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Spellbound: Four Stars-and a Rap on the Knuckles-to New Filmmaking Guide

By Tom Powers

The Documentary Film Makers Handbook
by Genevieve Jolliffe and Andrew Zinnes
(New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 560 pages, $35, paper

All together now: We will get the music rights and we will get them early!

That message is hammered home by the approximately 110 filmmakers, funders, program officers, distributors and film technicians interviewed in The Documentary Film Makers Handbook--an indispensable new compendium from the folks who brought you The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook (2004). Here are some handy music-acquisition tips: Sinatra's still in the ballpark of affordability, some of Frank Zappa's songs can't be licensed, don't even think about Van Halen (David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen are suing each other), and even though you may be shooting people who are shooting back--like Scott Dalton filming La Sierra on the mean streets of Medellin--you still have to get the rights to that ballad sung at the victim's funeral.

I had two strong reactions to The Documentary Film Maker's Handbook. I loved it--and I wanted to introduce the authors, Genevieve Jolliffe and Andrew Zinnes, to my old grammar school teacher, Sister Ephraim, who would whack their knuckles with a ruler. These two have put together a landmark of sloppy, inept copy-editing. They get names wrong. (Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar, the subjects of Roko and Adrian Belic's Genghis Blues, are referred to as "Paul Pina" and "Congrul Lundar." They refer to Fred Astaire's apparently cross-dressing dance partner as "Ginger Rodger.") They mislabel equipment. They are clueless about punctuation. (Pick a paragraph, any paragraph, and you will find a typo in it.) And the whole messy project is wrapped up in a user-unfriendly font that will make your eyeballs ache.

I know standards are slipping fast, but when you have to translate gobbledygook sentences ("This one lady have us $10,000 and it almost became like an action") and make your own corrections (Do I really need to report my restaurant meals to the INS?), it makes you wary of some of the detailed technical information the book provides. I believe sound expert Alan Barker when he tells me, "The K6-ME 64 is not good on the Panasonic DVX-100 series cameras; there's too much motor noise," but my confidence that I am being given the right model numbers for the equipment is undermined by the authors' misspelling of "Sennheiser," the brand name of the microphone in question.

The glory of this book is that it does contain countless nuggets of practical information and advice for all levels of documentary filmmakers, from rookies (you are going to need production stills) to seasoned veterans (Jon Else speculates that the rising cost of archival footage will lead to "a forced resurgence of cinema vérité, as we have to create everything ourselves--very refreshing, actually."). There are 121 boxed sidebars covering everything from "Fair Use" to "Canadian Broadcasters and Networks" to "The EPK [Electronic Press Kit]" to "What to Do if You're Arrested or Questioned by the Police."

Some themes crop up over and over: Create an advisory board for your documentary project. Tailor your pitches, and even your film's trailers, to appeal to the interests of different funders. Don't forget to budget for a website and public relations. Include distribution and outreach plans in your funding proposals (Morrie Warshawski recommends this strategy early in the book, and later Sandi Dubowski sets the bar about as high as it can go with Trembling Before G-d: "I have done over 800 live events with the film," he reports). Get releases from everyone who speaks in your film. (Michael Donaldson points out that while an on-camera release often holds up better in court, broadcasters prefer to have something in writing.) And, of course, get those music rights in perpetuity if you can. If you don't know what your deliverables are before you read this book, you will by the time you are done.

The Documentary Film Makers Handbook includes an occasional nod to those stalwarts still shooting on celluloid, whether because of frigid conditions (March of the Penguins) or sheer love of the medium's visual qualities. (Who knew that NFL Films is "Kodak's biggest client?") But docs have long since gone digital and high-def, and the book includes repeated, detailed discussions of the compatibility of new electronic systems. DuArt's Larry Schmitt, for instance, notes that certain digital frame rates will work with Avid but not with Final Cut Pro; 130 pages later, the makers of Rock School admit they had that very problem: "...we couldn't import the 24p footage into Final Cut 3."

The 24 case studies that conclude the book are packed with from-the-trenches wisdom, often elicited by the authors' excellent questions: "Since you weren't shooting yourself, what kind of instructions did you give your DP?" (addressed to Mad Hot Ballroom's" Marilyn Agrelo). "How were you storing your exposed negatives in steamy, hot Mexico?" (to Romantico's Mark Becker). "You worked with a composer. What were your instructions for the score?" (to Trembling Before G-d's Dubowski). Many filmmakers emphasize the importance of arduous preparation, but Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) takes a contrarian view: "We had no plan whatsoever. That's the way Zana [Briski] and I like to work. We want to react to what's going on around us." In a similar vein, Michael Apted (the Up series) claims that "the best way to interview people is not to be very well prepared." Other directors stress the value of bringing in an outside editor, a professional DP and a skilled sound recordist. My favorite tip, which I assume all the sound pros know, comes from Alan Barker, who advises that if you have to turn off somebody's refrigerator to eliminate the ambient noise, leave your car keys in the fridge, so you'll remember to turn it back on when you leave.

Jolliffe and Zinnes conclude each interview with two wrap-up questions: "What mistakes did you make?" (or "What mistakes do you commonly see other people making?") and "What advice would you give to a new documentary filmmaker?" In the end, the authors themselves take a stance that gets endorsed by many of their interview subjects: Technical quality matters, but "Always remember, it's content over technology."

And even before content comes spelling.


Tom Powers is the former editor of Release Print and now teaches Cinema Studies at Illinois State University.