One of the most overwhelming aspects about starting out as a filmmaker is understanding and affording the hoards of gear and equipment that inevitably accompanies the filmmaking process. There are heaps of brands producing heaps of products and none of them are particularly cheap. If you’re planning to make a short film, music video, documentary or even just a vlog you need to work out the exact equipment you need (within your budget) that will enhance your filmmaking experience. Not having the right gear can hinder the filmmaking process but also having the wrong gear, or even just too much gear can have the same effect.
I’ve always avoided talking about the equipment I use, for the simple reason that it is NOT the most important thing in the filmmaking process. The common misconception is that in order to make good stuff you need good gear, and in order to have good gear you need lots of money. That is simply NOT TRUE. You can make an effective and engaging video on a smartphone for example. Heres our attempt. It then comes down to your ability as a story teller and/or editor in order to communicate the message you want. The point is having lots of equipment is a luxury not a necessity. That said over the last four years we have been fortunate enough to earn a modest amount of money by posting videos on youtube and partnering with supportive brands such as Skype. We’ve chosen to invest that into building a collection of equipment in the hope that it will enhance our ability to tell stories. Its taken me four years of to get my kit down to a point I feel happy with. I owe any knowledge of the technical aspects of filmmaking to blogs such as nofilmschool.com, phililipbloom.com and friends that have far more knowledge than me such as Ciaran O’brien (Who should have a blog coming out soon!).
So then, in this post I will lay out the gear we used when shooting Following Heart. I will also attempt to talk through why I chose it, with the aim of providing some sort of inspiration and/or clarity to any other aspiring filmmakers or photographers out there. I’ve broken it down into five parts. Camera, Sound, Rigging, Bags and Extra. I would stress that this specific kit breakdown was designed for shooting documentaries. If I were to shoot a short film or a music video it would look relatively different.
For this project I almost exclusively used the Canon 5D Mark iii. I’ve used this camera for years and therefore it is the camera i’m most confident with. Whilst I was tempted to try out a different camera, something a bit more powerful and with a greater range perhaps, I was aware that we were shooting for a client and therefore the safer option would be the most sensible. Had I chosen to use a different camera it would have most likely been the C100 which was Canon’s answer to the sudden popularity in DSLR filmmaking. One large advantage of using the Canon 5D is its ability to take stills. Beautiful ones at that. Often when we are filming we are also travelling meaning that i’m always keen to capture photographs. The ability to take high quality stills is also useful when working with brands. To use Following Heart as an example we were commissioned to create three documentaries but also to supply a series of still images to be used for social media and in blog posts. That said the Canon 5D does have a few faults, the most prominent of which is its inability to record 60fps at 1080p. (Which even apples new Iphone 6 is capable of) My answer to this was to bring a Panasonic Lumix GH4 on the trip.
The Panasonic Lumix GH4 is the newest addition to the incredibly popular GH range of cameras. As with its predecessors the GH4 is a small lightweight micro four thirds DSLR that delivers beautiful 1080 HD video and stills. However the GH4 differentiates itself from its counterparts in its ability to record video at 4K and also up to record 96fps at 1080p. These are two features that the Canon 5D Mark iii is missing and so it made it an incredibly efficient B camera to have along with us picking up where the Canon 5D could not.
The next thing to consider are lenses. I’m pretty picky about the lenses I use. I’m a strong believer that lenses play a great role in the final look of your images and also in achieving your desired look. During the trip I used four lenses. My go to lens is the Canon 50mm f/1.4. A beautiful lightweight prime lens that is incredibly quick, sharp and delivers a perfect standard shot. Much like the way the human eye would perceive a scene. I previously had the Canon 50mm f/1.2, a big, heavy and eye wateringly expensive lens that boasts an impressive aperture of 1.2. When this was stolen along with most of my other gear in Nairobi I was forced to buy a new lens. I couldn’t bring myself to spend that much money again and so I purchased the 50mm f/1.4 and i’m very happy I did. This is in my opinion a far superior lens. It just generally feels more versatile and nimble.
My second choice of lens is the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L series. This is a brilliant all-round lens. I’ve used it for years and have never been disappointed. It’s great when filming inside smaller spaces, following people walk around or capturing landscapes. The wide focal length produces a really dynamic shot, whilst the large aperture allows you to retain that desirable shallow depth of field. It also produces fantastic stills!
My next lens is the Canon 100mm 2.8 Macro. A slightly more unusual lens this is one i’ve bought recently and have been amazed by its performance. I purchased it originally as I needed to film some macro shots but have also discovered that it works great shooting close ups from a distance. Its incredibly sharp, stable (Utilising a built in image stabilising motor) and creates a wonderful shallow depth of field when open at f/2.8.
Lastly I have the Canon 24-105. f/4. This is the slowest lens I own but by far the most versatile. I use this when I don’t have the option to switch lenses. If i’m in a more dangerous or awkward situation but I need to capture a shot this is my go to lens. We also use this frequently to put on a second Canon 5D to capture behind the scenes video or stills.
For the GH4 I used two old-school Nikon lenses which I have for my 35mm camera. A 35mm f/2.8 and a 135mm f/2.8. Both are incredibly beautiful glass and work great on the GH4. I have a simple a simple Metabones Speed adapter which allows them to fit on the GH4 and also increases the aperture by one stop.
When shooting documentary I always tend to bring a good variety of rigs with me. This is largely for two reasons. The first is that it helps to adapt to the situations you may find your character in. Runnings, cycling, driving, walking up and down stairs, sat for an interview or even in our case underwater. Its important to have a variety of rigs available so that you can switch at ease without effecting the shot. The second reason is that it allows you to be more creative with your shots therefore creating a greater variety of images. With the huge amount of DSLR footage being shot and uploaded everyday it’s important to try and differentiate yourself from the norm and having a variety of rigs is one way to create dynamic and interesting looking visuals.
My favourite piece of rigging is the Redrock Micro DSLR shooter. This is a simple contraption that holds the Canon 5D and adds three points of contact. One in each hand and then a pad that rests against your chest. Although you might not think it, this hugely helps in stabilising the shot by eradicating all the minor jolts that occur when handling a camera. I chose this rig over a larger shoulder rig as I wanted to have more manoeuvrability being able to pick it up, put it down and reposition it with ease. Unlike its larger siblings this rig also doesn’t need weights. The largest benefit to having any sort of rig is that it allows you to add a few extra elements to the camera such as a focus pull, top handle, microphone and monitor.
The second stabilisation device I use is the Glide-Cam 2000. This is a handheld stedicam that is relatively small in size and lightweight. Great for travelling. If you want to see how affectively these can be used check out Devin Super Tramps youtube channel. They are an incredibly useful thing to have in your kit bag. I use it for any shots that require a large amount of movement or are likely to be particularly shaky. I almost always pair the glide-cam with the 16-35mm lens as it gives a smooth dynamic looking shot. I’ve also customised it to have a manfrotto base plate on top so that I can transfer the camera easily onto my tripod or monopod.
The Ikelite underwater housing is not a piece of kit I would usually carry around. This was required specifically for one of the documentaries in this project. We choose a housing designed specifically for the GH4 as I wanted to use a camera that was smaller and lighter in weight but importantly one that was capable of shooting 60fps at 1080p.
Finally I have a Sachtler tripod and Manfrotto monopod. Monopods are often a bit of kit that is over looked. I use them a lot when in a situation where you need stability but you dont have the time to be setting up and taking down a tripod. They are popular amongst wedding videographers for the same reason. The one I have also has three little legs meaning that it can imitate a tripod. Still Motion have done a great video on monopods if you’re interested to learn more. In terms of the tripod Sachtler are a fantastic brand and this model in particular gives me an incredibly sturdy shot whilst being light enough to take travelling. It also features an impressive fluid head for panning shots.
Sound is an incredibly important aspect of documentary filmmaking but one that is often overlooked. The wonderful thing is that you don’t need lots of incredibly expensive kit in order to capture great sound you just need to know how to capture it and then be strict about doing it when out in the field.
When shooting I will almost always have a video mic pro attached somewhere close to my camera. This runs directly into the body of the camera offering improved sound to the built in microphone but still not professional quality. I will usually have this running just as a backup incase the second sound recording unit fails.
The second sound unit is usually a Rode NTG 2 (a beautiful microphone that I highly recommend) running into a Zoom H4N via a simple XLR cable. Usually someone other than myself monitors the levels using the small LED in the Zoom H4N. We then decide to mount the NTG 2 onto either a boom or a microphone stand depending on the nature of the scene.
Recording audio separately from the camera makes a huge difference in producing professional looking films. Especially when using a DSLR. Its also worth having a pair of good headphones when recording and monitoring sound. We use the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Studio Headphones.
Bags! Probably the least interesting category in this post but none the less still very important when shooting abroad.
I tend to have three camera related bags with me when I travel and then an extra one for clothes and gear overspill.
I’m a big fan of Petrol bags and have used them constantly for the last couple of years.
The first bag is my camera bag. The DSLR Campack plus by Petrol Bags. Its a very large and incredibly well built back pack. It features a neatly designed cushioned camera and lens support system in the main body of the camera and a neat laptop holder on the side of the bag. Its incredibly well build featuring strong zips and and air cooled cushioned back and straps which makes a huge difference when carrying a lot of heavy gear. I keep my camera body, lenses and SD cards in this bag as it stays on me at all times. It’s NEVER checked under the plane or even put separately from me when getting in and out of cars. (I’ve heard horror stories about taxis driving off with boots full of gear!)
The second bag that is incredibly useful is the Petrol Deca Camera and accessories bag. This bag is a brilliant all rounder carrying all the rigging and any accessories I might need. Its great as it has two sections. One deep compartment which usually fits my shoulder rig, steadicam and underwater case and then a shallow compartmented section that holds wires, batteries and then a few extra bits on top. It also has wheels so it doesn’t need to be hand carried. This bag is always checked in under the plane.
The last bag is a simple Manfrotto tripod bag. I like this one in particular as its fairly large so it holds my tripod, monopod, boom pole and microphone stand all in one. This is also check in under the plane.
Lastly the extra bits that I always carry with me. Over the last couple of years i’ve collected a few different bits of random useful gear that makes my life a lot easier when shooting.
The first is the collection of F-stop bags. I wear these on my belt when filming and they make a huge difference. Often when shooting documentary you act as a fly on the wall capturing your subject as they move around. This means that you don’t have much time to be changing lenses or replacing the batteries or SD cards. These F-stop bags allow me to have my lenses and any small accessories on my belt and ready for easy access. They are also very well built featuring a military inspired velcro attachment system on the back.
The small green rectangular object is a Leatherman. These are very well built multi tools featuring pliers, a knife and various screw driver like tools. This comes in incredibly helpful when you need to tighten a rig, cut duck tape or fix anything on the go. I also wear this on my belt next to the f-stop bags.
The monitor is a small HD and the view finder is made by Zacuto. Both provide an alternative way of viewing the shot and can be attached to my rig depending on the scene i’m shooting. When filming outside I tend to use the viewfinder as blocks out sunlight and also adds another point of contact, further increasing the stabilisation.
The rectangular object with strange white dots is a Manfrotto light panel which can be incredibly useful when shooting at night bit or even just to add a fill light in an interview or something similar. Its always worth having one in your kitbag.
Finally I have a series of batteries that are always charged, at least one 2TB hard drive for logging footage on the move and a series of tools that apply to different rigs and components.
So thats it. To some people this would have been an incredibly long boring load of technical jargon so for that I apologise. But for others hopefully this has helped provide a sense of clarity when thinking about the technical aspects of filmmaking and the potential equipment you may use. If you have any more question please use the comment section below. I’d be more than happy to provide help.
The completed episodes will be coming out every four weeks starting on October the 19th.
If you’d like to read a similar blog post regarding a part documentary series we made last year click here: The Rickshaw Run – Behind The Scenes
Thanks for reading. You’re a champ if you made it all the way through!