The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 8

8. The gear you need

The short story: shoot your micro budget film on a DSLR with a prime lens. It will give you more quality than you will ever need, and all the control you want.

The long story: Let’s talk straight about gear. Forget film. It ain’t happening right on any budget short of $5 million. But you know what, forget the Red One, and all the cameras in its ilk, as well. They’re big, bulky, slow, and expensive as hell. Even if given the opportunity to use one for free on a film in this budget range, I’d respectfully pass. And you know why: you don’t need that quality. Your film is not going to open on 3000 screens on Memorial Day weekend. Hell, it’s not going to open on 100 screens at one time. If you’re lucky, as we were with COLOR ME OBSESSED, your film will play a bunch of films festivals, then hit the very indie circuit across the country (more on that when I get to distribution). Theatres that will screen a DVD or BluRay. COLOR ME was filmed using a Canon XH-A1s as the A-camera, and a Canon HV40 as the B-camera. One a barely prosumer camcorder, the other very much a consumer camcorder. And you know what? It looked fucking great.

Because let’s face something here. Those screens are the rarity. Most likely your film will find a home on DVD, VOD, and streaming. Half the people watching it will be doing so on their iPads or phones. The rest on their television. And all that extra RED ONE resolution will be lost. Will go unnoticed.

If you know what you’re doing with lights, you can get a truly amazing image with a DSLR. And that is the way I suggest you go. They’re light-weight, easy to handle, and give you more of a cinematic image that anything I’ve seen in that price range. (And this advice is coming from someone who once owned his own 16mm and 35mm rigs, complete with superspeeds.) I know Canon is all the vogue, but I went with the Nikon D7000 (and am now drooling over the D800) for the simple reason that I’ve shot Nikon still cameras my entire life and already had a lot of the lenses. Plus Nikon was the first to give us longer take possibility (something Canon just caught up with), and Nikons do not overheat. Plus the double SDHC slot is a godsend, giving you the possibility of shooting 7 hours of 1080 footage with two 32GB cards. What does the D7000 body cost? Around $1200, a third the cost of the Canon 5D. And no, it does not have a full frame sensor (the new D800 does), but again . . . YOU DO NOT NEED THAT QUALITY. Get it through your head and you’ll be a better filmmaker for it.

(By the way, and this goes back to crewing up, if you’ve hired a cinematographer who insists that he can get just as much depth of field with his video camera and it’s zoom lens, fire him. Immediately. He’s an idiot who has no clue as to what he’s talking about. Or course if you somehow believe him, you should not even be reading this because you have no business making films. Even more than line producers, DP’s can take over your film if you’re not paying attention. Many seem more interested in their reel than in your film. So if they ever disagree with your artistic choice for framing, lighting, something you really want in your film, explain to them it’s your film, and they can either shoot what you want, or get the fuck off your set. I’ve had DPs who’ve argued with me during our first meeting. Hopefully they’re all assistant managers at Target at this point. Obviously these are not the people you hire. Likewise, someone who’s shot TV news and industrials all of their life will not make your film look good, as in the DP who insisted you must always see both eyes in every person’s close up, that half the face can never fall into shadow. In almost 30 years I’ve worked with two cinematographers that I trust completely – Adrian Correia on almost everything recently, and Chris Squires on THE KISS. Everyone else, well if I could go back in time and smash them in the face with a C-stand, I would. YOUR FILM. YOUR VISION. The DP is supposed to act as your eyes. They can make suggestions, and if they’re talented those suggestions will be brilliant, something you never thought of but something that so fits in with your vision. But ultimately what you say goes. You have the final word. If they can’t live with that, fire them.)

Back to gear. Whatever DSLR you go with (and both Canon and Nikon are great), pick a body, then order a Zacuto Z-finder ($375), and a few prime lenses. A 50mm and a 20mm are great places to start. The faster the better. And with Nikon’s anyway, the old manual AIS lenses work perfectly. Nikon makes a kick ass 50mm f/1.2 which is one of the single greatest pieces of glass you could ever own. And the depth of field will make you die a little. Beautiful.

Remember if you buy a full-sensor camera, a 50mm will act like a 50mm…but with the smaller sensor cameras like the D7000 and the Canon 7D, you need to add about 60% to the focal length. So a 50mm acts like an 80mm. And your 20mm will become a 32mm. Confusing? At first a little. You’ll deal.

If you have some extra bucks to spend and want a rig with matte box and follow focus, check out Indisystem. They make quality rigs that don’t break the bank. Take a serious look at the Bulldog.

(Another DP moment, this one brought to you from the good folks at Incompetent, Inc. During our tech scout for my film YOU ARE ALONE, our DP upon seeing room 500 at the Hotel Duncan, where 75% of the film would be shot, told me and co-producer Frank Loftus that he and his crew would need a half day to rig the lights outside the windows of the room, to make it look as if sunlight were perpetually coming through the windows. The story took place over the course of a few hours during the afternoon. We of course would be filming for twelve hours a day, for ten days. We asked him if he was sure, was that all he needed? He was sure. So, we gave the cast and the rest of the crew the first half of that first day at the Duncan off. The only problem, after lunch, the lights were still not ready. Next morning, same issue. It wasn’t until hours after lunch on the second day that we were finally able to shoot, but at that point it was too late. So instead of taking the half day he asked for, it ate up two full days. Two full days where cast and crew members were waiting around, being fed and housed. And did this DP ever apologize for his miscalculation? Did he ever act like a man and admit to all of us he had been wrong? No, instead we learned he told his crew that Frank and I had only given him a half day to light. That he had told us he needed more time, but we wouldn’t give it to him. Thus turning his crew against us from day one. How do I know this? One of the crew members told me months later, and was shocked to learn the DP he was working for had so lied to everyone. Hell, there are so many stories from this film. One morning the DP and crew never showed up at call time, so Frank and I said “fuck it” and just started setting up camera. When the hungover DP finally stumbled onto set he asked us what we were doing. We told him, “We started without you.” Now, you’d think this would have embarrassed him into showing up on time. No. Nothing changed. Like I’ve said, if I could go back in time, I’d have fired the jerk, but not before the C-stand to the face. Learn from my mistake. Vet your DP as if he were a Vice Presidential candidate.)

For sound pick up a Zoom H4N. It’s easy to use and gives you a crisp clean track. But be careful, there are certain mics that don’t work with this recorder. I learned that the hard way when my trusted Audio Techica shotgun was picking up virtually nothing. Rode mics have the same issue. Try a Sony or Sennheiser, and go for a quality shotgun. You want to record the best sound possible, because you WILL NOT have the money for post production ADR. Get the sound right now.

I’m not going to really go into lights other than to say: keep it simple. Use practicals whenever possible. That is basically how I’m lighting Broken Side of Time. (Check out the scene lit by nothing more than a Zippo lighter at the end of the trailer below.) And with your uber-fast prime lenses, this won’t be an issue at all. Used correctly, practicals (i.e. lamps) make a room look real.

(By the way, the KickStarter campaign is here.)

Buy good cases (PortaBrace, Pelican), and always take care of your gear — remove batteries, keep lenses clean, etc. – and your gear will take care of you.

And look at that . . . you’re pretty much ready to make your film.

Next up: Editing and the sound mix, a love story

My filmography.

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