Kubrick's life long obsession with Napoleon will be finding a way to make it economically without sacrificing quality or story.


"Make films, not proposals:"

If you have lots of money, don't do this.

As expected, most of the lessons learned so far are bone head obvious, and boil down to very disciplined, simple "preventive production." To really be serious about finding projects on which you can lower cost without lowering quality, here's what you need to do, in order of cost efficiency:

  • Choose the right story. Find stories that naturally lend themselves to low cost, not stories which will be compromised with short funding. Thin Blue Line, Gimme Shelter, , Mark Twain, The Cockettes, and Long Night's Journey Into Day will always cost at least a half million dollars.
  • Back into it. Reverse the idea/funding process. Find stories and techniques that can be done with the money readily available, not with money which might someday be available.
  • Exercise Discipline. Be extremely careful and consistent at every stage of planning and production. Make the project all muscle, no fat. Obviously, this favors pre-conceptualized projects and handicaps discovery.
  • Use small format digital video. Use DV/DVCam as starting point to reduce cost from ground up. Small format digital video is to us as 16mm was to cinema verite or 4-track recorders were to rock and roll.
  • Exercise consistent technical protocol. Get video and audio close to right in the field, and do not plan to fix anything in the mix or on-line. Small format video demands more technical care than large format.
  • Pay professionals their going rates. Control personnel costs by adjusting time, not rates. Reconfigure what you do, not how much you pay for it.
  • Use experienced craftspeople at all levels, especially in audio and assistant editing.
  • Avoid air travel. Is there no good film to be made within 100 miles of home? .
  • Make the film quickly. Production and editorial schedules that minimize person-days are big levers for cost reduction. Set rough cut and lock picture deadlines, and meet them no matter what. This favors experienced filmmakers working with strong fallback narrative structures.
  • Maintain a clear decision flow. The producer/director is in charge. The production unit must be a community, but not a democracy. Fine-tune the filtering of ideas to flow from community to director to editor in orderly fashion. Delays in executive signoff (if there is an executive) can be catastrophic.
  • "FIDO" "Fuck it and drive on." Choose a story in which a few missing pieces or clunky moments will go unnoticed, so that you can always maintain forward motion. Never bog down, and never miss a deadline, no matter what.
  • Avoid on-line assembly, out of house, by working on an editing system which directly outputs high-resolution video. Do not color correct the show yourself.
  • Use high-end facilities for sound finishing and color correction after extremely careful field origination and editorial prep.
  • Do not use outside archive material, only home movies, personal photos, documents for which you own all rights in perpetuity, and fair use material for which you can make a clearly and obviously defensible case for fair use.
  • Do not use outside music, only music internally produced, for which you own rights in perpetuity; music rights may be non-exclusive.
  • Avoid hidden administrative cost, of music, archive footage, and stills. The admin time, paperwork, research, provenance search, and E&O costs can match license fees.
  • Avoid live performance under trade union jurisdiction, where fees and hidden administrative costs may be excessive.
  • Avoid fundraising, beyond the bare minimum necessary to get the project done. The fundraising process itself mounts its own enormous costs---sample reels, office expense, producer time, spun budgets, spun proposals.

These suggested methods clearly apply only to a small number of documentaries and a small number of filmmakers. And finally:

  • Make a high quality film, and then sell it to the highest bidder. "HBO is not going to broadcast a show simply because it cost $100,000. Nobility is not part of the mix," says Pete Nicks.


"The message is the message"

Story is everything. Conventional wisdom holds that choosing small format digital production is the best way to reduce documentary cost. On the contrary, story choice appears to be the single most determining factor, followed closely by organization of story chosen. (It may come as a surprise to learn that Startup.Com---shot almost entirely on a PD100---cost $750,000.) In setting up this project, we have deliberately avoided calling for content-specific proposals. We have for the moment kept our invitations to filmmakers content-neutral, because it is the method and evolving production template which matter, and these depend first on what stories the producers choose to tackle.

  • Can this story be told with the funds readily within reach?
  • Can this story be clearly and naturally told for low cost with little compromise?
  • Can this story easily withstand moments of inelegant storytelling?
  • Can this story easily withstand losing an episode or character?
  • Can this story be done without travel?
  • Can this story be made into a documentary by a few people in a few days?
  • Can this story be done without archive materials?
  • Can the timeline or narrative arc of this story be quickly and efficiently organized.
  • Does this story require cumbersome administrative access. Getting into Disneyland, Sing Sing, or the San Diego County District Attorney's office will burn up months or even years of work.

Obviously, many stories---most in fact---cannot be done inexpensively under these restrictions. Eyes On The Prize, The Civil War, Africans In American, Crumb, The Farmer's Wife, Endurance, Lalee's Kin, and similar projects will always cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour, and must be supported at that level. We are not talking about those.


"Preventive Production"

Talk is cheap. This year we invited three producers to make films of various lengths, with the stipulation that, on average, the projects not cost more than $100,000 per hour, and that they be for a television audience. The documentaries are all very different, and the filmmakers bring a good range of style, method, perspective, experience and age.

Peter Nicks is the young producer of The Wolf, a one-hour personal documentary about how cocaine nearly destroyed his life at the peak of America's war against drugs. The Wolf explores America's hesitant romance with illegal drugs by examining Peter's addiction, imprisonment, his unlikely recovery, and the struggles of his family. Before directing the project, Nicks worked at Nightline. And he is currently a producer at PBS's Life 360.

Lourdes Portillo, a widely known and respected mid-career producer (The Devil Never Sleeps, Seniorita Extraviata) is now shooting with Kyle Kibbe on "McQueen." This 20 minute documentary looks back over three decades to the legendary car chase in the 1968 film "Bullit" as a device for exploring sweeping changes in class, demographics, ethnicity, and popular culture in California.

Albert Maysles, whose career spans 45 years (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), and who was an early champion of small format video, will produce and direct the third project. He will begin shooting late this fall on a film about the personal dramas of passengers on long-distance trains.

Jon Else's film Open Outcry, while not made directly under the umbrella of the Center for New Documentary, was produced for ITVS during the center's first year. It was an instructive and not entirely successful attempt to do programming for $100,000 per hour. The project, which experiments with near-real-time shooting, was photographed at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 8 days, and edited in 11 days.

(All this discussion of cost reduction unfolds as a departure from the industry standard protocol of one-hour TV documentaries, films which require about $500,000 parsed and budgeted to:

  • 15 to 25 shooting days
  • 4 to 6 travel days
  • 5 to 30% administrative overhead
  • 3 to 5 person field unit, plus executive producer
  • 12 to 18-week full time Avid edit by 2-person edit team
  • 2 to 3 week sound finishing
  • 2 to 3 day on-line & color correction)

Personnel & staffing

"No cheap labor"

Work with experienced people at all levels. To our surprise, the more seasoned the personnel, the cheaper the production, even though individual daily or weekly rates may be higher. The hidden administrative cost of ramping up interns and apprentices on The Wolf was significant, and we have yet to invent a way of using entry level people efficiently. "Cattle calls" for interns are probably a mistake. The fact of the matter is that a journeyman videographer, director, editor, or assistant with solid experience can accomplish an enormous amount in a day. Also, experienced people can quickly spot inefficiencies, wrong turns, and blind alleys long before the problems eat into a budget.

This model depends in large measure on everyone doing a couple of jobs well---director/recordists (like Fred Wiseman), director/editors (like Deborah Hoffmann) or director/shooters (like -Al Maysles). We try to do stories in which it makes sense for the sound recordist to work as AP, or the AP to record sound, or the assistant editor to production manage. The aesthetic advantages are obvious, as are the logistic advantages, and clearly it assumes that anyone brought on to the project is already skilled -- not semi-skilled -- in two job categories. (It does not mean that a good sound recordist should barely squeak by managing the production, or that a good AP should squeak by doing marginal sound. All the savings are eaten up later, when it comes time to repair the damage.) This double-skill multi-tasking can backfire horrifically in situations where the producer/director really needs to devote full attention to directing, unencumbered by technical craftwork.

We work with crews of at least two people, preferably three. In general, the one-man band approach may help access, but it can severely restrict quality. A producer/director/videographer/soundman may be appropriate for getting on the ground fast in Sierra Leone or Uzbekistan, but craft suffers tremendously, especially in severely compromised or unusable audio.

Collegiality and professionalism are critical, and it appears that the production runs more smoothly and efficiently if everyone involved is a moderately experienced producer/director in his or her own right. But at the end of the day it is not a democracy, and everyone involved has to understand that the producer / director's word is law. We discuss, the producer decides, we move on.


The jury is still out. Clearly a documentary which takes place mostly in the past can be written as a concept paper, treatment, or even sequence outline. The Wolf was done with a treatment, and everyone on the production signed on the deal breaker understanding that if all else failed, the film would follow the treatment. Lourdes Portillo's McQueen was carefully preconceived, and shot nearly in the style of a narrative feature.

Cinema verite voyages of discovery, which are by their very nature unpredictable and un-writeable, may be problematic (as Leacock says, "Great voyage; sorry, no whales.") Unless the producer is ready, without question, to pull the plug when shooting and editing deadlines arrive, trouble is at hand. We'll see, as Al Maysles sets out on his journey. At the very least, it seems reasonable that any low cost production must have some sort of bombproof default plan before anyone shoots a frame. It may be that obsessive planning, so counter to cinema verite, is what allows cinema verite moments to emerge.


We are working on this. At the very least, if you cannot devise a plan which guarantees completion of at least some reasonable version of the film, then don't start production.

DV and DVCam Origination Camerawork

"Camera stylo"

By the time we began in the summer of 2000, the DV technical explosion had, on its own, lifted documentary to a relatively high plateau of digital production. Behind this lay a deep history of near misses.

A great flurry of hope surrounded the arrival of Sony's Porta-Pak technology in the 1970s, but documentary activists soon learned that the 1/2" tape system was simply too primitive and unreliable for professional use. Hi8 video rode in on a bubble of excitement in the 'eighties, but it too came up wanting. Now, after 30 years of false alarms, superb small cameras with 500+ lines of resolution, and genuinely cheap broadcast-quality digital video editing systems are at last widely available. DV is explosively broadening the playing field, even beyond the degree to which 16mm equipment liberated documentary in the 'sixties. DVCam gear costs a tiny fraction of what a cinema verite crew's Eclair NPR, Nagra & Steenbeck would have cost, even in 1967 dollars. For television DV makes better pictures faster, and ready-to-edit synced up rushes are on the screen for about $40 per hour (including digitizing cost), rather than $200 per hour for 24pHD or $1400 per hour for synced up 16mm dailies.

Starting with the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, exquisite big screen projection of productions originated on DVCam burst onto the scene. These were either blown up to excellent 35mm release prints at costs between $10,000 and $100,000 per hour, or up-converted to HD digital tape at roughly $2000 (and falling) per hour. Though we have no experience yet with big screen projection, other DVCam films (Down From The Mountain, Startup.Com) have been blown to 35mm and look extremely good. Parts of both films could be mistaken for 16mm on the big screen.

(Except for specific scenes requiring painterly high production value--- some landscape and cityscape work---virtually all documentary work for television can now be done on digital video. Faced with the array of image making possible in DV, DVCam, Digibeta and 24p HD, there now appears little compelling reason to produce documentaries on film.)

Our entire camera/audio/editing set up, including all hardware & software, purchased new from the ground up, cost about $15,000, which we expect to amortize over at least four films. We are hearing it said that a full system can be put together for under $5000, but that figure is simply too low, since it rules out the better small cameras, support equipment, good mics, a mixer, cases, and the hefty computer necessary for long form. We've had good luck working with a Sony PD150, though low cost shooting can certainly be done on any of the DV and DVCam cameras available in the $2000 - $5000 price range.

The PD150 makes excellent pictures (500 lines of resolution, compared to 470 for a PD100, 510 for a DSR130, and 540 for a DSR500/570). List is $4000, but you can find one new for $3200. You get a 1/3' CCD, a good mid- range zoom lens with wide angle converter, 2 balanced XLR inputs with 48v phantom power, adjustable zebras and master black, programmable time code, maximum 40 minute recording time, an excellent "steady shot" electronic image stabilizer, Firewire in and out, and a flip-out LCD screen. Like most of the little cameras around, this one is loaded with silly consumer features, has a maddening servo-controlled focus ring, and a brainless placement of the viewfinder at the rear of the camera. We use an after-market lens shade, and, for set-up situations, we use a Sony PVM-8045Q field monitor.

The PD150 and others like it can generate astonishing images (especially the PAL version), and in extremely low light (2 foot candles or less); on television, they can approach if not surpass Super 16mm. Here is Al Maysles' list of why DVCam trumps 16mm.

Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 11:50:57 -0500
Subject: no subject
From: Albert Maysles amaysles@mayslesfilms.com
To: Jon Else

For me the greatest technical innovation is the Sony D150, it

1. focuses down to inches.
2. has a magnificent manual zoom.
3. is supersensitive to light.
4. an excellent zoom range especially with the addition of the Century
wide-angle adapter.
5. only 5-10 dollars per tape.
6. extremely useful automatic focus.
7. automatic exposure control.
8. single system picture and sound.
9. as you shoot, you control exposure simultaneously while
observing recorded images.
10. steady device in the lens makes for a steadier picture.
11. unlike the 10minutes 16mm film camera magazine,
each tape runs 40 or 60 minutes, virtually no run outs.
12. camera can be held in many positions with viewer still visible.
13. holding camera below chin, a camera person can see much more
than is in the eyepiece.
14. holding camera below chin, camera person's gaze is available to subjects to assure rapport.
15. camera much lighter (only 3 or 4 pounds vs.20).
16. can vary shutter speed.
17. camera costs only around $3500; a 16mm film camera with lenses and magazines around $100,000.
18. the zoom lens is so good you need no other lenses.
19. easy to film in tight quarters, for example, in cars.
20. totally silent.
21. less intrusive.
22. batteries are tiny (3"x 1 1/2"x 1") weigh little, run for as much as 8 hours.
23. quality satisfactory for TV and can be blown up to 35mm.
24. all you need to shoot goes into a normal camera bag.
25. when necessary can shoot all alone.
26. no waiting a day for rushes. Results are immediately available.
27. is a near perfect one-up on the 16mm.film camera.

(Note also that on DVCams (even on 24p) the depth of field will be greater than what we expect at equivalent focal lengths in 16mm film. This can work for you or against you.)

We used a Century Precision 16X9 optical converter on The Wolf, which is extremely sharp, though it does not work at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Optek has introduced a 16 X 9 converter, but we have not had a chance to test it. The camera's built in, switchable 16 X 9 function simply crops the picture; do not use it. The hidden costs of switching aspect ratios during production will come back to haunt you; do all the origination in either 4X3 or 16X9, not both.

Any of the $1200 - $2000 mini DV tripods will serve well; we use a Sachtler DV2 Batteries, cases, and miscellaneous do-dads add another $1000.

These little cameras can bite; they are not as user friendly as they seem. They bristle with tiny sabotage buttons and menu items, like on-screen date & time. It takes many hours to understand them, and many days to master them. For anyone who grew up on betacam, the $3,200 PD150 is more difficult to operate properly than a $120,000 HDW F900 24p. Low cost production with small format gear requires more, not less, technical expertise than traditional production, because there is little or no financial padding to fix mistakes after the fact. Extreme care in exposure consistency and color balance throughout the project, especially in interviews, can reap significant cost savings in the final color correction session. Likewise, ragged inconsistency suddenly comes home to roost in thousands of dollars of editor and/or suite time at the end. Since the DVCam format is less forgiving after the fact than digibeta or HD, you must know exactly where your zebras are set and pay close attention to them. For those new to the little cameras, it is time well spent to study and ruminate on how the image looks in the b/w viewfinder, then on the flip-out LCD screen, and then on a properly set up field monitor; they are all slightly different.

Though we don't have definitive experience, it appears that postcard cityscapes and landscapes can be problematic in DVCam, as are extremes of contrast. On the other hand, there are no doubt all sorts of new things that can be done with the little cameras, things we haven't thought of. While shooting Lourdes Portillo's film, Kyle Kibbe was surprised at the trivial ease of covering a scene with two or three cameras simultaneously (Spike Lee covered some scenes in "Bamboozled" with as many as 12 PD100s). We haven't yet explored time lapse, arrays of cameras, or new ways of rigging the small cameras.

Origination Audio

Here lies the trap door of low cost production. Small format digital video is notorious for lousy audio, almost always because audio is not taken seriously. Always work with a sound recordist. Do not plan to fix it in the mix; you may not have a mix. As with camera work, controlling audio costs requires in fact more care than in traditional production. Exercise the standard due diligence---microphone choice and placement, proper modulation, levels, track management, ambience management, consistency in field recording and good digitizing management.

Our sound package (which pretty much came off the shelf at the graduate school) is a Shure FP33 mixer, Sennheiser K6/ME66 Combo mic, K-Tek boom, Countryman lav, a snake and a few XLR cables. Al Maysles and many other camera people work with a radio velcroed to the camera and a good small shotgun mic on the camera. Spencer Nakasako uses radios on roving crew members as "stealth lavs". We prefer to use a boom, through a mixer with a snake to the camera. In addition to the standard due diligence, you need to,

  • Avoid the on-camera mic supplied by the manufacturer. If you must use a mic on the camera, have the sound person rig a good one---Schoeps or Sennheiser.
  • Boom the scene whenever possible.
  • Use a good radio on the main subject. We rent radios when needed. (Caution: a radio mic on a particular person can unreasonably drive the process of deciding who or what is important as a scene unfolds.)
  • Establish consistent protocol for field recording. If multiple sound recordists work on the show, there must be an audio standard --- mics, internal mixer settings, sampling rate, levels, noise, track management --- set by the lead sound recordist from the git-go.
  • Go easy on room tone.
  • Go easy on double system recording; stories which require separate DAT recording (except as a backup for camera recording) may be problematic, simply because of the postproduction cost.
  • Establish consistant protocol for digitizing audio---levels, track assignment, etc.
  • Do pick-up audio interviews by telephone, the way radio producers have done them for years. Rather than fly people around the country for pick-up voice over, we have had very good experience doing it over the phone, with the interviewee in a studio in his/her home city, recorded on DAT (according to the show's audio protocol). These can also be done over an ISDN life if it's available, though it generally costs more.


"Darkness is cheap." Dickens

Good DVCam and DV cameras can usually record astonishingly elegant images in any setting where human beings routinely live or work. A few foot-candles of nearly any color will let you squeak by. Flourescents look great. Those of us who came of age fighting to control both the quantity and quality of light now only need worry about quality. We are shooting virtually all observational scenes in available light, often wide open, often at night, often with medium gain. We haven't seen how these might look in big screen theatrical projection, but they look fine on TV, which is where we have chosen to work. For interviews, we have broken no new ground; so far we stick to the standard Chimera/showcard setup. Lowell donated a basic omni/tota/rifa kit, and it has been more than sufficient for everything on "Wolf."

If a little fill light is needed, more and more videographers are using small flashlights. AA Mag Lights or AA Duracell rectangular lights taped to the camera or to walls work well, and for a real punch, use Scorpion or Streamlight 6v lithium flashlights. We sandpaper the lenses for diffusion, and of course you can attach any gel you would put on a 10K. But in general, digital video seems well suited to finding good light rather that making good light.

Production management

Technical advances have begun to plateau, in apparent violation of Moore's Law. It appears we can no longer rely on exponential reduction in hardware and software expense to reduce overall cost, and we're more interested in using the technical advances as a springboard for other sorts of cost reduction. The need to rely more on non-technical "evergreen" ways of keeping cost down seems more in line with where we are, now that the cost of the entire broadcast quality hardware/software set has fallen below the threshold of an adult's credit card limit.

The job is to develop a template that is financially practical and attractive to journeyman filmmakers. We budget all personnel, equipment, facilities and administration at documentary rates prevailing in California (slightly higher in New York, lower in the Midwest). To keep some real world discipline about the enterprise, we have avoided folding in the myriad in-kind scroungings often available at this and other universities.

We are still sorting things out, but it appears that sharing core management on several projects, absolute avoidance of OT, absolute deadlines, and the "slinky" edit schedule described below make the biggest cost difference. And run it like a business; this is not for the chicken-hearted.

Edit Prep

You must have everything in the system before you begin editing. This is a deal breaker. Before the editor(s) begin, it is critical to have enough footage in house and digitized to finish the film, if necessary without pickups. This allows the editor and director to approach the structure with a full deck, to "throw and axe at it" on the first cut in full knowledge of what would be available in a worst case scenario. Naturally, we set aside a small portion of the production budget for pickups, but do not let the structure depend on pickups.

Time can be saved by screening all the rushes and digitizing at the same time, in the same pass.

A single, dedicated assistant editor, thoroughly conversant with the editing system, is indispensable.

If you anticipate using home movies, graphics, stills, headlines, or audio recordings, have them all in house and digitized before editing begins. Delaying their arrival costs money in re-dos and false starts; no way around it.

Before starting, have an "editorial standards" meeting with everyone who will lay a hand on the material---standardize video and audio digitizing, track assignment, and track management. The hidden costs of later redigitizing video or audio or shuffling audio from one track to another can be enormous.

We have not found a way around transcripts, which appear to be indispensable if the film includes interviews. As always, make simultaneous audiocassette recordings on location. We had hoped to experiment with speech recognition software, but so far have not been able to. Use a highly experienced transcription service, and if necessary be selective in what gets transcribed.


Many PC and Mac desktop and laptop systems are now available, and they all appear to work well. However, we discovered when beginning Wolf that very few producers had actually completed hour-long documentaries on them. This territory is actually quite mysterious. We use Final Cut Pro on a desktop G4 with a 450 MHz dual processor, 256 RAM, 30 Gig internal hard drive, and 45 Gig external drive, two 19"View Sonic monitors, and a Sony DSR-20 DVCam deck, external speakers, and miscellaneous cables. We had the vendor set it up for us, so that it would be his problem, not ours. The whole thing cost $10,000 We have not tried the Avid Xpress DV. (See DV Magazine for consistently excellent and up to date information on all DV hardware and software.)

We broke no new ground in the order of editorial steps. Wolf, like 10,000 documentaries before it, went through assembly (1st cut), rough cut, fine cut, locked picture, and sound finishing. Since the Final Cut Pro system can handle an enormous volume of material digitized at full resolution, we did not need an out-of-house on-line. FCP handles the DVCam format end-to-end with the same compression ratio, 4:2:2, as a DVCam camera. As with field audio recording, we did all the standard due diligence common to documentary editorial practice, but kept costs down in other ways.

  • "Slinky" editing. This may be the single best way to save money on any given project. We budgeted 30 days of editing, appropriate for the story, which had been pre-organized to within an inch of its life. But rather than set an editor for work full time for 30 days over 6 weeks, we brought the editor(s) on 2 or 3 days a week over 11 weeks. Obviously, this works only with editors splitting time between two jobs. The great efficiency comes from each week allowing the producer/director and assistant editor to consolidate ideas and material, to catch up and get ahead of the editor. Non linear editing has now become so fast that writers, APs, and directors often find themselves unable to keep up with the editor. We usually find no time to ruminate, to digest ideas, screen cuts, write, or brainstorm, because the big editorial taxi meter is humming.
  • Agree on an organizational principle after screening the rushes. On Wolf the editors asked producer Peter Nicks to provide a monologue of his story, which then became the practical vehicle for the ideas and events described in the treatment. Clearly and unfortunately, this works against pretzelplots and against projects in which you must unearth a structure while editing is underway. If you are serious about making an inexpensive film, do not go down the rabbit hole of "finding the film" late in the editorial process.
  • Maintain orderly forward motion at all costs. Orderly scheduled progress toward lock picture is essential. Do not inflate the film late in the game---on Wolf we made the mistake of adding six minutes to the documentary two days before locking picture, and had a terrible time getting those six minutes out. Fine tune the filtering of everyone's ideas to make them flow to director, and then to editor in an orderly way. Clearly, this can stifle the exchange of ideas, but it is expensive for the editor to receive conflicting suggestions and instructions from more than one voice.
  • Hire an assistant editor with solid experience on the system you are using. Ideally, this should be a dedicated assistant, not burdened by other jobs.
  • Never change software versions during editing. Don't even think about it. We experienced a near disastrous loss of lists and media while upgrading from FCP system 1.5 to 2.0.
  • Do not conform mixed formats on FCP Do not attempt to render a long 16 X 9 film on Final Cut Pro, since the chances of freezing or crashing are high. Do it in a high-end suite when you do your final color correction; there it is trivial.
  • Get a color-coded keyboard
While it probably is not a way to keep costs down, we used two editors on Wolf, Jeffery Friedman (Common Threads, Paragraph 175) and Kim Roberts (Long Night's Journey Into Day, Danang Daughter). Peter Nicks also edited some sequences (never without close coordination with Kim and Jeffery). If you choose to do this, be sure that two editors overlap their shifts for at least a couple hours each week, so that they can screen the entire film each week and agree on a plan for dividing labor. Rather than re-work each other's sections, Kim and Jeffery agreed with Peter to divide editing responsibilities between the two halves of the film.

In-progress screenings

Screenings will uncover surprises and add clarity. But do not talk the film to death when you should be making the film; get feedback and input and move forward.
  • Two or three well-placed screenings are invaluable for maintaining forward motion. Schedule one rough cut and one fine cut screening with a small group of outsiders. Use questionnaires, discuss the show, and move on. Schedule more frequent editor/director screenings.
  • Always watch the whole show.

Archive material

There appear few ways to inexpensively produce documentaries which rely on archive material other than home movies, photos and audio recordings which the producer owns. The obvious first problem is the obscene license fees charged by commercial archive houses, particularly music archives. But just as important may be the astonishing hidden administrative costs of research, provenance search, dubbing, releases, and the added headaches when it comes time to purchase E & O insurance. Use of any archive material is, at best, more cumbersome than using origination footage.

Rights-free footage can, of course, be had from the National Archives and other government sources. Rick Prelinger and others are experimenting with libraries of public access archive material on the internet, but even these come with the same administrative problems as commercial footage. More work needs to be done on optimizing use of archive footage from both commercial houses and government archives.


Low cost production weighs heavily against commissioning a composer, but there may be cases in which the score is inseparably bound to the film's concept. If you must score, back into it just as you back into the film as a whole. The simple but very effective original score for The Wolf began with a discussion in which we asked Mary Watkins (Ethnic Notions, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter), "what can you reasonably do for this amount of money?"

If music is critical, decide first, before production begins, what you can afford, then work with a composer to sort out what can be done. Like archive music, original music comes with hidden administrative costs. Does you composer have pre-existing work that can be acquired or adapted? Consider non-exclusive use of an original score, since neither you nor the composer has much to gain by taking the music completely out of circulation. If you do hire a composer, be sure to contract a package deal, under which the composer hires and pays the players and studio.

On-line & video finishing

We have found that maximizing forward motion for a very limited time at an expensive commercial post house may be more cost-effective than doing longer sessions at an inexpensive house. Facilities geared toward television commercials have very fast and efficient hardware/software, are accustomed to working intensely against the clock, and are often very eager to apply their expertise (hard-earned on hundreds of McDonalds commercials) to social documentaries for a good price.

  • Set up protocols with finishing facilities before beginning production
  • Do your own on-line assembly edit (but not your color correction, sizing, or aspect ratio correction) in house. On Final Cut Pro, this is a non-issue, since the system easily stores and outputs DVCam video at full resolution. In practical terms, you skip traditional on-line, and your locked picture is you on-line.
  • Do your titles, text and credits in-house FCP, coming from design- savvy Apple, has a good array of fonts. PhotoShop and After Affects help.
  • Do color correction at a high end facility, making very clear before starting that you have an absolutely fixed amount of suite time, and that you are willing---eager---to triage the show in order to get the maximum value added in the minimum time. Arrive with a triage list of problem scenes. On Wolf we worked with Loren Sorenson at Varitel in San Francisco, doing four hours of color correction and four hours of re-sizing and extra titling. The show was enormously improved. At a good facility, you should be able in a few hours to do 80% of what you can do in a full day, since the curve of value added drops off fairly quickly. Set the interviews first, if there are any, then work through the show.
  • Expect trouble in file transfer We have yet to see any long form documentary successfully move all its video and audio files to an outside system on the first try. OMS file transfer, file compatibility, software compatibility, and version differences are the bane of getting stuff out of FCP into Avid or Pro Tools, or even from Avid into Pro Tools. Some of this may have been solved by the incorporation of Pro Tools into FCP 2.0. We'll see.
  • Resize and correct aspect ratio at the post house, where they have fast, efficient engines for this, not on the FCP, where it is cumbersome, unpredictable and extremely slow on a long documentary. Also, in the high-end suite you can customize the exact aspect ratio (on Wolf we did a half way vertical expansion on 4X3 home movies to put them in the show's 16 X 9 letterboxed format, thereby losing 6% top and bottom.) Note also that in a good on-line suite you can quickly generate mattes to clean up headlines, stills, and other flat art.

Sound finishing

It all begins with very consistent sound standards and protocols in the field and in editing, as noted above. On "The Wolf" we ran into unexpected cost in sound finishing because we had allowed tracks to multiply unreasonably during editing. Make it a game to imagine not having a mix. Some of it is simple stuff like using exactly the same microphone & location for audio pick-ups as you used for first origination. Some of it, like controlling background noise, is not so simple.

  • Meet with your outside audio facility early, at the start of editing, to sort out what they can/should do, and to establish clear track assignment and separation standards from the start. Re-sorting tracks to suit the mix facility at the lock picture stage costs money.
  • Do a pre-mix in FCP (after locking picture---before that much of it will be time wasted.)
  • During editing, the editor should listen carefully and decide which track to use for a given shot if there are two choices (boom & lav, for instance). Do not defer this decision for later.
  • Use a high-end audio house.
  • Expect and plan a defense against file transfer problems

Broadcast, festivals, & distribution

Many, documentary makers have grown up thinking of PBS as the first, if not the only serious television venue. This come partly from years of expensive production which was made possible only with seed and lead money from CPB, or from foundations and endowments which contractually required offering the finished show to public television. As soon as a non-profit funder gets its paws on a documentary, even for a few thousand dollars, the producer is almost always locked into a track toward PBS. Forget that; assume that the entire spectrum is fair game --- HBO, Cinemax, MTV, Bravo, A&E, History, Tech TV, PBS, LifeTime. All of these work with independents, as do myriad foreign broadcasters and even some venues, such as Nightline within the major commercial networks. Our goal is to make some shows so inexpensive that they do not require seed funding from anyone, shows which when they are finished can be shopped around to all broadcasters.

Because of its low cost, The Wolf did not require outside funding from any broadcast entity. Hence, the film remained independent throughout production, and we were able to present it around to a number of broadcasters, including MTV, HBO, ABC, and various venues within PBS. We have not yet heard from PBS, but reaction was quick and positive from the others. ABC Nightline acquired the show, and placed it in the schedule pipeline for early October, but the events of September 11 intervened, and broadcast is postponed Spring.

As for festival screenings, film projection is history. The last 16mm print has packed its bags, its scratches, and its wretched optical sound track, and gone to the old prints home. Sundance has established the solid performance of good video projection from digibeta and HD. The cost differential is a no-brainer -- $10,000/hr for the cheapest, marginal quality 35mm print v. $1000/hr for an HD up-conversion.

We have not experimented with DVD self-distribution, but a DVD disk burner can now be had for about $900.

Case study, "The Wolf"

Much of what we've learned on The Wolf is described above. A few more points deserve mention.

Both the producer and associate producer found their time and attention stretched to the limit. Especially during editing and post production, the AP was simply handling too many jobs at once. At times the producer/director became so preoccupied with other duties that he couldn't pay adequate attention to style and elegant story telling, and couldn't optimize his time with the editors. As production neared completion, a series of rolling delays turned into a cascade of extra costs, almost all in additional staff time. Choice of a story which was centered in Washington D.C. took its toll in travel costs, time and attention. We are still sorting it all out, with the suspicion that at least some of the trouble came with job of making the first film in a new way at a new production center, with a relatively green core production crew.

Nonetheless, this story of and by a young unknown African American producer is finished and will be seen by several million viewers. We feel that the film represents a success in meeting the goals we had set for ourselves; it is a documentary which:

  • was produced in nine months for $100,000
  • remained truly independent from start to finish
  • is journalistically sound
  • was managed so that all professional personnel were paid their customary rates.
  • was ambitious in its reach but carefully contained in particulars
  • would have taken years to fund and produce with the traditional methods
  • was appropriate for low cost production because it tells an extremely robust story, it could be produced with a small multi-tasking crew, involved no commercial archive footage (but several fair use clips), it was not burdened by cumbersome executive sign-off, and it lent itself well to a flexible editing schedule.
  • has been acquired for nationwide broadcast, where it will reach an audience of about 2,000,000 on it's first showing, and at least as many additional viewers during its useful life, which we expect to be at least 10 years.

"The Wolf" Personnel

Peter Nicks, Producer/director
Craig Delaval Associate Producer / Videographer
Jeffery Friedman, Editor
Kim Roberts, Editor
Victoria Mauleon, Production Associate
Kelly Whelan, Marci Aroy, assistant editors
Mary Watkins, original music
Dave Nelson, Outpost Sound, sound design & mix
Loren Sorensen, Varitel Video, color correction
Jon Else, Executive producer

"The Wolf" Budget Summary

Production staff salaries and 10.5% fringes (producer, assoc prod, prod asst) $53,300
Talent Fees 0
Contract personnel (advisors, transcription) 1,948
Acquisition and rights (original music, flat fee for non-exclusive rights) 4,000
Pre- Production 0
Production (videographer, recordist, video/audio/lighting equip, permits, DVCam & DAT tape, expendables) 9,542
Post-production (editors' & asst editor's salaries, 10.5% fringes, all FCP hardware and software, color correction, sound finishing, dubbing & master tapes) 24,055
Travel (air fare SFO - Wash DC, auto rental, hotel) 5,082
Website and cookbook 0
Promotion (still photographer) 750
Professional Services (insurance and legal services) 1,222
Office facilities and materials 0
Total $101,983

Pictures of the day. Steven Spielberg collaborated posthumously with Stanley Kubrick and that begat AI. Hopefully Spielberg's collaboration with Peter Jackson on a series of movies based on the Belgian comic book character Tintin will be less sleep enducing. From a news story posted today on the InterWebs announcing the casting of Tintin:
Spielberg has been working with The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson on how to bring Tintin, instantly recognisable by his blonde quiff and faithful side-kick Snowy the dog, to life. But it is not yet known which of the 23 Tintin stories will be filmed. And while Spielberg will direct one and Jackson one, it is still not known who will direct the third. They will be filmed back to back in the US and New Zealand, using the latest 3D technology. Spielberg said: “We want Tintin’s adventures to have the reality of a live action film and yet Peter and I felt that shooting them in a traditional live action format would simply not honour the distinctive look of the characters and world that HergĂ© created. The idea is that the films will look neither like cartoons nor like computer-generated animation. We’re making them look photo-realistic, the fibres of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people - but real HergĂ© people.”
Herge people? Sounds spooky, huh? Herge was the pen name of Tintin's creator Georges Prosper Remi. Here's a clip promoting a Tintin stage play, with actual, not virtual, actors running in London's West End.

1 comment:

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