It never fails. In every screening we have, during the Q&A session I get asked the same question. Well, two questions if one of our favorite actors, Ernie, is in the audience. But the question I always get is, “What camera did you use?” I used to answer the question by telling the audience member the make and model of our camera. Early on during the Ponderous years, one audience member thought we used more than one camera because the shots looked so different from time to time. But we really did use just the Canon XL2 for the entire shoot. This only goes to show the inexperience we had in lighting, aperture, and even color balancing and grading.
But in recent years I have stopped telling people outright what camera we used and simply tell them, whether they liked it or not, “Don’t praise the camera or condemn it. Because the look of the film falls squarely on the person using it.” If it looks great, it’s the cameraman, if it’s crap, it’s the cameraman. I learned early on that a well-lit scene shot on an old 1980’s VHS camcorder looks a hell of a lot better than a horribly lit scene shot in 4K. Of course, I can go on quite a rant about the illogical and superficial differences between DV and HD and even 4K and explain the philosophical bullshit that marketing departments use to market cameras. But then you can’t convert the faithful, so maybe another time.
With almost 40 feature films, countless music videos, short films and commercials under my belt, the question is what equipment do we use to get what we do? Early on, as long as I had a something to record a movie with, I could make a movie. My first camera was a VHS camcorder, then an 8mm camera, followed by a digital 8mm camera, before finally moving to a Canon XL1, then XL1-S, then back to an XL1, before going to an XL2. Then, I shot on the Canon XL2 until finally being dragged, kicking and screaming into the world of DSLRs where I found the incredible world of interchangeable lenses with the Canon T3i. Finally, I moved to the Panasonic G7 which shoots in 4K, which is where I now reside. More on why I use that camera later. For now, let’s touch on the very basic idea and philosophy of my style of shooting before delving into the gear itself.
I’ve never had much to shoot a film. But it never stopped me from making them, so long as I had a camera. Hell, I even created our internet series War Dawgz without a video camera, just a still camera, some Legos, a phone line and editing software. For lighting we’ve used everything from LED lights to nice soft-boxes all the way to car headlights and those 1 Million watt yellow spotlights you plug into car cigarette lighters. And yes, we’ve been given shit about our lighting. We get it. Our early lighting sucks! But the lesson I’m trying to teach you, is while we had crappy lighting in a lot of our stuff, all it would have taken was a few more minutes and maybe a few more bucks (not much at all) to take the time and energy to light scenes properly. I was just always in such a rush that you would often hear this exchange:
“Hey, Brett! How’s the lighting?”
“Can you see the actors?”
“Then fucking action!”
So take the few extra minutes, that we didn’t, to pay a little more attention to lighting and you can do what we did and make a much, much better film. It’s not the money, it’s the talent and the drive. If you’re talented, and above all, a little more patient than I was, then you can make some incredible films using the same techniques on the same budget we did, just better because you took 5 minutes to set the lights up.
Enough preaching, now let’s discuss our gear!
Nowadays, I have two Panasonic G7s. They shoot in 4K. They have interchangeable lenses. And they are great, incredible cameras. Don’t let people bitch to you about compression and bit rates and all of that. In the end, it doesn’t matter. I once had a Hollywood distributor buy one of our films and ask for our HD master. We told them we shot it in DV. They explained that they thought we had shot it in HD. So when a film company that is used to the highest quality of film can’t tell that a film was shot in DV and not HD, it’s evident to me, that formats are really being used as a floodgate to limit people from making and distributing their films and allowing the powers that be to keep their power.
So don’t let all of that noise keep you from making a movie because you don’t have the latest 4.6K or 8K cinema camera. Especially if you’re going to Hulu, Amazon Prime or YouTube. By the time they finish compressing it and streaming it, nowadays it’s still getting to you in HD. Even if it is 4K, it’s compressed. So make your film now and worry about resolution later. Now granted 4K is great to start with because if you edit in 1080, you can punch in and basically reshoot your film in post! So keep that in mind when deciding on your gear.
But I use two Panasonic G7s rather than spending the same amount on a GH4 or spending a bit more for a GH5 because guess what, now I’ve got 2! Not just because now I can have a multiple angle shoot, which helps with continuity in editing, but if something happens to one of the cameras in the middle of an important shoot (Knock on wood), the whole day isn’t blown. Granted, I have a Best Buy card ready to go in such emergencies, but with two cameras, your hedging your bets and helping yourself out in so many ways. Our films Blow A Kiss and Serial Rabbit V were both shot on the G7. And I’m very happy with the way they both turned out.
In addition to these main primary cameras, I have also picked up a small E1 Z Camera, which is a small 4K camera with interchangeable lenses. It’s great for fitting into tight spots and as a third camera, maybe for behind the scenes, etc.
We also have a single Sony ActionCam, which is basically a cheaper GoPro.
To go along with the cameras, we have a particular set of lenses and one on our wish list. Now, shooting in Micro Four Thirds, you may find yourself a bit limited with crop factors and lens quality, blah, blah, blah. But with the right set of lenses you can still get exactly the shot you need, you may just need to move the camera back a bit further than you would for other cameras. Yes, I know there are other technical reasons, but we’re talking about just capturing an image and making a movie with little to no money, so get that elitist attitude out of your head, or you’ll never finish even a short film.
To start, I have the kit lens, a 14-42mm lens. This was my standard lens for a long time. It gave me enough variety that I didn’t have to be switching lenses all the time. And since I do a lot of handheld shots, I would often stay on the 14mm to reduce the shakiness, then when I slid the camera onto a tripod, I could use the 42mm for conversations, saving time by not having to switch the lenses every five minutes.
At the time of purchase, I also bought a 40-150mm. This lens could probably be considered a kit lens because when the G7 first came out, this was an optional lens for the camera. I don’t use this lens very often, but use it when it’s appropriate. It gives an incredible depth of field and I can put a very large distance between me and my subject and draw out a nice long walk. Our opening shot of Blow A Kiss was shot on this camera, where our actress Dane was at the end of a long country road, walking, dragging a shotgun behind her. You can see the shot in the trailer on YouTube. She walked for a good two to three minutes and we were able to get the whole walk in camera as she grew very little with every step. This lens allowed us to compress that space and seem like that walk consisted of a few dozen football fields.
Now, from my days with the Canon T3i, I learned to absolutely love my Nifty Fifty, a 50mm lens that with the Canon’s crop factor, was the equivalent of a 35mm lens which closely mimics the human eye. Sometimes I wish I could have shot an entire film with my Nifty Fifty. With the crops factor on the G7, there is no Nifty Fifty, though. The crop on it doubles your focal length, so to achieve the look of the Nifty Fifty, you need a 25mm. This was my next purchase. This is my go-to lens nowadays for all dialogue scenes. It has an f stop of 1.8 which allows for not only a beautiful depth of field, but also extremely low light shooting, at least lower than anything my other lenses are capable of.
My last lens is an 8mm lens from SLR Magic. This lens is not for everything, but it is beautiful in its own right. It can open up a very small room to look like a cavern, it can get incredible macro and close up shots, and it’s captures amazing wide angles without the painful and ugly fisheye that comes with so many other lenses with low focal lengths.
These lenses make up my arsenal. When it eventually goes on sale, I plan to get a 42.5mm lens which I probably won’t even use much in my filming but will instead use as a great portrait lens for still photography. Speaking of sales, my 8mm and 25mm were both purchased at almost 50% off while on sale at B & H Photo Video. If you are not on their mailing list, I suggest either joining, or visiting their site daily for their Deal Zone. You’ll find some incredible buys! Just be certain to have a credit card or some money set aside for the surprise money saving buys!
As I mentioned, before we had used everything from headlights to 500W Halogen work lamps you get at Walmart for $15. The work lights could flood a room full of brilliant light. Harsh light, but light nonetheless. With a white sheet or some other type of diffusion, you can turn this harsh light into nice even soft light. Unless you’re shooting a film noire, in which case you’ll probably want all that hard light and hard shadows.
I eventually bought three soft boxes that had 500W incandescent light bulbs and fell in love with them. Eventually, though I did put the wrong light bulbs in the wrong softbox and melted one of them. Nothing like being in the middle of a shoot and seeing and smelling smoke. But we were able to use the hell out of my remaining soft boxes all the way through Blow A Kiss. I wound up having one favorite softbox and used it until our LED purchases. And for $100, the Westcott 20″ uLite was well worth the money, almost a steal. It’s currently discontinued, but find the current equivalent. It’s highly recommend these puppies. Unless you have the money to splurge on some LEDs. Now, they are much less expensive today than they were a couple years ago. I know have 7. My first purchase were two Apature LED lgihts, the Amaran HR672S and the H198C. I bought these on sale through B & H and at the same time bought a Neewer LED light at the same time. It wasn’t my favorite, but got used on ever set. The Apatures were king and are still my go-to lights. The H198C can be handheld and has saved time numerous times by just having a PA or actor hold a light just off camera to kill a shadow or lighten up an effect. I was also able to snag a 3 LED light kit for a little over $100. The lights aren’t very good and the batteries never stay in, but it came with 3 light stands and a carry case which I now utilize on every shoot and consider well worth the expense.
Recently B & H had a sale on a Dracast LED500 light and I picked it up for a song and it is slowly becoming my favorite. It seems almost to be an equivalent of my favorite Apature with one exception. On a recent shoot for my day job, I grabbed my Dracast and one battery and headed out in the morning. On set, I realized that the LED took two batteries. But I only had the one. To my surprise, it didn’t matter. I attached the one battery and it still worked. When I got home that night, I tried the same with my Apature, but it didn’t work.
In addition to these lights I have three collapsable reflectors. These are not only wonderful but absolutely necessary if you’re shooting car scenes during the day, or shooting characters under a tree or in any kind of shadow with a fully sun lit background. When an actor is in shadow and the background behind them is in full sunlight, either the actor is going to be way too dark, or the background is going to be blown out. So bring out these reflectors to bounce sunlight back into the car, or onto the tree dweller’s face and even out the ratio of sunlight and shadow.
I also have an Impact 5’x7′ collapsable green screen (blue on the other side). I don’t know if this fits under lights, but it has come in handy on several occasions. It gives a wonderful key and is easy to set up. It may take you about 3 weeks to figure out how exactly to get it back into it’s carrying case, but once you do, it becomes second nature and it will impress all of your PAs and producers when you’re able to do it in three seconds.
Many people will tell you that the most important part of your film is the audio. And these people would be absolutely right. The top three issues with my films in the past have been acting, lighting and audio. And I’d certainly put audio on the top of the list. So much so that I’ve often wanted to just shoot a silent film, or a film with simply no dialogue so that I wouldn’t have to worry about on-set dialogue recording. It’s a major pain in the ass and odds are you’re just going to have to loop it anyway. 75% of Hollywood audio is looped, so what kind of luck do you expect to get with little to no budget?
We’ve got to try anyway, though, right? When we had our Canon XL2 we bought a Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone that we ran directly into the XLR ports of the camcorder. Still have it today. As soon as we went to DSLRs, we had to figure out a different way to record our audio. I’ve always preferred XLR cables so patching into the DSLR with a mini-plug seemed a step backward. Plus our microphones needed phantom power, so we had to get a small portable recorder. The go to is the Zoom H4n, but when trying to save every dollar I can, I wound up going with the TASCAM DR-40. It was about $50-80 cheaper and I’m more than happy with its 5+ years of use I’ve already gotten out of it.
The TASCAM allows two XLR inputs, both phantom power. So if I’m conducting a simple interview, I can plug my two XLR lavs into it and get great sound. But while on sets, I typically run my shotgun microphone into the TASCAM, and now that I have a Saramonic UWMIC9 RX9 Wireless Microphone set which has two transmitters going into one receiver, I can plug into the other channel, running stereo, so Mic 1 goes on the left channel and Mic 2 goes on the right.
Out shotgun microphone goes into the TASCAM, but what about connecting that mic to the recorder? Well, of course we use XLR cables, but what about the boom pole? Well, we splurged $60 when B&H had a Telescoping boom pole with integrated XLR cable running through the pole on sale, but before that, for years, we went on the cheap! We went down, got a monopod from Walmart for $15 and just screwed on the shock mount that came with the microphone.
I also purchased a TASCAM DR-10 which is a self contained lav microphone unit. It looks like a wireless mic, but the unit itself is actually a recorder, so no transmitting is necessary. Since peaking is an issue, you can relax as it has dual recording mode, so it records one version of the audio at regular level, and a second at a much lower level, so if someone peaks the first audio track, your backup audio will be low enough not to be troubled by the peaking.
Finally, I have a pair of headphones. After all, what point is all of that audio if you forget to check it on the set to see if it actually came through!
Of course, with all of this equipment, you’re going to need power, so get yourself plenty of batteries; AAA, AA, NPFs, extension cords, adapters, surge protectors, splitters, if it puts off power, get it. You’ll find yourself in need of it at some point.
Other than all of this necessary gear, I’ve also got a few perks that really add a hell of a lot of production value to your film. The first being more of a necessity than a perk, but you could technically make a movie without it, so I’m sticking it here and that’s your tripod. You don’t want to spend less than $100 on a good tripod. You can get away with one of those $25 ones from Walmart, but there is nothing better than a good tripod with a fluid head.
Another helpful tool is a rig. You can probably make one of these yourself, but go ahead and splurge a little on a good one if you can. If you’ve got a DSLR and are shooting handheld, you will absolutely NEED one of these. Otherwise your shots will be shaky and bumpy as hell.
For added production value, we bought a jib several years ago for about $300. It was a pain in the ass to set up and I always had the intention of using it more, but when I got on set, set everything up and was finally ready to shoot, I’d look at the jib and think, ugh nevermind. Plus, now that we have a gimbal, I can accomplish basically the same thing without it by just holding it over my head and making the same move and have a bit more control over my shot. So you may not need one if you’re ingenious and a bit dexterous.
In regards to the gimbal, get one! They are a bit pricey but so worth it. We have a Feiyu A2000 3-axis Gimbal with handles. They may be a pain in the ass to balance sometimes, but that’s where having two G7s helps out a lot. While shooting, I have one G7 set up on the gimbal and one on the tripod. This way I can go back and forth between the two, save time and not have to grumble about balancing or setting it all up.
Then of course there are the dolly and tracks. For years we had a homemade doll track made with 12’ PVC pipes and a platform made out of skateboard wheels and 2x4s. But we hardly ever used it because transporting it was a bitch. Often after loading up the whole car, I’d look at it and just leave the tracks behind because there was either no room, or it didn’t seem like it was worth cramming it in the car. Even if you have a truck, it hangs out of the bed of the truck about 4-6’. But now, we purchased a great dolly and tracks kit. The tracks are metal and break down into 6 4’ tracks and fit in a nice carrying case. It takes a bit of time to assemble, but for the production value you get out of it, it’s worth the five minutes of setup.
Finally, you’ll need a handful of other things like a box cutter, sharpies, c-47s, duct tape, gaffers tape and a list of things you’ll learn that you need on your sets.
SILLY STUFF YOU’LL BE SURPRISED YOU WISH YOU HAD
Here are a couple things you might want to think about getting and why.
Leaf blower – for cars, wind, and other kind of effects that might come up from wind blowing through an actors hair in their car (while shooting on green screen) to blowing dust around.
Airsoft guns – DO NOT USE REAL GUNS ON SET. Now I love the Second Amendment, I’m a staunch supporter of it. I think we should be allowed to own cannons and tanks. But don’t bring them onto your sets. Because, primarily, actors are idiots. If you bring a small derringer onto set, an actor will somehow manage to get it loaded, and blow their brains out with it. DO NOT BRING REAL GUNS ON A SET, PERIOD. END OF STORY!
Fake Blood – No matter what kind of movies you shoot, you’ll eventually need some fake blood. So always keep some on hand. For splatter, you can put some in a spoon and flick it at actors and walls, or they now make blood in little aerosol cans that spray blood like hairspray. Just keep it room temp. If it gets warm, it just squirts out instead of sprays.
Fog in a Can – Get some Aerosol Atmosphere. It looks really good, and saves time and money. It’s not as good as a Hazer, but keeping a can or two of this in your camera bag will really help out.
Hopefully this list will help you formulate your own filmmaking kit. These are the items we have now, but remember we started with a single VHS camcorder. We slowly got to this level. If you’re lucky enough to have a rich uncle or you’re just a spoiled brat with a buttload of your parent’s money, then go ahead and blow all that unearned cash on tons of gear you’ll never use. Otherwise, if you’re trying to keep the costs low, pick and choose from this list and only get the items that you think you’ll really need. Save that money for actors, or sets, or other things you’ll need later.
On a later article, I will cover all of the Software that I use. Until then, stay bitter, my friends.