When beginning the process of shooting your first feature (or any film, for that matter), one of the major questions that typically comes up is “What will I need to do this?”
The truth is, “gear” is about a subjective a topic as any. One filmmaker may swear by a film workflow, while another will insist that digital is the future. Some filmmakers simply must have a steadicam, dolly, and a jib.
Over the last 15 years I’ve spent in commercial production, a lot has changed in terms of equipment. A lot more than many of us in “the industry” care to admit, I believe. The fact of the matter is, a kid with an iPhone 4, motivation, and the right technique can shoot an entire feature-length picture that rivals the quality of HD cams from the late 1990s. Or a group of creatives with a digicam can easily shoot a web series that is seen by millions, skyrocketing them all to stardom on YouTube, as is the case with “The Guild.”
All this really means is that creativity and dedication to our craft as filmmakers is more important now than ever before. If you believe in your story, and are committed to diligent pursuit of being better, you’ll be surprised at the relatively few resources you need, compared to even five years ago.
For the feature I’m currently shooting, I’m planning a very light tech load, using only the equipment we need that lends itself to our artistic goals. This means that even though I’m an old-school film nut, we’ll likely shoot digital, and make use of as much natural light as possible.
So what exactly do you need, you ask? “Not much” is the surprising answer.
This is, by far, the most important tech requirement for independent filmmakers. Yes, friends, more important than your camera. “But, but, filmmaking is a visual medium!” Of course it is. But the format, picture quality, and all of your creative camera angles aren’t nearly as important as having great sound. You can blame poor camera angles on being avant-guarde, but if your sound is bad, you’re announcing to the world, “I’m an amateur.”
Capture Device: This is either a digital audio recorder (which I almost always recommend), or if you have a digital camera with audio inputs, you can record sound directly to the camera (not recommended, but this is a list of “bare minimum” stuff).
Shotgun Mic Kit: Including a shotgun mic and a boom to hold the mic.
Two Lavalier Mics: These are the tiny clip on mics that you can hide under clothing and are perfect for dialogue between two characters.
Audio Mixer: For multiple sound inputs, this will allow you to mix down your sound as it’s going into your capture device.
Headphones: Yeah, seriously. You need some good ones.
Sound is a critical component of filmmaking, but we do call them “pictures” after all. The good news is that it’s getting easier and easier to get quality images when making your movie.
Camera: “Duh,” you’re saying. However, this is one of the most hotly debated items in independent filmmaking. “Do I shoot HD or film? RED, or some other format? And what about DSLR? That seems to be hot right now.” The truth is, just about any camera will work. You just need something that preferably captures at 24 frames per second in a widescreen aspect ratio.
Lens: This depends on your camera of choice, but if you have one that swaps lenses, at least have one prime 35mm lens. Glass is the difference between “Cool.” and “Sweet!”
Tripod: It’s a stand when you need it to be, a poor man’s (risky-man’s) crane/steadycam/dolly when you don’t. (NOTE: Handheld is the budget filmmaker’s friend.)
Using natural light is preferable (because it’s free), but natural light has a couple of shortfalls. First, it’s limited. Second, it really only lends to one look, artistically speaking. So, having a little help is a good idea.
Light Kit: There are some that are specialized for filmmaking, but any light kit will do. Light kits come in a bevy of configurations, but all of them will include a key, a fill, and a back light. These are handy when you need to supplement the light natural like you have, or just need a little extra heat in the room.
Gels: You’ll want a bunch of these. Buy in bulk. A good rule of thumb is that you want to capture the image you want rather than trying to adjust in post. Gels give you the ability to control the tone of your light, and can be the difference of a scene feeling like springtime or a nightmare.
Reflectors: Not something you might think of, but they make a world of difference on your lighting. These handy things give you the ability to manipulate natural light, remove shadows where you don’t want them, and be a master of your lighting domain. Tip: try white foam board. I hear it’s just as good as the pro stuff.
Really all you need is a computer and some editing software. Final Cut Studio is a great one, though Adobe has a fantastic offering as well in Premiere and the ubiquitous After Effects. In a pinch, iMovie or Windows Movie Maker can do the trick. It’s just laying one shot down after the other, right?
You can probably get away with just what’s above, but here’s some random gear you might want to acquire:
Sandbags: For those lights and that tripod. You’ll want to weigh stuff down.
C47’s: Clothespins. Yes. Really. That’s all it is. Get a lot of them.
Gaffer’s Tape: Duct tape fixes everything in the real world, but in filmmaking, it just makes a sticky mess. Gaff tape fixes all. You’ll want a lot of this.
The good news is, technology is getting to be so affordable, that you can pick most of this stuff up on the cheap. Also, there are “poor-man’s versions” of just about everything other than cameras and microphones. A quick trip around Google will yield many results in that regard.