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Research Workshop: May The Parrot Squawk "Yo Mama?"
by Becky Tan

“If you searched the internet for two days and found nothing, then forget about it; it’s not there,” said Sebastian Pioch during a fascinating workshop called Research for Feature Films. Directors aren’t the only ones who must research carefully. Policemen, detectives, scholars, publishers, authors and people in charge of costumes or props also must determine what is authentic.

In order to begin in-depth research, consider: why the information is important and then how and what. “Information is data which reduces uncertainty; it must be pertinent and important for any particular situation. Seventy percent of your research will turn out to be superfluous. Imagine you are a funnel into which you pour sand and only a small trickle comes out.” Often research is tough going, simply because there are many different barriers, e.g., political, legal, copyright, time, terminology, accessibility, foreign language, deficiencies in the process of development, and consciousness barriers.

But good research will steer you away from clichés, stereotypes and just plain lies. And, naturally, these barriers won’t deter an author determined to know what name to give her lead character in a novel about 13th century Hamburg, as well as the clothing, diet, religion, and life-span expectancy.

Sebastian Pioch suggests three main sources:

First:The internet with Google (which he considers the largest, most complete of the “surface” webs), Wikipedia, Yahoo, or imdb (for movies). Sooner or later you must become more specific and try his “deep” web recommendations, such as (judicial, economic), (26,300 biographies), (information from politics, industry, companies, etc.), (a thousand different journals, and magazines on all topics), (streetwise lingo) or (23,500 German organizations).

When researching the internet, try to be specific in order to reduce the number of possible answers. There is a big difference between researching “horses,” “horse injuries,” “race horse injuries,” or “race horse injuries sustained during a race.” Also, learn to do a “Boolean search” (which originated in the 19th century – way before the internet – by the mathematician George Boole). According to Ask Bruce on the BBC website, the Boolean method allows you “to narrow down your search by using special terms before your key words.” Special words could be “and,” “or,” or “and not.”

Second: Try your library. Books are good, no doubt about it. Often you’ll find what you need in a book rather than on-line. Imagine you need information about authentic Confederate Army uniform buttons. Lo and behold, there is a book called Albert’s Button Book: Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons, first published in 1976 by Alphaeus H. Albert. The Hamburg main library or Zentralbibliothek is downtown at Hühnerposten 1. For more information as well as addresses of the branch libraries see The university main library or Staatsbibliothek is at Von-Melle-Park 3 near Dammtor train station. If this fails, you can always order books from other libraries, e.g., in Hannover. Once you’ve got your books, practice fast-reading techniques in order to find the important facts quickly.

Third: Talk to real people, the experts. Pioch says use your six-degrees-of-separation idea to find people. Often the person has others around him, who can answer the questions just as expertly and be more available. Also, ask more than one person for the same information. Decide if the source is actually valuable or a waste of time. Don’t insist on speaking just English; try other languages familiar to you. Build up trust between you and the individual. Once you’ve got your “man,” learn to observe and go with the flow of that person; be on the same wave length. Contact people first by mail and e-mail, then talk to them on the phone, and then, if necessary, in person. Ask other authors or film makers about their sources. When it comes down to the actual interview, ask permission to tape the conversation. That means turn on the tape recorder and tape the question, “May I tape this conversation?” and tape the answer, “Yes, you may record what I say,” in order to avoid legal difficulties later. Always ask the most important question first; never ask more than 10 questions, and limit the interview to 30 minutes tops.

Very important: Keep an exact record of all your research including date, time, source, page number, etc.

Sound like hard work? Never fear. You can always hire Sebastian Pioch and his team to take care of the dreary work for a price. They have filled a real niche and would eagerly research 30 appropriate words in six languages for Jack Sparrow’s parrot to speak. The company is Film Recherche Dienst (Film Research Service) in Jenfeld. See They might even be offering a new workshop especially for you.