Filmmaking Tips

The First 10 Things you Need to Buy for Filmmaking

What could be so important you need to buy right now? This is my advice for filmmakers looking to make short films or feature films.

What could be so important you need to buy right now? This is my advice for filmmakers looking to make short films or feature films:

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Are you feeling the urge to spend money? Like those late night TV promos of some belt that will miraculously melt away body fat. You want it so bad you’ll believe anything. I bought it too! Though technically it did lighten my wallet so overall I did lose weight.

Seriously, what ten things could be so important to filmmaking you need to buy them right now?

1. Your Stupid Camera

Which camera should you buy? What house should you buy? What should you eat? Who knows? Look around, you’ll find cameras in all sorts of price ranges, sizes and even colors. They exist because someone is buying them.

Also, look at those YouTube videos comparing the iPhone to a Red camera or whatever combination. Yet, the stingy studio executives still insist on shooting with Arri Alexas. That’s money they could spend on an expensive vacation in Paris. Yet they grudingly sign the check. What do they know that you don’t? After all, hasn’t it been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the iphone is as good as a Red Weapon, on YouTube? The thing they know that you don’t, is that they know what they want.

Say you want to advise a budding chef. What knife should I buy? And someone on the Internet makes a video comparing a chef’s knife to a shaving blade. Both can cut, so you can convince a beginner a shaving blade is a must-have item for a chef with a full-grown beard, right?

Before you put money down on a camera, think about what you want, as specifically as you can. And no, I want to make a movie, is not specific enough. Think about where it will be seen, by whom, what the actual conditions of the shoot are, and how much money you have. Then think about camera angles and about how you’re going to use and move your camera. By a process of elimination, you’ll come to realize you only have a few options remaining.

If you don’t know what you really want, you’ll never find the right camera.

Some movies need an Arri Alexa. Some don’t. Some movies can be shot on an iPhone, some can’t.

Which camera should I buy for Filmmakers

Which camera should I pick for my movie? Easy. Pick the Arri Alexa. Can’t afford it? Then pick Red Epic. No? Red Scarlet? No? How about the Varicam or C700? And so it goes until the truth comes out. I only have $1,000 for a camera. At which point I ask them what I told you guys about in the last video:

Do you have the other 7 things lined up first? And 100% of the time, the answer is no. I kid you not. Because any filmmaker with the sense to figure out these things would know camera is not his or her headache. So the answer to this question is exactly what the studios are doing. Rent the best camera you can afford, even if it’s a wet hire. Trust what your DP tells you. That’s the answer for filmmakers.

Which camera should I buy for Cinematographers

This is an even easier answer. Call up all the rental houses in your area and ask them what cameras they keep, and which ones are the most popular. They’ll tell you. Forget what you think you know or what you saw on YouTube. Listen to the market, and buy the camera the market wants. E.g., people thought the Alexa Mini was too late to market, because productions were already used to Red cameras for gimbals and drones. But the Alexa Mini is probably the most popular rental item in the market. Spend money on the camera others want. There isn’t a better answer.

For me, the lowest level of camera that will get through a full film production schedule, at least 15 days, is either a Sony a7S II (Amazon, B&H) or a Panasonic GH5 (Amazon, B&H) or equivalent. The GH5 is definitely better, hands down. I own both and have made guides for both so I know. However, I would completely avoid small form-factor DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. I have like four or five lying around the house, but I won’t even think about using them for an important production.

For low budget filmmaking, if you ask me, the camera I feel most comfortable with is either a Canon C300 Mark II (Amazon, B&H) or a Red Epic-W (B&H), if you can afford it. In India, the rental prices of the Epic-W are so low I can’t imagine how the owners will make their money back. Of course, when I say Epic-W I mean you need to be able to rent all the accessories and lenses as well.

2. Lenses

Here’s a little secret. Successful DPs don’t watch lens comparison videos on YouTube. If you don’t believe me, ask them. They would just call the rental house, get the lenses and test them personally. It is the job, their duty. They don’t go by hearsay. For every production they’ll go through this process. Even if they have a favorite lens, they’ll still do this. It’s called due diligence.

The way a lens works it tells a story, an emotional story. Most beginners don’t understand that about lenses. The camera company doesn’t want you to know that. I learned early on in my career that a lens is an intensely personal decision. You know what it’s like? It’s like underwear. We pick what we pick, and its personal. No Youtuber is going to tell me what undie to wear. You can tell me about the quality of its craftsmanship and the seams and stop. I don’t care. It’s personal.

A lens tells a story, an emotional story. That’s more important than the technical specs.

Lenses are personal. They do have some technical requirements to fulfill. Like underwear. It should fit. The rest is all about forgetting about it, so you can live your life. The same with lenses. Once it’s in front of the camera you need to forget about it, and focus on the story. The objective of a lens is to see through it.

So, which lens should you buy? Buy the one that makes you comfortable. Buy the one that makes you a better person. If it makes you smile, buy it. Do you feel like carrying it everywhere like your mobile phone? Then that’s the lens you should buy. Most important, buy the lens that will let you see the world in a better way. That’s all a lens needs to do.

If you’re looking for a bit of technical help, I’m happy to oblige. I have a free comprehensive guide on choosing the right lenses.

What lenses do I like? To be honest, I just like a good 50mm lens, in 35mm equivalent terms. If it’s a 50mm T2 I’m happy. Maybe you can throw in an 85mm as well, but I don’t need anything else.

3. Tripod

Many cameras nowadays have image stabilization, so why do you need a tripod?

There are other uses for a tripod. You can put your camera down someplace to take a breather. You can hang your bag off it. You can attach a light or reflectors to it for some extra fill. You can attach a microphone to it. You can attach a teleprompter to it, or an external monitor. You can extend it to heights for other angles. You could use it to rest your steadicam or gimbal, and it works as a boom pole if its light enough. If it’s a good tripod, you can even sit on it. Oh, and by the way, it gives you smooth panning and tilting, and keeps your camera safe.

A tripod comes in two parts, the head and the legs. There are some people out there who don’t know the difference between a friction head and a fluid head. For filmmaking, I would never even consider using a friction head. And this is one of those cases where if you haven’t tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing. Let me put it this way. I wouldn’t use a friction head on a serious production even if it somebody gave it to me for free.

The cheapest fluid head I can think of, and I actually own this, is the Cartoni Focus HD (Amazon, B&H). If I had the money though, I would have bought a Sachtler, so for me that would be the next step up. Anyway, for specific choices, I have a great article on my blog on some good heads and legs you should check out:

Look, sometimes you might get away, El Mariachi style, but the reality is most filmmakers don’t get away. Their movies vanish into oblivion. Taken by itself a tripod might seem trivial, but its influence on your movie is profound. I’ve used everything from the cheapest plastic tripod to OConnor tripods, and I’ve made my peace with tripods.

4. Your microphones

Please note, it’s in plural. You need more than one, no matter what movie you’re making. If you’re using shotguns and you have two actors at two ends, you need two shotgun microphones.

If you’re smart, and you’ve hired a sound mixer like I told you to, then they will have wired a lav mic to the actors as well. And you need one mic per person. People can’t share lav mics, not even in kissing scenes.

A microphone is as important as a camera. Get a decent one. No, wait. Erase that thought. Get a world-class one. The beginning quality level for a shotgun microphone is the Sennheiser ME66 (Amazon, B&H) and for a lavalier microphone it’s is the Sanken COS-11D (Amazon, B&H). They are not cheap, but are not earth-shatteringly expensive either. For more specific choices check out this list I’ve put together for microphones. I think you’ll find it helpful:

5. Your audio recorder and mixer

When you have many microphones, you’d better not try to connect them all to the camera. That is wrong on so many levels, pun intended, if someone tells me that I know immediately how much they don’t know about audio. Again, it’s something I learned the hard way.

You need recorders with XLR inputs in them, and you need good cables as well. Don’t buy an expensive mic with cheap connectors or a poor audio recorder, or any other stupid combination. Buy stuff at the same level of quality so your audio output is of the same quality. If you’re serious about audio and you know for a fact you are going to be a videographer for many years, then buy Sound Devices (Amazon, B&H). If you can’t afford that, then hire a production sound mixer. Anything in between is asking for trouble on a feature film or short film.

Any decent sound mixer will tell you one simple reality of audio life:

Your location is more important than your audio gear.

6. An external monitor

I’ve already made an entire video on why you need an external monitor:

Can you make a movie without an external monitor? Sure. Just as if you dropped dead on day one somebody from your crew could take over and finish the movie. Does that mean you’re not important enough for your own movie?

7. Enough batteries

Trust me, I’ve made this mistake as well. If someone tells me they just one or two batteries I know immediately that person doesn’t have real production experience.

Buy batteries, as many as you can. Buy good chargers, at least two. Because one will fail, or get lost, or get wet because your assistant poured tea over it. The other one, the one you reluctantly bought because I told you to even though you didn’t have money for it, yeah that one. It will help you complete your movie because you were not stupid enough to enter into production with two batteries and one charger.

You need at least two chargers, period.

I really like bricks. I wish I could afford Anton Bauer (Amazon, B&H), but they’re too expensive for me in India with taxes and import duties. I asked the official dealer once, and they told me I have to make the payment in Euros. If you’ve ever tried to send money overseas in a foreign currency, you’ll know what I’m talking about. So, I’ve had to look for the next best thing, and I really like these Chinese FXLion batteries (B&H). I’ve used them for almost three years now, and they’re still reliable and going strong.

8. Data backups

I make these fun comparison articles and in the media section I always add extra memory cards. Invariably some newbie is shocked – you don’t need five memory cards. I just use two. It is pretty obvious at that point that person has never worked on a professional shoot.

If somebody shows up with just memory cards I’ll go ballistic. I’m going to say no more, because I’ve made a pretty good case in my Ultimate Guide to Camera Accessories. Bottom line, get as many memory cards as you can, as long as it is at least four.

9. Light Stands

When I say light stands I really mean C-stands. I own all kinds of light stands, which I’ve shown in my guide to lighting Interviews. The only stand I really look forward to using for lighting setups is the C-stand.

Because there’s always that something extra you need to do, and that’s why the C-stand exists. A photo light stand stops where photography ends and where cinematography begins. You can try to stretch it, but just get a C-stand instead. Shipping for Matthews stands (Amazon, B&H) is prohibitive to where I live, and I never see them in any broadcast event in India, so I looked for other options. Currently, I’ve been using the C-stands from CAME-TV (B&H). Like three other products I’ve purchased from them, they’re well short of professional high quality gear. But, just about enough for indie filmmakers. I don’t like their other products, but the C-stands are probably okay. They’ll get the job done.

10. Lights!

What are you going to do with light stands without lights, right? What lights should you buy? Seriously, let me give it to you straight. If you don’t know what lights you should buy then you don’t know enough to buy anything, or shoot anything. So stop worrying about buying.

For other kinds of videos, sure, there are some lights and fixtures more useful than others. But for feature film or short flim work, you’ll need many kinds of fixtures, gels, cloth, diffusion, and so on. Why buy all that when you should be renting it?

Whenever I shoot a professional video I hire a lighting crew, and these are my favorite people to work with. They have saved me so many times I can’t believe I ever considered actually buying lights when I started out. So take my advice, unless your script has minimal lighting or just one or two setups, rent your lights. For minimal setups, let the DP bring his or her own lights, it’s not the filmmaker’s job to worry about lights.

I have a lot more stuff I want to add, but this is enough for now. It’s not your typical filmmaking shopping list, but then again, I actually care how your movie turns out.

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