The gear you choose for a film should reflect your skills and goals and operate with a minimum of friction between you and the work.
Here are some details on what I used for my most recent film.
Knowing that I’d have no crew, (I got lucky and ended up with one trusted crew member) I chose gear based on their simplicity and compatibility with my existing postproduction workflow (FCP/Mac). Also, the HDSLR community that has sprung up around the Canon line of cameras was helpful so there’s that too.
Camera, Lenses & Accessories
I chose the cheapest “pro” level DSLR that canon made in Sept. 2012: The Canon t4i. APS-C (cropped sensor). Complete compatibility with the EOS lens series. Love it. It’s not as rugged as a 7D, but it’s also less than half the price. The sensor is identical (or better actually, as its a newer generation). It’s not going to last for 10 years, but it’s awesome nonetheless.
Originally, I thought I’d get away with a few cheap lenses. I bought the super cheap 35mm and 50mm plastic lenses. But Shane Hurlburt scared me with his “anything but Canon’s L-series lenses aren’t good for the big screen” talk. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I did a lot of research and generally pumped myself up to spend a $2000 on two lenses: Zeiss ZE 35mm and 50mm. These two primes are great and are the workhorse lenses I use everyday.
On a crop sensor, a 35mm is your “standard” lens, meaning it’s what a human eye sees. The 50mm is a little more telephoto. Great for actor closeups. After a few weeks of shooting I realized that I really needed a wide angle lens. I chose the Tokina 11–16mm zoom. It only opens to a f2.8 but it’ll get you your wide shot in an apartment bedroom. Indispensable.
I went with the Sachtler Ace tripod. The fluid head is awesome. (For the love of god, no matter what brand you go with, you have to get a fluid head). The sticks however broke after a few months and are now on their last leg (see what i did there?).
I would always recommend buying too many batteries and SD cards. I have a bag full of them. Buy as many as you can afford. Minimum 3 each. Trust me.
Here’s a few more random items:
Lets say this upfront: Audio gear is more important than lighting. This is a place to spend money. Get cheap with lighting. Throw some bucks at audio.
My primary mic is a AT987 short shotgun mic. It lives on either my K-Tek boom pole (with AT shock mount) or on a mic stand I place in front of actors when I don’t have a boom operator. The mic runs on battery or phantom power (I’m always on phantom power). Via a 25ft XLR cable, i’m connected to a Juicedlink Riggy Assist 222. This little preamp is an absolute godsend. I love it and recommend it highly. Aside from the XLR inputs, the reason you need it is because the Canon line of cameras have such terrible preamps and cause that dreaded “hiss” across all your footage.
I also bought a few lavaliers that the actors wore under their clothes. These Rode mics are great, but too pricey for me. I dug deep and found Giant Squid Audio’s lav mics to be awesome. Update: Looks like Giant Squid is having a tough time keeping up with all the orders…
Each lav gets wired into a Zoom H1 and it placed in the actor’s pocket. The gear itself works awesome, but I super suck at mic placement and I always get a lot of clothing noise. One of these days I’ll have a sound guy show me how to rig them legit.
Get a nice cheap pair of over the ear headphones.
I’ve always liked the look and feel of Kino-Flo fluorescent fixtures. I just can’t afford Kino-Flo prices. I found Flo-Light and got a little 3 light kit from B&H Photo for under $600. This is almost literally all I use to light my stuff. The kit came with both daylight and tungsten bulbs, so I just switch the bulbs in and out as needed. Super great.
I also picked up a Lowel Pro light that I’ve been using more and more for direct key or rim lights. I feel like fluorescent lights are way more forgiving and the Lowel takes a bit more skill to shape the way you want it.
Kino Flo makes some really cool bulb replacements that I use all the time. They aren’t very powerful (that’s the point) and shouldn’t be used to light a scene, but they’re color balanced properly. I swap out all my lightbulbs in lamps and such with these.
Don’t forget these:
- C–47s (clothespins)
- Neutral Density gels
- CTO & CTB gels
It’s really important to consider how your production gear plays with your postproduction workflow. I’ve found some cameras and codecs (Sony NEX–5N) don’t play ball so well with Mac/FCP workflows. Do research and test.
I have an old school Mac Pro. Upgraded with a modern SSD and lots of RAM. I use FCP 7 but, honestly, I wish I had discovered Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 before I started editing. It’s so much faster. Also, it doesn’t require you to transcode the camera footage into ProRes. That’s huge. My current film is the final FCP 7 project I ever do. After that, it’s gonna be Premiere Pro all the way.
I use PluralEyes 3 to automagically sync all my video to the lav mic audio. It’s super simple and uses the camera mic (or boom pole mic that’s wired in) as a reference track. It just lines up the audio waveforms. If you’re doing double system sound, this is the only way to roll.
Everything gets backed up every night. Once to an external 2TB drive. Another drive is used to back up just the camera originals and the project itself. I call this the nuclear option. If my apartment burns down, I have this and I’m in good shape.
In my post yesterday I forgot to mention that I’ve been playing with a new piece of scriptwriting software called Slugline.
It’s a super lightweight tool that automatically formats plain text fountain format into a traditional screenplay. It’s pretty great. If you pair it with Highland then you can completely eliminate the need for Final Draft. And both apps together are still almost $150 cheaper than FD. Boom.
When I was researching how to shoot a tiny HDSLR film, I was most interested in the solutions other filmmakers chose. From my perspective, I hate slaving over problems when more experienced people have already solved them. Especially when those problems are technical or process oriented and not creative. Building on the shoulders of those ahead of you is a quick way to catch up to the pros.
Over the next week or so I’ll walk through some of the gear and processes I use, starting with Preproduction all the way through Post.
Even before it’s time to dive into preproduction, you gotta finish the script. The industry standard software is Final Draft. It’s a great piece of software, with iOS versions for writing and reading on the go. It’s a bit pricey at around $250.
Highland is a brand new piece of software that utilizes the Fountain syntax that allows for scriptwriting in plain text on dozens of desktop and mobile apps. I love Fountain and recommend it highly. With Highland, converting Fountain plain text files into PDF or Final Draft files is super easy.
So, now you’re finished with the script. Lets plan it out. There’s a lot of professional grade scheduling tools. Movie Magic Scheduler and Gorilla are two of them. Both are expensive and complicated. If you’re an indie filmmaker, these things are probably not for you.
After looking around, I found the iOS app ShotList. This app creates simple strip boards, each containing a scene, that can be populated with prop, wardrobe, FX data, etc, and then rearranged by date to create your schedule. It syncs with Dropbox so you can save files to other devices. It doesn’t auto-sync, however, so you need to export it to other devices manually. For me, that wasn’t a big deal. I just wanted a set of strip boards I could arrange by date.
This workflow is the easiest to understand for most people and it can be replicated for free using free software like Apple’s Reminders and iCal apps.
I saw that Coppola created a “prompt book” for The Godfather that was his master bible for the film. I’ve created a similar system with my script.
I print out the script at 65% so that the page is lined with thick white spaced margins. I use the margins to sketch in storyboards and actor notes. This way, both the words and the imagery is available to me at a glance during shooting.
A Few Resources
Before filming begins, here are a few resources to check out:
- Scriptnotes Podcast – Hollywood screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin talk screenwriting. Great stuff.
- Save the Cat – screenwriting structure book. No matter how you feel about the mechanics of Blake Snyder’s process, there are some great insights in here.
- Number 1 Writing Tip from the creators of South Park.
Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve been screening different versions of my new horror film to a few friends. The process of hearing and comparing notes, criticisms and confusion is extremely stressful but also extremely valuable. I didn’t do enough test screenings with my other films and on this project I’ve wanted to “be honest” with myself as much as possible.
After the notes process I took a week to organize my own thoughts and discuss what I didn’t like about the film and what could be fixed and what should be left as is. Over the last few days I’ve started a new round of reshoots in an attempt to answer some of the notes I received as well as clarify the story to my own satisfaction.
I hope to have a near final cut by the end of this week after a few more days of reshoots are complete.
Maybe I can still make my July 15th deadline.
Over the last month or so, I left Tumblr and rolled my own blog service using Statamic. I liked it good enough, but I missed the Tumblr dashboard and the reblogs and what not…
So, in the spirit of Tumblr’s acquisition, I’ve come back home. Take a look at the newly styled blog page which (finally) matches the rest of andrewmuto.com