Masters of their Domain

Last year's Master Classes were such a hit at the RealScreen Summit, we're doing an encore. This year's series of intimate, pre-conference workshops offers the opportunity to interact with industry gurus (hand-picked by RealScreen), to share their insights on the hottest topics affecting the doc world. Here's your chance to preview what they're buzzing about...
February 1, 2001


Ron Heidt, senior editor/technical director,

Crawford Post Production, Atlanta U.S.

Heidt pioneered the use of resolution-independent post production at Crawford. He has 20 years of experience as an editor, effects compositor and producer. Heidt has developed associations with key manufacturers for beta testing HDTV-capable software and equipment. He runs Crawford’s HD Hybrid Suite, a new linear/non-linear edit suite that operates in both standard and high definition.

What’s your stance on Super 16 origination?

I believe it’s good enough if it’s shot correctly. You need to use a good, low-speed film stock. And you must use good, high speed lensing because focus is a big issue. We once did a film using a mixture of 35 and Super 16 and in the end, no one could tell the difference between the two.

What should and should not be shot on HD?

The biggest thing about originating in HD, is realizing that the HD camera is not the standard camera. What is captured can look good with the proper lighting, the proper lensing, the proper setting of the camera. But, the camera’s output can look just like plain video if it’s not shot properly. The standard definition video cam is much more forgiving of poorly shot material.

Are you a good liar?

Yes. I am a good liar. But then… is that a lie?…

What’s the key to shooting good HD?

It’s the same as shooting anything – the key is in properly exposing and properly blocking out your shots – creating beautiful imagery.

What are the most common mistakes made in shooting HD?

Putting the camera on your shoulder and just shooting, or setting up the camera to the wrong exposure. Typically, people use too much enhancement when shooting HD and, as a result, they overexpose their image.

If you could perpetuate a myth, what would it be?

That I have hair.

Will HD be affordable and if so, when?

In terms of consumer sets, yes. In some regards, they are affordable right now. If you equate size, there’s not that much difference in cost between a large screen standard definition TV and an HD set. You’ll always need a larger TV to make HD worthwhile, and a larger TV is always going to cost more. But the US$500 HD set may not be available for 20 years.

Where do you see HD 50 years from now?

I think it’s going to become the standard for finishing, because of the huge difference in quality. I think gains in acquisition will climb, so it may eventually eclipse film, although that’s a long way away.


Scott Blue, director,

Connors Communications, Los Angeles, U.S.

Blue joined Connors five years ago. He has helped brand-build, launch and manage technology endeavors with many corporations. He creates customized PR strategies for clients and assists in the development of entertainment programs and promotions.

How should producers get their name out there?

A mix of PR, promotions and advertising is key. Especially cost effective is the use of media relations to promote producers, stars, the technology behind the film, the technology surrounding the film’s delivery or buzz built by fan sites as the release date becomes imminent.

Who’s the bigger genius: Shakespeare or Einstein?

Both used their specific creative callings to impact Western Civilization. I’d say it’s a draw.

How effective is online promotion?

It’s great and it’s cost effective. It has to be strategic, smartly designed, and timed correctly. The key is in who will be targeted and how; fan sites are incredibly useful and partnerships with other commercial interests (e.g. commerce players like can be powerful and inexpensive.

How much should producers spend on marketing?

Public relations for a project should average between US$30,000 and $60,000 ($10,000 per month over the course of three to six months).

What do you consider a waste of money?

When money is spent without the broad view of goals and objectives. What does the producer want to get out of their PR and marketing dollars? A scattershot approach is extremely wasteful and the roi can be abysmal. Not using PR is wasteful.

Given the opportunity, would you swim with sharks?

If I had no open, bleeding wounds, for sure! – especially if I was given a small, blunt object with which to ward them off. I hear their snouts are sensitive to any strike.

Should marketing be done in-house or out-of-house?

It depends on the project and the budget, but I think an external house can be extremely valuable. Agencies can offer a strategic perspective and provide a third-party voice (in many cases, a voice of reason). They also offer extensive media and commercial contacts and resources.

What is the most successful promotion you’ve done?

I worked with Encyclopedia Britannica to promote a D-Day content ‘spotlight’ with Dreamworks for Saving Private Ryan. It was backed by some serious multimedia capabilities and rare images that proved a compelling draw for Web surfers and led to residual interest in the film once it went on DVD and home video.

Has promotion evolved since the beginning of your career?

The evolution of the web and the web’s integration with other communication mediums has revolutionized and refined marketing communications. For producers, this means they can take their film to specific audiences firsthand for the first time. This was previously unheard of.


Robert Gardner, president,

Gardner Films, Baltimore, U.S.

Over his 30-year career as a film producer, director and writer, Gardner has been awarded recognition for excellence in documentary filmmaking for several different genres. His production company, Gardner Films, has served both commercial and public television for 15 years. His documentaries include extensive period reenactments and complex location production, utilizing robotic jib work, Steadicam and extreme slow motion.

What is essential for making recreations?

The most important part of making a reenactment is a clear conceptual understanding of how it will fit into the overall show. Period reenactments require a specific visual treatment, partly to distinguish the footage from the interviews and contemporary footage, and partly to keep it from looking like a cheap movie (the greatest hazard in making reenactments…) The key area not to cut corners lies in the ability of the cameraman…

Is accuracy always first and foremost?

Accuracy almost always takes a back seat to entertainment value. The great majority of documentaries produced today are made for entertainment reasons and there is no point in making a scene that is accurate but dull. Of course, this principle should not be abused, but the filmmaker’s number one job is to engage the audience.

Ethically speaking, what should recreations be used for?

I don’t think that this is an ethical question. The ethical question is usually asked because of a mythical covenant which some feel exists between the audience and the filmmaker – what I am showing you is true. There is no covenant and there never has been… Only the very rare documentary artist like Fredrick Wiseman makes a genuine effort at what was once called verité filmmaking. Almost all docs require footage that is not what it pretends to be. This is not to suggest that documentaries are, or should be, devoid of integrity or art. The best of them are redolent with both… Still, documentary filmmakers are filmmakers. They are not journalists or historians, they are storytellers… How or if they use reenactments is irrelevant – unless the reenacted scene is just bone stupid, in which case it should be avoided.

Did you have a recurring nightmare, and if so what was it?

Yes – being caught in a big bureaucracy where nobody will make a decision and nobody really knows what they are doing and nobody has the smallest understanding of what I’m doing and they don’t care anyway.

What is the best recreation you have been involved in?

The scene showing the sacking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in my recent PBS/DDE production Islam Empire of Faith. We had great costumes and art direction, a great location, lots of extras and horses, a Jimmyjib, genuine film slow motion (300 frames per second), a special effects team for smoke and fire and an event of such tragedy that it lent itself to a kind of poetic treatment of violence.

What is the worst recreation you have been involved in?

A scene (also in Islam) where we were representing the wife of Sulieman the Magnificent at rest near a pool. It was a dolly shot with a long lens that moved into a close up of her face as she brushed her cheek with an orchid. It looked like a Turkish Tampax commercial. We used the shot, but we flipped it upside-down and put digital water ripples over it as if she were being reflected in the pool.


Phil Grabsky, director/producer,

Seventh Art Productions, Brighton, U.K.

Grabsky is a documentary filmmaker who established Seventh Art Productions – an independent TV company which is now one of the leading factual producers in the U.K. Over the past 10 years he has made award-winning films for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, A&E and the Discovery Channel.

How does a small production company compete? What is the key to success?

Making good films.

What kills small production companies faster than anything else?

Making bad films (though some get away with it) – and overhead.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of small production companies over large?

It’s people who count in the end. Small companies may not be able to invest enough in development, but may be able to focus on fewer projects at one time. Big companies get into a spiral of overhead, forcing them to take on more and more stuff of lesser value.

In your opinion, who was the bigger genius: William Shakespeare or Albert Einstein?

Billy-boy. Nothing touches his skill with words and storytelling. No filmmaker worth their salt ignores him.

Should small prodcos get involved in coproductions, or not?

Sure – especially in hot countries!

Will digital channels be the savior of small prodcos?

Digital channels mean the floodgates are open for crafted films to become junk food.

What’s the dumbest thing you ever did as a child?

Said ‘no’ when invited to play ‘doctor and nurse’ with a girl at school.

What will small prodcos have to do in the future to remain competitive.

Small production companies will have to be sharp and keep up to date. Above all, it is

necessary to remember why you make films – whether it’s to become rich, effect change, entertain, have fun, or all of the above.


Jason Williams, president,

JWM Productions, Takoma Park, U.S.

Williams, president and co-founder of JWM Productions, a non-fiction prodco founded in 1996, is an award-winning producer, director, writer and executive producer of docs. Over 15 years, he has made films on natural history, anthropology, news, ancient history and marine technology. His work has featured on NBC, CBS, PBS, TBS, TNT, Discovery, the Learning Channel, the Travel Channel, cnn and more than 85 international broadcasters.

What makes a pitch effective?

A signed contract.

Should the pitch contain footage/visual aids, or not?

Only if they’re good.

What’s the most common mistake presenters make?

Not knowing their audience.

What’s the best pitch you have ever witnessed?

It involved a blonde, a New York hotel room, and the line ‘Do you have any objection to fetish sex?’ It was completely legitimate and I have witnesses.

Are you a good liar?

That’s an oxymoron.

What are the most vital pieces of information in a pitch?

If you’re selling an idea, pitch the idea. If you’re selling a deal, pitch the deal.

What should and should not go into the pitch package?

Less is more.

Should you reveal it all? Do you have to worry about the theft of ideas?

If you can’t reveal everything then you don’t own it and you shouldn’t be pitching it. Why worry about the stealing of ideas… nobody else seems to…

What is the best piece of advice you can offer for getting over stage fright?

I’d advise against ingesting psychedelics immediately prior to any pitch.

What character trait do you most admire in people?



Sylvia L. Strobel, senior partner,

Lehmann Strobel, St. Paul, U.S.

Strobel founded Lemann Strobel in 1996, a practice devoted to intellectual property protection and business, entertainment and multimedia law. Her clients include TV producers and prodcos, public TV and radio organizations, business communications companies, musicians, visual artists, and non-profit organizations.

Should producers start a project without a contract?

Usually a project starts with a verbal agreement, followed by a written correspondence that confirms the intended relationship. These deal letters or term sheets are often exchanged prior to the preparation of the contract. I recommend that a contract be negotiated and signed before a client starts production or incurs costs.

What needs to be in a contract? What cannot be left out?

At minimum, I recommend the following terms be included in all contracts: 1) the role of each party (producer, writer, distributor). 2) the relationship of the parties (independent contractor, employee/employer, agent). 3) the start and end dates of the agreement. 4) the amount of fees to be paid, with due dates (royalties, advances). 5) the owner of intellectual property (work-made-for-hire, exclusive assignment). 6) the uses of the intellectual property (distribute perpetually, worldwide in any and all media now known or hereafter created).

7) representations, warranties and indemnities. 8) the laws of the state (or country, for international deals) that govern the contract. Also, insurance requirements should be stated in service agreements (E&O, workers comp,

general liability, etcetera).

What’s your worst experience involving a contract?

[It] involved negotiations with a musician and his lawyer. I represented a production company that intended to commission original music from the musician for use in a documentary. The musician bid on the contract and verbally agreed to a flat fee for his services. My client included the fee in its production budget (which had been approved by its funders). I prepared a contract, to which the musician’s attorney (who was a corporate litigator, not an entertainment or intellectual property attorney) responded with a ‘non-negotiable’ deal breaker fee that was four times greater than the original bid. Since no explanation was ever given for the fee demands, my client walked away from the deal.

Is it necessary to involve a lawyer to draw up a contract?

It is more efficient to have a lawyer draw up a contract, than a non-lawyer. I know producers who have learned expensive lessons by preparing their own contracts. At minimum, I recommend that a lawyer review contracts to ensure that key legal terms are included and that the contract is legally binding.

Should you use a boiler plate contract?

In some cases (personal appearance releases, stock footage licenses, work-made-for-hire agreements), a boiler plate is a ‘must have’ to secure rights or hire general service providers… Boiler plates provide a great starting point for more complicated deals since certain standard terms rarely change from deal to deal. Customized deals are sometimes necessary, but an experienced entertainment lawyer will often have a number of boiler plates available to start contract discussions.

What should you do when your rights have been violated?

If you know the alleged violator personally, you may choose to contact him/her directly. Some violations result from simple communication problems. If this is not the case or if you are uncomfortable contacting the alleged violator, have an attorney review the contract to determine if it has been breached and/or what remedies are available for resolving the violation.

Are movies better when they’re based on a true story?

I prefer true stories, as they generate interesting rights and production issues. If a story is based on historical events, the producer should verify accuracy and document all research materials used in the script. Remember Amistad?

Do you predict that online and other new rights will become more of an issue in the future?

Absolutely! With more pieces of the pie to go around and with the expectation of greater revenue potential, the splitting of rights and payment/optioning for rights will be the major point of contention in contract negotiations. Also, protecting new rights will likely result in more litigation.


Jeff Weingarten, director of creative services,

Carol Hilliard, art director,

Interface Media Group, Washington D.C., U.S.

In his 11 years at Interface Media, Weingarten has edited and composited for a range of clients including ad agencies, broadcast and cable entities, direct television

marketers, and independent producers. He led the company through its conversion to component digital.

Hilliard started at Interface in 1998. In her role as art director, she works closely with Weingarten and the graphics team. She specializes in 3D animation design.

Is CG animation affordable for small companies?

Weingarten: Yes!

Hilliard: It depends on the level or quality of the work being done. High-end ‘Hollywood’ quality requires the best software and hardware products that a lot of small shops may not be able to afford. There are many alternate lower-end solutions, but these will ultimately sacrifice quality and, most of all, time.

Will CG ever become cheaper than filming?

Weingarten: It depends on the situation. I believe that if you can achieve what you want in-camera then it is best to do so. CG can create things that are impossible to get in-camera and provide a hyper-real or alternate viewpoint, so it isn’t necessarily a clear cut price issue.

Hilliard: I’m sure we’ll reach a point of lower cost and efficiency for CG versus filming. But in my opinion, the ‘real thing’ will almost always look better and should be considered first for achieving an effect.

Does CG enhance the value of a film now or in the future?

Weingarten: Like any production, the quality of the work and how it fits into the overall concept is what ultimately decides its value. CG can be an important part of that formula.

Hilliard: Yes, it definitely does and has. Take The Matrix – it was marketed, if not made for the sheer purpose of showing off the latest technology. I think the trend is slowing, though; there are too many effects movies out there without a good story.

What can’t be animated right now?

Weingarten: Anything is possible, but just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.

Hilliard: Water! It still has a long way to go…

Have you ever met with or seen an alien?

Weingarten: Not since the abduction.

Hilliard: Yes. I work with several.

What are the advantages of CG?

Weingarten: Illustrating the impossible, helping the audience to visualize difficult concepts, making historical recreations – creating or recreating events or scenarios that couldn’t be

captured in-camera.

Hilliard: The ease of making changes and revisions.

What are the pitfalls?

Weingarten: The amount of time and money that can be wasted, in the absence of a clear vision of what’s desired.

Hilliard: Expense, time involved, changing technology.

When should you include a disclaimer that the programming is

computer generated?

Weingarten: I think it can be written into a script fairly easily. Producers need to be honest with the audience when the facts presented can support multiple interpretations.

Hilliard: When using CG for recreations and simulations.

Who is your favorite cartoon character?

Weingarten: Bugs.

Hilliard: Homer Simpson.

About The Author