Every month I get about a dozen or so messages about what kind of filmmaking gear I use. As many of my longtime readers know, I’m not much of a gearhead, and fact of the matter is that the gear is always changing. I also tend to emphasize that it’s is the operator’s skill, ideas and resourcefulness that is far more important than the gear itself; some of the most beautiful moving images I’ve ever seen were made on iPhones, but they were made in conjunction with practical lighting effects and imaginative framing. Some of the 6-second videos I’ve seen on Vine are absolutely amazing works of art.
But that said, gear is important. You can’t make a movie without it, and many times the advancements made are going to empower us to make amazing things. If I had 15k to spare I’d love to pick up a Freefly MoVI M10 gimbal and really push where my camera can go. It was the star of this year’s NAB show and I’m sure every filmmaker wants one, yours truly included. It’s seems incredibly liberating.
There are all kinds of cameras, lenses, stabilization rigs and audio equipment that I’d love to own, but I tend to temper myself on making these purchases for two reasons. The first reason is obvious - cost. This stuff is expensive, and many times when I get a project together, it’s more cost effective for me to simply rent this gear and make a movie rather than have it sitting in my office, waiting to be used. The second reason ties in closely to this, in that there is an additional expense tied into owning gear which is gear maintenance. Cameras and the like are precision instruments, and to work at their optimal, they need regular maintenance. I lack both the wherewithal and the finances to do regular maintenance on so many items, which is also why I choose to rent. Camera houses regularly maintain their wares, and they often keep everything updated with the latest builds and configurations.
Of course, I speak from the perspective of the narrative filmmaker. If you are in the business of doing things like wedding and event photography, then it behooves you to have your own gear, because that’s the core of your business and the volume of use is very high. My advice to anyone wanting to pursue this very viable filmmaking route is to do your research before you buy, and before you buy also take as many classes you can on how to operate and maintain your chosen gear.
Things can get complicated, really quickly.
I’m somewhere inbetween - I shoot narrative features every few years and I shoot four to five shorts per year, and my commercial work is always using the gear of a production house. So my needs aren’t so rigorous that they demand I have the top-of-the-line gear to make my career sustain. But just as a painter needs a sketchpad and basic tools to jot down their ideas and try new techniques, so too should a filmmaker have the tools to explore, experiment and doodle. Over the years I’ve built a home studio that I can technically make a feature film with, and I did the majority of Lilith, save for sound design/ mix and color correction, in my home studio.
I break my gear down into three categories: visual, assembly and audio. Visual comprises of everything I need to record an image, assembly is everything I need to put things together, and audio is pretty self explanatory. A lot of times these categories will overlap. Depending on the frequency of use, I tend to buy a lot of my gear used, and I have enough technical knowledge to assess a piece of equipment in terms of its quality and durability. If you don’t have the knowledge and are just getting into filmmaking, you’re likely better off buying new or from someone you trust. These are expensive purchases, and you don’t want to throw down a wad for a lemon.
The core of the visual is of course the camera. I use a Canon 7D DSLR as my primary camera, and this is a matter of taste. Every sensor will give you a different quality image - I quite like the Canon 5D Mark II the best, but I liked the versatility that the 7D provided. In hindsight I should have plonked down the extra cash to get a 5D, but I’m more than happy with the 7D. I do not own a set of fancy lenses, in fact I just use the stock zoom lens that came with the camera, and it’s served me well to this point. There are many times I longed for a set of primes to give me exactly what I wanted, but my usage doesn’t justify that kind of purchase.
The main issue with using a DSLR is stabilization. The cameras are so lightweight and small that I find I need to add weight and size to really get rid of that herky-jerky feel. I have three tools for stabilization. The first is a very basic handheld rig by Cowboy Studios. I’ve tried many handheld setups and this one is just nuts-and-bolts basic, and probably the only downside is that it doesn’t have a follow focus, but I’m pretty good with focusing. It takes a lot of practice, and following my cat around with a camera is a pretty challenging focus pulling exercise.
Cats are amazingly non-interactive.
I’ve wanted to expand my language so I saved up and purchased a 4-foot slider and a carbon crane, both from GlideTrack in the UK. I use a Manfrotto MVH502 fluid video head and 577qr sliding plate for ease of use. Very happy with both, but on the carbon crane, focus pulling becomes a bit of a hassle.
I’m not a cinematographer so I don’t have a huge lighting setup. I tend to use available light as much as I can, which is something I can do because of the amazing light sensitivity of today’s sensors. I make manipulations on speed and f-stops and work with exposure, but sometimes you need a light source for mood and highlights. I keep it simple and use three portable Neewer Pro CN-160 LED panels and a piece of flat styrofoam for bounce. The LEDs are battery powered and can get pretty bright, and I have the advantage of having a ton of gels and black foil from my feature shoots. If you don’t have gels and foil, then find a filmmaker and ask them if they have some - everyone does. The caveat with these small lights is that the brackets are made of plastic, and at some point they will break. I’ve already super-glued two brackets back together, and they actually seem stronger than before. Weird.
And here’s the first overlap - I’ve said it many times on this blog, and that’s to never, ever use the built-in microphone on your DSLR/ camera. They are straight up awful. I record production sound using a Zoom H4N and a RODE Shotgun Video Mic. It’s a pricey mic but it’s paid for itself tenfold, and you should never skimp on sound. Ever. I can either connect the mic to the Zoom or directly into the camera - I prefer the former because I can do some basic mixing and adjustments through the Zoom, but that also entails more work in the form of syncing in post and making sure I do a clapboard/ hand clap before every take. For interviews I use a very basic Audio-Technica Lavaliere Mic that I can clip onto the interviewee’s lapel, out of sight. This plugs into the Zoom.
Assembly is basically done in a single computer. I use a 13” 2.7Ghz MacBook Pro that’s connected to a 27” Thunderbolt display. I run Final Cut Studio 3 (tried the new Final Cut and it blows), After Effects and Photoshop. For audio I use Ableton Live. I’ve used ProTools and like it, but Ableton gives me a more organic feel, and with sound I’m all about organic and natural. Using audio software requires a preamp audio interface, and I use a very basic Scarlett 2i2 USB to connect any MIDI / instruments to my computer.
Memory. All of this requires memory, and a ton of it. I stock up on G-Raid Drives and also use a 4TB Seagate Thunderbolt drive for backup. I use 32GB cards in both my camera and audio recorders, and use a USB card reader to transfer data. These add up in cost significantly, so be weary of this.
When it comes to audio, I tend to go old school. Sound is my passion, and I tend to spend more time on sound than on image in all of my projects. But I have an issue with digital recording - it’s just too clean. It lacks personality, depth and small imperfections that I think adds life to sound. I used to record directly into my PC and mix it there, but as of recent I’ve decided to revert to analog. It’s not a goofy DIY-hipster thing, but more that analog recordings have an inherent warmth to them, and aesthetically that’s where I reside. During Lilith we had to add artificial noise and imperfections to give me that analog feel, so I figured in my home studio rather I should just go for the real thing.
After doing a ton of research I located and purchased a Tascam 388 Studio 8 console. It’s a mammoth 8-track from 1987 that uses 1/4” magnetic tape and has its own mixing console with built-in effects. A ton of big bands like The Black Keys have recorded their albums on the Tascam, and I love the quality of those records. The Tascam’s got its own sound to it - just like every digital sensor has a personality, so to do magnetic recording heads. I record music and SFX into the Tascam and mix it there, and then import those into Ableton for final assembly and mix. It’s a labor intensive process, but I love the quality it gives me.
Messin’ around on the Tascam is a lot of fun.
I have two guitars - a Gibson Sheridan hollow-body and a customized Fender Strat - and a bass guitar - a Gibson Thunderbird - all from years before of a musical career that never materialized, that I use to lay down basic sounds through a Line6 amp that I can manipulate using FX modulators in the amp. I use two machines for samples and percussion - an AKAI MPC-2000 and a small Yamaha SU-10 handheld sampler. I bought both when I lived in the UK during the explosion of drum-and-bass and trip-hop in Bristol, and both machines are still incredible in their range and ease-of-use. I multitrack all of these into the Tascam, mix it onboard, and then import stems into Ableton.
Lastly, I use a studio monitor system for sound. For so long I’d been doing all of my audio work through a set of headphones, which is a slippery slope to go down. Headphones never give you the actual feel of hearing sound in a room - loudness and subtlety can be completely lost in the process. Quality studio monitors can be ridiculously expensive, especially if you want to step up to 5.1 mixing (for the uninitiated, 5.1 means five speakers - two in front, two in back and one in the center, and the .1 is the subwoofer) then you’re in for a world of expense.
My needs being as they are, I’m good with a simple 2.1 stereo setup. If I need to go more than that then I’m going to go over to my homies at HOBO Audio in NYC and let them do their magic. I’d been shopping around for years for a good set of monitors, and luck smiled upon me a few months ago in the form of a fire sale from a recording studio that had gone under in a podunk town in Michigan. I picked up a set of Genelec 8020a monitors and a 7050b subwoofer for a fraction of the cost. I spent good money on the best quality XLR cables and a very good surge protector, and built a proper nearfield audio setup. The system kills, and it’s such a more accurate way to build audio. If you don’t have the funds to go professional with the audio, KRK makes amazing ROKIT monitors that are uniformly excellent.
I’m in the process of sound-proofing my studio, which is going to take some time and ingenuity. Baby steps. All of the aforementioned wasn’t built overnight, it’s been a six-year process thus far, but I’ve pretty much got all the components I need to make a high-quality feature film. What is ongoing is my education - I’m always enrolling in classes and reading up on studio engineering, and making small tweaks to my setup. And as technology progresses, so too will my gear change. Maybe not overnight or immediately, but over time and as funds become available.
I hope this answers in length what gear I use. There are so many wonderful blogs on Tumblr that really get into the nuts-and-bolts of gear and techniques, and one of my favorites is Stephen Diaz’ blog. He’s always got his finger on the pulse on all the things that upstart indie filmmakers need to really take off, I highly recommend checking it out and bookmarking/ following his work. Happy hunting!